It had been nearly three months since the University of West Florida volleyball team tasted its only defeat of the season.
Eighty-five days to be exact.
If the Argos were able to avoid that bitter taste one more night, they would’ve accomplished something that’s never been done in program history.
But, in search of its first NCAA regional title, UWF finally met its match on Saturday.
West Florida fell in four sets to the University of Tampa in the NCAA Division II South Region Final from the UWF Field House. The set scores were 25-20, 13-25, 21-25, 23-25.
The loss snapped the Argos’ 30-match winning streak.
“That’s not how it played out in our heads,” West Florida head coach Melissa Wolter said. “It just wasn’t a great night for us. … That’s two good teams going to battle, the unfortunate part is that somebody has to end their season tonight and that somebody is us.”
UWF Women's Soccer: Argos' bid for NCAA South Region crown ends in PKs to Florida Tech
UWF was the top seed in the region and saw its season end with a 35-2 record. Improving to 31-2, Tampa was the No. 2 seed. It will host the NCAA Division II Volleyball Championships beginning Thursday.
The Argos are now winless in five regional-final appearances. The Spartans have been the ones to deny them a spot in the Elite Eight on three occasions.
Saturday’s loss closed the book on undoubtedly the finest UWF volleyball season in program history.
Powered by five players named to the AVCA and D2CCA All-Region Teams, this year’s squad set numerous school records, including single-season marks for wins (35) and highest winning percentage (.946).
However, just moments removed from a stinging and brutal finale, the players and team as a whole understandably had trouble taking solace in the heights they reached to that point.
“Being removed from this and doing this as long as I have, I recognize what they’ve done, but they will not,” Wolter remarked. “This will bury its ugly head so far underneath their skin that they’ll be chasing this for the rest of their lives. I never understand why things like this happen, but it’s going to change them, and it’ll change them for the better.”
According to Wolter, her players never got too wrapped up in rankings and all of their achievements. Instead, they stayed the course and remained present.
Down 18-14 in the fourth set, the Argos pulled together for one last rally.
The home team put up seven of the next nine points. The run started with a kill from freshman middle blocker Jenna Zydlo, an ace from senior defensive specialist Ashton Marshall and a combination block from freshman outside hitter Alex Oliver and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Veresia Yon, forcing Tampa into a timeout.
Later, UWF regained the lead at 21-20 on a kill from redshirt junior Madi Cooler. Yet, that advantage was short-lived and the last Argos enjoyed the rest of the night.
The Spartans scored four of the next five points. After West Florida closed to within 24-23 after a service error, Tampa closed out UWF when setter Emily Noe found Taylor Fosler for a quick tip that found open space at the middle of the floor.
The visitors not only staved off their opponent one last time, they did so playing in a raucous arena.
“Just really proud of how we dealt with the pressure of the situation,” Spartans head coach Chris Catanach said. “Great crowd here, West Florida has built a great support system. The fans are passionate and it's really hard to win in that situation.”
“I was proud of us being really patient,” added Spartans senior libero Claudia Rivera, who had a match-high 17 digs. “West Florida had many runs, really good kills, as coach says ‘Boom-Boom’ kills that just go straight down. We just stayed disciplined, patient and we just believed in ourselves.”
The Argos captured the first set thanks to five total blocks, a late 5-0 run and 10 Tampa attacking errors.
In the second set, the match flipped. West Florida struggled to remain in system as the Spartans used the service line to establish a cushion and only widened it after cleaning up their hitting mistakes. The visitors collected three early aces. More importantly, their serving had the Argos in a well out of position, particularly setter Taylor Vaneekeren, who had to race across the floor on multiple occasions to receive the second hit.
As UWF struggled to mount much of an attack, Tampa’s offense got into rhythm, presenting various hitting options from every angle at the net. The second set was the Spartans' best in terms of attacking errors (two) and percentage (.393).
Meanwhile, with eight kills and seven attacking errors, the Argos finished the second with a hitting percentage of .032.
“We were dealing with an attack we hadn’t seen all year,” Wolter said. “They started to just find holes in our defense and they kind of turned up their serving and we turned down our serving.”
West Florida used a 7-0 spurt to push to a 12-8 lead in the third, but the road team regained the advantage at 14-13 after assisted blocks from graduate outside hitter Sorrel Houghton, graduate middle blocker Sierra Rayzor and senior outside hitter Sarah Luoma.
The two teams traded points, with Yon using a tip to put UWF ahead 21-20. From there, Tampa notched the last five on the scoreboard to steal the set.
Spartans senior outside hitter Katie McKiel and freshman outside hitter Kalli Cors each had 13 kills. Cooler and Yon each produced 13 kills as well.
Vaneekeren racked up 39 assists. Cooler, Yon and Vaneekeren were all selected to the South Region All-Tournament team.
Meanwhile, during her final night in an Argos uniform, Marshall finished with a team-high 16 digs.
“This has been my favorite team I’ve ever been on in my life,” Marshall said. “You have people that come into the gym every single day ready to work. … I’m so grateful for this experience, especially when you have Covid happen and your season is (stopped) to a halt, you just think about all the times you’re super grateful for. And I’m grateful for each person on this team because they bring something to the table, including our staff.”
Patrick Bernadeau can be reached (850) 503-3828, on Twitter at @PatBernadeau or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: UWF's greatest volleyball season stopped by Tampa at South Region Final