TAMPA, Fla. – It may not have been the prettiest of matches on Friday evening, but Lady Luck was on the Lions’ side as the Saint Leo University volleyball team outlasted West Florida in a five-set 3-2 thriller (28-30, 25-18, 22-25, 25-21, 15-9) that pushed the Lions into their first NCAA Division II South Region Championship match.
An old sports adage states that it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season, and the third-seeded Argonauts were out to prove that true as they came into the Bob Martinez Sports Center looking to upset the 12th-ranked Lions.
Making their second-straight appearance in the regional semifinal, the Lions looked to sweep away memories of last year’s five-set letdown against Nova Southeastern, but ran into an energized and opportunistic West Florida squad that had their 3-0 and 3-1 losses to Saint Leo (30-3) fresh on their minds.
With that edge, UWF (20-13) gave Saint Leo all they could handle in the first set as neither team could get larger than a three-point advantage. After a back-and-forth battle throughout the entire 25-point set, the Lions rallied from a 24-22, set-point, deficit to push things into extra points. SLU looked to gain control when Bruna Rocha dropped down one of her match-high 22 kills to put the Green & Gold up 28-27, but a Lion service error would again have the game tied. This time, West Florida would turn to their 6’3” middle blocker Patricia Gandolfo who would notch two-straight kills to give the Argos the initial set.
An angry Lions’ team responded with a straight-forward 25-18 second-set win setting up the back-and-forth semifinal game that would have fans on the edge of their seats the entire time.
After West Florida dealt the Lions a 25-22 defeat to take a 2-1 match lead, the Lions responded again, dominating the visitors from Pensacola in set four, where the good guys hit .370 behind seven kills from Rocha and four aces from senior Chelsea Armer to assure that everyone in attendance would get their monies worth.
The deciding set went much the way of the entire match as the Lions blasted out to an 8-2 advantage, with the Argos only two points coming by way of the service error. After trading a single point, the Argos put Gandolfo on the service line and saw her serve UWF all the way to 8-7, pushing West Florida on a 5-0 run.
With the Lions in need of a little luck, Gandolfo’s next serve hit the net, giving SLU the sideout. Rocha would then take the serve for the Lions and watch as UWF’s attack came unraveled. The Argos would mishit four of the next five attacks, including a double-block by Michelle Nogueras and Danielle Bletso that put Saint Leo at match point. UWF would get two consecutive kills from Kara Gonzalez, but Emily Calderon-Reyes would have enough of the back-and-forth that the two hours of play had brought and put an exclamation point on the match with a resounding kill that would send the Lions into the championship.
The most eye-popping stat of the match was not a good one for the victors. The Lions managed to beat their foes despite handing them 18 points from errors in the SLU serve. The Lions were able to offset their struggles from behind the service-line by out-blocking UWF 14-to-7 and also dropping down eight aces, many coming at crucial points in the match.
On the good side, the Lions out-hit West Florida by nearly 120 points (.347-to-.230) and saw four of their five front-row players notch double-digit kills.
Rocha led with her aforementioned 22 kills along with 15 digs while Calderon-Reyes added 16 and 10. Junior middle-blocker Kaitlin McKenna notched 12 kills while Bletso, her counterpart in the middle, hit an astronomical .688 with 11 kills and zero errors.
Nogueras added 55 assists on 18 digs in the thriller.
The win, teamed with a Tampa victory in the other semifinal-round matchup afterwards, sets up the Regional Championship that everyone had looked forward to since the brackets were released. The top-seed Tampa Spartans and the second-seed Saint Leo Lions are now set to square off for the title on Saturday night.
The Lions and Spartans shared the Sunshine State Conference title after splitting the season series. The rubber match to determine the season and regional champion will get underway at 7:00 p.m.
The match, at the University of Tampa’s Bob Martinez Sports Center, will be broadcast live with both audio and video feeds as links will be posted on SaintLeoLions.com on Saturday afternoon. Click the Multimedia tab and then Broadcast Schedule to access the links.