TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Being forced to play without two of its top players, the 24th-ranked Florida State University volleyball team managed to pull off a thrilling 3-2 (19-25, 21-25, 25-21, 25-20, 15-13) victory in comeback fashion over conference-leading Duke on Sunday afternoon at Tully Gym.
The “Paint it Pink” match turned out to be a memorable one, as the Seminoles (15-6, 7-4) charged back from a 2-0 hole to pull off an inspired victory. FSU did not have junior outside hitter Visnja Djurdjevic for the second consecutive match, and talented junior right-side hitter Rachael Morgan also could not play due to a foot injury.
Filling in FSU’s glaring holes was junior outside hitter Jekaterina Stepanova, a Riga, Latvia, native who played one of her best matches of the season. Stepanova recorded a team-high 20 kills and shouldered the offensive load for a depleted Seminoles squad. She also added 12 digs for her fifth double-double of the season. Stepanova had a comparable performance on Sept. 10 against Kansas State when she amassed 20 kills and 17 digs, but with the circumstances at hand, she arguably had her top performance of the season today.
“Kate was a two-time All-American at the junior college level. She’s found out that it’s a huge difference at this level,” head coach Chris Poole said. “We knew Kate was very talented, and she’s been trying to find her game and her confidence. Today I think she found those two things.”
Stepanova’s 20 kills is tied for the second-most this season by a Seminole, trailing only Djurdjevic’s 21 kills against Boston College last weekend.
Senior outside hitter Stephanie Neville turned in another impressive performance, totaling 16 kills, a .429 hitting percentage and five blocks. The Cambridge, Ontario, native had only one error in 35 total attacks, and has posted double-digit kills in her last three matches.
Senior Jenna Romanelli reached a milestone in her fulfilling career, becoming the 10th player in school history to record 1,000 career digs when she dug a ball in the fourth set that was set by Patricia Figueiredo and killed by Neville. Romanelli finished with a season-high 26 digs, and now has 1,008 for her career.
Playing a vital role in today’s victory was freshman middle blocker Ashley Neff. The Kennesaw, Ga., native broke out with nine kills, a .438 hitting percentage and tied fellow middle blocker Lauren Young for the team lead with six blocks. Also contributing well was sophomore Fatma Yildirim, who had nine kills and eight digs.
“Physically and emotionally we had so many different adversities,” Poole added. “Sometimes you’ll have a player out with an ankle or some other injury. We’re dealing with a death for someone on our team as well as other people with injuries. It’s like we’re being hit all at once. I don’t think I’ve ever had a win of this magnitude when battling so much adversity.”
The fifth set swung in the favor of both teams at different instances. FSU held a 3-2 lead on a kill by Stepanova, but Duke came back with three consecutive points, highlighted by back-to-back blocks to take a 5-3 lead. Yildirim and Stepanova responded with kills to tie the set, but Duke would eventually take a 9-7 advantage on a kill by Christiana Gray.
After Duke took a 12-10 lead on one of Sophia Dunworth’s 22 kills, FSU called a much-needed timeout. The intermission ignited a rally as Stepanova and Yildirim recorded consecutive kills, and a crucial block by Neville and Neff gave the Seminoles their first lead since early in the set. Becci Burling’s kill tied the match at 13-13, but a Neville kill and an exciting match-ending block by Neff and Yildirim gave the Seminoles the win.
FSU’s win marks its third straight victory over Duke, tying for its longest streak in the all-time series. Both wins in 2009 also came in five-set thrillers. The victory gives FSU its best RPI win of the season thus far, as the Blue Devils (17-4, 9-2) came in with the seventh-best RPI in the nation. The Seminoles now boast five Top-50 RPI wins this season, according to the latest ratings.
“Everyone played uptight Friday,” Poole said about his short-handed team’s Friday night loss to Wake Forest. “Each individual was trying to make up for Visnja. Instead of each individual making up for her, I wanted each one to try to do a little something better for the team. Today each player contributed and that is why we got the win.”
Following the 10-minute intermission after the second set, FSU rode the offense of Neville and Stepanova in attempting to come back from two sets down. Neville recorded six kills in the frame, while Stepanova had five as FSU jumped out to a 12-6 lead on a kill by Neff. The Seminoles were able to combat Duke’s rally, as Young and Stepanova recorded a crucial block late in the set to make it 23-19. Following another kill by Neville, Burling had an attack error to end the set.
The fourth set started off like the first two, with Duke taking a quick 5-2 advantage. FSU then ran off four consecutive points that were highlighted by kills from Neff and Neville. The set featured several lead changes, but the turning point came when FSU won five consecutive points to break a tie and take a 20-15 lead. Young then stepped up with back-to-back kills to give the Seminoles a 22-16 lead, and a service error by Nailah Waterfield tied the match at 2-2.
FSU’s hitters were given plenty to work with today by setters Duygu Duzceler and Figueiredo. Duzceler had 28 assists and 12 digs for her third double-double of the year, while Figueiredo added 24 assists and seven digs.
The Seminoles begin a crucial four-match road trip, beginning with two matches next weekend at Virginia Tech and Virginia. FSU takes on the Hokies on Friday, Oct. 29, and plays the Cavaliers on Sunday, Oct. 31.
FSU begins next weekend in a tie with Georgia Tech for third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings. Both Duke and North Carolina are two matches ahead with 9-2 conference records.