The motto has been the same for Florida all year long: Find a way to win.
After a successful regular season and deep NCAA Tournament run, Florida needs to find a way just one more time.
The No. 2 Gators (30-1) have a chance to secure their first national title in program history Saturday at 9 when they take on No. 5 Nebraska (31-4) at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
Florida coach Mary Wise — who was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association National Coach of the Year on Thursday — jokingly referred to the neutral-site contest as a road match. Wise expects the atmosphere to be “red and loud,” as the drive from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Kansas City takes a little over three hours, compared to a 16-plus hour road trip for fans from Gainesville.
The Gators have already faced the Cornhuskers once before in 2017, a 3-2 home victory on Aug. 26. But a lot has changed since then.
Nebraska was without First Team All-America setter Kelly Hunter when it originally faced Florida. The team has won 31 out of 33 contests with Hunter in the lineup this fall, including its current 18-match win streak.
“(Hunter) makes them go,” Wise said. And it’s not like we could figure out (Mikaela) Foecke the first time.”
Foecke, the Cornhuskers starting setter while Hunter was injured, nearly led Nebraska to a victory over Florida earlier this year with 18 kills. She also recorded a double-double on Thursday in the Cornhuskers thrilling, five-set win over No. 1 Penn State in the Final Four.
Like Nebraska, the Gators were also pushed to five sets in the national semifinals, holding off a torrid Stanford comeback to earn their first appearance in the national championship match since 2003.
Wise has credited much of Florida’s success this season to its senior class’ leadership and experience. But after the team’s win on Thursday, she gave thanks to the supporting cast as well.
“To be great leaders, you have to have people willing to follow,” Wise said. “The freshmen, sophomores and juniors have been outstanding letting them lead and being willing to follow.”
Sophomore middle blocker Rachael Kramer, a Third Team All-America selection, had an uncharacteristically error-filled match against the Cardinal. But as one of the nation’s most efficient hitters on the year, Kramer had a career day against Nebraska in August and will look to replicate those results on Saturday.
Senior middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan, the 2017 SEC Player of the Year, is UF’s lone First Team All-America selection, while senior outside hitter Carli Snyder and redshirt senior outside hitter Shainah Joseph made the second team. With four All-Americans in their lineup, the Gators have been able to overcome off-nights from their stars.
“If someone is struggling next to me, I’m going to find a way to help them and ease the burden,” Alhassan said. “I turned to our setters and said ‘I don’t care where you are. Find me.’”
In the win over Stanford on Thursday, the Gators responded to the leadership of Alhassan — who finished the match with a team-high 17 kills — and helped stop the bleeding after the Cardinal won back-to-back sets halfway through the match.
Looking ahead to Saturday’s title match, one advantage Florida holds over Nebraska is its height. While the Cardinal possessed three players on its roster 6-foot-6 or taller, the Cornhuskers’ tallest athlete is 6-foot-5 Allie Havers.
The Gators front line of Kramer (6-foot-8) and Alhassan (6-foot-4) might have an easier time imposing its physicality against Nebraska than it did against Stanford.
But Florida understands that nothing will come easy. Standing between itself and history is a red-hot Nebraska team looking for revenge.
“We have to go and fight for every single point,” Joseph said.