Alhassan, Snyder lead Florida into stretch run, NCAA schedule, MVC tourney

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Senior outside Carli Snyder goes all out on defense for Florida/UAA Communications photo by Jim Burgess

They probably lead the nation in being silly off the court, but on it they’re all business. And Florida seniors Rhamat Alhassan and Carli Snyder, who crochet together, end their regular season Saturday at Missouri.

But first a look at Friday’s schedule and a recap of the first day of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

Top-ranked Penn State (27-1, 17-1 Big Ten) plays a ranked team for the first time in three weeks Friday when the Nittany Lions go to No. 11 Wisconsin. Penn State trails idle Nebraska (25-4, 18-1), which ends its B1G season Saturday against Iowa.

Also in the B1G on Friday, No. 8 Minnesota plays host to Rutgers, No. 10 Michigan State plays at No. 16 Purdue, Michigan goes to Indiana and Northwestern travels to Maryland.

In the SEC, No. 6 Kentucky, which is ranked No. 1 in the NCAA RPI, goes to Georgia. Kentucky is 25-3, 16-1, while Florida, No. 2 in the RPI, stands 24-1, 16-1. Also in the SEC Friday, LSU goes to Tennessee and Mississippi State plays at South Carolina.

The ACC leaders both play Friday, but then Pittsburgh plays again Saturday in the only league match of the day.

Louisville (23-6, 17-2), which holds a half-game lead on Pittsburgh (23-6, 16-2), finishes its regular season at Syracuse, while the Panthers play at Virginia Tech.

Also Friday, Notre Dame goes to Boston College, Florida State is at Georgia Tech, NC State is at Wake Forest, Miami is at Clemson and North Carolina plays at Duke. Then Saturday, Pittsburgh plays at Virginia.

There are three matches in the Pac-12 Friday. No. 12 Washington plays host to Washington State, and a Washington State win would go a long way in helping the Cougars’ cause in getting an NCAA at-large bid. No. 15 Utah is at Colorado and No. 24 Oregon goes to Oregon State.

The Big 12 is idle, but No. 2 Texas plays at No. 18 Baylor on Saturday.

No. 17 Creighton plays in a Big East semifinal match against Villanova, while No. 20 Wichita State finishes the American Athletic season at home against Memphis.

To watch those matches or find out where they’re being shown, go to our daily VolleyballMag.com TV and streaming listings.

Indiana State, Illinois State win in MVC: The Sycamores and Redbirds made the most of playing on Thanksgiving as fifth-seeded Indiana State ousted fourth-seeded Drake and will play top-seeded and 25th-ranked Missouri State, while third-seeded Illinois State beat sixth-seeded Valparaiso in four and gets No. 2 Northern Iowa.

Indiana State (11-20) won 25-23, 30-28, 25-19, ending Drake’s season at 23-10. Laura Gross led with Indiana State with 11 kills and 15 digs.

Illinois State (21-11) beat Valpo 23-25, 25-15, 25-23, 25-19, which ended its season 17-16. Five players had 10 or more kills for the Redbirds, led by Jaelyn Keene’s 14. She added five digs and five blocks.

Florida senior Rhamat Alhassan, on the attack, leads the NCAA in blocks per set / UAA Communications photo by Tim Casey

Stretch run for Florida’s Alhassan, Snyder: They’ve saved the best for last, Alhassan, the blocking-machine middle named the SEC player of the year, and Snyder, also an SEC first-teamer and the glue that holds the Gators together.

It’s a long way from that night they hung out together as freshmen, Alhassan, who plays the violin and does crochet on bus rides, and Snyder, a voracious reader.

“I remember distinctly my freshman year Rhamat teaching me how to knit in my dorm room,” Snyder recalled with a laugh. “We were just sitting there and it was a Friday night after a game and I was just sitting there thinking that when I had this vision of college in my head at a top SEC school I didn’t picture knitting in my dorm room on a Friday night and having so much fun.  It was like the most fun night.”

Worth noting is that her freshman year Snyder made scarves for everyone in her family.

Whereas Alhassan, the product of Maryland, is 6-foot-4 and just a massive presence on the court who touches 11 feet, 3.5 inches, Snyder is a lanky 6-foot-1 outside from Michigan whose remarkable rocket of an arm and defensive skills are astounding.

Snyder ranks sixth in the NCAA in aces per set (.52), leads the Gators in kills with 308 (3.54 per set), is second only to libero Caroline Knop with 300 digs (3.45 per set) and has 44 blocks, two solo.

