Gators go after volleyball program’s first NCAA title

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    Florida middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan goes up for a kill during the NCAA Division I volleyball semifinal game against Stanford on Thursday in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    By Aaron Reiss, Special to The Sun

    KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After Florida’s win over Stanford on Thursday in the NCAA volleyball national semifinal round, UF head coach Mary Wise said she was grateful to get to play in a “road match” tonight. That’s when the No. 2 seed Gators play No. 5 seed Nebraska for the national title.

    Then Wise’s eyes darted left and right, scanning the room to see if anyone picked up on her humor. Her phrasing — “road match” — was a joke … except it wasn’t really a joke.

    The Sprint Center, the site of the volleyball championship, is just more than three hours away from Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the Huskers. That’s nothing for a Nebraska fan base that will travel to Hawaii to see its beach volleyball team play.

    Thursday’s semifinal had an announced attendance of 18,374, an NCAA record — and most of the people at the matches were wearing Husker red.

    The old NCAA volleyball attendance record was set at the 2015 national championship game in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Huskers played in that one, too. In 2016, the Huskers led the nation in average home match attendance with 8,210. Hawaii, the next closest program, averaged less than 6,800. Florida did not make the top 50.

    So even though the Gators are the higher seed, the location of this match can make it feel like the odds are against them. If they win a national title, it will be even more exceptional because of the environment Florida will have endured.

    On Friday, the Gators said they were excited to play in front of an arena packed with Huskers. This senior class adopted “thrive” as its motto this season. Wise said that meant her players embrace every challenge.

    “It’s a championship match,” senior outside hitter Carli Snyder said. “And there’s nothing about it that we want to be easy.”

    Libero Caroline Knop said tough road matches at Kentucky and Missouri prepared the Gators for Saturday. They swept Kentucky. They rallied from down a set and behind 19-12 in the second one to beat Missouri 3-1.

    “I love that we’re going to be playing in front of 16,000 Nebraska fans, and we’re going to have our little section of orange and blue,” Knop said. “That’s all we need.”

    Florida also has experience against Nebraska. The Gators beat the Cornhuskers 3-2 in Gainesville in their second match of the season.

    Wise said she can’t glean too much from that win, though. Nebraska was without its star setter, senior Kelly Hunter, a first team All-American.

    “She makes them go,” Wise said.

    So her team knows to expect a tougher Nebraska team than that one, which lost its first two matches of the season, both without Hunter. But the Gators also believe they are a far better team than they were in August.

    Plus, they have the added motivation of wanting to be the Florida team that secures the program’s first national title. The last time the Gators competed for one was 2003, and they had not been back to the Final Four again until this year.

    “It’s been an amazing ride, but it started even before we arrived in Kansas City,” said Wise, who has led Florida to seven Final Fours and is the winningest female coach in Division I history. Wise can become the first female coach to win a national championship with a victory over the Cornhuskers.

    “What a win would mean for not just this group but all the ones that preceded them. … We are carrying the Gator nation with us through this run as well.”

    Today

    What: NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship match

    Who: No. 2 seed Florida (30-1) vs. No. 5 Nebraska (31-4)

    When: 9 p.m.

    Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City

    TV: ESPN2

    Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

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