GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – They are chasing four more wins. They don’t want this ride to end any time soon. They want to show that last weekend’s impressive performance – NCAA Tournament wins over Missouri and host Northern Iowa – was only a glimpse of what is to come.
More than anything else, the Gators want to keep having fun. They haven’t smiled this much during any stretch of an up-and-down season.
For only the second time in head coach Mary Wise’s 21 seasons, Florida’s volleyball team failed to win the SEC championship. In another rare occurrence, the Gators entered the NCAA Tournament unseeded. Perhaps worst of all, the game became a grind in the middle of the SEC season when a pair of losses to Tennessee and one to Kentucky erased many of those smiles.
But the Gators are still playing, advancing to the Sweet 16 and a curtain call at the O’Connell Center on Friday night against Michigan. If the Gators win, they will play the Illinois-Ohio State winner on Saturday night for a berth in the Final Four.
That’s somewhere the Gators haven’t been in eight years when they made it all the way to the national championship match before losing to Southern Cal. Many expected that streak to end last season.
A year ago Florida entered the postseason as the country’s No. 1-ranked team and top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators lost to Purdue in the Sweet 16, a harsh ending to one of the best seasons in school history.
And now they’re back, slipping in quietly and suddenly on the verge of the program’s eighth Final Four appearance under Wise. They are enjoying the trip.
“We’ve more had to prove ourselves this year than ever before coming in unseeded,’’ said senior Kristy Jaeckel. “The lack of expectations maybe has freed us up to go out there and play as hard as we can. It’s helped us to be able to find our rhythm as a team and learn how good we really can be.’’
To help the Gators get here, Wise called on the services of sports psychologist Spencer Wood at times. Wood, who has helped Gators basketball coach Billy Donovan in the past, started working with the volleyball team some last fall.
As this season unfolded, he returned recently to talk to the Gators about focus, expectations, handling pressure and other mind games that can mess with an athlete’s psyche this time of year.
“He is the one who taught us that pressure grows in the gaps between expectations and confidence,’’ Wise said. “The team is playing with no pressure. We’re unseeded. Expectations are minimal, yet our confidence is very high.’’
One of the team’s five seniors and perhaps its most vocal player on the court, Jaeckel spent part of Thursday writing a term paper for finals in her Leadership and Management course.
Between her role with the team, Wise’s coaching and Wood’s influence – and studying of course – Jaeckel had plenty of experience to help her write the paper.
She sees Wise having Wood talk to the team as a weapon the Gators can use once they take the court.
“It’s just another tool that we can use to get a competitive advantage,’’ she said. “There are different bits and pieces that might relate to certain players more than others. He’s been extremely helpful talking to us about a number of things.’’
The team’s younger players have also embraced the approach used by Wise.
Redshirt freshman Taylor Unroe had never worked with a sports psychologist until she arrived at UF. It seemed only fitting that while Jaeckel worked on her leadership term paper, Unroe had just finished taking a psychology final.
She sounded confident that she had passed the exam and that the Gators can continue to make the grade on the court if they play the way they did last weekend.
“We’re in a good place right now,’’ Unroe said. “That’s the type of volleyball I want to be playing all the time. It was really fun. [Our renewed focus] allows us to have that one-step-at-a-time mentality. That is what I think more about the most, the process.’’
As the Gators heated up in Northern Iowa, younger players like Unroe and freshman Holly Pole did their part of help out seniors such as Jaeckel, Kelly Murphy and Stephanie Farrell.
A year ago at this time Unroe was injured and Pole was in a wheelchair recovering from knee surgery. On Saturday Ferrell was on crutches with an ankle sprain. Trainers told Wise that Ferrell might not be able to play. Instead, she came out and had one of her better games in a hostile environment.
“There has to be some X-factor,’’ Wise said. “We are getting such good play from a lot of different players.’’
That trend will need to continue in what looks on paper like Florida hosting a Big Ten tournament with Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois joining them at the O’Dome.
Wise compared Big Ten volleyball this season to a season of Big East men’s basketball – great teams constantly beating up on each other. Six of the NCAA Tournament’s final 16 teams are from the Big Ten.
Wise pointed out something else: the Gators are no longer beating up on themselves. They are having fun and leaving expectations to everyone else.
“The game is played in the gray,’’ she said.
The Gators seem to like it there.
“It’s a new season. You get to prove yourselves against some great teams,’’ Jaeckel said. “We’ve embraced that.’’