The Florida Gators had high expectations as a team that started the year around the top 10 in many different polls, but not nearly as high as things got after the first week of the non-conference slate. They earned a pair of victories over Nebraska and Texas to soar near the top of the rankings where they would remain all season. That carried into SEC play, when they were tripped up just once to Kentucky, but still earned a share of the SEC title.
So far they’ve kept things rolling through the NCAA Tournament, but needed a scare to get by USC in the Elite Eight. The result is that the Gators are in their first Final Four since 2003. They’ve got a phenomenal senior class who wants more than just an appearance though, with their first match coming against Stanford.
FINAL FOUR HISTORY
As previously mentioned, this is the Gators first Final Four since 2003, when they finished as the National Runner-Up to USC – making it fitting that’s who they downed this year to reach the National Semifinals.
In total, this is now the eighth all-time appearance for Florida in the Final Four, as they had a stretch from 1992-2003 when they made the previous seven, including three straight from 1996-1998.
However, the title has alluded them. In fact, they’ve only gotten through to the title match once in 2003. Still, they are tied for eighth in the NCAA in total Final Four appearances now.
IN A NUTSHELL
Florida immediately made their presence felt on the 2017 season with two top five wins over Texas and Nebraska to open the season. That pushed the Gators way up the rankings where they stayed for the entire year.
Overall, the winning streak for Florida extended to 14 matches – and may have been more if not for three cancelled matches due to hurricanes. Finally, they ran into Kentucky and were upended in four sets at home. Sure enough though, they would get their revenge a few weeks later with a sweep in Lexington. That allowed them to earn a share of the SEC title with just one loss on the year.
Including the NCAA Tournament, Florida’s best RPI wins came over Kentucky (3), Texas (4), Nebraska (5), USC (11), UCLA (17), Miami (FL) (33), Missouri (34, twice), Florida State (43), LSU (45) and NC State (49). That gives them a 11-1 record against RPI top 50 opponents.
The Gators also won 16 matches in sweep fashion and needed just three matches to go to five sets, with the last coming in the Elite Eight.
Florida is riding a 15 match winning streak right now and is undefeated on neutral and road courts.
The Gators ranked in the top three in the SEC in every team statistic and are in second in the country in opponent hitting percentage (.136) while ranking sixth in the nation in blocks per set (3.01). They also come in at 12th in offensive hitting percentage (.286).
That offense features plenty of balance, with four Gators over 270 total kills on the season. Second-team All-American Carli Snyder leads the way (3.44 kills per set) while hitting .231 to go with her team-high 53 aces (0.50 per set) and 3.31 digs per set (second on the team). They’ve got plenty of other All-Americans too, led by First-team middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan who leads the Gators and the nation in blocks per set (1.75) to go with her 2.69 kills per set on a .399 mark. Shainah Joseph also joined Snyder on the second team after notching 2.55 kills per set on a .366 clip. 6’8″ middle blocker Rachael Kramer made the third-team and ranks second in kills per set (2.75) and third in blocks per set (1.06) while owning the best hitting percentage (.429).
Florida runs a 6-2 offense with Allie Monserez (7.47 assists per set, 2.23 digs per set) and Cheyenne Huskey (4.27 assists per set, 1.10 blocks per set) playing the roles of setter. They each work perfectly off each other in that 6-2 (where both play three rotations) because Monserez is the superior back row defender while Huskey has shown a strong affinity to blocking and may be the top blocking setter in the country.
The final player with All-America honors for Florida was Caroline Knop, who paces the defense in the back row as the libero. She is averaging 4.53 digs per set and has 14 aces on the year.
THE TOURNAMENT THUS FAR
Florida was the beneficiary of the NCAA Tournament’s new hosting system as they were awarded a top four seed, allowing them to host all the way to the Final Four. The Gators had plenty of challenges along the path through Gainesville, Florida at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center/Exactech Arena, as they saw the only bracket with all four seeded teams making the Regionals.
The Gator’s opening opponent, Alabama State, was mismatched to Florida, as UF earned a quick sweep on the day. That pushed them to a second round meeting with in-state opponent Miami (FL), who the Gators disposed of in four. UF hit .446 in their first match followed by .366 against Miami (FL) and also posted 16 aces in the two matches combined. Joseph led the way in kills for both matches with nine and 19 respectively.
