Gators volleyball

The Gators volleyball team was awarded the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. They will face Alabama State in the first round on Thursday.

Alan Alvarez / Alligator Staff

Since being embarrassed by Kentucky on their home floor on Oct. 15, the Gators (25-1, 17-1 SEC) have reeled off 11 consecutive wins, including a revenge victory against the Wildcats in Lexington on Nov. 1.

Florida was rewarded for that streak Sunday, when the team was announced as the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. UF will play its first match of the tournament at home against Alabama State (28-10) on Thursday at 7 p.m.

According to senior Carli Snyder, Florida owes that seed and late-season surge in part to the emergence of redshirt senior Shainah Joseph.

“Shainah’s been crucial to the run that we’ve had, and she is a huge piece of our offense,” Snyder said.

Joseph tallied at least 10 kills in seven of those 11 wins, including a career-high 20 against Missouri on Senior Day. Joseph led all players with 19 kills in Saturday’s rematch against the Tigers.

Snyder said Joseph’s increased role has made life easier for every Gator on the court.

“You have Rhamat (Alhassan) in the middle, Shainah (Joseph) on the right side and Rachael (Kramer) in the middle,” Snyder said. “That’s a really difficult combination to stop.”

After beating Missouri in its regular-season finale, Florida improved to 17-1 in conference play, tied with Kentucky for the best SEC record. This marks the second straight year Florida was named co-SEC champion, after sharing the title with Missouri in 2016.

The Gators were recipients of several individual SEC honors on Wednesday as well.

Senior Rhamat Alhassan (NCAA leader in blocks per set) was named SEC Player of the Year and joined Snyder, Joseph, Kramer and Caroline Knop on the All-SEC Team. Florida coach Mary Wise and Kentucky coach Craig Skinner were voted co-Coaches of the Year after leading their teams to 25-1 and 26-3 regular-season records.

“Rhamat is a once-every-10-years type of player,” Wise said. “We appreciate the coaches in our league recognizing what a special talent she is.”

Alhassan downplayed the award, saying it was “cool” to win, but she’s focused on a bigger prize.

“My goal is a national championship,” she said. “That’s what I want.”

The Gators lost in their only national championship appearance to Southern California in 2003, but they have reached the Final Four seven times and have never missed the NCAA Tournament since hiring Wise in 1991.

To return to the finals, Florida will have to avoid the same mistakes it made a year ago when it was upset in the second round by Florida State.

The Gators aren’t lacking in confidence, though.

“It’s so exciting to think about the postseason and how far this team could really go,” Kramer said.

Wise said the team will continue to rely on its seniors during the NCAA Tournament.

“They understand how much is at stake,” she said.

Florida is 5-1 against ranked teams this season — compared to a 1-2 record in 2016 — thanks in large part to a defense that leads the SEC in blocks per set and opponent hitting percentage and ranks top three nationally in both categories.

“For the past few years we’ve always been that really aggressive offensive team,” Kramer said, “And maybe we’ll hold teams to a higher hitting percentage, but we’ll still beat them — and that’s not the case this year.

“Our blocking has been fantastic throughout the front row,” she continued. “It’s hard to get around us.”

You can follow Andrew Huang on Twitter @AndrewJHuang, and contact him at [email protected].

Andrew Huang is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida volleyball team. He has worked at the paper since Spring 2017.