Will this be the year?
It’s the question UF head coach Mary Wise has been asked time and time again.
The No.12 Florida Gators will look to answer that question starting Friday night when they host the Florida A&M Rattlers for the first round of the 2022 NCAA Volleyball Tournament at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The Gators seek to return to the NCAA championship game for the first time since 2017 when they fell to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Wise’s 2003 group also made the title game and lost to Southern California.
This season has been a fountain of youth for Florida, as the program saw many veterans depart after the 2021 season ended in a Round of 16 loss to the No. 1 Louisville Cardinals.
Wise has been pleased with the growth of her team and the chemistry everyone has bought into.
“When we started back in August, and the experience that we graduated, everything was brand new, and especially from the offensive standpoint,” Wise said.
Florida finished the regular season 23-5 and won eight of its final nine games in Southeastern Conference play. A 15-3 conference record allowed the Gators to split the SEC title with Kentucky. The season has not been without its growing pains, as is expected for a younger squad.
Losses to No. 12 Stanford and No. 4 Minnesota in the season’s opening weeks as well as a sweep from unranked Georgia at home in October represented some difficult lessons for UF. These defeats set the stage for an impressive five-set road triumph over No. 4 Wisconsin in front of the largest crowd in NCAA volleyball history and a home sweep of SEC-rival Kentucky in November.
The emergence of star freshman setter Alexis Stucky and the continued growth of sophomores Merritt Beason, Gabrielle Essix and Bre Kelley provided the spark UF needed to capture its 25th SEC championship last weekend against Ole Miss. Juniors Elli McKissock and Sofia Victoria, along with senior Syracuse transfer Marina Markova, have brought a much-needed veteran presence.
Stucky, who was named SEC Freshman of the Year Sunday, dished out 10.72 assists per set this season, good for second in the conference. The Wyoming native filled the shoes of former setter Marlie Monserez seamlessly and displayed the hallmarks of a seasoned player while facilitating UF’s offense.
Florida has been one of the nation’s best blocking teams this year thanks in large part to the front-row efforts of Kelley and Essix, who have helped the Gators record an SEC-best 2.75 blocks per set.
Beason and Markova have locked down the outsides and left many opponents scrambling to react to their leaping attacks. The pair was named to the All-SEC team for their performances and paced the Gators with more than three kills per set. Victoria’s 261-kill season proves just how many offensive weapons Florida has at its disposal.
McKissock, who eclipsed 1,000 career digs this season, has been the staple of Florida’s defense. UF’s libero said her group is entering this tournament with an underdog mentality.
“We have a lot of new players so [we’re] just going in guns blazing,” McKissock said. “Having a lot of fun with these girls I think is the main mentality and enjoying the moment as we've been talking about in practice these last few days.”
Wise spoke glowingly of McKissock, who she regards as UF’s most veteran player.
“We've asked a lot from Elli,” Wise said. “Her game has evolved; she's always been a great passer … the small balls, the secondary setting, hitter coverage, all the little things that the great liberos do, that's what Elli does for us.”
Friday’s tilt against Florida A&M is a rematch of Florida’s first-round game from a year ago, which also took place at the O’Dome. The Gators ended the Rattlers' season in three dominant sets, 25-11, 25-14, 25-8.
FAMU, led by fourth-year head coach Gokhan Yilmaz, finished 21-12 overall and 15-1 in the Southwest Athletic Conference. The Rattlers earned their second SWAC title in program history and returned their top hitter from last year, graduate Dominique Washington, who racked up 421 kills to lead the conference.
Murray State transfer Brooke Lynn Watts is also one to watch on offense. The sophomore’s 314 kills rank second on the team.
“There are familiar faces from a year ago,’ Wise said. “This day and age of the [transfer] portal I think we're seeing less and less times where a team looks anywhere close to what they did a year ago.”
If history is destined to repeat itself, the Gators should have no trouble with Florida A&M, which is 0-12 all-time against Florida. All 12 of those victories have been sweeps, meaning FAMU has never even won a set against UF.
Should the Gators prevail, they will play Saturday against the winner of Friday’s earlier matchup between Florida Gulf Coast and Iowa State. Florida earned its fifth win of the season against FGCU Sept. 9, a three-set home sweep. The Gators have not faced Iowa State since 2011, a series UF leads 3-1.
Wise has been through this enough to know that any win in the tournament, no matter how swift, is worth celebrating.
“You go into this 0-0,” Wise said. “The team that can play loose and free and have a little bit of luck staying injury free; those are the teams that advance.”
Florida and FAMU’s match will stream on ESPN+. First serve is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Contact Ethan Eibe at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators baseball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.