SAINT LEO, Fla. - The Saint Leo University volleyball team kept the fans on the edge of their seat throughout the match, but ultimately it was the big-game experience, and a couple of lucky breaks that fell the way of the visitors, as the 4th-ranked University of Tampa Spartans defeated the 22nd-ranked Lions 3-1 (25-18, 25-23, 27-29, 25-23) in Sunshine State Conference action from a packed Marion Bowman Activities Center on Friday night.
The Spartans (10-1, 1-1 SSC) came out and dominated the opening set as they blistered the tape with a .417 attack percentage. The Lions, who were held to a lowly .143 hitting percentage, could not stop the twin attacks from senior Danielle MacDonald and sophomore Melissa Vanderhall as each had four huge kills to send the momentum swinging the way of the Spartans.
Game two saw the Lions (12-1, 0-2 SSC) regroup and squash the Spartan attack as Tampa hit just .061 committing 11 attack errors, but the problems behind the service line crept up and bit SLU again as five Lion serves sailed wide of their mark. With the score close as it headed into the 20’s, it was the lucky bounces and wild plays that went the visitors’ way that ultimately gave the second game to Tampa.
It all came together in that third game for Saint Leo as the 500-plus white-clad fans in attendance helped the Lions earn the victory as they out-hit and out-blocked the one-time national champions. The Lions managed to rally twice in the waning moments of the game, once when it looked like Tampa was going to get the match victory, to thrill the crowd with some amazing kills. The most memorable attacks came back-to-back when sophomore Kaitlin McKenna unloaded on two Michelle Nogueras sets to take the score from 27-26 in Tampa’s favor, to 28-27 with Saint Leo on the brink. A Jenna Jordan block would send the fans into a frenzy and the match into a fourth game.
The fourth game was another nail-biter that saw each team nearly trade side-outs until the 20th point. With UT up 20-18, sophomore Kim Nuckols toed the back line and proceeded to rattle off three straight points with kills from McKenna, Jordan, and even an attack from Nogueras to put SLU up 21-20. The Lions and Spartans traded side-outs until the set was knotted at 22, when two kills by Vanderhall and an attacking error from the Lions sent the visitors home with the win.
In the loss the Lions saw three players hit double-digits in kills as Jordan posted 14 and McKenna, teamed with sophomore Leah Perry each had 11. It was Jordan who had another tremendous night as she coupled her kills with 16 digs for the Lions’ only double-double.
The blocking presence of Saint Leo also played a big role in keeping the match close as SLU managed 15 total team blocks compared to Tampa’s eight.
The Lions nearly out-hit the visitors as SLU posted a .206 percent attack accuracy and Tampa hit .217; but it was Vanderhall, who had 19 kills and 10 digs, combined with MacDonald’s 15 kills that kept Tampa on the winning side of the scoreboard.
There is not much rest for the weary as the Lions will regroup from this tough game and travel to St. Petersburg where they will face 5th-ranked West Texas A&M University at the McArthur Center on the campus of Eckerd College. The match is set to get underway at 1:00 p.m.