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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Gators ride momentum into Kentucky for pivotal weekend

After winning nine straight matches, No. 20 Florida will finish the season with two games against No. 8 Kentucky

Florida's T'ara Ceasar serves against Texas A&M on Oct. 16.
Florida's T'ara Ceasar serves against Texas A&M on Oct. 16.

It was only fitting redshirt senior T’ara Ceasar buried the final home kill of the Gators’ 2021 volleyball season; the Panama City, Florida, native’s 14 kills served as the driving force behind No. 20 Florida’s second sweep of the South Carolina Gamecocks in as many days.

After her team struggled out of the gate in out-of-conference play, Ceasar led the Gators back into the national conversation with a 14-2 conference record featuring an ongoing nine-match winning streak.

Florida passed every test its conference schedule has thrown its way so far, but the final exam awaits in Lexington, Kentucky, with a weekend series against the No. 8 Wildcats.

In the final two matches of the regular season against Kentucky, the Gators need to maintain the same level of excellence that guided the team to the nine straight wins and head coach Mary Wise to her 999th career victory.

While the winning streak is impressive within itself, the manner in which the Gators dismantled teams should have future opponents seeing ghosts. In nine matches, Florida played 30 total sets, winning 27 of them. The team executed seven sweeps and only allowed one match to extend to a full five sets. Consistency from game to game has evolved into a focal point of the team’s mentality this year.

“On night two, it doesn’t matter what happened on night one,” Wise said after Saturday’s match against South Carolina.

This laser focus carried the Gators to a near-perfect month, and it will need to be present as the season comes to a close. Kentucky has only lost a single conference match, a five-set affair against South Carolina. The ‘Cats swept the Gamecocks in the subsequent match, and have swept every opponent since.

The other factor in Florida’s recent success has been Ceasar’s sheer dominance. After being named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week for the second consecutive week, she was dubbed the Sports Imports/AVCA National Player of the Week last Thursday for her efforts against Arkansas. The senior recorded at least 10 kills in eight of her last nine matches, including two 20-kill outings against Tennessee and Arkansas. 

Ceasar makes the offense hum, but the rest of the lineup holding down the defense have turned five-set victories into sweeps. No team wielded a hitting efficiency higher than .250 against the Gators during the winning streak, a statistic that speaks to Florida’s ability to suffocate quality scoring opportunities out of any opponent. The team allowed more than 20 points in just four set victories during that stretch. 

Some of that defensive success could be attributed to the quality of the opponent; Florida has only played three matches against teams in the top half of the SEC (two against Arkansas, one against Tennessee). The chemistry and fundamentals that lead to the defensive prowess, however, should be able to survive tougher opponents. That idea will be put to the test this weekend.

“I don’t think it will be hard to get the players' attention,” Wise said. “They know what’s at stake.”

So what actually is at stake? A few things.

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Two wins from the Gators would vault them ahead of the ‘Cats in the SEC standings; if Mississippi State were to lose to Auburn in its final match of the season, Florida would be named the SEC Champions. 

That scenario might be a long-shot, but there is another, clearer accolade Florida can achieve with a win in the Commonwealth State: Wise’s 1,000th career win.

After all, there aren’t many chances to celebrate history by knocking off the defending national champions.

Contact Carson Cashion at Follow him on Twitter @carsoncashion.

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Carson Cashion

Carson Cashion is a third-year sports journalism major at UF, and the sports editor at The Alligator for the 2022 summer semester. A native of Altamonte Springs, Carson spends his free time walking his dog, Baxter, and listening to good music. He is an avid Tennessee sports fan, and eagerly awaits watching one of his teams win a championship for the first time.

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