Junior Thayer Hall slumped her way over to the podium from the Gators’ locker room. She plunked herself down in front of a screen filled with boxes of a handful of reporters.
Her eyes looked dry as the Sahara Desert and her face colorless after her team dropped a five-set heartbreaker to top-seeded Wisconsin.
Hall told the media she was proud of Florida’s effort to push the Badgers to the cliff’s edge after many didn’t give her squad a sliver of hope before the match.
She also poured her heart out when she articulated what the senior class and this team meant to her.
Her thoughts and emotions exemplified that Florida exerted every ounce of energy toward the 2020-2021 season and its April 19 match versus the Badgers. However, the Gators and coach Mary Wise wasted another excellent opportunity to win their first National Championship.
Florida’s miscues in a 30-28 first-set loss derailed any chance to advance to a ninth NCAA Final Four. UF recorded 10 errors and a pitiful .058 hitting percentage in the opening frame.
The Gators bounced back, however, and extended their match with smart volleyball.
Hall and junior T’ara Ceasar sent loopy curveballs over Wisconsin’s six-foot-eight-inch middle blocker Dana Rettke’s arms instead of blistering fastballs which could’ve turned into potential blocks.
The Badgers eventually adapted to Florida’s off-speed swings and overpowered UF. Wisconsin lost just three total sets in 17 prior matches. Rettke, a three-time All-American, netted 16 kills with five block assists for a .333 hitting percentage. Her teammate Molly Haggerty tallied 17 kills.
Florida suffered from a weak SEC conference which offered one other top-25 team — Kentucky who won the National Championship versus Texas Sunday. The Gators split their doubleheader with the Wildcats in March.
Wise said Florida’s performance versus the Badgers was outstanding.
“The plays we made could’ve beaten a lot of other teams,” she said. “Just not this team, this night.”
In previous seasons unrestricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida scheduled several top-10 teams a year.
Wise, a volleyball coaching legend, still chases her coveted first championship. She evolved to become a legend in her sport, like Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few, who failed to capture an elusive title.
She checked every other box on her career resume. Under her watch, Florida secured 24 SEC Championships, including a Division I-record 18 straight from 1991-2008. The Gators also earned 29-straight bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Earlier in Wise’s career, she said she cared about cutting down the volleyball net and being doused in confetti at the end of a tournament. But with time, her perspective changed.
“It is not about the wins and losses,” she said. “It’s about the relationships. The relationships that are created, teammate to teammate, coaches amongst their family of coaches, and our players feel like daughters. That’s what’s most important to me.”
Florida returns most of its major contributors with Hall, Ceasar and setter Marlie Monserez set to play another year. Redshirt senior Holly Carlton is the only significant departure. Associate head coach Shannon Wells, who spent seven seasons with the Gators, left for a head-coaching position at Virginia.
Wise said the Gators four seniors, Mia Sokolowski, Paige Hammons, Holly Carlton and Darrielle King won’t use the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted for one final ride in Gainesville.
Florida volleyball also brings in three highly recruited freshmen in its 2021 class as the quest for the Gators first title begins anew.
Contact Zachary Huber at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber