The “Big Dance” offers every participating team a fresh start; regardless of its highs or lows from the trek of the regular season. Every match from here on out offers the same message --- win and move on.
For the No. 21 Florida Gators, the clean slate could not come at a better time.
After falling victim to back-to-back sweeps from now-No. 7 Kentucky over the weekend, the Gators (20-8, 14-4) open this year’s NCAA Tournament on Thursday, at home in the O’Connell Center with a match against the Florida A&M Rattlers (25-6, 14-2).
A win against the Rattlers would become head coach Mary Wise’s 1000th career win.
For Florida, the biggest question surrounding the team comes from the absence of redshirt senior T’ara Ceasar. According to an Instagram post Monday night, Caesar will not participate in the tournament and will stepp away from the team to focus on her mental and physical health.
The bombshell left Florida with mere days to find a replacement for the All-SEC Team member who leads the Gators in kills.
That replacement will likely have to come from a few different players. Freshman Merritt Beason has already become a mainstay in the Gators’ starting lineup and sits third on the team kill leaderboard with 202, but she will see an expanded role in Ceasar’s absence.
Sophomore Sofia Victoria is another name to watch out for, as she took on a larger role in Florida’s second match against Kentucky on Nov. 27, registering six of the Gators’ first seven points in set three. It will be hard to replicate Ceasar’s numbers overnight, but a scoring-by-committee approach is likely the Gators best hope.
The Rattlers, led by head coach Gokhan Yilmaz, enter the tournament after winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship over Jackson State.
While Florida A&M did not play the Gators in the regular season, the two teams did share common opponents. The Rattlers and the Gators both fell in four sets to the Florida State Seminoles, but Florida A&M defeated Auburn in five sets while the Gators swept the Tigers. The hosting Gators should hold the upper hand, but the crossover shows the contest could be close, especially without Ceasar.
The Rattlers scoring comes from graduate student Dominique Washington, who leads the team with 557 kills, boasting a mark of 5.06 kills per set. Six different Rattlers have recorded over 100 kills this season, though, one more than the Gators, so Wise will need to prepare her team to defend the entire lineup.
The match will start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, and will be streamed on ESPN+. Statbroadcast will also provide live stats throughout the match.
Contact Carson Cashion at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @carsoncashion.
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.