Giving Other Sports Their Due - Part 5

Well our review of some of the greatest Gator seasons that did not result in a national championship has now reached our own version of the Final Four. These are the four seasons that for a variety of reasons stand out to us as the best ever at Florida.

As we have gone through this, we have tried to select seasons that were either the best for a team that never won an NCAA Championship or seasons that helped raise the program to being on the verge of winning it all. Funny, but our pick for No. 1 doesn't fit either category, but that just makes it more interesting, right?

We'll look at half the Final Four today and the other half tomorrow. Then, hopefully you will point out our errors along the way.

#12 Men's Tennis 2000
#11 Women's Tennis 1980

#10 Soccer 1996
#9 Women's Basketball 1997

#8 Women's Tennis 1988
#7 Volleyball 1992

#6 Baseball 2005
#5 Gymnastics 2007

#4 Volleyball 2003 -----
Mary Wise and her Gator volleyball team entered the 2003 season on a mission. Florida had missed the NCAA Final Four for three straight seasons after making three straight appearances in the Final Four from 1996 through '98. Florida was determined to return to the ultimate stage in collegiate volleyball and seemed well equipped to do just that.

The Gators had tremendous outside hitting with Aury Cruz and Jane Collymore, All-American blocker Benavia Jenkins, a veteran setter in Lauren Moscovic and more. They also had a hunger after losing a thrilling match to Stanford in the NCAA Tournament, only to see the Cardinal win it all with no team taking them to five games like the Gators did.

Florida opened the season in Hawaii against pre-season No. 1 southern Cal and dropped a competitive match to the Women of Troy. It would be a long time before these Gators would lose again. Florida beat nationally ranked Kansas State the next day and two weeks later they swept the Stanford Invitational, sweeping the defending champs in three games.

The Gators would win every remaining match in the regular season, and phenomenally won each match in three games. That's right, after losing game three of the match to Kansas State, Florida won 82 consecutive games to finish the regular season 28-1. The streak continued with three sweeps in the SEC Tournament and three more in the NCAA Tournament to reach the Regional Final. Florida took a 34 match and 100 game winning streak into the match with Penn State, and they did so despite the costly loss of Jenkins to a knee injury. The Nittany Lions were no match for the Orange and Blue and the Gators were back in the Final Four.
Florida had been to six previous Final Fours, losing in the semi-finals each time. The Gators had a history of reaching the ultimate event shorthanded in the past, and that was the case again with Jenkins on the sidelines. Still this team was focused and on an incredible roll and when out and beat Hawaii to earn the Gators' first trip to the NCAA Title Match. Top-ranked Southern Cal was waiting for Florida with a huge (and seemingly very old) front line. The Gators played great in the first two games, winning the first game 30-25 and coming up just short in the second, 27-30. After the break Southern Cal dominated game three 30-19 and held off a furious Florida rally to win game four (30-26) and the match.

Of all the great teams Wise has had at Florida, this was the most dominant and this was the one that made it to the NCAA Finals. And had they stayed healthy, this likely would have been the first NCAA Champion too.

#3 Baseball 1988 ----- This was not the most talented baseball team in school history, not even close. This was not the most successful team UF ever had, see No. 6 on this list. But this was the greatest season in Gator baseball history.

The 1988 Gators didn't get off the greatest of starts, wining just six of their first ten games as Coach Joe Arnold sorted out the roles on his pitching staff. After a couple of weeks this team hit its stride. Florida was 24-8, (9-3) when they hit a bump in road and dropped six of seven. But they quickly regrouped, ending the regular season with 13 wins in their final 14 games.

Arnold's Gators headed to Starkville for the SEC Tournament and promptly dropped the opener to Georgia before beating Auburn and LSU. The Gators needed two wins over the host Mississippi State Bulldogs to win the tournament and they did just that.

Then it was off to Tallahassee for the NCAA Regional and this time the Gators won the opener before losing to NC State 13-3. Facing elimination, the Gators ripped Tulane and FSU to reach the final against either FSU or Stetson. Everyone thought it would be the Seminoles in the final, but Stetson stunned the host ‘Noles to the dismay of the home fans.

That night it was Florida and Stetson and while thousands of Gator fans packed the stadium, organizers wouldn't let them into the main grandstand. The seats were reserved. They were empty, but they were reserved. Still fans got their money's worth as Florida took an early 5-0 lead before Mario Linares iced the game with a three run homer. Joe Klancnik and Jamie McAndrew combined for a shutout and the Gators were headed to Omaha.

It was cool to be the lone man on the microphone to broadcast the Gators' first game from the college World Series, and it hardly mattered that the Gators lost to Wichita State. A 6-5 win over California kept the Gators around another day, but the season ended at the hands (and bats) of Arizona State 10-1. It really didn't matter. The Gators had showed they could make it to the College World Series, and they've been there four times since.

Our count is down to our choices for the two best non-national title seasons in Gator history in the programs other than football and basketball. You think you know what's coming up? I bet you're wrong.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel


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