Things were supposed to be different this time for Florida’s volleyball team.
And for the most part, they were. Just not in the Gators’ final match of 2017.
After a heartbreaking loss to Florida State in the second round of last fall’s NCAA Tournament, UF vowed it wouldn’t waste another impressive regular-season run with an early exit in the national postseason.
So with a roster featuring little turnover from the year before, Florida put together one of its most successful seasons in program history. The Gators ended 2017 with 30 wins, a share of the SEC title and their first appearance in the Final Four and national championship match in 14 years.
Despite falling one win short of an NCAA title against Nebraska, UF’s roster was full of talent, boasting four All-Americans, the SEC Player of the Year in middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan, the AVCA Coach of the Year in Mary Wise and a punishing defense that ranked among the nation’s best in blocks per set and opponent hitting percentage.
The team followed the lead of its seniors — Alhassan, Carli Snyder, Shainah Joseph, Caroline Knop and Lindsey Rogers — all season long.
Alhassan led the nation with 1.70 blocks per set and broke Benavia Jenkins’ (2000-03) school record for career blocks, finishing with 674.
Snyder led the team in scoring with 395 kills, and Joseph put up career numbers in her first season as a full-time starter. Knop had a stellar senior campaign as well, despite playing with a broken hand for the final 11 matches of the fall.
“I could coach 30 more years… and never have a class like this,” Wise said in a release.
Wise also won her third AVCA Coach of the Year award and — despite losing her second national title match in as many appearances — is still the only female volleyball coach to lead a team to an NCAA championship appearance.
While it wasn’t the way Wise wanted her seniors to end their careers, she said they still have a lot to be proud of.
“There is so much to celebrate,” she said. “Each one of (the seniors) and their personalities, their talents... our world is in a good place with those five.”
Knop echoed Wise, saying the 2017 season was about more than just a national championship.
“This isn't going to define Florida volleyball,” Knop said in a release. “So many great things happened this year to have that match be the one that we leave with.”
Aided by the impact of Alhassan and Snyder, Florida made a statement early in the season with wins against then-No. 1 Texas and then-No. 5 Nebraska in late August. One month later, the Gators began a run of three consecutive weeks as the nation’s top-ranked team, a streak that ended following their only regular-season loss to then-No. 6 Kentucky on Oct. 15.
UF bounced back when the SEC foes faced again, trouncing the Wildcats 3-0 in Lexington on Nov. 1 to highlight one of its biggest differences between 2016 and 2017: the ability to respond to adversity.
That became its mantra for most of the season, and after securing a share of the SEC title with Kentucky, Florida set its eyes on a much bigger prize. It wanted to accomplish something that had never happened in the program’s 34-year history. It wanted to win a national championship.
After making quick work of Alabama State, Miami and UCLA in the NCAA Tournament’s opening rounds, UF punched its ticket to the championship match following five-set clashes with the USC Trojans in the Elite Eight and the Stanford Cardinal in the Final Four.
Nebraska, however, was too much for the Gators to handle. Competing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, on Dec. 16, the Cornhuskers shut down UF’s offense, limiting it to a season-low .141 hitting percentage in a disappointing end to Florida’s memorable season.
While UF loses the likes of Alhassan, Snyder, Joseph and Knop, budding stars in 6-foot-8 sophomore Rachael Kramer and freshman Paige Hammons should help keep Florida relevant. Sophomores Morgyn Greer and Cheyenne Huskey will also have a chance to break through after waiting their turn on Florida’s bench in 2017.
Wise doesn’t lack confidence in next season’s supporting cast, saying their contributions this fall were often overshadowed by the team’s seniors.
“Sometimes, it may not be a player that leads you in points,” Wise said about Florida’s underclassmen on Dec. 8, “but it may be a timely block or a timely kill… that could be the difference maker. It was a combination of all of us.”