TAMPA - 13th-ranked Florida Southern and 19th-ranked Palm Beach Atlantic went toe-to-toe against one another in an epic five-set NCAA Division II South Regional semifinal match here Friday evening at the Martinez Athletics Center on the University of Tampa campus as the third-seeded Sailfish scored five of the last six points in the fifth set to ultimately prevail over the second-seeded Moccasins (23-25, 25-21, 25-27, 25-16, 13-15) and earn a spot in the regional championship match against top-ranked Tampa.
With the setback, the Mocs conclude the season with a 25-6 overall record and fell in the South Regional semifinals for the fourth consecutive season, while PBA improved to 30-3 overall and will face the top-ranked and top-seeded Spartans for a spot in next weekend's NCAA National Championships in Louisville, Ky. Friday's match was the third of the season between the two schoools as the Mocs won in five sets in West Palm Beach on Oct. 13 and then earned a three-set win in Lakeland on Nov. 4.
"Wow, what an incredible match against two very similar teams," Moccasin head coach Jill Stephens said in the post match press conference following the match that lasted a little over two hours. "PBA is an incredible defensive team, they side out really well and just push our limits. There were some unbelievable rallies and we won a lot of them and statistically we hit .214 and they hit .150 and we sided out more than did. It was just a heartbreaker of a match."
Friday's match marked the finale for FSC's six seniors as libero Catherine Brusie (North Branch, Mich.), defensive specialist Jasmine Childress (Muncie, Ind.), right side hitter Gabby Fernandez (Tampa, Fla.), setter Ali Skayhan(Beaverton, Ore.), outside hitter Kate Stromberg (Lexington, Ky.) and defensive specialist Lauren Tekavec (Colorado Springs, Colo.).
"We've got six seniors who gave their heart and soul to this program for four years and they're going to be missed greatly, but we're really proud of what we accomplished this year and the team that we are," said Stephens, who is now 11-12 all-time in the NCAA Tournament as the Mocs coach. "I'm very proud of this team."
Stephens commented that the one thing that stood about this year's team was their ability to show up every day and work hard.
"The thing I'm most proud of with this team is that every day they always showed up, worked their tails off. It's been an enjoyable team to coach because they are self-motivated and drive themselves towards success," the Moc coach added. "I'm internally grateful for that standard our seniors set and has been passed down to the players coming back next season."
In Friday's match, the Mocs won nearly every statistical category as they had two more kills than the Sailfish (69 to 67), outhit them. .214 to .150, outblocked them, 11.5 to 6 and had 11 less attack errors (22 as opposed to 33), but was outdug, 113-110 and PBA had one more service ace than the Mocs, 4 to 3. FSC's 110 digs, which is tied for third most in a single match in school history, were a season high as it bettered the previous season high of 107 set earlier this season at Palm Beach Atlantic.
On the night, three Mocs recorded double figures in kills as Stromberg led the way in her final collegiate match as she had 18 and added 22 digs for her fifth double-double of the season. With her 18 kills, she closes her Moccasin career 13th on the school's career kill chart with 1,124 kills and 11th on the school's all-time dig chart with 1,195 career digs. In addition to Stromberg, junior middle blocker Kayshia Brady (Welaka, Fla.) had 13 kills, six blocks and hit .324 in the loss, while freshman middle blocker Allie Geary (Deland, Fla.) recorded a career-high 11 kills, added four assisted blocks and hit .500 for the match.
Junior right side hitter Kendall Marotti (LaBelle, Fla.) and freshman outside hitter Anna Tovo (Aiken, S.C.) each had eight kills on the night, while Marotti added 17 digs and hit .300. For the match, four Mocs hit over .300 as Skayhan was the fourth to hit over .300 as she recorded a .312 hitting percentage to go with six kills, 20 digs and 54 assists for her team-leading 16th double-double. Skayhan, who is the team's lone fifth-year senior as she redshirted last season due to injury, closed her career fourth in career assists (3,947) and seventh in career digs (1,323).
"Our seniors are a big part of our program and its sad to see them leave," said sophomore outside hitter Brindl Langley (Camas, Wash.), who finished with a season-high 22 digs against the Sailfish.
On defense, the Mocs had five players record 15 or more digs, including three Moccasins record 20 or more digs in the match. The fifth Moc with 15 or more digs on the night was Brusie as she had 18 and completed her two years at FSC with 1,140 digs, which is 14th on the school's all-time list.
