The A-Sun title boiled down to one set.
In the final round UNF lost its first two matches to Stetson giving the team the tall task of winning all three of its second round of matches on March 21 if it wanted to repeat as A-sun champions.
After season long No. 1’s Anna Budinska/Dagnija Medina and No. 2’s Carolyn Jenkins/Cari Whitmire took care of business, the title and the season rested on the shoulders of the No. 3 team — Emily Strack and Anna Wagner.
“One of our strengths is our depth. I knew we had three really strong team,” head coach Steve Loeswick said. “I just kept telling them, ‘It ain’t over yet”’.
The duo lost the first set, but after some timely shots, they were able to grab the second set 21-19.
The deciding set was played on the far end of the sand volleyball courts at Jacksonville University. In order to get a better view both teams lined up against chain-link fence closer to the action.
“My amazing teammates were cheering so dang loud I could barley hear myself think,” senior Emily Strack said. “Amazing teammates. They’re like sisters to me.”
With all the other matches completed, all eyes were on Strack/Wagner and Stetson’s Katie DiGirolamo and Savannah Byl.
Strack and Wagner looked composed under the pressure of the moment and were agressive with thier shot making, leading to a healthy 14-10 lead and a chance to claim the title with one more point.
Stetson received the UNF serve, but a kill attempt by Stetson was turned away by a block by Wagner at the net.
Wagner’s block slid to UNF’s side of the court and the senior, who was celebrating a birthday, bumped the ball back to Strack. The 6-foot senior smacked the ball from a mid-court position directly between the two Stetson defenders.
The placement of the shot caused confusion and the two players collided with each other and the ball carumed out of bounds, giving UNF the win.
The UNF players stormed the court and celebrated another conference title.
“We knew we had it in us. We knew it was our game and we knew we were going to win,” senior Emily Strack said.
“It’s an amazing feeling especially to come back and repeat two years in a row,” senior Paige Pridgeon said.
Day one of the event, which took place on April 20-21, was played in gloomy and wet conditions with temperatures hovering in the upper 50’s.
The tournament started with a big change in the line up.
Due to a back injury sophomore Julie Trembley was forced to sit out Day 1, and due to A-Sun rules, was forced to miss the remainder of the tournament.
Trembley and partner Britt Claessens had been the most successful duo this season for UNF, posting a 16-1 record on the season including 8-0 in conference.
Head coach Steve Loeswick chose to pair Claessens with senior Nicole Baran. Claessens and Baran played together once during the season, a loss against UAB on March 7.
“We figured it would be better to put me in rather than risk [Trembley] hurting [her back] more,” Baran said.
The move paid off initially.
Baran and Claessens won their No. 5 match against FGCU 2-0, and the rest of the team followed suit.
“Britt and I play well together,” Baran said. “I always had the mindset that I was going to be playing, either way, so I was prepared mentally to go.”
In the wind, rain and 50 degree weather, UNF cruised to a 4-1 win over the Eagles.
UNF also got wins from the pairs of Cameron McGuire/Paige Pridgeon (2-0), Anna Budinska/Dagnija Medina (2-0).
More of the same conditions of day one.
Winds were so gusty the tent covering the score keepers was almost whisked away into the nearby St. Johns River.
Stetson and UNF squared off for the first of two meetings this day.
The two teams had met three times earlier in the season with the Ospreys getting the better of the Hatters on all three occasions.
The fourth match-up was no different.
UNF came away with a 4-1 win, placing them in the finals.
After Stetson defeated JU in the semi-finals of the losers bracket, the final meeting — a rematch against Stetson — was set.
UNF finished the season with an overall record of 16-3 and a perfect 8-0 in A-Sun play.
Wagner/Strack and Budinska/Medina each earned a spot of the All-Tournament team.
Loeswick was named Coach of the Year for the Atlantic Sun.
The final win of the season earned UNF an automatic bid to play in the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship.
“To be the first ones to earn an automatic bid, its just really special,” Loeswick said.
The Ospreys will travel to Gulf Shores, Alabama and play their first match May 3.
The teams’ first round match-up will be against the No. 4 seed University of Southern California.
Other teams participating in the tournament include No. 1 seed Pepperdine, No. 2 Long Beach State, No. 3 Florida State and No. 6 Louisiana-Monroe.
“There is going to be some really, really strong teams and we’re excited to get a chance to play against them and represent the A-sun the best we can,” Loeswick said.
The tournament is set up as a double elimination format.