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Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Gators' run at a 19th-straight conference title is now out of their control.

No. 9 Florida (12-3, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) will enter the weekend as the third-best team in the conference, one match behind LSU and two behind SEC leader Kentucky in the loss column.

On Friday, UF will embark on a critical two-match road trip as it travels to Alabama to take on Auburn (11-7, 3-4 SEC) at 7 p.m. before heading to Athens to face Georgia (11-7, 2-5 SEC) on Sunday.

"The only thing we lost is the ability to control our own destiny," coach Mary Wise said. "We can't control what Kentucky does. They have a two-match lead. All we can do is control what we do."

However, one more conference loss not only damages the Gators' hopes at a 19th-straight conference title, but it also would be their third SEC loss of the season. It would be the first time UF has had more than two conference losses under Wise.

"I'm kind of in a different situation that I've ever been in," senior libero Elyse Cusack said. "Now, we have no room for error, and we just have to buckle down because this is it."

After being swept by LSU on Sunday, the Gators fell in the rankings and are now ranked one spot below No. 8 Kentucky. This is the first time since 1994 that UF is not the top-ranked SEC team.

"It's a wake-up call," sophomore outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel said. "We haven't been in this position since I've been on the team. I just think what we do from here on out will define us as a team."

This weekend's matches will be the final two of the toughest six-match stretch of the season, Wise said.

Three of the first four teams the Gators have played during that stretch have been ranked in the top 20 of the RPI rankings - LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee.

UF holds a 2-2 record during that stretch so far and needs to win both of its upcoming matches to come away with a winning record during that time.

"Really, our ultimate goal is the NCAA tournament," Cusack said. "As long as we are putting ourselves in the best position to win in December - we are excited about that."

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