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Friday, April 19, 2024

When UF takes the court to play Stanford on Friday, the Gators will find themselves in an unfamiliar role.

For the first time all season, the No. 15-seeded Gators will not be the higher ranked of the two teams, and they will not be expected to win.

No. 2 Stanford is coming off sweeps against Albany and Long Beach State in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and a Pacific 10 Conference title in the regular season.

Playing against a team that has been to three of the last four Final Fours and boasts the most NCAA titles since the tournament's inception in 1981 can be a daunting task for a young team, but UF's leader is embracing the challenge.

"I love the underdog role," junior libero Elyse Cusack said. "To be overlooked, even a little bit, gives us such an edge, and going into this match, we're playing with no pressure on us. We're just going to have fun and play hard, which is what we do every match."

If the Gators are to have any chance at defeating the Cardinal, Cusack will have to dig out a ton of hard-hit balls from Stanford's many offensive weapons.

The Cardinal returned two first team All-American offensive players this season, senior outside hitter Cynthia Barboza and senior middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo, and neither of them lead the team in kills per set.

That distinction belongs to sophomore outside hitter Alix Klineman, a second team All-American selection a year ago, who averages 3.6 kills per set.

However, Akinradewo, who was named Pac-10 Player of the Year for the second straight season, not only powers Stanford's electric offense, but also anchors its defense.

The 6-foot-3 Florida native averages 1.45 blocks per set and has been on UF coach Mary Wise's radar for quite some time.

Akinradewo attended the same high school, St. Thomas Aquinas, as UF defensive specialist Christina Diaz, and Wise remembers recruiting her almost five years ago.

"I was down watching her in the spring of her junior year, watching her play a pick-up game with boys in Fort Lauderdale, and in walks John Dunning, the Stanford coach," Wise said. "John and I are friends, we've been for years, we sat together and visited and at the end, Foluke's dad came to pick her up. As the dad was walking out, he looked right at John and waved, and I didn't even get a look. That's when I knew we didn't have a chance."

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Cusack said UF is preparing for Stanford's physical hitters, who may not present a drastically different look.

"We practice against (men) in practice every day, and that's kind of what it's going to be like playing against Stanford," she said.

The last time these two teams met in the postseason was 2004, when the Cardinal dropped the Gators in five sets in Tallahassee. A few weeks later, Stanford went on to win its sixth national championship.

Wise said UF is playing its best volleyball of the season, and freshmen Kelly Murphy and Cindy Bathelt chalked that up to better communication and teamwork on the court.

The coaching staff has preached "Toughness, Intelligence and Energy" (T.I.E.) all year long, and now the players are wearing orange bows on their shoes as a reminder of that theme.

Unfortunately for UF, Stanford is a team that can undo that bow and the Gators' season.

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