by Jeff Laughlin

In the middle of the first set, Wake Forest celebrated an easy score. Ordinarily, these little bursts of joy happen after every point in volleyball, but in this match each one was precious. Wake had reason to yell raucously so early in the match.

They were playing the best team on the East Coast, a team that had yet to lose in 21 games on the season. They faced the Florida State Seminoles, then the 4th ranked team in the country.

So a 13-12 in the first set caused a celebration. As she would for so many of those celebrations, freshman Kylie Long stood in the middle of the high-fiving huddle, accepting her teammates praise. She led the team in overall points and kills, but she played a more important role. When Wake needed confidence, she and Jazmin Russell made the necessary plays to stay competitive.

Wake’s record misled the crowd. They came in 12-10 with a lowly 2-6 conference record. FSU’s sterling stats and superior players should have swept Wake Forest away — the next step to proving they deserved to be one of the four undefeated teams left in the country and the only one not in the PAC-12.

Yet, the two teams looked deadlocked early.

As with most stories of alphas and betas, the alpha asserted dominance. FSU ripped off six straight points, directly causing two Wake timeouts.

Both teams were playing conventionally — safely setting up their best attackers and lulling the other teams into standard blocking schemes, but FSU changed strategy mid-set. They began setting the ball into difficult positions. They had the athletes to strike from anywhere, and so they did. Backwards, cross-court sets littered their playbook. Fake attackers leapt before fading back to their original positions. Spikes landed in perfect spots.

Their attack looked more like rhythmic gymnastics than volleyball.

Wake fell in the first set 25-17 after leading 13-12. During the break, Wake Forest Coach Ken Murczek didn’t look overly animated or upset. He simply shuffled the decks and placed his faith in his best assets.

Murczek moved his players around, subbing in serving specialists like Anna Karlie and used a slew of quick one-sets — low balls meant to be struck quickly — to try and rattle the FSU blockers. In the second set, Wake’s strategy worked perfectly. The service attack kept FSU from effectively getting their offense going and Wake had their best kill percentage of the match.

They also played tougher at the net. They gambled correctly to the side FSU decided to attack, neutralizing Kiara Wright and the Seminoles overpowering size advantage. The Seminoles still got the points they needed to make Wake Forest’s leads diminish throughout the set, but Wake’s ability to scramble and take otherwise lost points aided their 25-18 second-set win.

The teams left the floor and the mini-band played Pharell’s “Happy” as patrons wandered around the building. Poring over the leaflet with team information on it, they learned how young this Wake team is, and how their leader in points on the day was just a freshman. Maybe that feeling of hope reverberating through the building felt put-on in retrospect, but the fever dream of an upset really did look real as the third set started.

The dream crashed early. The break focused Florida State, and they harnessed a balanced, wieldy attack. Wake tried to attack from the middle to open the near and far side of the court, but the Seminoles shut them down.

FSU had enough of the weaker, scrappier team. They dominated in all aspects of the set, rattling off leads of 5 early, 11 later and winning the set handily 25-11. The runs they went on debilitated the Wake Forest youngsters and rattled the Wake veterans.

Coach Murczek ran out of tricks. At the point of attack and all areas behind it, the Demon Deacons had no choice but to rely on talent. Once that failed, they knew the inevitable defeat would come.

Wake put together a wonderful fourth set in a game that no one would call a dominant Florida State performance — at least, no one who went to the game. Fans saw a persistent, young squad with just three seniors among them that would not bow to the pressure of a powerhouse.

Florida State climbed to No. 2 in the rankings on the shoulders of Wake Forest.

When the ball bounced away on the final point, senior Jazmen Russell clapped her hands in exasperation. She and her compatriots had done themselves proud despite a final set 25-22 loss. They gave an amazing team a hell of a run.

After handshakes, Wake’s women gathered around the band and swayed back and forth to their alma mater. Some of them likely did so out of requirement. As their fans nodded respectfully to both teams, I’d like to think they swayed out of celebration.

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