After knocking off Boston College to win its eighth-straight season opener, No. 9 Florida (2-0) made short work of North Carolina (1-1), winning in three sets Saturday night in Gainesville.
“I think this was an awesome weekend,” junior Stephanie Ferrell said. “We played awesome as a team. We got those nerves out being that we have some younger players that haven’t played in the O’Dome and in front of the big crowd.”
The Gators cruised to an easy 25-17 win in the first set before the Tar Heels put up a stiff fight in the second set.
The two teams battled back and forth in a second set that had five lead changes and seven ties. Florida pulled ahead for good with the set tied at 18 after UNC had two critical attack errors.
Two key digs from senior Kristy Jaeckel put the second set on ice for good, as Florida closed it after one missed set point, winning 25-20 to take a 2-0 lead in the match.
“I think in that second set, as a team, we kind of lost focus a little bit,” Ferrell said. “But with those two digs, we kind of regrouped and we bounced back. Kristy kind of motivated the whole team and created momentum and we just rode the wave.”
Teammates have pointed to Jaeckel as the team leader stepping into the void left by Callie Rivers, and the redshirt senior outside hitter responded like one when the Tar Heels pushed the Gators to the brink in the second set.
“We got a couple breaks with mistakes by North Carolina, but it was her digs and chasing the ball out of bounds that really was the difference in us going up 2-0,” coach Mary Wise said.
Jaeckel finished with 12 kills and a game-high 10 digs to help Florida win with a terrific all-around game.
“When the match started, Kristy left some digs out there,” Wise said. “But as the match went on, she did a much better job. For her to finish with a double-double, that’s the type of performance we need out of our outside hitters.”
After winning the second set in thrilling fashion, the Gators chomped down and crushed the Tar Heels in the third set, jumping out to an early 4-0 lead and riding it to a 25-14 win.
Wise met with her team after the close call in the second set and gave her team some advice heading into the third and final set.
“Just in terms of embracing the fact that North Carolina pushed us, that this was good as opposed to having that sort of surprised look,” Wise said. “This is good for us. Credit North Carolina for how well they played and that we’re a better team just from those two sets. Now we want to respond of showing the respect that we have in them by coming out, being focused and playing well at the beginning of the set three, and we did that. We made a separation there.”
Ferrell was instrumental in the win for the Gators, contributing five kills in the first set and six in the third to lead all players with 13.
The 6-foot-1 outside hitter was dominant finishing above the net, recording a .357 hitting percentage against UNC.
She said Wise emphasized picking her spots better in terms of when to blast the ball at opponents and when to use a little more finesse. Wise also worked with her on hitting away from the block more, and the results were obvious Saturday night.
Ferrell was named the Active Ankle SEC/ACC Challenge MVP for her performance over the weekend.
“No player has worked harder to get to this,” Wise said. “For her to have this moment after where she was maybe in January and then last August when she hurt her knee, it’s fitting. She should be very proud because she worked her way to this spot.”
Jaeckel, senior Kelly Murphy and redshirt freshman Taylor Unroe were also named to the all-tournament team.
Now that Florida has jumped out to a 2-0 start to open the 2011 season, the Gators turn their focus to Florida State, who will come to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for a 7 p.m. Tuesday tilt.
“North Carolina played well,” Wise said. “They pushed us. That’s a great preparation for us to go into the next step and that is, the next step being, Florida State, a veteran team that gave us obviously all we could handle a year ago. But this match is a great preparation for them.”
While the O’Dome is likely to be raucous Tuesday night with a big, good-serving team like Florida State coming to town, Florida’s players are treating it just like any other match.
“I don’t think that we try to get into that stuff as much,” Ferrell said. “We look at them as just another team that we’re going to play and we don’t try to feed into the rivalry.”
Still, Ferrell and the rest of the Florida players know they’ll face some tough competition against their in-state rivals.
“Florida State’s a team that we’ve played a lot over the years,” Ferrell said. “We played them quite a few times last year. They have a lot of returners coming back. I think that will be a very good match. It will definitely test us and let us know what we need to work on.”