FGCU volleyball gets its breakthrough, gears up for NCAA tourney showdown with UCF

FGCU coach Matt Botsford guides his players through practice earlier in the season. PHOTO COURTESY OF FGCU ATHLETICS

BY MATT ROTHMAN
SPECIAL TO CSI

Third time is the charm they say. 

It happened for Florida Gulf Coast University’s volleyball team, as the Eagles broke through in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship after losing the previous two years. FGCU will get a third crack at 13th-ranked UCF in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday.

Coach Matt Botsford said he and assistant coach Danny Mahy both thought the five-set victory over ASUN tournament host Kennesaw State — allowing FGCU to punch its ticket to the NCAAs — felt “like a dream.”

“It’s kind of been a whirlwind the past few days, but it has been amazing,” Botsford said in the aftermath of that Nov. 17 victory at Kennesaw State. “The most amazing thing has been able to see the reactions of our players and being on the floor with them when that final point came through.” 

Though the season officially started Aug. 24, the Eagles (26-6) got a bit of a head start when they traveled to Europe earlier in the summer. In addition to all the site-seeing, the Eagles put in some work with a few exhibition matches. 

“I have been with three programs that have made that trip and every one of those programs won the conference championship the following season,” said Botsford, who, earlier this season, earned his 100th win in his now five seasons as FGCU head coach. “There is a reason why they only allow you to do this every four years from the NCAA level because there is some kind of apparent advantage to it.”

The Eagles started the regular season with high expectations. They boasted four preseason all-ASUN selections — including 2017 co-Player of the Year Amanda Carroll — and were picked by coaches to win the conference. 

FGCU started the season by going 2-1 at the Sunshine State Classic in Miami. After beating Florida Atlantic and losing a four-setter against UCF, the Eagles scored a monumental victory by sweeping the Miami Hurricanes for the program’s first road win over a “Power 5” conference team. 

“You don’t really realize how good you are until you beat the good teams,” said Eagles sophomore outside hitter Cortney VanLiew, who had 20 kills in the win. “That was just a good thing for us. It really helped us with our confidence, and we realized when we are all playing as well as we can and we’re all clicking on the same page, then we are going to be really good.” 

Shortly after the Sunshine State Classic, VanLiew’s role with the Eagles increased due to a knee injury suffered by Carroll (who will use 2018 as a redshirt season). 

Carroll’s injury had a domino effect on the Eagles. VanLiew became more active on offense, and senior Sharonda Pickering changed positions. Botsford also opted to employ two setters — Chelsey Lockley and Maggie Rick.

The new style of played worked for the Eagles. After another loss to UCF on Sept. 24, FGCU won 20 of 21 matches — 17 of those coming in the ASUN.

The Eagles received contributions from various players, including freshman Dana Axner, who became the first in conference history to win ASUN Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Axner set an FGCU record for most digs — she has 551 thus far — and has the most digs in three- and five-set matches in Division I program history (28 and 39, respectively). 

Other key contributors for FGCU include Rick and ASUN tournament MVP Daniele Serrano.

Rick, who’s played the most matches in FGCU history, passed Gigi Meyer as the Eagles’ all-time assists leader (4,467). Serrano became the first Eagle to amass more than 300 career block assists, and she holds the all-time record with 353 blocks.

Despite all the success they’ve experienced thus far, FGCU knows it’s time to turn the page and focus on UCF (27-3). The Knights, who lost their season opener against Miami, went 18-0 in the American Athletic Conference. Their two other losses this season came at the University of Florida-hosted Bubly Invitational against Louisville and Florida, which was ranked No. 4 at the time.

“We are really excited to play UCF,” Rick said. “They are a familiar team for us. We have fallen short these past two matches (against the Knights), but I think we improved a lot over the season.”

Said Serrano: “(Botsford) had an idea it might be UCF because we have played them before. It is a slight advantage because we know their playing style.” 

FGCU and UCF are scheduled to start Thursday’s match at 7 p.m. Should the Eagles beat UCF, they will remain in the Sunshine State for the second round, playing against the winner of Florida and Florida State.