Volleyball Era Just About Over

For years I knew the only two things in life that were certain were death and taxes. Then Mary Wise took over the Florida Volleyball program and a third certainty was added, Florida would win the SEC Title in Volleyball.

For an incredible 18 consecutive years Wise led the Gators to the top spot in the SEC despite wearing a bulls-eye that was as big as all outdoors. However that string of dominance all but ended Friday night when the Gators dropped a four set decision to LSU. The loss dropped the Gators to 14-3 in the SEC, the first time a Mary Wise coached team has lost that many SEC matches. Florida now trails both LSU (15-2) and Kentucky (15-1) in the league and now only needs to win its remaining three conference matches, but Florida needs both Kentucky and LSU to lose an additional match in order to tie for the title.

That's highly unlikely.

Keep in mind that the worst season Wise has had in 19 years has the Gators at 20-4, 14-3 and ranked tenth in the nation. The Gators are assured of another NCAA bid and will host the NCAA Regionals, even though they'll have to win two matches to qualify for that event, which is the equivalent of the Sweet 16.

For years we have opined that Florida has been hurt in NCAA Tournament play by the ease with which it won the SEC year in and year out. The Gators were not as "match tough" as others as a result. Well, this year that theory gets put to the test. The SEC is anything but easy with four teams in the top 25 RPI (Florida-11, LSU-18, Tennessee-22, Kentucky-23). The Gators have also played two top ten RPI teams out of conference (FSU-3, Washington-5) and will add No. 24 Notre Dame Thanksgiving weekend. All in all this is probably the toughest schedule the Gators have ever had.

What's Wrong?

Well, first of all it's sort of amusing to ask such a question when a team is in the top ten and has won 20 of 24 matches, but it's a legitimate question. Florida is not as strong as the Gators of past years that made seven trips to the NCAA Final Four and the reason is smack dab in the middle.

The Gators have had a tradition of great middle blockers from Aycan Gokberk to Nina Foster, Heather Wright and Benavia Jenkins. But in the last several years the Gators have not had great play in the middle and it shows. Not only has Florida not blocked balls as well as it had in the past, but the Gators score precious few points from the middle. That puts too much pressure on the outside hitters and makes Florida much easier to defend.

The Gators are still an outstanding team, don't get me wrong. But they are not a championship team until/unless they can restore balance to their attack and bring in a top flight middle that can return the team to the nation's elite.

It'll happen. Count on it.

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