With two straight attack errors from sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix and senior outside hitter Marina Markova, Florida was on the brink of losing out on a comeback victory in a marquee matchup.
A kill by Stanford sophomore Sami Francis shut the door on the Gators.
No.13 Florida (3-1) was defeated by No.12 Stanford Cardinal (3-0) in five sets (29-31, 22-25, 25-16, 25-22, 10-15) Tuesday while being held to 52 kills. This match occurred just one day earlier than when the squads met in California early last season — Stanford took that one in four sets. This time around, however, the Gators boasted the home court advantage in front of a roaring atmosphere at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
With a packed student section, which was satisfied by a free T-shirt hung on every seat, backing UF, the first set got underway when sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason rose up for a block on the left side of the net.
Despite an early advantage in favor of Florida, who led 5-2 after a service ace from sophomore defensive specialist Trinity Adams, Stanford poured a waterfall of eight points — four of which came via attack errors — down on the Gators.
Down 11-6 in set one, Florida climbed back gradually to reclaim its lead. With a kill by sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley, the Gators took their lead, 15-14.
Both teams enticed the crowd with hustle plays on the court, including a diving save by freshman libero Emily Canaan, who went head first towards the broadcasters on the sideline to keep the ball in play.
The Gators looked to close the set out, up 24-22. However, kills by Stanford freshman outside hitter Elia Rubin and redshirt-junior outside hitter Catie Baird kept the Cardinal in the set. Going down to the wire, Stanford landed the final blow, a kill by senior opposite side hitter Kendall Kipp, to win the first set 31-29.
Set two followed a similar story early. The two volleyball powerhouses struck at each other with ferocious offensive attacks in front of the net.
The scoreboard read double 10 times through the first half of the second set, Stanford was able to finally break the spell, claiming a 14-12 lead with a kill by Rubin and sophomore setter Kami Miner.
Later on, as Florida was on the ropes and trailing 23-20, UF head coach Mary Wise called a timeout. Coming back onto the floor, the Gators immediately went to work with the help of a service error from Stanford junior libero Elena Oglivie and a double block from Kelley and Markova.
Now, leading by just a point, it was Stanford head coach Kevin Hambly’s turn to call a timeout.
Looking composed after a quick team huddle, Rubin took matters into her own hands and laid down two straight kills to give the Cardinal the set, 25-22..
On the verge of getting swept, the Gators found points through opponent service and attack errors. Florida extended an early 8-4 lead in the third set.
Freshman setter Alexis Stucky grew her team’s momentum with a tricky kill that looked at first to be a set. By the time Stanford’s defense caught on to where the ball was it was hitting the court on its side of the net. Stucky’s play opened up the Gators’ game. Beason and junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria also collected kills to give Florida a 14-9 lead.
The Cardinal’s six attack errors and five service errors proved detrimental as Florida controlled the third set from beginning to end. Another kill by Victoria on the left side of the net, which sealed a 25-16 set win, brought the Gators back into contention for the match.
UF carried confidence into the fourth set and held a quick 7-4 advantage following a four-point run.. However, Stanford resurged to tie the set 10 a piece. As seen in the prior sets the match began to swing back and forth, each team giving up points as quickly as it took them.
Capping the set four with a spike by Markova, Florida came back from dropping the first two sets of the night to tie the match and force a definitive, winner-take-all fifth set.
Florida surged to a 5-1 lead thanks to brilliance behind the service line. Canaan hit three straight aces and had the UF bench swinging warm-up shirts in the air in celebration.
However, Stanford channeled the energy and was not ready to leave Gainesville with a loss. The Cardinal climbed back into the game with five straight points to take their first lead of the set, 10-8.
With her team’s lead evaporated, Wise called a timeout in an attempt to bring the team back on track. The Gators battled, but never found that same fire from earlier in the fifth. Stanford won the fifth set, 15-10, handing Florida its first loss of the young season.
Two Gators claimed career-highs as Stucky finished with 45 assists and Adams with 11 digs.
UF’s comeback fell five points short, but Wise was encouraged by her team’s performance — especially against Stanford, who is known as a volleyball blue blood.
“The group has so much fight,” Wise said. “Their effort and resilience. It’s really a fun group to be around.”
Florida will travel north to face the Minnesota Golden Gophers for its first away match of the season Sunday at 1:30 p.m. The match from Minneapolis will stream on Big 10+.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.