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Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Gators’ season hit an all-time low as they traveled to face Kentucky on Nov. 22.

For the first time in 19 years, they would not win the Southeastern Conference title.

But the disappointment and embarrassment that came with ending Florida’s 18-year streak did not prevent this team from staying focused.

Before the match against Kentucky, junior Callie Rivers made sure that her team knew there was still a lot at stake.

“When I walked into the locker room prior to the (Kentucky) match, she had written on the wall ‘not on our watch,’ and she had every player sign it,” coach Mary Wise said. “That was their rally cry.”

UF went on to dominate Kentucky en route to a four-set victory after losing to the Wildcats less than two months before.

Since falling out of contention for the conference crown, the Gators have looked like a new team.

Wise’s decision to insert middle blocker Lauren Bledsoe into the starting lineup along with the strategic move of using a one-setter offense has rejuvenated the group.

After a devastating loss to Tennessee, which knocked the Gators out of title contention, the changes were made.

UF has reeled off three impressive victories since — two coming against top-25 opponents — as it begins the NCAA Tournament today against College of Charleston.

“As much as you would love to win the SEC every year, it has gotten a lot better,” sophomore Kristy Jaeckel said. “Overcoming this adversity is something that is really going to make us a stronger team, ultimately.”

The Toughest Road Yet

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As the Gators begin their journey to the Final Four in Tampa, they will have to look no further than the rough road they’ve traveled this season for some experience.

In the first 18 seasons of Wise’s tenure at UF, she only dropped eight conference matches. This year, the team lost an unprecedented four matches to SEC opponents.

“It has easily been the most competitive season in the SEC because there is so much more parity now,” Wise said.

Three other SEC teams are currently in the top 21 of the RPI rankings and all four of the Gators’ conference losses have come against those teams: Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee.

While UF went undefeated in conference play during the 1992 and 1993 regular seasons and from 1995-2003, Jaeckel believes the team used to pay for it in the postseason.

“Being able to learn from our losses early instead to having one of our first losses in the tournament can really help us,” she said. “If we really take it to heart and learn from these losses, it can only make us stronger for the tournament.”

Although conference competition has been tough, nonconference play has been even tougher.

The Gators have faced four nonconference foes ranked in the top 14 of the RPI, including No. 3 Florida State, No. 5 Washington, No. 6 Stanford and No. 14 Notre Dame. They went 3-1 in those matches, with their only loss coming against Washington early in the season.

“With the experience we have and all the great teams we have played so far, once we get to the tournament we will be better prepared,” senior Elyse Cusack said.

Unmatched Versatility

There were many questions surrounding the setter position after Cindy Bathelt transferred from UF before the season began.

But then came junior transfer Brynja Rodgers to fill the void and provide another setter to complement sophomore Kelly Murphy in UF’s 6-2 offense.

Although Rodgers has been consistent and is second on the team with 5.43 assists per set, the Gators have turned to a one-setter offense featuring Murphy for the latter part of the year. Last season this scheme was not used as Bathelt and Murphy ran the two-setter attack.

The new offense has paid dividends. 

When first used against Auburn on Nov. 8, the Gators committed a season-low four attack errors in the match. Against South Carolina on Nov. 27, the offense led to a season-high hitting efficiency of .519.

“I think it’s a lot of fun. It gives different teams a lot to prepare for,” Murphy said. “If one thing is not working out, it lets us know that we always have another option.”

UF’s versatility has led Wise to implement another adjustment.

After the loss to Tennessee, she moved Bledsoe from opposite hitter to starting middle blocker and removed senior Kristina Johnson from the starting lineup.

For most of the season, Bledsoe and Rivers fought for playing time at the right side. By moving Bledsoe to the middle, both can be on the court at the same time.

“By using these players that are versatile enough to play at different positions, it allows us to get all of our playmakers on the court at the same time,” Wise said.

The new middle blocker has led to increased offensive production as Bledsoe has averaged eight kills per match in the three she has played at the position. Johnson only averaged four before the switch was made.

Both of these late-season shakeups have helped breathe new life into the team as it heads into a postseason that is structured in the Gators’ favor.

Home Court Advantage

Although UF failed to win the SEC, the Gators have a lot going for them as they begin the tournament.

The team is guaranteed to stay in Florida for the entire postseason.

The O’Connell Center will host the first and second rounds, as well as regionals. The Final Four will be held in Tampa.

Last year, the Gators had to travel to Colorado for regionals and lost to Stanford. This season, traveling won’t pose a problem for them.

Confidence shouldn’t be an issue either.

UF has beaten two of the tournament’s top-four seeds, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Stanford, during the regular season.

All this combined with Wise making the most of the Gators’ versatility and the experience gained from playing in a much-improved SEC will help prepare this team for a run in the postseason.

Wise even believes that the end of the 18 year streak can help the team set its sights on a bigger goal.

“We said all along that we would not win a national championship until we lost the SEC.”

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