Black and gold were the only remaining colors after the final buzzer sounded Saturday night as the UCF volleyball team was crowned champions of the 2015 Holiday Inn Orlando East UCF Area Invitational.
The Knights, who began the season ranked No. 1 in The American Athletic Conference preseason poll, opened their 2015 campaign by hosting the two-day, four-team tournament, which included Delaware, Northern Colorado and Southern Illinois.
Although the Knights went 2-1 and ultimately took the title, head coach Todd Dagenais said the tournament was a stepping stone, but the team has yet to find itself and will keep working toward that goal.
UCF kicked off the tournament against Northern Colorado on Friday, sweeping the Bears, 3-0, behind a performance from junior Kia Bright. She shined as she dominated the stat sheet, posting a match-high 17 kills and one ace.
“[Northern Colorado] is a very tough team to play. That was a really an important win for us,” Dagenais said after the team’s tournament win.
The Knights dropped their second matchup on Friday to Delaware, 3-2. The Blue Hens took the opening set, 27-25, but UCF came storming back in the second and third sets to take a 2-1 lead. The rally wasn’t enough as Delaware won the final two sets.
Kia Bright, Abbie Fleener, Taylor Gallart and Taylor Wickey all had big games, each notching in the double-digits in kills, but their efforts weren’t enough to offset the performance by Delaware’s Autumn Jenkins, who posted 18 kills.
“[Delaware] changes the point of attack so much and our players just aren’t used to that,” Dagenais said. “Having players run in three different spots, and we haven’t even practiced communicating that, and so they were able to catch us.”
The Knights no longer controlled their own destiny after the loss and needed Northern Colorado to beat Delaware on Saturday to make the championship game. Luckily for them, that happened.
UCF faced Southern Illinois in the championship game Saturday night. The Salukis came in with a 2-0 tournament record, but couldn’t manage to outlast the Knights as they fell 3-2.
The Knights came out red hot, taking a 2-0 lead, but let their foot off the gas as the Salukis bounced back by winning the third and fourth sets. Bright, Gallart and Fleener each had 15-plus kills on the day, but Gallart stood above the rest in the fifth set, scoring five huge points that had her teammates fired up about post-game.
“The MVP of the fifth set was Taylor Gallart,” Fleener said. “She killed it in the fifth set. And I think players coming in and taking big swings like that is exactly what we needed. No one was afraid and that’s what it takes to win the fifth set.”
The crowd’s energy was also a factor as it was felt throughout each Knight on the court.
“At times where we couldn’t find the energy from ourselves or the bench, it was just look into the crowd and they really stayed with us the whole way, which is really great,” Bright said.
Freshman Jordan Pingel was named MVP of the tournament while Bright and Wickey were named to the all-tournament team.
With eight freshmen on the team, it may take time before everyone begins communicating fully and getting used to playing with one another, but Dagenais was pleased with what he saw during the team’s opening weekend and believes they will only get better.
UCF’s next matches will be at the University of Nebraska-Omaha Invitational on Sept. 4 and Sept. 5. The Knights don’t play at home again until Sept. 25 when they open up conference play against UConn.
Jimmy Calhoun is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.