By Eden Otero – OnlyGators.com Contributor
No. 8 Florida Gators volleyball (27-3, 18-0 SEC) has rolled through the 2014 season and found plenty of success, including the 2014 Southeastern Conference Championship. As Florida approaches the Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament and a showdown with the No. 9 Illinois Illini (26-7) on Friday, let’s take a look back at the ups and downs of Gators volleyball this season.
Non-conference play: Head coach Mary Wise set up a purposely tough non-conference schedule to her team prepare for the rigors of the NCAA Tournament. Before league play began, four of the nine opponents the Gators faced were top-20 teams, including USC, San Diego, Texas and Florida State. UF swept both USC and San Diego but lost in five and four sets, respectively, to Florida State and Texas. Wise said that Florida ultimately benefited from the tough slate as the players were given the chance to learn from their mistakes, which hopefully would not be repeated when in the tournament.
SEC schedule: Unfortunately for the Gators, the SEC is simply not as strong or prestigious in volleyball as the Pac-12 or the Big 10, but Florida did get plenty of opportunities to become a more cohesive unit. Freshmen middle back Rhamat Alhassan and outside hitter Carli Snyder emerged as major assets for UF, while junior Mackenzie Dagostino settled in as a replacement for Taylor Brauneis without missing a beat. While the conference wasn’t exactly tough for the Gators – Florida swept 13 of its 18 SEC opponents – the team worked out its kinks and learned how to play together under pressure. In the process, UF went undefeated in the SEC and won the title outright for the first time since 2010.
Before the postseason: It was only one match, but it was the Gators’ most important of the season to that point as Florida squared off with then-No. 6 Texas to complete an inter-season home-and-home. Entering match in Austin, Texas, with a 19-game winning streak, the Gators were rolling and looking to build on their season’s success. Dagostino said it was an all-or-nothing match, and Florida played like it. The Gators wanted to show the progress they made in the time since they first met the Longhorns and did just that while walking away with a hard-fought 3-2 victory. It was a perfect stepping stone for Florida as a final match before the tournament.
2014 NCAA Tournament: UF had no problem dispatching of Alabama State with a sweep in its first-round match on Friday. Saturday was a different story for the Gators, however, as its play brought flashbacks to their mistake-filled non-conference games. After dropping its first set to in-state rival Miami while registering team hitting efficiency of -0.029, Florida rallied back for a 3-1 win. It took big plays by Snyder, who notched a game-changing block, and sophomore right side hitter Alex Holston, who finished the night with 19 kills, to get the Gators back in the flow and looking like a true national title contender.
Up next: Florida and Illinois will meet on Friday in Ames, Iowa, with a match scheduled for 8 p.m. It will not be televised nationally but can be viewed live on ESPN3.com.
Photo Credit: Jordan McPherson/The Alligator