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Volleyball caps dream season with final four appearance

Mar 22, 2010
by Devon Jeffreys, '08

A thrilling 2009 season that featured a 29-match winning streak took the Flagler College volleyball team many places over the course of the year.

It was only fitting that such a magical run ended with the team in St. Paul, Minn., site of the NCAA Division II Volleyball Championship, making angels in the snow.

“The experience in itself was unbelievable,” Flagler volleyball coach Taylor Mott said. “That was one of the things that we tried to remind the girls to just enjoy every second of the experience. Whatever happens when we get there, enjoy every moment.”

Snow blanketed the ground outside the national quarterfinals site before the Saints were scheduled to play their Elite Eight matchup with Dowling University. Just as their coach had advised, the players, many of whom were born and raised in Florida, decided to soak it all in.

“That made the trip 10 times better to even have that experience,” senior Katie Beale said. The significance of such a milestone wasn’t lost on their coach.

“The surreal experience was just another chapter in what easily became the most memorable season, not in just Flagler College Volleyball history, but possibly in the history of Flagler College Athletics,” Mott said.

In just its second year competing in the NCAA, the Saints beat out many teams who have been in Division II for a long time without any of their teams advancing to or winning a regional.

“I definitely think we put Flagler on the map, and that’s a good thing for all of our teams,” she said.

To get to Minnesota, Flagler volleyball won both the Peach Belt Conference regular season and conference tournament titles in their first Peach Belt season, an unprecedented feat in itself. Then they bulldozed through the regional tournament, dropping just four sets in three matches and knocking off host Wingate in the final to advance to the quarterfinals.

“When we won regionals, it didn’t click for a lot of us for a while,” senior outside hitter Justine Burkhardt said. “On the bus ride back I remember just asking ‘Did that really just happen?’ It seemed like it all happened pretty fast and it just seemed so surreal.”

The win sent them to the national tournament, and after their adventures in the snow, Flagler dispatched Dowling in one of their best matches of the year, with a 3-0 sweep.

“We had a lot to prove,” Burkhardt said. “We were never ranked during the season, and we had played and beaten teams that were ranked, too. To beat Dowling once we were there, we all just played incredible. … That’s probably one of the best games we played all season. Everyone was doing their job so well that it made everyone else’s job that much easier.”

The victory sent Flagler to the final four, where they went on to lose their matchup with West Texas A&M, snapping a 29-match winning streak that began on Sept. 19 in Greenwood, S.C., with a victory over PBC rival Lander. The streak broke the Flagler record of 22, spanned 76 days and also tied a Peach Belt Conference record.

The team was motivated purely by the ability to play for a championship. Since joining NCAA Division II three years ago and before joining the Peach Belt, Flagler was ineligible for post-season play no matter how successful their season had been.

Our drive to make it as far as we could in our senior year really motivated the younger girls to help us,” Beale said. “We had so much fun playing together. That’s what kept our winning streak going. That’s what kept us going into the final four. I can’t imagine my senior year going any better.”

On top of the team accomplishments, the Saints received plenty of individual accolades as well. Mott was named Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year. Beale was named to the NCAA Division II All-Southeast Region first team while Burkhardt and junior Meg Weathersby received second team honors.

Burkhardt also made the PBC All-Academic second team and shattered the Flagler College career records for sets played (545), kills (1881), attempts (5,573) and digs (1,676). It proved to be a truly unforgettable senior season for the St. Augustine native.

“Throughout the entire season — every practice, every game — I was just trying to soak it up as much as possible,” Burkhardt said. “It couldn’t have worked out any better. I guess you could say it was bittersweet. All of the games up to that we had all played so well and I don’t know that we all really clicked that last game. … But I’m not disappointed with how it ended. For us to get that far was absolutely incredible in itself.”

For Mott it was fulfilling to see her team’s constant drive reap the rewards they deserved.

“I don’t know that this season could have been any more rewarding and not so much because of the winning and all of that. That is a byproduct,” she said. “The most rewarding thing is seeing all the hard work pay off for a group of girls that didn’t know if we would ever be in a conference or even when we would be active Division II.”

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