By Candace Martino
UT and Florida Southern College added another chapter to their rivalry this past Thursday, when the No. 14 ranked Moccasins pushed the No. 2 ranked Spartans to five sets. The Division II defending National Champions extended their Sunshine State Conference win streak to 57 consecutive matches, while snapping the Mocs’ 10-match winning streak in the process.
Thursday’s match was the 119th all-time in the series between the two conference foes, and the first five-set match in the series since the Moccasins defeated the Spartans in a five-set victory in Lakeland on Oct. 30, 2007. It was only the 17th time in the overall series that the match went five sets. The Spartans hadn’t been pushed into the final set in league play since the 2013 season.
“Each year Florida Southern is one of the teams we want to beat the most,” student assistant coach Cody Liner said. We get up to play them and they get up for us. It’s a battle every single year. It’s heated and it’s definitely a test of emotions,”
Statistically, the match was evenly played on both sides as the Spartans had two more kills than the Mocs, 62-60. Florida Southern out-blocked Tampa 12-10 and both teams had four aces apiece with 25 attack errors. The match featured 41 ties and 11 lead changes of the night, including 21 ties and six lead changes in the final two sets.
After taking an early lead in the match with winning the first set 25-22 and the second set 25-23, FSC held UT to a .146 attack percentage leading the Spartans to a 25-20 win.
“I honestly didn’t notice how we weren’t putting the ball away efficiently. I was focused on trying to keep it as close as possible and not lose hope. I knew that since the game was so back and forth, that we needed to come out strong and not show any doubt that we weren’t going to win,” senior middle blocker Jessica Wagner said.
FSC struggled in the opening two sets co mitting 12 attack errors and five serving errors. But on the other side of the net there were different results. The Spartans had only nine attack errors, hitting a .226 average in the first two sets.
Tampa took immediate control of the fourth set with a commanding 6-3 lead, until the Mocs went on a 7-5 run to go up 14-13. Back-to-back errors caused both teams to remain within a single point of each other for most of this match. FSC kept the lead going into the final points of the set at 21-19, before the Spartans desperately scored two straight points. Tied at 21, the teams traded points with one another until the Mocs nailed a kill to polish off the win 26-24, keeping their hopes alive.
The fifth set appeared to be a repeat of the prior sets when it came to tempo, though this time the Mocs were the ones with the up swinging momentum out of the gates. FSC boasted a two-point lead but found it hard to increase the lead as the Spartans would not go away, firing in three straight points. Senior Marissa Lisenbee and graduate student Katarina Milojevic topped the run off by adding in back-to-back assisted blocks. The duo throttled a 6-1 run to push the lead to 14-9. The Mocs attempted to fight back, getting help from their right side hitter that allowed them to pull within four. The Spartans sealed the deal with an impressive kill by Jessica Wagner.
“We let our guard down a bit in the third and fourth set, so we refocused and pull all our energy to come together in the fifth set. I think the key to our success was celebrating every point and enjoying playing the game against our longtime conference rival,” Wagner said.
Berkley Whaley, the Division II National Player of the Year last season, paced Tampa’s attack with a double-double of 20 kills and 14 digs. Lisenbee tossed in 15 kills while Wagner had 13 to give the Spartans their seventh consecutive win on the year.
The Spartans will continue SSC play back on the road meeting the Florida Tech Panthers before traveling to Carrollton, Ga. for the South Region Crossover.