Chris Poole has seen a lot in 36 seasons as a head coach. But even a seasoned sideline boss such as him was taken aback by what Florida State went through this season.
The good news: Florida State is in the NCAA Tournament for the 13th time in the past 14 seasons as the Seminoles (19-10) travel to Minneapolis, where they will face Missouri Valley-champ Northern Iowa (26-7) on Friday. Host Minnesota (20-8), the No. 2 seed in the region, plays Southland-champion Southeastern Louisiana. The winners play Saturday.
The bad news: The Seminoles’ road to the tournament was fraught with potholes. Make that craters.
Because of a spate of injuries, Poole was forced to play 12 different starting lineups. He even used three different setter combinations: a 5-1 and a 6-2 using his Nos. 1 and 2 setters and No. 1 and 3 setters.
A third setter, Melanie Cuervo, who transferred from Division II Lynn University for her final collegiate season, wound up starting three matches between Oct. 2 and 7, all wins.
“She’s going to finish her career 3-0 as a Division I starter,” Poole said.
Poole could chuckle a bit about it now, but his season-long lineup alchemy was no laughing matter.
“That’s not normal for me,” Poole said about the constant — but necessary — lineup changes. “I’m not just one to jerk players in and out of a game. This team never quit. They were not the kind of team to sit on the sidelines and feel sorry for themselves. They kept fighting.”
It was only three weeks ago that every player in Poole’s regular rotation was deemed healthy enough to play without restrictions. Until now, FSU, understandably, had trouble finding a rhythm, but there have been signs. A sweep of Miami, another tournament team, on November 23 showed the Seminoles at their best.
“I think we’re actually feeling really confident right now,” said junior outside hitter Sydney Conley, who is one of the team’s longest-tenured players. “Our last game against Georgia Tech wasn’t the best, but the game before that (Miami) has us really confident in ourselves, and I think we’re just ready to make a good run in the tournament.”
Through it all, five players earned all-ACC honors: Emma Clothier (6-2, senior, MB, Carrollton, Texas), Audrey Koenig (6-3, sophomore, OH, Wesley Chapel, Florida), Khori Louis (6-3, sophomore, MB, Tallahassee) and Emily Ryan (6-4, grad transfer from UCLA, MB, Bethesda, Maryland) were second-teamers. Outside hitter Audrey Rothman (6-4, Birmingham, Alabama) was on the all-freshman team.
Poole called Clothier the glue that held the team together.
“She has been the heart of our program,” he said. “She shared the position middle and right this year … because she runs the slide so well. And so her stats have taken a little bit of a hit because she has taken on a little more responsibility with out-of-system balls. … Clearly one of the best players I have ever had in my career.”
Louis has been a revelation. A late-starter in volleyball while playing basketball through her youth, Louis is just now beginning to realize her potential, Poole said. She averaged 2.14 kills per set while hitting .365 (fourth in the ACC) and contributing 99 total blocks.
She, along with Koenig, have stayed healthy all season to give the lineup some stability. Koenig averages 2.93 kills and 2.29 digs per set. Her digs number stands out because, Poole said, this is her first collegiate season playing in the back row.
Ryan’s contributions have been equal parts tangible (2.13 kills per set, .323, 1.08 blocks per set) and intangible.
“(Emily) came from a great program, obviously,” said Conley, a product of Oviedo, Florida, who averages 1.36 kills per set and has 61 total blocks. “She has a lot of experience, so she was able to just bring some passion to the team, some intensity and a higher level of volleyball that makes everyone want to play better.”
And then there’s Rothman (2.15 kills, 1.96 digs per set), who, Poole said, is one to watch in the future. Her season, not surprisingly, was interrupted by a prolonged injury absence, but she showed plenty when healthy.
“She could be an All-American in the next three years. That’s how good I think this kid is,” Poole said. “She just has amazing potential.”
The setters are healthy, too, and senior UMBC transfer
(5-11, Serbia) and sophomore Ava Pitchford (5-9, Norcross, Ga.) combined to average 10.90 assists.
Some cohesion finally is starting to develop, and the Seminoles hope it has happened in time for a lengthy stay in the bracket. They might have an X-factor working for them, too: The proverbial chip on the shoulder.
Once the toast of the ACC, along with North Carolina, Florida State has given way to the likes of Pitt, Louisville and Georgia Tech at the top of the league. So, Poole said, perhaps his ’Noles can use that underdog perception to their advantage. They finished fifth in the ACC this season, at 11-7 a game behind Miami.
“I think it is where we still feel like we’ve got something to prove,” he said. “I do feel there’s a little bit of an underdog in us right now, and something to prove that we can play better than what our results have shown this year.”
Added Conley: “We still do have a lot of respect … If (people) know volleyball, they know that we’re good and shouldn’t be overlooked in the tournament. But we do have something to prove because when people think about the ACC, they probably just think about those top three teams.
“I think we’re just going to prove them wrong.”
UNI (26-7) was 17-0 in the Missouri Valley before the Panthers lost the regular-season finale at Drake. A week later, UNI turned the table on Drake with a five-set win in the MVC tourney final.
UNI is in the tournament for the 24th time and first since 2019. Junior outside Emily Holterhaus leads with 393 kills and sophomore outside Kira Fallert has 345 and 32 aces. For that matter, UNI has six players with 26 or more aces. That includes 36 by Sydnee Peterson, the libero who transferred from Texas so she could play her senior season under her mom, Bobbi, and twin sister Baylee. Sydnee leads with 526 digs, 4.28/set. Senior middle Carly Spies leads with 132 blocks.
Southeastern Louisiana (25-7) has won five in a row, which includes winning both its matches in the Southland Conference tournament. The Lions were just 9-18 a year ago. This season, they are led by Wichita State transfer Kailin Newsome, a junior outside who has 454 kills (4.17/set) and a team-best 33 aces. Sophomore middle Hannah Brewer has 107 blocks, 22 solo, and junior libero Ansley Tullis averages 3.93 digs.