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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

UF athletic program successful despite postseason struggles

You hear that noise? It’s the sound of the dead period for Gators sports. The period between the end of summer sports and the start of fall ones.

When Florida State ousted third-seeded Florida from the College World Series on June 21, it marked the end of the 2009-10 athletic year for the University of Florida.

The loss also signaled another unsatisfying finish to an otherwise great season for a Gators team this year.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old idiom: always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

I’ve always thought it was an interesting one. I’ve also found it to be an adequate way to describe, for the most part, UF athletics in the past year.

With the women’s swimming and diving title and the men’s track and field team’s indoor championship aside, it’s been a close, but no cigar year for UF athletics.

The school’s 17 teams combined for 14 top-10 finishes nationally – and one team, men’s golf, finished 11th – but only two were able to close out memorable seasons with the lifting of a national championship trophy.

Of those 14 top-10 finishes, the most notable was the football team, which came into the season as the defending BCS champions and spent most of the year atop the polls. That is, until the team was demolished by Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and denied a chance to defend its national title in Pasadena, Calif.

Instead, fans were left with a trip to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and many were left saying sugar never tasted so bittersweet because the Gators weren’t able to “Finish the Mission.”

Less than a month before the football team’s title hopes were crushed, the then-fifth ranked women’s cross country team had its aspirations dashed (no pun intended) and it finished seventh at the NCAA Championships on the campus of Indiana State.

The women’s volleyball and soccer teams met similar fates when both suffered early-round exits in the NCAA Tournament.

The women’s gymnastics team won the SEC title and hosted the NCAA Championships in April and had a great chance to take home the program’s first NCAA title. Even former Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, who won 10 titles in Athens, Ga., said she would put her money on the Gators to win it all – that is, if she were a gambling woman. But the team finished fifth at the Super Six after gaffes in the lineup of each event.

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While the women’s swimming and diving team took home a championship, the men’s team could only muster a fifth-place finish. The same happened with the women’s track team, which finished fourth at the indoor championships while the men took home the title – and both finished in the top three at the outdoor championships.

Then there was UF’s softball team, which entered the Women’s College World Series as the fourth overall seed but was shellacked by UCLA 16-3 in the first game and then eliminated by SEC rival Georgia in Oklahoma City, leaving the WCWS empty-handed for a third straight time.

And of course, most recently, there was the disappointing CWS exit from the No. 3 overall seeded baseball team in Omaha, Neb., when the team faltered after playing some of its best baseball of the season in regionals and super regionals.

But there’s something to be said for UF’s teams “always being bridesmaids” this year.

Some may view the early postseason exits as underachieving on behalf of the teams, but in reality, people should take a step back and look at the larger picture for UF athletics. 

To have so many teams vying for national titles means athletic director Jeremy Foley has built one of the nation’s best athletic programs in his 18 years at the helm, and it shows. Florida finished second to Stanford – which won for the 16th year in a row – in the 2009-10 Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, which is given annually to the best collegiate athletic program.

The finish was Florida’s best since a tie for second in 1997-98, and the school’s 17th top-seven finish in the award’s 17-year history.

Maybe next year more of the school’s teams will live up to their potential and we will all see more brides and fewer bridesmaids. One thing is for sure, though: students and fans alike shouldn’t take these bridesmaids and the sustained success that Foley has brought to UF athletics during his tenure as AD for granted.

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