Gators have been anticipating tourney for a while
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 1:32 a.m.
The countdown started on a chalkboard way back in the spring.
vs. Florida A&M (22-5)
The Gators arrived for the first day of spring practice and a message was waiting for them. Written in marker on a dry erase board hanging on the wall was a countdown to the NCAA volleyball final four in San Antonio.
At the time, the countdown began with more than 300 days remaining. It's been updated on the board every day since. And as the Gators assembled for practice Tuesday it read "17 days till San Antonio."
This illustrates where Florida's focus has been since that heartbreaking loss to Stanford in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament. It's all about getting back to the final four.
"I remember when it said 300-and-something days in the spring," Florida senior Jane Collymore said. "That's just the mindset of how hard we need to work. Now there's just (15) days left. It's kind of gone by in a blur for me and my teammates."
Florida (30-2) hopes to take the first step toward the Alamodome tonight when it faces Florida Atlantic (29-2) in a first-round NCAA Tournament match at 7:30 p.m. in the O'Connell Center.
"I'm very confident this team has a chance to win it all," Collymore said. "That's what we've been building on this year."
Florida has been building championship aspirations since last December when the team suffered its earliest NCAA Tournament exit in 15 trips. The Gators wasted a 2-1 lead and lost 3-2 to Stanford on Florida A&M's campus in Tallahassee. The Cardinal went on to win the national championship.
"We weren't upset with how we played," sophomore Marcie Hampton said. "We were disappointed we didn't get farther."
That's because the Gators have grown accustomed to making deep runs in the tournament. Florida has made seven trips to the final four since 1992 including back-to-back berths in 2003 and '04.
"It was heartbreaking because it was such an early exit for a program of our caliber," sophomore Amber McCray said.
But some good came out of it, Hampton believes.
"It was motivation to come back and really prepare for this year," Hampton said.
The preparation and focus started back in spring practice. Assistant coach Nick Cheronis started the countdown to San Antonio. And each day the team arrived at practice they were reminded what they were working toward.
"It's helped us take it one day at a time and makes us realize how easy it can be to waste a practice or a rep," Hampton said. "It lets us know that every practice counts and every rep counts."
The Gators feel fortunate to be able to host the first two rounds this week after being shipped to Tallahassee a year ago. But with wins tonight against FAU and tomorrow against the Kansas State-Florida A&M winner, the Gators will have to travel to Omaha, Neb., for the regional semifinals and finals. And standing in Florida's way to a final four berth could be No. 1-seed Nebraska.
But coach Mary Wise said her team isn't looking too far down the road.
"We haven't done anything yet," Wise said. "All we have done is put ourselves in the position to host and now we have to take care of business at home."
You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to watch for in Rounds 1 & 2
Five things to look for at the NCAA volleyball tournament tonight and Friday in the O'Connell Center.
Kansas State Wildcats (20-10)
Florida A&M Rattlers (22-5)
Florida Atlantic Owls (29-2)
Florida Gators (30-2)
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