VETTEL: Top 12 Gator Stories for 2004

It seems rather greedy and demanding to criticize a sports year in which the University of Florida once again won the SEC All-Sports Trophy in the spring and added a pair of conference titles in the fall. But the year 2004 will go down as one of great disappointment and trauma more so than one of great accomplishment for the Florida Gators. It was a year that saw teams that were viewed as "automatic" come up short, featured a coach firing which earned national criticism and scorn.

It was a year that saw the "Gator Nation" divided unlike any time in the previous quarter century.

It is a tribute to the Gator sports program that Florida could have as much success as it did and yet have those accomplishments overshadowed by shortcomings. Thus, we as a staff we offer our top stories for 2004. Almost 20 stories were mentioned on our ballots and only the top three were listed by everyone. Feel free to agree/disagree all you want.

12. Gator Baseball Reaches Super Regional

Third-year Coach Pat McMahon guided the Gators through a very difficult end of the season stretch where they seemingly were on the road for a month. Florida swept a regional in Oklahoma City to earn the school's first NCAA Super Regional appearance. Unfortunately the season ended like so many Florida seasons end… at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes

11. Steve Spurrier Jumps To South Carolina

After his initial interest in returning to the Gators' sideline generated mixed responses, the legendary Gator HBC stepped out of the picture. But now he'll be calling ball plays up in Columbia, South Carolina. It guarantees the strangest atmosphere imaginable when the Gators play up there in November. Of course, it'll be even stranger in 2006 at The Swamp.

10. Hurricanes Wreak Havoc in September

One game was postponed to October instead of December. Another was moved up in the day. Practice schedules were written on an etch-a-sketch and there was absolutely no atmosphere for the first three home games. Placing the Middle Tennessee State game in Florida's October off-week played no small role in the crash in Starkville.

9. Gymnasts Return to Super Six

The dividing line in college gymnastics is clear. You make the Super Six, you're an elite program. You don't, you're not. Second year Coach Rhonda Faehn returned Florida to elite status in 2004, and did so despite an emotionally crushing injury to Kristen Stucky at SEC's. Stucky, whose last surgery was her eighth, has to be near the top of the list of the most admirable, courageous athletes I've encountered in my 26 years covering the Gators.

8. Volleyball Falls Twice to SEC Opponents

Mary Wise had lost two SEC matches, including the conference Tournament in her first 13 years with the Gators, and never in the O'Connell Center. So it was a shocker to see Florida loses twice in as many weeks in the O'Dome, both times to Tennessee. I don't even know what to compare it to, but it should give added appreciation for what Florida accomplished before those losses. Almost a full decade without losing a regular season match and only one SEC tournament setback in 12 years.

7. Ryan Lochte is Golden

When it comes to the Olympics, Florida's premier sport is swimming. Ryan Lochte finished his second Gator season in style, bringing home gold and silver from Athens. Ryan brings home the 32nd gold medal in UF history and the first by a Gator guy since Martin Zubero in Barcelona 1992.

6. Gator Hoops Earns Sixth Bid/Early Exit

The Florida Basketball team made school history with a sixth consecutive 20-win season and NCAA Tournament bid. Florida's season included an early-season win over Arizona and a run to the SEC Tourney Title game. That run however may have been counter-productive as Manhattan took out a fatigued Florida squad in the first round of the NCAA's. It marks the third straight year the Gators did not advance past the opening weekend.

5. Women's Tennis Upset By Miami

The only thing more automatic than Mary Wise's domination of the SEC was the women's tennis team cruising through the NCAA Tournament. Florida had reached the quarterfinals for 17 straight years and advanced to the final four for in 16 of those 17. But that ended in Gainesville when Miami stunned the previously unbeaten Gators 4-3 in the second round (round of 32) of the tournament.

4. Christian Drejer Quits

He came in as "The Great Dane" a European star with a tremendous feel for the game. He left as "The Danish Pastry," an underachiever who quit on his team with six games left in the regular season. Drejer took with him 10.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. At times he looked like an upgrade over Mike Miller. But those moments were too few and too far between and his abandonment of his teammates down the stretch was in a word, deplorable.

3. Football Team Posts Win in Tallahassee

I was the sideline guy for the Gator Radio Network, ankle deep in mud when the Gators last beat the Seminoles in Tallahassee back in 1986. In the years that followed, Florida was often the inferior team, but not in '94, '96 or '98. So it stands to reason that an okay Florida team would end that streak of futility. Of course, like the entire Zook era, it didn't some easily as costly turnovers and mistakes I coverage gave FSU a chance at the Florida end zone in the closing minutes. This time, Jarvis Herring made the pick, and Ron Zook got the most bittersweet victory ride in school history.

2. Urban Meyer Hired By Florida

It was first suggested here on Gator Country back in early November that Florida and Urban Meyer were edging closer and closer together. While Notre Dame's firing of Tyrone Willingham threatened to toss a monkey wrench into the process, the Gators got their man. A 40-year-old Bob Stoops look-a-like and sound-a-like who brings a 38-8 record and incredible promise to Gainesville. There are questions if his style of play will work in the more physically gifted SEC, and they are legit questions. Just as they were in 1990 when a cocky smart aleck from Duke promised to chuck the ball all around the field in the manly power-oriented SEC.

1. Ron Zook Fired After Debacle at Mississippi State

There was little doubt Florida's loss in Starkville would assure a coaching change for the Gators in 2005, but almost everyone was stunned that it happened almost immediately. Zook's mishandling of the fraternity incident had already enraged many in the front office (more so than they'll ever admit) but giving up 38 points to the worst team in the league was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. At the time of his firing, Zook was 20-13, but just 14-13 against BCS conference competition. A disturbing pattern of late game collapses and coaching misjudgments combined to undermine confidence in him as a head coach. The curious timing of the firing did allow Florida to do the kind of background search and due diligence that was not done in January of 2002, but it sure made for a very stressful November for all concerned.

Among others receiving votes:

Late game officiating contributes to loss in Knoxville
Football suffers four SEC losses
Football struggles through summertime/frat hassles
Gator Track performs well at NCAA
Ciatrick Fason says no more for C-4
Bernie Machen takes over the University of Florida
Gator icons Norm Carlson, Bud Fernandez retire

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