KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A year ago, Florida was uncharacteristically dispatched from the NCAA Tournament in the second round.
And the Gators didn’t forget about that.
“It was tough going out that early. It was not what we expected,” said Florida senior defensive specialist Lindsey Rogers. “But we came back stronger from it, learned from it and fought to get to where we are. It’s something to be proud of.”
While there were initial long faces Saturday night after Florida lost 3-1 to Nebraska in the NCAA Division Women’s Volleyball Championship, the Gators instead chose to look at their overall body of work that included a 30-2 mark and the program’s second all-time appearance in the sport’s final match of the season.
“We look at this match and this match will not define the 2017 Gators,” said Florida coach Mary Wise, who earlier in the week was named the AVCA Division I national coach of the year. “There is so much to be proud of in terms of what they accomplished.”
Senior libero Caroline Knop labeled the mindset coming off last year’s second-round loss as a need to change. Senior outside hitter Carli Snyder called this year’s turnaround and advancement to the final “inspiring.”
“A year ago in the NCAA tournament we were out in the second round and said we are going to change some things,” said Snyder, who was set 53 out of the team’s 142 total swings against Nebraska. “We are here doing a press conference at the finals and if that doesn’t inspire people that they can make a change, you can shift the culture, you can bring a team together and create a common goal and really work? That’s why you see us crying up here because there is not a group that I would rather go until the very last day with.”
Snyder, who was named to the all-tournament team in Kansas City along with fellow senior Rhamat Alhassan, summed up the team’s makeup by referencing the Gators’ win against USC at home in five against USC in the regional final.
“Sure, there are gritty wins over USC at home in five, but I think what won us that match is no one could bear not to go to practice on Monday,” Snyder said. “It’s that group that you want to be around. It’s that type of people. That’s the kind of teammate you want to be.”
Even in the waning moments Saturday night, with the situation bleak, there was senior Shainah Joseph giving an impassioned speech to the team during the Gators’ final timeout and the team staring at a 20-13 deficit.
“I said we can’t stop fighting,” Joseph said. “We’ve come back from many things and won many sets when we have been down. I told them we have to keep fighting and think about every single point and that everybody has to do their role right here and right now and we have to leave it all on the court.”
The Gators did indeed leave it all on the court, but ran into a Nebraska team that brought the heat from the service line throughout the match and used that advantage to help it win its second NCAA title in the last three years.
“Nebraska served really tough and put us out of system a lot,” said Rogers. “There was a lot of tough serving.”
“I thought Nebraska played a very clean match,” said Wise, whose team had beaten Nebraska in five early in the season in Gainesville. “Obviously, they put a lot of pressure on us with both their serving and their backrow defense.”
The Nebraska team Florida encountered in the final was not the same Huskers team that lost to Florida in five in Gainesville in the second match of the year.
“Other teams that have played Nebraska in the past month haven’t had any better luck either,” said Wise, who started her coaching career at Iowa State as the youngest head coach in NCAA history at 21 back in 1981 and now is the owner of 905 career wins. “That’s a very, very well-coached team, very disciplined and took care of the ball exceptionally well tonight.”
Wise followed that assessment up by focusing on Florida’s overall body of work, one that included a 16-match winning streak going into the championship match with seven of those being sweeps and the last two coming gritty 3-2 wins against Pac-12 entrants USC and Stanford to reach the national finale.
“We look at this match and this match will not define the 2017 Gators,” she said. “There is so much to be proud of in terms of what they accomplished.”
Knop, Florida’s tough-as-nails libero playing with a busted hand for nearly a month, shared her coach’s exact sentiments. “Again, this loss isn’t going to define our season,” she said. “This isn’t going to define Florida volleyball. So many great things happened this year.”
Alhassan, a first-team AVCA All-American selection, said it’s rare to find a team where everyone likes each other.
“I think that’s what we had and that’s why we enjoyed it so much,” Alhassan said. “That’s kind of the reason why we wanted to change the culture. We were able to change the culture because everyone bought in. Everyone wanted to be there.
“We had people getting up at 6 a.m., for lifts and happy to be there and wanting to be there and respecting our coaching staff, respecting every person that goes to work and stays up — our trainers who come in before us and leave after us. That’s why we’re here. It’s kind of the people. The people are what made it fun and made us want to be here. It’s made the last four years an amazing journey.”
Those last four years were enjoyed by a quintet of seniors in Rogers, Snyder, Alhassan, Knop and Joseph. Those five were part of four Florida teams that went 110-17, won or shared three Southeastern Conference titles and made two NCAA Tournament rounds of eight and this NCAA final.
“It’s going to be really hard to put into words,” said Wise when asked to talk about the senior group. “Each one of them and their personalities, their talents, those five are going to…our world is in a good place with those five. I mean, the volleyball world and the world beyond it. That is one special group.”
Joseph, a product of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, is more than thrilled she wound up in Gainesville.
“If I had to do it all over again and sit the bench for four years, I would do it all over again just to make it all the way here and be in the national championship,” Joseph said.
Joseph and Snyder tied for the team high in kills with 11 each against Nebraska, but Joseph, in the grand scheme of things, could care less about the statistics.
“I’m not going to remember all the points we scored or the big kills,” she said. “I am going to remember all the time we spent on and off the court, the little moments. I love every single one of these girls and the coaching staff. This is a legitimate family for me. Spending time with them is what I am going to remember the most.
“I’m going to remember making it to the final four and will remember us fighting so hard and having so much fun on the court.”
Knop said she hopes this situation sets up future Gator teams for even more success and ultimately the program’s first NCAA crown.
“Our goal from last year to this year was to change the culture,” Knop said. “And if we did that, we are going to be so happy leaving this program. That if everyone who comes after us, works hard and enjoys each other, that will be the biggest win for the (five seniors), when somebody from Florida is holding that national-championship trophy in a few years.”