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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

This season, Florida’s unprecedented 18-year streak of conference dominance was snapped. On Friday, it will try to return the favor and end another team’s historic run.

Penn State has won 98 consecutive matches and is in position to become the first women’s volleyball team to win three straight national championships.

But the No. 14 Gators (25-5) can end all of that Friday as they take on the No. 1 Nittany Lions (34-0) in the third round of the NCAA tournament at 6 p.m. in the O’Connell Center. No. 10 California (20-10) will square off with Baylor (24-9) at 3:30 p.m. to kick off the Gainesville Regional.

“There are many who think that this [Penn State] is the best women’s volleyball team of all time, and that’s who we get to play Friday night,” coach Mary Wise said.

Penn State has not lost a match since September 2007 and has only dropped five sets all season.

It features senior opposite hitter Megan Hodge, who averages 4.7 kills per set, and six players who own a hitting efficiency higher than .350. The only UF players who boasts such a percentage are sophomores Cassandra Anderson (.360) and Kelly Murphy (.351).

“The core of Penn State is the future of our Olympic team,” Wise said.

While watching tape of the Nittany Lions, Wise has had a hard time finding holes.

“There are no weaknesses,” she said. “We are looking for cracks, but there are none to be had.”

Senior libero Elyse Cusack believes too many errors could spell the end for the Gators.

So far, that has not been a problem for them.

UF has a tournament-best hitting efficiency of .424 in the first two rounds, while Penn State sits with the second-highest percentage.

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“We know that we aren’t going to be able to make the little errors we got away with earlier in the season,” Cusack said. “Playing a great team like Penn State, you can’t make unforced errors like that.”

The surface the teams play on will be different than the hardwood the O’Connell Center usually features. NCAA rules force all of the sites to put down a sport court surface for any match beyond the second round.

 “You can slide better on it,” Cusack said. “I like it for defense because you can dive, and you don’t stick and you don’t get the court burns that I usually get on the hardwood.”

The thin layer of extra cushion it provides should work in Cusack’s benefit as she looks to become the Southeastern Conference’s all-time digs leader.

She is just four away from breaking the record.

With the record in reach, the tougher task will be to get past Penn State.

“This women’s volleyball team of Penn State is UCLA when they had Lew Alcindor, and you know what? No one got UCLA during that stretch — so it’s quite the challenge,” Wise said.

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