Illinois' Colleen Ward faces her past in Florida
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Two years ago, despite two seasons of notable success, Colleen Ward left the Florida Gators' volleyball team, returning to her home state by transferring to the University of Illinois.
Now she's back in Florida's O'Connell Center. Funny how things sometimes work out.
Ward and the Gators, together again -- only this time on opposite sides of the net.
After the No. 7 Illini defeated Ohio State 3-1 and the No. 17 Gators dropped 22nd-ranked Michigan 3-0 on Friday night in the NCAA Gainesville Regional semifinals, the two winners will meet Saturday night to see which one will advance into next week's San Antonio Final Four.
"I don't care who we play, just as long as we do," Ward said shortly after returning to her old campus.
Illinois, which defeated unranked Ohio State in both their Big 10 regular-season matches, made it happen, completing a sweep of the Buckeyes with scores of 23-25, 26-24, 25-23 and 25-19.
"It was not one of our best games, but I'm proud of them for finding a way to win," Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said. "We talk about that a lot. We're not always going to be at our best; you just have to be the best you can be on this given night.
"I'm proud of the effort tonight. I'm proud they persevered."
The 30-4 Illini, who held the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history earlier in the season, appeared shaky at times, suffering 19 errors and converting on only 23 percent of their shots, but prevailed over the 21-15 Buckeyes with superior talent.
"We made more errors that we have in the last three weeks," Hambly said. "Our blocking was a bit sloppy. We didn't serve as tough as we normally do. Everything was just a little out of sync.
"I think they were nervous. It was a big match. It is the NCAA tournament, and they looked jittery. It showed up in our play because we made errors that are uncharacteristic of this team. We're going to have to play better tomorrow."
Ward, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, led the Illini with 14.5 points, including 13 kills. Teammate Michelle Bartsch, a 6-3 hitter on the other side, added 12 points with 11 kills.
Florida then did its part to set up an intriguing storyline, taking out the Wolverines 25-21, 25-13, 27-25.
In four all-time meetings against Florida, Michigan has yet to win a set.
While Illinois was a bit out of sync, Florida was never better -- with a statistic to prove it.
The Gators' .439 shot conversion was the highest in school history in regional play.
"We said our team had to play its very best, and well, no Gator team has had an offense at that level," Florida coach Mary Wise said.
Florida All-American Kelly Murphy and fellow senior Kristy Jaeckel were crazy good. Murphy produced a triple-double, with 17 kills, 21 assists and 10 digs, converting on .517 of her shots. Jaeckel added 14 kills and eight digs.
"Both Kristy and Kelly continue to be in the zone. It's like the game is moving in slow motion for them in terms of hitting choices."
Now it gets good.
After leaving the Gators, with whom she played on two Sweet 16 teams and earned All-SEC freshman team honors, Ward continued to blossom with the Illini, with two All-Big 10 team selections.
But Florida is now enjoying its 21st straight season with 20 or more wins.
Asked why she decided to leave Florida, Ward was somewhat noncommittal.
"I was just looking for the right program, and I got lucky at Illinois finding what I was looking for," she said.
Her answer to the obvious question was delivered with anti-inflammatory deftness, as politely as possible. Yet it is easy to assume there will be some unspoken passion burning hot on both sides when the two teams meet. Consider Ward's words on the same subject of her transfer, spoken much earlier this year to suburban Chicago's Daily Herald.
"It's a different culture here," Ward said. "We have meetings every week and we talk about core values and certain standards that we want to keep. Every two weeks we meet with coaches and talk about school and social life -- we catch up. It's not just about winning here."
On Saturday, it will be.
For only the second time in Wise's 21 seasons, the Gators failed to earn a tournament seed, but they now are playing at their highest level of the season.
"Being able to free ourselves up to play the way we have in the tournament has been a battle we've struggled with the entire year," Jaeckel said. "But I think we suddenly have found our stride and we are confident with ourselves.
"I think we are playing as confident as we ever have."
Added Murphy: "Agreed."
Interestingly, across the net from Ward will be Murphy, the three-time All-American and 2010 SEC player of the year, who is from Wilmington, Ill., not terribly far from Naperville, where the Illini star grew up.
"Colleen has had a great career with Illinois," Wise said. "It certainly worked out for her."The last thing I told her before she left was I hope I don't have to play against you.
"Yeah, that worked out."