The 2018 regular season was predictably unpredictable for a year where the Florida volleyball team replaced four graduating All-Americans who led it to a 2017 NCAA Championship appearance with six freshmen and a transfer.
Florida finished with a 24-6 record and will travel Thursday to Orlando to play its in-state rival, Florida State, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner of that match will play the winner of No. 13 seed UCF and Florida Gulf Coast on Friday.
Let’s look at some of the highlights of the regular season:
Revenge over Nebraska
Instead of easing her young team into a soft schedule, Florida coach Mary Wise opted to throw it into the fire and see where it stood to begin the 2018 campaign.
The Gators opened their season on Aug. 24 against the team who beat them in the National Championship eight months prior: then-No 2 Nebraska.
Wise was not shy with her new weapons and unveiled the Gatorade High School Player of the Year: outside hitter Thayer Hall.
Hall exploded in her debut, crushing 20 kills on 60 swings while she dug six balls on defense. The freshman’s performance lifted Florida over Nebraska in the emotional, four-set revenge match.
Hall put the country on notice with her performance and set the tone for what her inaugural season would look like.
Wise made it clear early that her team needed to peak during conference play when it was most important.
When doubt began to creep in after a devastating loss to unranked Northern Arizona on Sept. 7, the UF coach remained optimistic.
“Everything is so brand new with this team,” Wise said after the loss. “There are so many positives to celebrate, but we realize we are a work in progress. The theme of this year is growth.”
The team remained confident behind its coach and began to peak during conference play as Wise had hoped.
The Gators rattled off 14-consecutive wins that was capped off by a 17-kill performance by North Carolina transfer Holly Carlton in a four-set victory over Ole Miss.
The win arguably marked the high point of a season where UF won 15 SEC matches.
Sigh of relief
The Gators finished the season just like they started it: with a win. The team welcomed South Carolina to the O’Connell Center on Friday and honored its seniors on Senior Night with a sweep over the Gamecocks.
Sophomore outside hitter Paige Hammons led the way with 13 kills on 34 swings. She was helped by junior middle blocker Rachael Kramer, who had eight kills and five blocks.
But the biggest storyline of the match was Hall, who returned to the starting lineup after she missed the previous seven matches with an undisclosed injury. UF fans, coaches and players all breathed a sigh of relief as they watched Hall return to play for the first time since Oct. 21 against Missouri.
The 6-foot-3 freshman played sparingly in all three sets and logged six kills and a couple of digs.
It is unknown if Hall will be 100 percent for the match against Florida State, but fans can feel a little more optimistic that she can permanently return after her mysterious absence from the court.
The sweep over South Carolina marked the 28th-straight season under Wise where the team finished with at least 24 wins.
Hammons, Kramer and middle blocker Taelor Kellum each earned a spot on the All-SEC Team while Hall was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after she averaged 2.97 kills per set and 1.93 digs per set during the season.
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter at @dyrudolph and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freshman Thayer Hall leads the Gators with 2.97 kills per set this season.