The last time Florida’s volleyball team reached the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, the current players on its roster were still in elementary school. Some weren’t even in kindergarten yet.
It’s been 14 years since UF competed in the Final Four, but at 9 p.m. on Thursday in Kansas City, Missouri, that drought will come to an end.
The Gators (29-1) are back in the national semifinals and will take on defending national champion Stanford (30-3) at the Sprint Center.
While none of Florida’s players have made it this deep into the postseason before, coach Mary Wise is no stranger to the bright lights. In addition to leading UF to all eight of its Final Four appearances in program history, Wise coached the Gators to their only trip to the national championship match in 2003.
Florida lost that contest to the USC Trojans, the same team it defeated last Saturday in the NCAA quarterfinals. Now, UF is set to face another team that ended one of its previous NCAA Tournament runs: the Cardinal.
Only one current player, redshirt senior Merete Lutz, was on Stanford’s roster in 2014 when it defeated the Gators 3-0 in the NCAA quarterfinals. Florida, on the other hand, has four players who were present for that loss.
Redshirt senior Shainah Joseph and seniors Rhamat Alhassan, Carli Snyder and Lindsey Rogers all watched the Cardinal win in straight sets as underclassmen. But a lot has changed since then.
Alhassan (first team), Joseph (second team) and Snyder (second team) were named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America Team on Wednesday. Alhassan was also recently voted SEC Player of the Year.
Stanford has its own share of awards. The Cardinal saw three players receive First Team All-America selections and two more earn Second Team All-America selections, while outside hitter Kathryn Plummer was voted PAC-12 Freshman of the Year.
Wise spoke highly of Plummer, saying she has potential to be one of the top competitors “in the history of NCAA volleyball.”
“We see Kathryn Plummer as being that type of player,” Wise said in a release.
The Gators and Cardinal are two of the more complete teams in the country. Both are efficient offensively, ranking in the top 15 nationally in hitting percentage, and possess stifling defenses, ranking in the top 10 nationally in blocks per set. Florida is also second in the NCAA in opponents hitting percentage, while Stanford is second in the PAC-12 in the same category.
Both teams bring good size to the matchup, with each roster boasting a 6-foot-8 player in UF’s Rachael Kramer and Stanford’s Lutz.
Florida will rely on Kramer, as well as the 6-foot-4 Alhassan, to handle the Cardinal’s physicality.
UF will also look for Snyder, the team’s leading points scorer, to get off to a strong start. USC took an early lead over the Gators on Saturday after holding Snyder in check for the first half of the match. It wasn’t until Snyder broke loose in the fourth and fifth sets, recording nine kills over those final two frames, that Florida was able to surge past the Trojans in a 3-2 win.
“All along, this team has had huge goals,” Snyder said in a release. “When we started working for this moment… this is where we wanted to be this weekend.”
The Gators have had five days off to prepare for Stanford, a stark contrast from the back-to-back nights it faced UCLA and USC last weekend in the NCAA regionals. Rest or not, Wise said beating a third-straight PAC-12 team is no small task.
“We understand how talented (Stanford) is,” Wise said, “We recognize the challenge, but we embrace the challenge. That is what this group has done all along.”