By Jim Harvin, Correspondent
It’s been a banner year for the Florida volleyball team, losing just one match en route to a 25-1 record and winning a share of the Southeastern Conference title for the 23rd time in coach Mary Wise’s 27 seasons at UF.
But there may be more magic ahead for the Gators.
The 2017 NCAA Tournament gets underway today at 4:30 p.m. when Miami (21-5) squares off against the College of Charleston (27-5) in the Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center, followed by UF taking on Alabama State (28-10) in a rematch of last year’s first-round match.
The two winners will meet for an NCAA Sweet 16 berth at 7 p.m. Friday.
“The challenge is you’re playing teams that you aren’t as familiar with,” Wise said. “Even this Alabama State team that returns all but one of their starters looks so different from a year ago and how experienced they are. I think this is one of the better first-round matchups that we’ve had in awhile. It should be really fun from the get-go.”
UF, which was ranked third in the final regular-season poll, was selected as the No. 2 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Top-ranked Penn State (29-1) is the No. 1 seed, followed by UF, third seed and fourth-ranked Stanford (26-3), and No. 4 seed and sixth-ranked Kentucky (26-3). This marks the first time two SEC teams have been among the top four squads. Proverbial powers No. 2 Texas (24-2) and No. 5 Nebraska (26-4) each missed out.
Meanwhile, it is the seventh time Florida has been selected as a top-four seed and the first since 2010. UF is 19-6 in that role, posting a 7-1 record at home.
“It’s definitely a huge advantage,” redshirt junior setter Allie Monserez said. “We’re just trying to take it one game at a time and just focusing on our first team and then going from there.
“Being at home is something that is very exciting. It’s very special to play in front of our amazing fans that we have here in Gainesville. Everyone is very pumped about that.”
Florida is hoping to reach the national semifinals for the eighth time overall and the first since 2003, when the Gators finished as NCAA runner-up – an all-time best.
UF, which has a 66-27 all-time record in NCAA Tournament play including a 65-26 mark under Wise, has advanced to the national semifinals in four of its previous six attempts as a top-four seed.
This year’s team boasts the SEC Player of the Year in 6-foot-4 middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan, who leads the nation in blocks per set (1.80).
Alhassan is the 13th Gator to earn the POY award and was one of five UF players to earn All-SEC honors along with outside hitter Carli Snyder, right-side hitter Shainah Joseph, libero Caroline “CK” Knop – all seniors – and 6-foot-8 sophomore middle blocker Rachael Kramer.
In addition, Wise shared SEC Coach of the Year honors, her 15th, with Kentucky’s Craig Skinner.
The 2017 squad boast five seniors, with defensive specialist Lindsey Rogers joining Alhassan, Snyder, Joseph and Knop.
“I’m so excited,” Kramer said. “On Sunday before the selection show, we knew before the show that we were a top-four seed, but even during the selection show my hands were sweating and I was so nervous. It was an exciting Sunday.”
What: First and second rounds of the NCAA volleyball tournament
Today: College of Charleston (27-5) vs. Miami (21-5), 4:30 p.m.
Alabama State (28-10) vs. No. 2 overall seed Florida (25-1), 7 p.m.
Friday, 7 p.m.: Thursday’s winners meet
Where: O’Connell Center
Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM for UF match