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The Gators have overcome more hurdles than usual in returning to the NCAA Tournament.

Friday November 30, 2012They Took a Different Route, but Gators Have Same Goal in NCAA Tournament

The Gators have overcome more hurdles than usual in returning to the NCAA Tournament.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There has been times over the past 22 years when the Gators volleyball team was considered a favorite in the NCAA Tournament.

Seasons when Florida opened the tournament at home and it would have surprised few if the Gators made a run at joining Penn State as the only program east of the Mississippi River to win the national title.

Two years ago the Gators opened the tournament as the favorite on some people’s brackets. A year ago the Gators came within a win of making the Final Four.

This year is different. This year has been different from the start, ever since outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season started. If there had been a panic button nearby, Florida coach Mary Wise may have reached for it.

Wise’s first thought after Santos-Lamb went down: “If we could just get into the tournament, that would be a huge accomplishment,’’ she said Thursday. “Everything was on the table. How could we make up for the points lost when Naomi got injured?”

Wise pulled out all the tricks from her veteran coach’s bag. She moved players around in practice, tinkered with the lineup during games, whatever she could do to maximize her team’s potential.

A pair of freshmen outside hitters – Gabby Mallette and Berkley Whaley – helped fill the void. True freshman Ziva Recek was better than advertised. Middle blocker Chloe Mann rose to the challenge, earning SEC Player of the Year honors. Other players stepped up and surprised.

In the end, the Gators won their 20th SEC regular-season title under Wise and are back in the NCAA Tournament, hosting Tulsa tonight at the O’Connell Center in the first round.

“Does Christmas ever get repetitive?’’ Wise responded Thursday to a question about the program’s consistency. “This is the highlight of any team’s season.”

It’s almost like nothing is different now that it’s tournament time. Only the path the Gators took to get here.

Wise gets that. She understands how all 22 Florida teams she has led to the NCAA Tournament got here differently. They all had their own ebbs and flows, their own personalities and puzzles to solve.

“I think we have found our brand in terms of who we are,’’ she said. “We are a physical team that can get kills out of six positions. We’ve become maybe not an elite blocking team, but we’re solid defensive team with our block, our back row and our serving.

“We feel like that on any given night we can compete with any team,’’ she continued. “Are we good enough to beat any team, I wouldn’t go that far. At least we can compete. There is nothing more a coach can ask for than that.”

This season has been as much about the journey as the results.

Nothing came easy for the Gators but here they are, in their familiar position of hosting a first-round regional. The Florida-Tulsa winner faces the Miami-College of Charleston winner on Saturday night at the O’Dome with a chance to move on.

Now that they are here, the Gators want to hang around as long as they can regardless of what others expect. When the pundits mention favorites in this year’s tournament, some of the same names pop up that pop up every year – Penn State, Stanford, Texas and Southern Cal – but Florida is absent.

That’s OK.

“From the get-go I know some outsiders had a little bit lower expectations for our team, but from the beginning we knew what we wanted to accomplish,’’ Mann said. “I think throughout the course of the season we’ve been on kind of an upward spiral. We love tournament time.

“We’re definitely not content yet.”

The first challenge the Gators face is a Tulsa team led by outside hitter Tyler Henderson, the NCAA’s all-time leader in kills.

“We have been working hard in practice to make sure we are set up for her, both blocking and in the back row,’’ Mann said. “She is definitely going to be one of our top priorities.”

There is a newness that comes with the postseason, one that Recek, the SEC Freshman of the Year, noticed this week as she prepared to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

Recek is from Slovenia and has made a smooth transition to UF. Her broken English has improved drastically since the start of the season and her play is one of the reasons the Gators were able to withstand the injury to Santos-Lamb as well as they did.

“We have become a much better team that we were at the beginning of the year,’’ Recek said. “We went into every game with the right mindset, to compete really hard right to the end.”

Competing until the end takes on a different meaning in the postseason. If the Gators are one of the last teams standing, they will have done something special.

In some ways, they already have.

Wise was reminded of that when Florida clinched the SEC title. While maybe no one else expected it, the Gators obviously didn’t get that memo.

“If you took a picture at match point, you wouldn’t have known it was any different,’’ Wise said. “They have just been so steady. You don’t get the high highs or the low lows.

“This group understood we were a work in progress with all the new players. It’s been one of the most fun teams I’ve ever been around to coach.”


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