Call these Gators the Rodney Dangerfields of the NCAA volleyball tournament because they get no respect.
When the NCAA announced its 64-team bracket for the 2004 volleyball championship Sunday night, the biggest shock of all was how Mary Wise and her Florida Gators were treated. The Gators finished the season 27-4, tied for a fourteenth consecutive Southeastern Conference championship, and those four losses were to teams seeded fourth, sixth and twelfth in this year's big tournament.
Yet for all that, the Gators are traveling in the first round. Even more shocking, Florida, ranked twelfth in the country, isn't even seeded in the top 16 teams.
Florida will open tournament play Friday in Tallahassee against Florida A&M (28-2), which hosts the first two rounds. Should the Gators win the first round match, they will play the winner of Jacksonville and Stanford (24-6), seeded eleventh but unbelievably forced to travel all the way across the country. If the Gators advance through the first two rounds, they have been placed in the regional that will be played in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a regional that includes undefeated, yet strangely third-seeded Hawaii (28-0) and Texas (24-4) a four-game winner over Florida at midseason.
Wise put her best smile on the insult, but she was obviously shocked at the NCAA's treatment of her team.
"It never dawned on me that we would not be a top 16 seed," said Wise at the Lemerand Center where she and her team watched the announcement of the pairings on ESPN News. "It's a surprise and a disappointment, but it's behind us, and now we move forward.
"Playing Florida A&M in the first round is no surprise. Playing Florida A&M in Tallahassee, that kinda caught us by surprise, but that's the way the draw is and now we will work all week preparing for Florida A&M."
Florida A&M is an outstanding team which earlier in the season handed then undefeated Minnesota (Final Four last year, fourth seed this year, 28-4 record) its first loss of the season. FAMU is a team built with international players. There are five from Peru, four from Bulgaria, one from Serbia and another from Germany on its roster. FAMU's head coach, Tanio Trifonov, is from Bulgaria, and his assistant coach, Luis Ramirez, is from Peru.
"We're familiar with Florida A&M in that we played them in the spring," said Wise. "They are a veteran team, a very international flavored team that will be a very tough matchup for us because of what they do well.
"What we're hoping is that we get a whole bunch of our Gator fans that will decide that they would be coming to watch us this weekend, just that they need to come watch us in Tallahassee."
The Gators are coming off two wins in the St. John's Classic in New York where they played a very strong Towson State team in the finals, a five-game match that saw Florida rally from down, 2-1, taking game five on eight straight service points from Marcie Hampton.
"The Towson team was a senior dominated excellent team," she said. "We showed that we could come from behind. There are enough really good things happening with our team."
Senior Lauren Moscovic, who's been to two Final Fours and has never played the first round away from Gainesville, was a bit surprised with the pairings, but like Wise, put her best smile on an awkward and unexpected scenario.
"Hey we look at it like we're just going to Tallahassee, so there's no plane flight and it's just another opportunity to play another excellent team," said Moscovic. "I think we've proven we can play anyone anywhere and at any time. This is just another barrier and we'll just have to overcome it."
Senior middle blocker Sherri Williams added, "It really doesn't matter if we have to travel or not. Whether it's at home or away, we're just out here to win."