By Dean “The Sportsman” Greenaway
Sharonda Pickering and the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles, upset rivals University of Central Florida Knights while handing them their first home loss of the season in Orlando, Florida, during a stunning five set victory in the first round of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament on November 29.
It was the Eagles’ first appearance in the tournament in program history, earning the right after winning their first Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament title and their first ASUN regular season crown since 2012.
Pickering, a middle blocker who was moved to outside right early in the season after a teammate’s injury, had five kills and four blocks in the Eagles’ 17-25, 25-22, 25-23, 14-25 and 15-7 triumph over the 16thseeded Knights.
The victory, the Eagles first over a ranked opponent, also marked the first ASUN team since 2013 to win an NCAA Tournament game.
Pickering told Island Sun Sports that they challenged the Eagles twice this season and lost both times.
“Going into the match, we were really excited because we were familiar with them and I think that helped with the nerves and actually playing on the NCAA platform itself,” Pickering, a Senior said. “The Knights are a very competitive team and took us to five sets which was expected. But, we really had to push hard to play against them and that’s what the NCAA is about, playing the best of the best teams. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but it was exciting taking one away from them.”
On Friday, the Eagles fell to the No. 13 Florida Gators in straight sets, 25-17, 25-13 and 25-17, to end their record breaking season a 27-7, including a school record 16 games winning streak. Pickering finished with six kills and a block.
“That game was a bit of a challenge for us. Florida is a really tall team and that put a lot of pressure on us as well to be able to play at such a high level, competitiveness and height as well in itself,” the Eagles senior noted. “Florida is also the runners up from the last NCAA Tournament so we knew we had to play our best volleyball to be able to compete with them.”
She ended the season ranked No 3 in the NCAA in hitting with a .419 hitting percentage to break Carla Zeigler’s 2007 single season mark of .417. She finished just shy of Zeigler’s .403 career mark with .399. She ended her Eagles career at No 11 in block assists with 168 and No 7 in blocks per set with 1.05. Picketing is tied at No 6 in solo blocks in a game with four. She’s No 9 in blocks in three sets, with eight.
The 6’2″ Pickering began her collegiate career with a trip to the National Jr. Colleges Athletics Association Volleyball Tournament as a Hillsborough Community College freshman, where her team won a bronze medal. She described it as an incredible feeling.
“To go to the NJCAA as a freshman, it’s your first year and you really don’t know how to take it all in,” the marketing major said. “Being able to come back in my last year and go to the NCAA was really incredible because then, you appreciate the moment a lot more; you play a lot more competitive teams and it’s really fun to think of how competitive it is at both stages of the game, as a freshman and still as a Sr.”
Asked to reflect on her collegiate career, Pickering said she thinks about how hard it was for her starting off. Games were at a faster pace than she was accustomed to and by her senior year it had slowed a little and she has made many strides over the four years. Just after the start of her senior year, she moved from middle blocker to outside hitter and how different that was but she quickly adapted to that position and was able to help her team push to new heights, It was remarkable to basically start her career with the NJCAA Tournament and end it with the NCAA Tournament.
“I was First Team for ASUN, won the ASUN Championships and we were able to play in two rounds of the NCAA Tournament—that’s something rare—not a lot of people in their volleyball career can say that,” Pickering said. “I’m really proud of myself and I’m really proud of our team and what we accomplished this season.”