Surprise Seminoles learn from past experience
After an NCAA tournament volleyball match, usually it's the players on the losing team who cry. That's the image Sareea Freeman carried from 2009, after Florida State's dream season ended with a four-set loss at Minnesota in an NCAA regional final.
Freeman, then a freshman, did not play against the Gophers. But she remembered the anguish on the faces of seniors Mira Djuric, Brianna Barry, Nikki Baker and Jordana Price, who carried the Seminoles to the threshold of their first national semifinals, only to see the most successful season in school history end one victory short.
"It was a huge letdown," Freeman said. "I felt that team left itself down. We didn't play to our potential."
That's why Freeman was so emotional Saturday night after the Seminoles accomplished what the 2009 team could not -- becoming the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to reach the national semifinals. Urged on by coach Chris Poole, Freeman, a 6-foot-4 junior middle blocker, accounted for three straight points in the deciding fifth set. That lifted the Noles past fourth-seeded Iowa State 25-21, 23-25, 25-20, 19-25, 15-11.
Players squealed with joy and hugged on the court in the first moments of victory. By the time Freeman reached the interview room with Poole and teammate Jekaterina Stepanova, the outside hitter who was named the tournament's most outstanding player, Freeman's thoughts turned to her former teammates. She blinked repeatedly to prevent tears from streaming down her cheeks.
"I was definitely thinking about the seniors in that '09 year, and they're all supporting me," Freeman said. "They're all calling me, texting me, staying in touch, [saying] just go after it, go hard, play hard.
"Just having that type of support makes you feel like we can do this and gives you the type of confidence that drives a team. That was the core of that team, and I just feel like that helped us so much, especially in this match."
The 12th-seeded Seminoles, the lowest-seeded team ever to reach the national semifinals, will be decided underdogs against No. 9 seed UCLA on Thursday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio. But so what? Florida State wasn't supposed to beat higher-seeded Purdue and Iowa State in Minneapolis either.
The Seminoles did because Freeman and two other holdovers from 2009 -- Rachael Morgan and Duygu Duzceler -- learned from their regional final disappointment. Poole thought the players on that team let the boisterous Sports Pavilion crowd of 2,899 get to them. A 25-20 first-set loss beget a second-set fiasco, 25-7, the most lopsided score of that season. Down two sets for the first time all year, Florida State could not recover.
"I think we panicked a little two years ago because it was our first experience," Poole said. "We went from being in the NCAA tournament one time in 10 years to suddenly finding ourselves in the Elite Eight. It happened so fast that I think they panicked when they got here and were being pushed. And what a great crowd Minnesota has here. So I think we were fighting everything.
"The returning players learned from that. They learned not to panic. We kept our heads into it."
Florida State showed that Friday when Purdue jumped to a 21-13 lead in the first set. Remaining poised, the Seminoles rallied with a 12-2 run to win the set 25-23. Purdue took the second set, but Florida State won the third and closed out the match with a 10-2 run in the fourth set.
"That's the maturity thing of going to the postseason a few years in a row, [as opposed] to being there the first time," Poole said. "You mature as a player, and your leaders have to mature."
Poole's arrival in Tallahassee from Arkansas in 2008 lifted the Seminoles program. His 2009 team set a school record with 31 victories while winning its first ACC title and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Last year Florida State overcame injuries to again qualify for the tournament, giving the school its first consecutive appearances since 1997-98. But in the second round, the Seminoles blew a 13-9 lead in the final set and lost to Florida in Gainesville.
Saturday night, Iowa State showed up in force, with the pep band, cheerleaders, mascot Cy and hundreds of fans making the three-hour trip up I-35 to the Sports Pavilion. With Cyclone faithful in the crowd of 2,000 grunting "Boom!" whenever Caitlin Mahoney jump-served, it sounded like a Cyclones home match.
That didn't rattle the Seminoles. Early in the fifth set, with his team down 4-1, Poole called timeout and repeated a message to Freeman he had been telling her all season: Play big. Preferably now.
"Sareea and I talked before the year," Poole said. "I said, 'Sareea, it's time to step up. You can no longer be a role player.' Particularly the last half of the season, she stepped up in a lot of games.
"Right before she had that three-point run, I looked at her during a timeout and said, 'Sareea, I need you to step up now. I need you to take over in the game.' She was having her success, but we knew we needed to feed her because that's where we were having the most success, going out of the middle."
It took a few points for Freeman to get going. Trailing 8-6, Florida State trimmed the lead to one and regained serve on Kristen Hahn's service error. Freeman blocked Jamie Straube's kill attempt to tie it, pounded a set from Sarah Wickstrom for the lead, and after an Iowa State timeout, teamed with Elise Walch to block a Carly Jenson attack to make it 10-8 Seminoles.
Still leading 11-10, Freeman and Morgan skied to block Victoria Hurtt, Iowa State's most productive hitter. By night's end, Freeman had a hand in 10 of the Seminoles' 16 blocks, along with 12 kills on .500 hitting.
"I was just thinking, we've got to get this next point, we've got to get this next point," Freeman said. "I knew that if I stepped up, my team would step up and that we would take it. I was just focused, and I needed a block to start us off."
And finish a task two years in the making.
"There's no way to put it into words," Stepanova said.