It was never so obvious as it was over the weekend when the #5 Florida Gators (8-1) hosted Western Michigan, Iona and Georgetown in the second annual Active Ankle Challenge at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Although Florida was sharp in every aspect of the game during the Gators’ three matches, it was evident that superior size and athleticism on the front line would be the key factor in a three-match dominance.
Florida defeated Georgetown Friday night (25-14, 25-14, 25-10) and then Iona on Saturday morning (25-14, 25-12, 27-25). Western Michigan proved a bit more formidable Saturday night, taking the Gators to four games before falling (25-21, 25-22, 28-30, 25-18). The Western Michigan match, in particular, gave the Gators a good test before Tuesday night’s in-state showdown with #16 Florida State at the O-Dome (6 p.m).
The Seminoles beat the Gators in straight sets last year in Tallahassee, so Florida Coach Mary Wise saw the match with Western Michigan as a suitable warmup.
“As good an offense as Western Michigan is, Florida State’s is one of the best in the country,” Wise said. “What they run … look at the score from a year ago. We had no answer for them.”
Answers were hard to come by for Georgetown and Iona, who had no answers for Chloe Mann and Gabby Mallette in the middle and the crisp passing and defense of Holly Poe, Taylor Unroe and Taylor Brauneis.
“We do have a size advantage over Georgetown,” Wise said. “We’re bigger and more physical above the net and the blocks showed that. But we didn’t want Ziva (Recek) to have 25 more serves than everybody else in the first match.”
Although the Gators were sloppy at the beginning of their Saturday match with Iona, falling behind early, 10-7, they closed the first game on an 18-4 run that carried over into the second game. Iona played its best in the third game, taking a 17-14 lead when Wise called time out to insert Recek back into the game. Trailing, 20-16, she put Mann back in the game and order was restored as the Gators closed out the match, 27-25.
Western Michigan featured last year’s Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year, middle blocker Stephenee Yancy, who made her presence known on the first point of the game when she blocked Recek and then added a point on a kill to start the match at 2-0.
Western’s front line was very active, but when Wise inserted Gabby Mallette into the game, the Gators took control of the net in game one, finishing off the Broncos on a Recek block and an Alex Holston kill. Florida won the second game thanks to some outstanding back line defense by Unroe and Mackenszie Dagostino.
After Western took the third game, Florida came back in game four behind difference-makers Recek and Mann. They combined for 10 kills (5 each) to take the Gators to a 19-16 lead and from there the Gators cruised home to win the match but not without Western Michigan earning Wise’s respect. Wise was particularly impressed with WMU liberos Lena Oliver and Stephenee Yancy.
“Western Michigan played so well,” Wise said. “I thought their libero was outstanding … she (Yancy) is a handful. We knew the ball was going to her but we just had no answer.”
Ziva Recek was named the Active Ankle Invitational MVP. The all-tournament team was comprised of Iona’s Catrina Warren, Western Michigan’s Yancy, Georgetown’s Caitlin Brauneis and her sister Taylor Brauneis and Mann from UF.