The Regional Semifinals had Florida hosting #15 UCLA, and early on it was the Bruins striking with the first set win. Florida turned things around to win in four behind 14 team blocks, holding UCLA to a .124 mark and hitting .282 behind 18 Snyder kills. That brought on the Bruins’ crosstown foe USC in a match that Florida fell behind 2-1 in sets. The Trojans even had match point in the fourth and a 9-5 lead in the fifth, but Florida fought it off with a late surge from Snyder and Joseph putting together 15 kills on an efficient clip.
Through the difficult path, Florida is the only team who made the Final Four that had to defeat two seeded teams as Stanford and Nebraska took down one while Penn State didn’t face any.
ON THE HONOR ROLL
The Gators put four players on the top three All-American teams with a fifth garnering honorable mention consideration in Knop. Their lone first teamer, Alhassan, earns All-American honors for the fourth time in her career, while no one else reached the top three teams in previous years.
In the SEC awards, Alhassan won Player of the Year with head coach Mary Wise splitting Coach of the Year honors. Alhassan, Joseph, Knop, Kramer and Snyder all made the All-SEC team as well.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Head coach Mary Wise
“We understand at this level and this point in the tournament the talent level is the best in the country. We think back to our previous trips, some of them before these guys were born. We played players that went on to be Olympians and be named some of the best players in the history of NCAA Volleyball. We see Kathryn Plummer as being that type of player.
We understand how talented the team is, and only slightly older than they were a year before when they played and won a National Championship. So we recognize the challenge, but we embrace the challenge. That is what this group has done all along. In each step of the way they have not tried to just advance. They’ve tried to thrive and advance.”
“This entire year has been a product of their — not just their talents, but their investment level, and their attention to detail, the beginner’s mind of trying to come in every day to get better, of team first. If you were to write a recipe for the consummate senior class, this would be the group. I think you could coach — I could coach 30 more years — nobody count — and never have a class like this. Again, it’s not just the talent, it’s the character.”
“I think back to those two matches against Kentucky, and we have referenced their players multiple times during their first four matches. Or, it could be the Missouri block or Auburn’s defense, that for so many of the talented players in the league that helped us get to this point. It may not get the recognition. Certainly Kentucky did, but they earned that right.
Craig and I were exchanging text messages, being each other’s — one of the bigger cheerleaders because we would love to see both teams advance. But congratulations Kentucky for a phenomenal year with so many of those players coming back next year.”
“The margin of error to advance is so minute. We were one point, one point away from not being here today in that USC match. But a year ago, we were two points away from advancing to the regional. Just at that point we are playing so many good players, and those were some pretty elite players both at UCLA and USC.
There were gut-check moments, 1-1 against UCLA. Down 2-1 against USC and 9-5 in the fifth. There were really stressful moments against great teams. Didn’t feel either team lost that match as much as we won that match. We were able to make the plays at that time.
The challenge now is to do it against a team that is bigger and, again, Kathryn Plummer — now, Khalia Lanier, that’s an All-American as well. So I guess we go to the next All-American, and hope she doesn’t career against us.”
Senior outside hitter Carli Snyder
“We didn’t necessarily talk about what it was like and what to expect before we found out that we were actually coming. But all along this team has had huge goals and we weren’t afraid of saying early in this season, last January when we started working for this moment that this is where we wanted to be this weekend. So all along, this has been something that we’ve talked about openly and wanting to work all season for this weekend right here that we’re at right now.”
Senior libero Caroline Knop
“I think just using like everyday experience, like using those past years as kind of a stepping stone to get to where we are. We know we’ve been to the Elite Eight and lost in the Elite Eight twice, and just figuring out what it is we have to do and how we go about it. Like losing last year in the second round was kind of something that sparked us, and just being so dedicated as an entire team.
Yeah, sure, we’re seniors on the team, but we couldn’t have done everything we did without our underclassmen. They came into our program, and bought in, and wanted to be here and do what we did. It’s a testament to them, and how we managed to get here.”
“I’m not so worried about my hand. I think I am just so happy to be with this senior class and with this team. I’m not focused on my hand, it is what it is. It’s been a little bit of a burden, but we have found ways to work through it and get past it, and I get more and more comfortable every day with the device that I’m using. So that’s a good deal.
But I could not be happier to be here with these two next to me, and our entire team. I think the will of this team is going to take us a long way and has thus far.”