Wise, Gator Volleyball at Crossroads

Mary Wise's 20th season at the helm of the Gator volleyball program was marked by Florida posting a 29-2 record and winning its 19th SEC Championship. The Gators spent the entire season highly ranked and much of it in the No. 1 spot. So why would I be writing that the program is at a crossroads? It comes down to four simple letters.

N C A A

Florida was ousted by Purdue in resounding fashion in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. That in and of itself isn't a big deal, but the fact that it was the Gators fifth straight third round exit is. Wise led the Gators to the NCAA Final Four seven times in her first 13 seasons, but she has not been able to guide the Gators back there since playing for the NCAA Title in 2003. Getting back to that level comes down to recruiting, and that brings up the other key to Florida being at the crossroads. It comes down to just three letters.

S E C

The Southeastern Conference has made some progress as a volleyball league, but not nearly enough. Sure it's great to win all those SEC Titles and order rings year in and year out, but there's a price being paid. The lack of elite (top 20) teams in the SEC is limiting the Gators in two crucial ways.

First of all, the lack of competition within the SEC makes it tough for Florida to be primed for tournament play. The Gators get a little bit of fool's gold in dominating the SEC, but the bottom line is that the team isn't match tough enough. Look at this year's NCAA Sweet 16 for proof. The Big Ten had six teams reach the regionals; the Big 12 had four as did the Pac-10. Meanwhile the SEC (Florida) and ACC (Duke) managed to advance just one team to the third round.

The weakness of the league is the No. 1 weapon used against the Gators on the recruiting trail, and it works. The same reason SEC teams recruit so well in football and gymnastics (among other sports) is that the SEC is the best and most players want to compete with the best. In the last 19 years only two SEC schools have sent teams to the Final Four – Florida and Tennessee – and that's just not enough to attract most of the top players.

I'm not saying the Gators can not win an NCAA title under the current set of circumstances, just that there are things conspiring against the Gators and their superb coach in trying to make that happen. Mary Wise had great success with foreign born players like Gudi Staub, Steffi Legall, Aury Cruz and Aurymar Rodriguez. It make take more overseas recruiting for the Gators to get to where they can beat the best teams in the country not only at the beginning of the year, but the end of it as well.

Some better SEC programs would help too.


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