GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After all these years, more than 1,000 regular-season wins, and now 80 NCAA Tournament wins, Mary Wise knows better than anyone else who was underneath the white dome of Exactech Arena on Saturday night.
She certainly understands the moment more than her players, who were not born when Wise took over the Gators volleyball program in 1991. Wise grasps from top to bottom that performances such as Florida’s three-set NCAA Tournament sweep (25-19, 25-23, 25-14) of Iowa State are to be cherished, celebrated and appreciated.
“We will never, ever take it for granted,” Wise said.
Yes, to keep playing deeper into December, you must quickly turn the page and prepare for the next opponent – in this case, Pittsburgh, which advanced by sweeping BYU on Saturday – but in Wise’s world, there must be time taken to realize where you are and where you hope to go.
It’s a season-long process that only intensifies once the postseason begins. It’s a journey that evolves from a “hot mess” –how Wise described her 32nd Gators team when it came together for spring workouts – to the one that left her smiling and thanking the robust student section that turned out for the win over Iowa State.
“This group has just embraced learning and embraced each other, and they said from the get-go they’re a really fun group to be around,” Wise said. “They’re awfully loose.”
The Gators played like a team hungry for more NCAA Tournament wins by dismantling the Cyclones in every way possible. The Gators stormed out in front to win the first set. They fell behind 6-1 in the second set before rallying. They dominated the final set.
Florida did it with powerful play at the net, razor-sharp defense, efficient passing, and solid serving. When the match did get dicey in the second set, the Gators responded like a contender.
Marina Markova bombed back-to-back kills. Emily Canaan dived onto a table for a save. The Gators eventually climbed all the way back, and then Bre Kelley provided breathing room with back-to-back blocks that put UF up 24-22. The Cyclones trimmed the lead to a point, but then Markova hammered home a kill, and that was it. When Merritt Beason closed the match’s longest rally with a kill in the third set, Florida led 17-6, and it was only a matter of time before the Cyclones’ season stopped twisting.
“We don’t get outdone very often, and they outdone us by quite a bit,” said Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, whose team knocked off No. 1 Texas in late October. “I just thought it was a really complete game by them.”
It was the type of effort by the Gators that they would like to duplicate on their postseason journey. They not only played well, but it was obvious to fans courtside that they were having a blast.
They hugged, laughed, playfully shoved each other after crucial points, and played to the crowd.
Wise has seen teams win their tournament opener and fall flat the next night. It’s happened to her before.
But not this team, not on this night. Not after sweeping Florida A&M in the first round on Friday night.
“I think the vibe in the locker room going into this game [was] a determined Gator team,” said junior libero Elli McKissockwho had a game-high 17 digs. “There was literally nothing that was going to stop us with the vibe we had. A lot of confidence, a lot of determination.”
McKissock did her thing, defensive specialist Trinity Adams added a pair of service aces and eight digs, and the 6-foot-3 sophomore Beason recorded a double-double with 12 kills and 11 digs.
The Gators are young but have the talent to offset their lack of experience. And that’s not all, not after a run through the Southeastern Conference that ended as co-champions with Kentucky.
“I think for such a young team, a lot of our game is our confidence,” Beason said. “And so, with the schedule that we had in the preseason and the SEC … that helped us a ton because we were tested every single day, day in and day out. It just kind of adds to our confidence.”
The sage and seen-it-all leader, Wise knows what’s next. In this case, so do her players. It’s only going to get more complicated from here, starting with Pittsburgh. The Panthers are 29-3 and swept Colgate in the first round before dispatching BYU on Saturday. The teams will meet in Madison, Wis., where regional host Wisconsin will face Penn State in the other regional semifinal next week. The Gators won there earlier this season by knocking off the Badgers.
Florida is in the regional semifinals for the sixth consecutive season, a streak that started with a run to the national championship match in 2017. The Gators haven’t been back since, but if they continue playing like they did Saturday, you never know.
Wise knows to enjoy the journey on the way to the destination. Thirty-two consecutive trips to the postseason chasing that elusive title have taught her that.
“We appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to do it as often as we have,” she said.
Soon enough, it will be time to prepare for their trip to Wisconsin.