The dream is over for the Florida volleyball team following a 3-1 loss (25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20) at the hands of the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday night in Gainesville. Ironically, it was a Mary Wise recruit in orange and blue that dominated the match, only she was wearing the wrong shade of blue.
Illinois senior Colleen Ward was the No. 7 recruit in the nation according to prepvolleyball.com when coach Mary Wise signed her to play for the Gators in 2008. Coach Wise likely envisioned the hard hitting Naperville, Illinois native leading her team to NCAA Final Fours. Coach Wise was right that Ward was a talent, but she transferred to Illinois following her sophomore season in Gainesville.
Saturday night, Ward made herself at home in the O'Connell Center, leading Illinois with a season high 23 kills, four assists and 11 digs, while hitting at a .500 clip. The raucous home crowd did all they could to get behind the Gators, but there was simply no answer for Ward's seemingly endless kill shots.
The Gators were again led by their dynamic senior duo of Kelly Murphy and Kristy Jaeckel. Murphy logged a triple double with 13 kills, 21 assists and 17 digs, while Jaeckel added 19 kills and 11 digs. Sophomore Chloe Mann also turned in a strong offensive performance for Florida with 11 kills. But the Gators simply had problems finding holes in the Illini defense, as Illinois seemed to block and dig everything the Gators fired their way. After Friday's record setting .439 hitting percentage, Florida could only manage a .225 percentage against the Illini and 6'6" freshman Liz McMahon.
Illinois is the highest seeded team remaining in the NCAA tournament and advances to the Final Four in San Antonio to face the winner of the USC/Pepperdine match. Meanwhile the Gators have some rebuilding ahead as it will lose five seniors from this year's squad.
This one really stings, as the top seeded Texas Longhorns were upset by the UCLA Bruins earlier on Friday, seeming to pave the way for the Gators and Coach Wise to finally win a national title. Instead, they'll have to watch a former Gator in different shades of orange and blue play on.
Ward was named to the freshman All-American team while competing for the Gators in 2008. Her transfer announcement came as a total shock to the Gators and Coach Wise, who stated back in a January 2010 article, "She misses home and didn't feel like she totally fitted in here. It was a total shock. We didn't see it coming and neither did her teammates."
Just to add insult to injury, the Florida State Seminoles are currently leading the Iowa State Cyclones two sets to one in the Minneapolis Regional Final, looking for the school's first ever volleyball Final Four berth.