Early in Matt Botsford’s tenure as the coach at Florida Gulf Coast, the volleyball teams there were known primarily for potent offense. It was kind of their version of “Dunk City,” a handle that became associated with FGCU’s men’s basketball team during its run to the NCAA Tournament’s round of 16 in 2013.

Now in his eighth season, Botsford has spent the past couple of years shoring up the Eagles defense. After all, there’s the old saying that defense wins championships.

Now, FGCU is hoping to overcome a frustrating streak of coming close: The Eagles have reached the Atlantic Sun Tournament final the past five seasons — the past three as the ASUN’s regular-season champion — but have reached the NCAA Tournament only once.

That was in 2018. Four players from that team remain — grad students Snowy Burnam and Cortney VanLiew (the ASUN player of the year in 2018 and ’19) and seniors Dana Axner and Chelsey Lockey — and they are determined to change the team’s fortunes.

“They (the seniors) are naturally strong leaders and positive leaders,” Botsford said, “and then you put in the motivation (to go back to NCAAs) and those are the kind of athletes that use that as motivation.

“It’s not something we discuss a lot. I’ve heard a few things here and there that makes me think this is something that’s pushing them. But it’s something that’s pushing them in a positive way.”

FGCU’s Dana Axner/FGCU Athletics

Axner said: “As much as we like to think back on when we did make it to the NCAA Tournament and how much fun it was and how great of an experience it was, we always like to also look forward and just to try to focus on the team we currently have and what we can do with this team.”

What the Eagles have done thus far is post a 19-4 record — with two of the losses coming to ACC teams — and an 11-0 mark in the ASUN. Only one of their ASUN matches has gone more than three sets.

The only team that Florida Gulf Coast has not swept in ASUN play is North Florida, which lost 3-2 to the Eagles on October 2. North Florida visits Fort Myers on Friday for the rematch.

FGCU has a 12-match winning streak — currently the fifth longest in the country — and is two games ahead of second-place North Florida in the standings.

Strong up front

FGCU has built its record on defense, and it starts up front: The Eagles lead the ASUN in blocks per set (3.19). Sophomore Juliana Lentz (1.28), a sophomore from Miami, and junior Aja Jones (1.18), a middle from Venice, Florida, rank first and fourth, respectively, in the conference in blocks per set.

Lockey, the setter from Eaton, Colorado, also has developed into an effective blocker, Botsford said.

Combined with the front line’s other contributors, FGCU ranks eighth in the nation in opponent hitting percentage (.136).

Behind them, Axner, from Dublin, Ohio, leads the conference in digs per set (4.79) from her libero spot. With 1,818 digs for her career, Axner is on pace to set the program mark for digs. It is Axner, Botsford said, who has been the catalyst for the defense.

Her boundless energy and willingness to go after every ball, he said, has been contagious.

“I’ve been at this a long time at a lot of different levels, and I have not coached a player that is innately competitive like that,” Botsford said of Axner, a two-time ASUN defensive player of the year. “Even if things aren’t always perfect technically, some players just learn to keep the ball off the floor and do whatever is necessary to do that.

“When we have fans that come and don’t have experience in volleyball … every single time they come to me, it is a conversation regarding her. It doesn’t take someone who knows the game to recognize the way she does that is special.”

Of course, the Eagles still can play offense, too.

Junior Erin Shomaker, an outside from Granville, Ohio, leads the attack. During the truncated 2020 season —  FGCU played only 17 matches overall and 12 in conference — Shomaker was voted the ASUN player of the year and was a VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American.

Last spring, she posted a whopping 4.75 kills per set while hitting .302. And Shomaker has picked up where she left off, leading the ASUN at 3.76 kills per set while hitting .277.

“Erin is one of the top outside hitters, I think, in the country,” Botsford said. “I think she could play at any level with her size and physicality.”

Shomaker has helped the Eagles rank second in the ASUN with 13.69 kills per set. Perhaps more important than the volume of kills is the efficiency with which FGCU is accumulating them. In ASUN play, they are hitting .293, tops in the league.

