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Florida's steady approach has it back in the Sweet 16.

Thursday December 6, 2012Gators Plan to Stick to Steady Approach That Got Them to Sweet 16

Florida's steady approach has it back in the Sweet 16.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

AUSTIN, Texas -- A funny thing happened on the way to this Sweet 16 appearance for the UF volleyball team.

Gators coach Mary Wise chilled out as much as Mary Wise can chill out.

"I guess we have had a slight effect on her,'' junior middle blocker Chloe Mann said Thursday. "There is definitely a lot more grinding of teeth and pursing of lips than avid shouting."

Before Mann could finish the sentence, Wise broke out in laughter here at a press conference to preview Friday night's Florida-Texas match in the NCAA Austin Regional.

The Gators are loose. They are having fun. They are back in the Sweet 16 in a year they weren't even picked to finish first -- or second -- in the SEC.

Florida proved the skeptics wrong, winning 19 of 20 SEC matches to claim the program's 20th conference crown under Wise.

Wise recognized that this year's team, her 22nd, was a little different than the past few.

It didn't take long.

"About the first match,'' Wise said.

Whether it was at practice, in matches, after a win or a loss, Wise noticed that as a group the Gators never seemed to get too high or too low.

They just hummed along.

The early back-to-back losses to Texas and Stanford in the Nike Big Four Classic didn't sink them. The Gators responded by winning their next 14 matches.

When they were swept at Florida State in late October, they quickly regrouped to beat Mississippi State and Georgia. Finally, when the Gators lost a crucial late-season home match to Tennessee that put their bid for the league title in jeopardy, they responded by winning their final six SEC matches.

Florida hasn't lost since that defeat to the Vols, opening the NCAA Tournament last weekend at home with wins over Tulsa and College of Charleston.

Even when they celebrate, the Gators don't over do it. They act like they expected to win and quickly move on.

As the season unfolded, Wise adjusted her style to that of her team's approach, not always an easy task for a veteran coach.

"They are steady. You have to check their blood pressure to make sure they are still breathing,'' Wise said. "They are not an overly emotional team.

"I had to tone it down this year. There are other teams where if I wasn't emotional, they would flat-line. This team is just the opposite. I had to learn early on to tune it down on my end. It's probably been good for my longevity."

Don't get the wrong idea. Wise can still light up a player at practice or her team in the huddle. She still can bark at an official with the best of them.

But when a match isn't going well or a player makes a critical mistake, Wise catches herself more.

She knew this team was going to be different with six true freshmen and without sophomore Noami Santos-Lamb, an expected building block who blew her knee out in preseason camp and missed the season.

The team was younger and lacked two of the faces of the program in recent years: Kelly Murphy and Kristy Jaeckel.

The expectations were different, too. The Gators were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament two years ago when they came to Austin and were upset by Purdue. Last year they came one win away from the Final Four but lost to Illinois at home.

Still, here they are back in Austin to face the host Longhorns. Texas was the No. 1 overall seed in last year's tournament but lost to UCLA.

The Longhorns have their own hurdles to clear.

At his press conference Thursday, Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott was peppered with questions about the pressure to win it all. The Longhorns have one national title, but it happened 24 years ago.

Reporters wanted to know if the season would be a failure if the Longhorns lost to the Gators or someone else along the way.

"We don't see it that way,'' Elliott said. "We have our own pressures and our own desires. We'll be judged by the media and fans as always -- that's just part of the sport."

That has been part of Wise's world in previous years. Not this season. Steady does it.

The Gators are flying under the radar and seem to like it, Wise included.

"As much as we've been a steady team, she has been our steady force throughout matches,'' Mann said. "When we're down, when we're up, we can always turn to her. She can be our motivating force."

Texas will test the Gators as much as they have been tested this season. Wise will be tested, too.

There will be peaks and valleys in what is certain to be a packed 4,000 Gregory Gym. Few will be for the Gators.

They won't back down.

"We are competitive,'' said junior transfer Taylor Brauneis. "We work hard every single practice. It comes along every single day, and we stay steady."

So has their coach.

"It's a huge challenge because you are playing one of the top four seeds on their home court,'' Wise said. "This team will compete and we'll find out if our best is good enough to beat their best, but we know this, it will have to be our best.

"It's been a magical run. The theme has been 'make it last.' "

 

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