The lead is going to be this: The UCF Knights volleyball team saw their Division-I-program-record 24-match winning streak end at the hands of Florida Gulf Coast in a five-set thriller in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
That’s not the whole story.
The hard part about seeing a team as good as this one bow out so early is that you’re never ready for it to end, even though the law of averages says UCF was due to slip up at some point. That’s the cruelty of winning streaks. It will feel like a disappointment, but it shouldn’t be.
Here are the things we’re talking about:
FGCU played out of their minds
It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. It’s even harder to do it against a team that had lost only six matches total coming in, as the Eagles had. It was a matter of time.
Cortney Van Liew (25 kills) was outstanding, as she had been in the previous two matches this season, and the Eagles also got tremendous help from Snowy Burnham, with 15 kills and 26 digs.
In the fifth, FGCU out-hit UCF .421-.000. That tells you what you need to know.
Congrats to @GatorsVB @FSU_Volleyball and @FGCU_VB for great volleyball seasons. Class programs and class coaches. Best wishes to Mary and the Gators in their hunt for a National Championship. Dont be shocked if a Final 4 team just came out of our gym.— Todd Dagenais (@ucfvbtodd) December 1, 2018
Our Eric Lopez called this the “Group of Death” on our podcast, and he was right. The combined record of all four teams in the regional was 101-24.
Three great teams went home this weekend. UCF happened to be one of them.
The Missing Link
One of the keys to the match was the absence of setter Erin Olson due to injury. In her absence, UCF had to change the rotation it had used the entire season like a well-oiled machine.
Freshman (and Erin’s younger sister) Amber Olson racked up 42 assists, but UCF was forced into using Ali Sabol, a junior who normally plays as an attacker on the right side, as the #2 setter - something she has never done in game action in three seasons. Despite an admirable performance by Sabol with 10 assists, Erin was definitely the missing link for the Knights’ offense, especially when things got weird late.
I'm incredibly proud of how @UCF_Volleyball handled losing a leader with 3 matches to go. It was a punch in the gut, but they never flinched. We look forward to having Erin and our full offense back on the floor as soon as she is cleared. I love the optimism in the locker room— Todd Dagenais (@ucfvbtodd) December 1, 2018
Say it ain’t so, Jo
Jordan Pingel’s final match at UCF ended with 26 digs, two aces and another record: digs in a season.
Career digs champ ✔️— UCF Volleyball (@UCF_Volleyball) November 30, 2018
Single-season digs champ ✔️
Another record down for Jo! pic.twitter.com/FfWzNBNfrt
Still, no one is ever really ready for it to end.
We’re not crying, you’re crying.
How do you handle success?
That’s going to be the big question for this UCF team. Nine of the top 12 in the Knights’ rotation this year were freshmen or sophomores.
Erin Olson and Ali Sabol will be the seniors charged with leading the squad in 2019. With that much talent, plus a few newcomers from this year’s recruiting class, it will be hard to imagine how UCF would not be one of the favorites in The American next year.
Thanks to all who supported our dream. Yes, the ending hurts, but an ending is really a new beginning. I love this team of amazing women. Congrats and best of luck @GatorsVB . @UCFKnights VB will be back stronger, healthier, and with the same resilience that was our trademark.— Todd Dagenais (@ucfvbtodd) December 1, 2018
Of course, strange things can happen. After 2014’s conference title, UCF was expected to be dominant again in 2015, but an injury to Kia Bright derailed those hopes.
There are always variables like that in a given season. But in 2018, all the variables worked in UCF’s favor, right up until the very end.
The magical ride has come to an end.— UCF Volleyball (@UCF_Volleyball) November 30, 2018
We took a huge step in 2018. Can't wait to get back on the court next year. pic.twitter.com/LzeEX8akyS
This one hurts. But thankfully, it won’t hurt forever, and those of us who saw this team will remember 2017 for how a group came together and everything fell into place perfectly for 24 straight matches and an undefeated conference championship season.
Nothing can take that away.