The Florida volleyball team arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, Friday with a lot to be optimistic about.
The team was still rolling on a nine-match winning streak that included seven sweeps, and the Gators had a chance to earn a share of the SEC Championship with two wins over the defending national champions Kentucky Wildcats.
Despite the recent victories, there was baited concern about the team, worrying whether the quality of play could hold against the elite class of collegiate volleyball.
The Gators found an answer on the court, but not the one they hoped for. In the final two tests of the regular season against the ‘Cats (24-4. 17-1), the Gators (20-8, 14-4) couldn’t muster a single set win.
After back-to-back sweeps at the hands of Kentucky and a potential injury to redshirt senior T’ara Ceasar, Florida’s postseason prospects have been called into question, leaving much to think about on the return flight to Gainesville.
Early in the first set against Kentucky Friday, Ceasar, the player behind the Gators winning streak, left the game with an apparent ankle injury. The Panama City, Florida, native collided with Wildcats sophomore Reagan Rutherford at the net line after landing, rolling her ankle in the process.
She returned to the set shortly after stretching and testing her ankle on the sideline and finished the match with 14 kills.
In Saturday’s match, Ceasar only played two sets and registered a mere three kills and three errors to match. While this could be attributed to the dominance from sophomore Sofia Victoria, who tallied nine kills, the absence of Ceasar is a concerning development.
No updates were given on Ceasar’s health, so only time will tell how ready the star will be by the NCAA Tournament. (editor's note - Ceasar announced Monday via Instagram she was stepping away from the team to focus on her mental and physical health)
Any Ceasar hindrance might be a coffin-sealing update for the Gators’ national title hopes.
Even if Ceasar is at full health, the Gators need to beat the best teams in the country in order to secure the first national title in program history; from the beginning of the regular season through the end of it, Florida had trouble doing exactly that.
Florida played three teams in the regular season that reached the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA Tournament: Baylor, Minnesota and Kentucky. Against those three opponents, the Gators finished 1-4 and suffered three sweeps.
All of those opponents are currently ranked in the top 10 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. The other ranked team Florida played this year, No. 18 Stanford, defeated the Gators 3-1.
These losses don’t outright designify the wins Florida enjoyed in the latter half of the season against SEC opponents, but it does show there is still a rather significant divide between the Gators and the teams they desire to call their peers.
Through an optimistic lens, Florida remained competitive in each of the six sets it played against Kentucky. The Gators lost each set by an average of 4.17 points, only losing one by more than five.
That number correctly indicates Florida is not getting outclassed in these matches. The team consistently remained within striking distance of the Wildcats, just not quite doing enough to bring it home.
If Florida meets Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner’s team in the tournament, it’s plausible the Gators could muster a set victory or two. Still, could Ceasar and company pull off a full three-set victory against the defending national champions?
That image just got harder to picture.