After a promising showing against two bottom-half teams in the SEC last weekend, Mississippi State University faced two top-half teams—the University of South Carolina and the No. 12 University of Florida. It was an opportunity to build on the win and five-set nail-biter the weekend before and prove that the road to getting better would be visible against better opponents.
On Friday, the team lost in straight sets to South Carolina but was able to score more than 20 in every single set. In a press release from the MSU Athletic Department, Darty said the blocking performance by the team was uncharacteristic but was happy with how this did not prevent them from doing a good job playing defense.
“For them to out-block us 6-2, I don’t think that is characteristic of us and what we pride ourselves on,” Darty said. “We are going to have to block more balls and get more positive touches to really hang with people. We out-dug them, and that’s a positive, but our blockers really have to take care of their job before it gets to our back-court defenders.”
Standout performances still ensued from Alleah Stematis, a senior setter from Lexington, Kentucky, who achieved her 11th double-double as well as sophomores Gabby Waden and Deja Robinson, who racked up double-digit kills while hitting above .300. Julie Darty was proud of these three top performers, acknowledging their ability to perform well against a good opponent.
“Alleah had a great night. I thought they were targeting her, picking on her a little bit there in the beginning, and she was bought in and really stuck to it and was digging balls left and right," Darty said. "Waden had a good night. She was pretty efficient up there with only a couple of errors. Getting her 27 swings and for her to lead us in attempts means that we did pass the ball at a pretty decent level.”
Sadly, these performances were not good enough to overcome the Gamecocks in any of the sets, even after MSU led 21-20 in set two.
On Sunday, the Bulldogs faced perennial national power and the SEC-leading Florida Gators. With NFL Quarterback Gardner Minshew watching his freshman sister Callie Minshew, a freshman outside hitter from Brandon, play volleyball for the first time since her freshman year of high school, he served a ceremonial first serve to begin the game against Florida.
Sadly, even with the Gators not playing at their usual level, with the Florida senior libero having three serve-receive errors, the Bulldogs were still simply unable to overcome the power of Thayer Hall, Paige Hammons and Lauren Dooley, who each notched double-digit kills. The Gators hit .402 as a team, leaving little chance for the Bulldogs to squeak by an upset.
Even with the clear beating the Bulldogs received, there were many upsides the Bulldog team can bring into the gym when they practice again. Darty noted the things she was excited about even in defeat.
“Credit to our blockers,” Darty said. “I think it’s huge that we out-blocked Florida, from the service line we did a fantastic job getting them into a little bit of trouble.”
Surprisingly, in the third set, the Bulldogs fought hard and even had a lead of 19-18. However, the Gators’ ability to trust their big hitters and some timely dumps by setter Marlie Monserez allowed for the Gators to pull ahead and complete the sweep. Darty was excited that her team was able to fight so hard in the third set but pointed out the flaw in only playing hard and believing in yourself sometimes.
“We found it a little late in the third set, but I really feel like we have to be the same team when we start matches and when we finish,” Darty said. “I want to challenge our team to execute every part of the game plan.”