In the opening set, neither team could gain much cushion early on as the team's traded points until the Sailfish scored two straight points to turn a 6-5 deficit into a 7-6 lead. The Mocs, though, used an 8-4 run to take a 14-11 lead following an ace by Langley. PBA would then use a 6-1 run capped by Sarah Ragland kill to give the Sailfish a 17-15 lead. After the team's would trade points to give PBA an 18-16 edge, the Mocs would score four of the next five points to take a 20-19 lead. The run was capped by a solo block from Brady. The Sailfish wouldn't go away as they scored four consecutive points to take a 23-20 lead, before the Mocs would come right back and score three straight points to tie the set at 23. PBA, though, would score the final two points of the set to post a 25-21 win. In the set. both teams hit over .200 and combined for 30 kills and 40 digs as FSC had 15 kills and 18 digs and PBA had 15 kills and 22 digs.
The Mocs jumped in front 8-4 in the second set and led 13-8 when the Sailfish used a 5-0 spree to tie the set at 13. The Mocs would retake the lead one point later on a kill by Skayhan, before PBA scored two straight points to take a 15-14 lead. FSC, though, would respond with five straight points, including capping the run a Stromberg kill to take a 19-15 lead. After PBA scored two straight points to pull within 19-17, the Mocs would score five of the next eight points to push its lead to 24-20. After a kill from Sarah Ragland pushed PBA within 24-21, the Mocs sealed the 25-21 win with a kill from Tovo. In the set, FSC hit .343 and had 16 kills and just four attack errors, while PBA hit .125 with 13 kills and eight attack errors.
With the match tied 1-1, the Mocs jumped out to a 12-5 lead in the third set that forced PBA to call its second and final timeout. The Mocs lead would grow to 17-11 following back-to-back attack errors from PBA's Faith Rohn, before PBA responded with a 7-2 run to pull within 19-18. The Mocs would answer with two quick points to push its lead to 21-18. PBA would respond with a 6-3 run to take a 25-24 lead, before the Mocs tied the set one play later on a kill by Marotti. The Sailfish, though, would close the set by scoring the final two points to post its 27-25 win and take a 2-1 lead in the match. In the set, both teams hit under .200 and combined for 32 kills and 59 digs as the set had three ties and one lead change.
"The third set was the turning point in the match. We had an 18-12 lead in the third and we just didn't finish that set," Stephens said when asked what was the turning point in Friday's closely contested match. "Anytime you do five, it's just a dogfight. They made some big plays and I give credit to them. It looked like two really exhausted teams because both of them battled and fought for every point, every rally and on every play.
"I just couldn't be more proud of our team for the way they competed."
Trailing 2-1 in the match, the Mocs jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the fourth set, before PBA used a 6-3 run to take a 7-5 lead. The Mocs would respond with a 13-3 flurry paced by a combined six kills from Stromberg and Geary to take an 18-10 lead. Much like the entire match, PBA wouldn't just go away as they answered FSC's run with a 5-1 run of its own to pull within 19-15 following a kill from Rohn. But unlike the third set when the Mocs couldn't put away Sailfish, FSC would close out the set by scoring six of the final seven points to post a 25-16 win and force a fifth and deciding set. In the set, FSC hit .256 and held PBA to an .020 hitting percentage.
In the fifth set, PBA jumped in front 2-1, 3-2, before FSC scored three straight points to take a 5-3 lead. The Sailfish would score four of the next six points to tie the set at 7-all. FSC was the first team to get to eight on a kill from Marotti and would proceed to score two more points, including capping the run with another Marotti kill to make it 10-7 Mocs. The Sailfish, though, would muster another rally as they scored three of the next four points to draw within 11-10, before a Geary kill pushed the Mocs in front 12-10. Trailing 12-10, PBA would score the next three points, including an ace by Rachael Holehouse, to take a 13-12 lead. A Rohn attack error retied the set at 13, before back-to-back kills from Emma Ballantyne and Rohn sealed the Sailfish's 15-13 set win. The fifth set had eight ties and three lead changes as FSC hit .184 and had 19 digs, while PBA hit .222 and had 23 digs.
PBA, who has now advanced to the regional final for the second time in the last three seasons, was led by a 20 kill performance from Ballantyne. In addition to Ballantyne, Ragland finished the night with 16 kills, four blocks and hit .387, while Rohn added 14 kills, 18 digs and two aces.
Much like the Mocs defense, PBA five players record 18 or more digs in the match, including four players having 20 or more digs. Leading they way in digs was Melissa Buckingham and Becca Acevedo as they both had a match-high 24, while Holehouse added 23 and Lauren Alberti had 20 digs.
Click here for the Moccasins post-match press conference following the Palm Beach Atlantic region semifinal match