Shomaker has plenty of help in the attack. Five other players are averaging at least 1.68 kills per set. Right side Skylar English, a freshman from Naples, Florida, is among them (1.84), and, Botsford said, she continues to improve her efficiency as she gains more college experience.

“I think Skylar plays a big role and does really well,” Shomaker said. “She’s always calm and collected.”

Lockey, the reigning ASUN setter of the year, makes the offense go, averaging 10.44 assists per set, second in the conference. She ranks third all-time in the program’s Division I era, which began in 2007, with more than 3,100 career assists.

Falling a little short

The pieces all seem to be in place: strong, efficient hitting; formidable blocking; relentless back row. It remains to be seen if all of it translates into an NCAA Tournament berth.

If the subject of falling short of the “big dance” is a sensitive one with those around the program, it’s easy to see why.

In 2016, FGCU finished third in the conference but made it to the tournament final before losing 3-1 to Lipscomb.

In 2017, the Eagles again finished third in the ASUN and again reached the tournament final but lost 3-0 to Kennesaw State.

The next year was the breakthrough for Botsford and his team. The Eagles won the conference, took the tournament title and went to the NCAA Tournament. There, they upset 13th-seeded UCF 3-2 in the opening round.

Then-sophomores VanLiew and Burnam and then-freshmen Axner and Lockey played prominent roles in that match. And even though the Eagles were ousted by Florida in the second round, it appeared that the foundation was in place for FGCU to become an NCAA regular.

But the past two seasons, the top-seeded Eagles were upset in the conference tournament — by Kennesaw State in 2019 and by Lipscomb last season. Both were by 3-2 margins.

“That’s a topic of conversation a lot,” Shomaker admitted. “We have been so close so many times. We can do it, and we all know it. We just have to execute when it’s on the line.

“I think sometimes the only thing would be nerves. But that’s bound to happen in a game like that. We just need to execute through that.”

Axner added: “I really do think everything happens for a reason, no matter how cheesy that sounds. I like to look at all the positives. Even though we have lost in the championship in the fifth set for two years in a row now, they were both great seasons.

“But it motivates you even more when you lose like that. You don’t forget it, but you don’t want to dwell on it.”

Tougher ASUN tests

Should the Eagles clear their conference hurdle, Botsford believes they have the tools to do some damage in the NCAA Tournament. Besides being a better team itself, FGCU, Botsford said, is benefiting from better competition in the ASUN.

“To be honest, probably the best thing is the improved strength of our conference,” he said. “The reality is, I think there are other teams in our conference that could (win matches in the NCAA), too.

“Because of that — what we are competing against and what we have to prepare for — I think it puts us in position that if we do get that opportunity, we’ll be better prepared for it.”

Even if FGCU stumbles in the conference final again, it isn’t outlandish to think it could land an at-large NCAA bid. The Eagles enter Friday’s match at No. 50 in the latest RPI.

But the Eagles would much rather settle matters on the court and not leave their fate in the hands of the selection committee. There seems to be a lot of confidence that they can do it.

“Probably the last four years, we’ve really made a big jump defensively in terms of blocking and floor defense to complement (the offense),” Botsford said. “Which makes us more dangerous on a national scale.

“This year in particular is the best defensive team from net to back line that we’ve had, and couple that with what we’re doing on the offensive side, and it’s a really good combination.”

Shomaker added: “I think that our confidence is growing every time we play and we see glimpses of how good we can be.”

And, who knows? Perhaps a run to the NCAA Tournament and a couple of victories there can earn the volleyball team a catchy nickname to match the men’s basketball team.

Axner said she is loath to try to think of what that might be. The prospect of such success and the resulting accolades, however, are tantalizing.

“I think that would be awesome,” she said. “If it happens, it happens. If we do get a nickname for what we accomplish, that would be crazy. Dunk City has been a name around here, so we’ll see.”

Spike City, anyone?

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