In the 2017-2018 season, UF had several athletes who shined seemingly out of nowhere. We, at the Alligator, nominated five athletes for Most Improved Player of the Year: Volleyball outside hitter Shainah Joseph, football defensive lineman Taven Bryan, baseball third baseman Jonathan India, golfer Andy Zhang and soccer midfielder Mayra Pelayo. Our staff doesn’t appear to be in agreement, as you can see here:
Andrew: I was a beat writer for the 2017 volleyball team and saw the standard of excellence that Mary Wise’s team adhered to, day in and day out. Shainah Joseph exemplifies that.
So allow me to shine a light (or should I say, “Shainah light”) on a name many outside of the UF volleyball following may be unfamiliar with.
She’s a Canadian-born, 6-foot-1 outside hitter with a 40.5-inch vertical jump, who developed into a formidable offensive threat, as well as the team’s emotional leader.
Joseph’s talent, grit and athletic ability crescendoed into a memorable end to her Gators career. Unlike other stars on that team, like teammates Carli Snyder and Rhamat Alhassan, Joseph waited patiently for the spotlight – and did not disappoint once she found it.
She set career-highs in virtually every statistical category last year: offense, defense, you name it. But her improvements weren’t just from 2016 to 2017. Joseph turned it up to another level midway through last season. Her scoring totals from the first 16 games almost doubled during the last 16. She was another legitimate threat to score on a team that already boasted superior firepower than most around.
She became someone irreplaceable, largely responsible for the team’s best season in a while: a 30-2 record, SEC title and a national championship appearance.
Brendan: I’m going to have to go with Taven Bryan here for a couple reasons. First, he went from being on nobody’s radar to first-round pick in the NFL seemingly overnight. Secondly, his path just to make it this far is truly remarkable.
After being buried on the depth chart behind the likes of Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie and Jon Bullard for his first two seasons, Bryan finally became a starter last season.
In 10 games, he more than doubled his tackles total from 16 to 37, doubled his tackles for loss (3.0 to 6.0) and his four sacks, up one from the year before, were second on the team.
In one season, Bryan went from being a depth piece to a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. If that’s not a significant improvement, I don’t know what is.
Since 1921, only 38 players from Wyoming have ever made it to the NFL, and Bryan is the first to be selected in the first round since 2001 (Adam Archuleta). Not to mention, Bryan was only a three-star prospect coming out of high school and was originally recruited to be an offensive tackle before being moved to defense.
Simply put, people from Bryan’s background don’t become blue-chip prospects and NFL starters.
If there was a bright spot on the football team last season, it certainly has to be the emergence of Taven Bryan.
Chris: Jonathan India, not a doubt in my mind.
From a relatively obscure prospect to the No. 5 pick in this year’s MLB Draft, India dominated this season.
Just flat-out dominated.
The third baseman touted a .350 batting average, a .497 on-base percentage and an OPS of 1.214. Those are three RIDICULOUS numbers, but it doesn’t really stop there.
He went on a 24-game hit streak and mashed 21 home runs and 52 RBIs as well.
But why were his numbers such a surprise?
Let’s rewind to the 2017 season.
He batted .274, had an OBP of .354 and an OPS of .783. So this year, his batting average was almost the same as his on-base percentage a year before. His OBP went up over 140 points and his OPS saw an incredulous rise of almost 450 points.
India helped carry Florida through the Gainesville Super Regional and into the College World Series.
His 2018 accolades speak for themselves. He was a First-Team All-American, First-Team All-SEC, and made the SEC All-Defensive Team. India also won the SEC Player of the Year award and was a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, which honors the top player in college baseball.
The now-Cincinnati Red also smoked some home runs that had significant distance on them. I can specifically recall multiple times during the Gainesville Regional and Super Regional where he parked balls off the O’Connell Center deep past the left-field fence. On several occasions after a home run, I wondered if it was the farthest hit ball I’d ever seen at McKethan Stadium.
This kid raked, and he’ll continue to do so in the pros.
He’s my Most Improved Player of the Year.
Evan: If you’re looking for a University of Florida athlete that truly had a breakout season this past year, UF men’s golfer Andy Zhang fills that category.
The Beijing, China, native has always been ahead of the curve.
Zhang, to this day, is still the youngest player to have participated in the U.S Open. He was only 14.
So how in the world could he be considered a most improved performer?
It’s simple, really. He just didn’t live up to expectations his freshman year.
No individual title wins left Zhang determined to come back to UF instead of turning pro early.
This turned out to be a great decision for both Zhang and the Florida men’s golf team.
The sophomore ended the 2017-18 campaign with the best stroke average on the team (71.10), along with seven top-25 finishes and four top-10 finishes.
Zhang was able to pick up his first ever individual championship win in style, outlasting Ole Miss golfer Cecil Wegener through three playoff holes to capture the individual title at the SEC Championship.
He continued his winning ways a few weeks later when he won the individual title at the NCAA Kissimmee Regional, scoring an impressive 13 under.
This summer, Zhang received honorable mention All-America honors from both PING and Golfstat because of his impressive sophomore season.
He has already announced he plans to turn pro, but one thing’s for certain: Andy Zhang will be remembered as one of the better Gator golfers in school history.
Mark: When you look at the 5-foot-4 midfielder from West Palm Beach, Florida, you may not immediately think “Wow, she’s physically imposing.”
However, Mayra Pelayo was one of UF soccer’s most consistent forces in 2017.
The rising senior didn’t show much improvement on the stat sheet from 2016 to 2017. Actually, she only had two assists compared to nine in 2016, but her ability to maintain possession with her quick footwork, pickout teammates in the box and come through in big moments made her one of Florida’s most frustrating players to defend.
Pelayo did a lot more than stay in the midfield for the Gators last season. Coach Becky Burleigh placed her at left midfielder, wing and striker. Her versatility made her a consistent first choice, as she registered a career-high 22 starts in 2017.
She started on the left wing for Florida’s NCAA second-round matchup with South Florida and scored the only goal of the match. With about three minutes left in the first half, Pelayo chipped the ball towards the back post from about 20 yards out and watched it soar inside the woodwork.
Against then-No. 1 Stanford on Aug. 25, she fed a cross to Gabby Seiler for the tying goal in UF’s 3-2 comeback victory.
Her ability to come up with big plays on the grandest of stages was something Pelayo lacked in 2016, but she proved herself as one of Florida’s most reliable players in high-pressure moments last year.
Outside hitter Shainah Joseph was one of the most improved athletes for UF this season.