Time to step up for Gators

Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2002 at 1:26 p.m.

For two months every season, Florida cruises through its SEC schedule unobstructed and unchallenged. Come December, the net is raised. This is when the nation's other volleyball powers have owned Florida.

Southern Cal. Pacific. Long Beach State. Penn State. Hawaii.

These teams have put an end to the last five Florida seasons. And they've each done it dominantly with 3-0 sweeps. Maybe Florida has just been one player away from taking the final step. Or it might be the SEC is so weak, Florida's incredible 98-match regular season winning streak in the conference is an illusion. Or maybe other schools have more grit, playing through conferences with several top-15 teams.

"The disadvantage to playing in the SEC is the level of competition you face day in and day out," said Long Beach State coach Brian Gimmillaro, whose team is the tournament's No. 1 seed. "Basically, I'd like to see the rest of that conference improve. And that's not Florida's responsibility."

Starting today, Florida, in its 11th straight NCAA appearance, will try to reach its sixth Final Four. Florida hasn't been to the Final Four since its three-year run ended in 1998. Never has it played in a national title match. Playing in the SEC might affect Florida's strength of schedule and seeding, but does it affect grit and toughness?

"I think your strength of schedule certainly helps in terms of seeding," Florida coach Mary Wise said. "Whether it translates to helping you win, we try to counter that by scheduling other games like Notre Dame, a tournament team."

Florida knocked off No. 25 Notre Dame last Saturday in Orlando. It was Florida's first true nonconference test since losing to No. 6 Arizona on Sept. 1. Florida traditionally plays a grueling nonconference schedule to counter the lack of quality wins it picks up in conference play. Although the RPI for volleyball teams isn't released until season's end, the Rich Kern Computer Rankings pegs the SEC as the eighth best conference in the nation this season.

"I think it would be better playing tougher teams because it would prepare for what the tournament is going to be like," Florida sophomore Aury Cruz said. "This tournament is a new tournament and everyone is going to be coming in with new emotions. So, it's going to be really tough no matter who we play."

Past NCAA champions have all come from volleyball's traditional power conferences. Last year's champion, Nebraska, had to battle No. 16 Kansas State in the Big 12. Penn State was up against perennial powers Minnesota and Wisconsin in the Big 10 during its 1999 title season. Long Beach State won the title in '98 out of the Big West, a conference loaded with giants like Pacific and UC-Santa Barbara. And let's not forget the Pac-10, which produced title winners like Stanford in '92, '94 and '97 and UCLA in '90 and '91.

Penn State coach Russ Rose says it might go beyond talent in the conference.

"I feel playing in the Big 10 is beneficial because we play Friday-Saturday (the SEC plays its matches on Friday and Sunday)," Rose said. "That's much like the (NCAA) Tournament format. But there are advantages to playing in the SEC. And (Florida's) physical enough to compete with Nebraska (a possible Regional final matchup). If they lose to Nebraska, it won't be because they're in the SEC."

Last year, South Carolina caused a minor stir by pushing Nebraska to five games in the Regional semifinals in Lincoln, Neb., before losing. The Gamecocks, along with Arkansas, are each back in the tournament this season.

"But what we haven't seen since LSU and Florida played for the Regional finals in 1991 are two teams from the SEC playing in the Regional finals," Wise said.

That hasn't been Florida's fault. The Gators just keep winning. Many feel this year's Florida team is the best its had since its '98 Final Four team. Physical and athletic are the most used adjectives. Wise sees more.

"I think this team is tested and as tournament ready as any team we've had based on the Arkansas (SEC title) match and the Notre Dame match."

True, Florida erased an 0-2 deficit against the Razorbacks to win the SEC Tournament 3-2. But then again, Arkansas isn't exactly Long Beach State or Nebraska.

"Pacific, Santa Barbara, Utah, Stanford ... it makes for some good rivalries," Gimmillaro said of his opponents. "I just think it helps your experience."

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