One might assume scheduling a Gators volleyball match on the same day as a football game in the Swamp may deter fans from packing the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The Florida faithful still packed the house to the tune of 3,584 to watch their No. 15 Gators (12-3, 4-1) defeat the Louisiana State Tigers (10-7, 4-3) three sets to one (25-18, 23-25, 25-19, 27-25) Saturday evening. Head coach Mary Wise said it’s the first home match played on a homecoming Saturday in at least 33 years.
UF outside hitters Marina Markova and Merritt Beason paced the Gators in kills with 15 each, while junior Sofia Victoria recorded 13. Sophomore middle blockers Bre Kelley and Gabrielle Essix led the way defensively, totaling seven blocks a piece. LSU relied on senior outside hitter Sanaa Dotson to lead its charge on offense, racking up 15 kills.
For a relatively young team that has experienced its share of growing pains, Wise is pleased with her group’s steady development.
“We are still a work in progress,” Wise said. “There’s nothing we can do to speed up the learning curve rather than play… I think there’s been a lot of pleasant surprises and a whole lot of unknowns.”
Florida began the opening set on the right foot. Beason earned her first kill of the match, firing the ball down the right side of the court. Florida got out to a 5-2 lead before LSU strung together six of the next eight points, including four in a row. Four consecutive attack errors by the Gators gave the Tigers an 8-7 lead.
Florida found its rhythm shortly after, embarking on a six-point rally to open up the set to 16-11. The Gators put forth a balanced attack, an element of their offense that has been consistent all season. Aside from Beason; Essix, Victoria and Markova each got in on the action.
LSU briefly won the ball back on a kill from junior middle blocker Alia Williams, but it would not remain in the Tigers’ hands for long. Another four-point run, bookended by a Victoria kill, extended Florida’s advantage to 20-12.
As the Gators closed on the opening set victory, the Tigers proved difficult to put away. LSU managed to put up four straight points before back-to-back attack errors handed the first set to Florida.
Louisiana State found life late in the second set and fought its way back to even the match at one set each.
Florida earned a 3-0 lead on a trio of errors by LSU. A pair of kills from Victoria put the Gators out in front 6-2. The Tigers drew even at eight on three consecutive kills from Dotson. Victoria continued showing off her power from the outside with two kills in a four-point run by Florida that made it 15-11.
UF looked poised to take the second set after taking a 20-15 lead on a Kelley service ace, but the Tigers had other plans.
LSU put together six points in a row to retake the lead, 21-20, on two aces from sophomore libero Ella Larkin and two kills each from Dotson and Williams. Florida tried to rework its personnel by inserting freshman defensive specialist Emerson Hoyle and junior outside hitter AC Fitzpatrick off the bench toward the end of the set. The moves ultimately failed to spark a comeback.
Florida won the following two points to snatch back the lead, but the Tigers secured three of the final four points. The stretch included the set point, a Fitzpatrick service error, which won LSU the set, 25-23.
“Normally when you score over 20 points, you are in a good place,” Wise said. “But LSU does not give away points. That is a veteran team.”
Another late-set surge, this time by the Gators, propelled them to victory in set three.
LSU took the first point of the frame on a Williams kill before surrendering four straight points to the Gators. Florida’s lead grew to 12-6 thanks to several key defensive plays. Kelley combined with Beason and Victoria for a pair of blocks. Essix and Markova followed up the stellar front-row play by sending back two spikes from LSU’s Anita Anwusi.
The Tigers found their groove again by scoring six of the next seven points on three kills and three Florida attack errors to narrow the deficit to one. UF responded with three straight on two Emily Canaan service aces to put some distance between the two, 16-12.
Louisiana State found a way back yet again, tying the game at 17 after back-to-back kills from Williams and Anwusi. After a timeout by Wise, Florida claimed eight of the last 10 points to win the set. A service run from Hoyle ended with back-to-back Gators points on Markova kills.
The Gators secured an early lead in the fourth and final set, going up 13-9, and again they relied on the outside hitters to provide the thump. Louisiana State trialed 18-12 and began its nearly predictable late-set rally. The Tigers won eight of the next 10 points with help from three straight Dotson kills and a pair of Larkin aces. A kill from Williams finally tied the game at 20.
The Tigers earned the set point on an attack error from Victoria, whose return ball landed just outside the line and was confirmed upon a replay review. Florida again used the crowd to fuel its comeback, scoring the next two points on kills from Victoria and Markova. LSU tied it again at 25 on an Anwusi kill.
The Gators had grown tired of the Tigers constantly hanging around. Markova slammed home a kill to the right side after a set from freshman setter Alexis Stucky. Kelley provided the service ace that sealed the match for Florida.
“We need to keep things off the floor and just play really good defense,” said junior libero Elli McKissock, who earned her 1,000th career dig of her collegiate career during the match.
“We are really good at the top of the block and so making them have to create new shots is what we have to carry over to tomorrow.”
Florida will host LSU again Sunday afternoon at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center to wrap up the weekend doubleheader. First serve is scheduled for 3 p.m. and will stream on SEC Network+.
Contact Ethan Eibe at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators baseball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.