SAINT LEO, Fla. – A rowdy pro-Saint Leo crowd and a huge first-set win were not enough as the visiting University of Tampa Spartans managed to roll off the next three games to upend the SLU volleyball team 3-1 (20-25, 25-23, 25-18, 25-14) in a gigantic Sunshine State Conference matchup from the Bowman Center on Wednesday evening.

Coming out with an adrenaline high from the over 800 fans in attendance, the Lions were able to trounce the visitors in the first set as the breaks seemed to fall Saint Leo’s way.  Never was there a better sign of how things would fall in their first set but on the first SLU serve of the match.  Senior Michelle Nogueras took the serve and smacked it into the tape.  She put just enough muscle into the serve where the ball would tip over the net and fall on the UT side for an ace, getting the crowd into a frenzy.  The Lions would use the crowd to hit .353 in the set and take the five-point win.

After surrendering a four-point lead to Tampa (25-2, 12-1 SSC) early in the second set, the Lions would claw back to knot the game at nine, where both teams would carry a tie into the late stages of the set. With the score tied at 18, the Lions would rattle off three-straight to take a 21-18 lead and look to close out the set and take a 2-0 match lead. 

Unfortunately, Tampa would have another thing in mind, and that’s where everything went awry for Saint Leo.

With SLU leading 22-19, the Spartans would see a Saint Leo (25-3, 12-1 SSC) service error give them a sideout.  With the serve, the Spartans plan was to set junior Kaleigh Cunningham and see if the Lions could stop her attack.  SLU could not find an answer for her as she notched four-straight kills to give UT a 23-22 lead and control of the match.  The Lions would get a kill from junior Bruna Rocha, but an SLU service error and a UT ace would give the game to the visitors and swing the match’s momentum into their favor.

The end of the second set seemed to tip SLU’s hand to Tampa as their coaching staff made an adjustment during the long break between sets two and three.  After that, the Lions attack would become ineffective against the presence of the UT blockers.  In set three, the Spartans would drop down seven blocks and hold the Lions to one of their lowest single-set hitting totals of 2009 in just .091 as Tampa suddenly had a 2-1 lead over their hosts.

The tremendous crowd that showed up was still energized for the Lions into set four, but the Spartans would quickly silence the 800-plus as they rolled to a 7-2 lead and forced SLU to use a timeout.  Although the Lions managed to hit through the UT block, the Spartans would only let the Lions hold-serve twice in 15 attempts.  Tampa hit over .480, besting the Lions by over .350 percent as they put the period on a big South Region win.

In their first loss in 22 matches, the Lions were led by juniors Emily Calderon-Reyes and Kaitlin McKenna who both notched 13 kills.  Sophomore Danielle Bletso also notched double-digit kills with 10 on 20 attempts.

Defensively, senior libero Chelsea Armer racked up 18 digs and junior Bruna Rocha posted 13 in the loss.

Nogueras assisted on 38 of the Lions’ 45 total sets.

For the University of Tampa, junior Melissa Vanderhall posted 20 kills and assisted on three blocks while Cunningham had 18 kills.

Freshman Danielle Selkridge was the large defensive presence in the middle of the net as her 6’1” frame notched two solo blocks and assisted on five.  As a team, the Spartans outblocked Saint Leo 12-to-8.

The Lions, dealing with a loss for the first time in exactly two months, will play in their final regular season home match on Saturday.  The Lions’ Senior Day match against the Eckerd College Tritons is scheduled to get underway at 4:00 p.m. with a moment to honor the three Saint Leo seniors beforehand.

091104 SLU VB WEB - Images by Mike Carlson