VOLLEYBALL: Gators clinch share of SEC title

Florida's All-America middle blocker, Sherri Williams, can tell you a few things about life at the net. The senior from Orlando Edgewater is a tower of power and strength which she parlays into a physical, imposing presence on the Gator volleyball team where she is a hard hitter who can take over a game with her timely blocking.

Williams is also all about winning. Counting her redshirt year, she's got four SEC championship rings with the chance for that rare one for the thumb.

The Gators ensured that Williams will have that full set of rings Friday evening with a sweep (30-18, 30-22, 30-18 ) of South Carolina at the O'Connell Center. Florida's win clinched a tie for the Southeastern Conference championship. Coach Mary Wise's Gators (23-2, 15-0 in the SEC) can win the title free and clear Sunday afternoon when they face Tennessee at the O'Dome.

Williams had put together one of her more dominating performances of the season with a season high 10 kills in 15 attacks at the net to go with three blocks. In addition to the three blocks that accounted for points, she continually stifled the South Carolina attack at the net with one deflection after another. By the time the Gators got to match point, the evening turned truly memorable for the 6-2 senior.

Williams has played strictly on the front line all season. When the rotation takes her to the back row, the Gators bring in a defensive/serving specialist, but this time instead of a sub, Wise put the ball in Williams hands to serve.

"That was kind of cool," said Williams, who served the final point of the evening to set off a short celebration by the Gators who knew that they'd clinched at least a share of the conference title. "I didn't expect to be serving, but Mary said you have to stay in there and serve. That it was match point for the conference championship says that she (Mary) trusts me and that says it all right there."

Wise said that having Williams back there to serve made the win special.

"That's something I'll never forget," said the Gator coach. "I'll always remember that on Sherri Williams one and only serve of the year, we clinched the conference championship. What a great way to put a stamp on your senior year!"

Florida was never seriously challenged by the Gamecocks (12-12, 5-10 SEC). The Gators got an 8-0 run in game one with freshman Marcie Hampton serving, got a 7-0 service run with Lauren Moscovic in game two and in game three, Michelle Chatman got an 8-0 service run that included four aces.

"You have to win the serving and passing battle against South Carolina or else they're a lot of trouble," said Wise. "The low number of service errors (five in three games) made this a great serving night and it set the tone for us."

Florida didn't hit for a particularly high percentage (.312), but the Gator defense was outstanding, forcing South Carolina to hit a dismal .067, doubling the Gators in hitting errors, 28-14.

In addition to Williams and Chatman providing an overpowering presence on the front line, Florida got great back line defense from Lauren Moscovic, Hampton and Jane Collymore. The match featured some long rallies for points in all three games, the kind of match that played perfectly to the hustle and intensity of Moscovic who just wouldn't let the ball hit the floor.

"If you talk to Lauren, she'll tell you she's having more fun than she ever had when she was our setter," said Wise of the senior from Stockton, California who was Florida's setter on two Final Four teams. "Now that she's concentrating on her defense and serving without having all the things you have to do when you set, she can use her athleticism to be relentless on the back row. You don't always see it in the stats what she does for us back there, but her play is critical to our success."

Collymore finished the game with 13 kills to lead the Gators while Williams had 10 and Hampton nine. Rachel Engel had a game high 12 digs while Hampton had nine and Collymore eight. Freshman setter Angie McGinnis had a match high 37 assists.

The win gave the Gators 145 straight regular season conference victories and 120 overall conference wins in a row, extending their NCAA records in both areas. To extend the record to 146 Sunday would be special because by beating Tennessee, it would ensure that Florida is the outright SEC champion.

"I want it all," said Williams. "I don't want to have the word co-champions on this ring. I'm selfish when it comes to this and I'm not into sharing."

The Tennessee match will be the Gators third in five days, but Wise isn't worried about her team feeling tired.

"The shape that our players are in, you can't get there overnight," said Wise. "What they did in the summer and all the way back to last January is showing now. They've bought into the nutrition and year-round conditioning. It's all a tribute to our strength and conditioning coach (Matt Delancey). There's no question that he's one of the very best guys in the business.

"We're going to have to be so ready physically Sunday against Tennessee, but I have so much confidence in what Matt does, so I think we'll be ready for the challenge. This is going to be so good for the SEC to have the two best teams in the conference playing for the championship on the last day!"

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