Gators volleyball begins NCAA quest tonight vs. Jacksonville
Published: Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 7:18 p.m.
The real season begins tonight for the sixth-ranked Florida Gators.
Host UF will be joined by Florida State, Jacksonville and Georgia Southern as the 2013 Division I NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship gets underway with first-round action in the O'Connell Center.
FSU (24-7), the Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up, will square off against Southern Conference champion Georgia Southern (30-3) in the opening match at 5 p.m., with the Southeastern Conference runner-up Gators (28-5) taking on JU (30-3), the Atlantic Sun Conference champs, at 7.
The two winners will advance to second-round play Friday night at 7, with the winner moving on to one of four, four-team NCAA regionals.
“There are no easy matches because everybody playing is a team that has earned the right to be here,” UF head coach Mary Wise said. “Everybody's zero and zero with your season riding on the outcome. It's that sense of energy, that sense of excitement.”
Florida is the No. 5 overall seed, the highest since 2010 when the Gators were No. 1.
The top four seeds, in order, are defending NCAA champion Texas (23-2), Penn State (28-2), Washington (26-2) and SEC champ Missouri (34-0).
This is UF's 23rd consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under Wise (24th overall), and the Gators are hosting first- and second-round action for the 21st time. Only once (2004) have they not advanced to regional play.
“We're feeling really good,” said junior Taylor Unroe, the 2013 SEC Libero of the Year. “We feel like we got a good bracket and some good matchups with some tough teams, and that's what we wanted.”
Under second-year coach and former USF standout Michelle Collier, the A-Sun Coach of the Year, JU set a program record for wins and enters tonight's match having won 10 in a row.
The Dolphins are led by senior setter Kendall Courtney, the 2013 A-Sun Tournament MVP.
The Gators, meanwhile, have won nine of their last 10 matches and enter the postseason ranked No. 2 in the NCAA in hitting percentage (.331), threatening the all-time program mark of .332 set by UF's NCAA runner-up squad in 2003.
Florida is led by senior All-American middle blocker Chloe Mann, a former local prep standout at Eastside High School who leads the nation in hitting percentage with a .503 mark and is on pace to finish her career as the NCAA's all-time career hitting leader (.473).
She is one of four Gators to earn All-SEC honors this year, joining Unroe, sophomore outside hitter Ziva Recek and freshman right-side hitter Alex Holston.
Mann and fellow senior Taylor Brauneis, UF's standout setter, have not only proven to be a lethal combination, but give the Gators quality leadership that could prove big this time of year.
“Me and Chloe talked,” Brauneis said. “We are going to rely on each other a lot to come out free and loose and play together.”
The opener pits an experienced FSU squad under coach Chris Poole against a Georgia Southern team that set a program record for wins under first-year coach Dustin Wood.
The 16th-ranked Seminoles, led by sisters Elise and Nicole Walch, are in their fifth straight NCAA Tournament and have won 10 of their last 11 matches, including 3-0 sweeps in the last five.
The Eagles, who have won five straight, are led by junior outside hitter and SoCon Tournament MVP Jamie DeRatt. They are making their fourth overall appearance, but first since 2010.
“There are only 64 teams left,” UF junior defensive specialist Madison Monserez said. “We are so blessed to be one of them, and to be playing at home is so great.
“We've been working all season for this, so we're really excited to be here.”
2013 NCAA GAINESVILLE SUB-REGIONAL TEAM PROFILES
Head coach: Mary Wise (23rd season, 27th overall)
Team Record (Overall/Conference): 27-3, 16-2
Conference/Finish: Southeastern, 2nd
Top Players: MB Chloe Mann, Sr.; S Taylor Brauneis, Sr.; L Taylor Unroe, Jr.; OH Ziva Recek, So.; OH Gabby Mallette, So.; RS Alex Holston, Fr.
Head coach: Michelle Collier (2nd season)
Team Record (Overall/Conference): 30-3, 16-2
Conference/Finish: Atlantic Sun, 1st
Top Players: OH Kylie Jacob, Sr.; S Kendall Courtney, Sr.; OH Sammy Strausbaugh, So.; L Rachel Miller, Fr.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES
Head coach: Dustin Wood (1st season, 7th overall)
Team Record (Overall/Conference): 28-5, 13-3
Conference/Finish: Southern, 1st
Top Players: OH Jamie DeRatt, Jr.; MB Kym Coley, Jr.; RS Katie Bange, So.; S Katalin Minnerly, So.
FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Head coach: Chris Poole (6th season, 27th overall)
Team Record (Overall/Conference): 24-7, 17-3
Conference/Finish: Atlantic Coast, 2nd
Top Players: MB Ashley Neff, Sr.; RS/MB Claire Walch, Sr.; OH Nicole Walch, So.; MB Sarah Burrington, R. Fr.; RS Izzy Carmona, Fr.