Snyder credits getting much stronger at Florida, “but the way I grew up playing was unconventional. My sister and I played one-on-one in the backyard and you get your hand on the ball and it eventually goes where you want it to go. I had such a love for the game and I never thought I was way skinnier than all the other girls that are getting recruited by top schools.

“I never really thought about it until I got to Florida and there would be the comments that the announcers would make,” she said with a laugh. “But I guess just having such a passion for the game really does carry you very far.”

She’s not the thinnest any more, because if you want lanky, there’s Florida’s 6-8 sophomore middle Rachael Kramer, second to Snyder in kills with 253 (hitting .429, eighth in the NCAA) and second to Alhassan in blocks with 99, five solo.

“And she worked really, really hard in the offseason as well,” Snyder said. “She can lift as much as Rhamat.”

Which is a big reason why Florida is more dangerous than ever. The Gators can get you from all angles, especially with Snyder on the left side and senior Shainah Joseph on the right and Kramer at one middle.

But there’s only one Alhassan, who leads the NCAA in blocks per set (1.79) with a total of 154, 12 solo. And she hits as hard as anyone, averaging 2.79 per set while hitting .400.

“She is one of my favorite people off the court, so it is kind of funny when I think all she’s achieved as a volleyball player, because the first thing I think of about Rhamat is goofing around our freshman year and her yelling at me because I’m messy in our dorm room. I laugh when I think, ‘Oh, my God, you could definitely be an Olympian!’ It makes me feel better when she blocks me in practice.”

Alhassan, who was an outstanding basketball player in high school, has spent extensive time with USA Volleyball on the national level and says that’s helped her in a big way.

“It was a really great atmosphere and being able to go in there and learn from all these really great players as the the youngest college athlete in that gym, it kind of freed the burden for me of not having the responsibility of being the leader worry about anything,” Alhassan said. “I was there purely to learn and ask as many questions as I possibly could in my time there. I learned so much about volleyball and the international game and seeing my career moving forward and getting to play (professionally) overseas.”

Florida entered this season with most of the roster intact and some exciting young players on board, but without All-American stalwart in Alex Holston, the right side who left as one of the best Gators ever.

But Florida was good from the get-go this season, opening in August with victories at home over then No. 1 Texas in four and then No. 5 Nebraska in five.

Florida’s all-around senior Carli Snyder on the attack/ UAA Communications photo by Greenberry Taylor

“We have put a lot of work into smoothing out some of the rough patches you see early in a season,” Snyder said. “Our right-side connection has been phenomenal. (Setter) Allie (Monserez) and Shainah have really worked hard at running a consistent tempo with each other and playing to Shainah’s strength, because they are different from Alex Holston’s but super useful when other teams have to respect our right sides just as much as our middles, because our middles do a lot for us. We’ve been spreading our offense around more and seeing more productivity especially the right side and that’s been so helpful for our transition offense, as well. That’s one thing that’s improved a lot.”

Said Alhassan, “We’re definitely better. Our goal was to peak now. We didn’t want to peak in the middle of our season but keep going upward and that’s what we’ve done. And I think you can see that from the way we played Kentucky the second time.”

The first time they played, October 15 in Gainesville, Kentucky took it to the Gators 25-20, 25-22, 23-25, 25-16. In the rematch at UK on November 1, Florida came away with a sweep 25-19, 25-23, 25-22.

“Those 18 days in between we managed to get so much better,” Alhassan said.

Florida is perennially a national power and Gators have been close in their previous three years.

In 2014, when Alhassan and Snyder were freshmen, Florida lost in the regional final to Stanford.

In 2015, they lost in five, 17-15 in the fifth, at Texas in a regional-final match that took 2 hours, 38 minutes.

Then last year the Gators were knocked out at home in the second round by Florida State.

But this year is different for a program that’s been building for this stretch run with all the parts in place.

“It started with what we did all spring,” Snyder said. “We had a very large group returning and we had a lot of new faces. We had a strong core returning which was super useful. And we did talk about that early, that we wanted to set the culture tone, not during preseason, not in August, but in spring workouts and what we were going to be about next year. And since then we set a really high standard for ourselves.

“It has been building and we set the bar a little higher every day and it’s going really well.”

Florida, as mentioned, finishes the SEC regular season Saturday at Missouri and then will be home at least for the first two rounds. The Gators also have to considered favorites to get one of the coveted top four seeds, which means if they advance playing a regional at home.

We finish so many interviews asking players simply, your team will win the national championship because and ask them to fill in the blank.

Said Snyder: “We have a passion for the person we’re playing next to and we the drive to get better for the people around us.”

Said Alhassan: “We have the gritty mentality.”

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