By Aaron Reiss, Special to The Sun
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This Florida volleyball team had already ended a drought. It made it to the program’s first Final Four since 2003.
Now the story gets even better.
The No. 2 seed Gators beat No. 3 seed Stanford, the defending national champion, in fives sets (25-22, 25-21, 18-25, 18-25, 15-10) on Thursday at the Sprint Center.
Florida will play No. 5 seed Nebraska at 9 p.m. Saturday for a chance at the UF program’s first ever national title. Before UF’s game, the Huskers upset No. 1 seed Penn State in five sets. Florida beat Nebraska in five sets earlier this season.
“You’re all dreaming for that one shot to be playing in that last match, and we get the chance,” said Florida coach Mary Wise.
The first two sets were almost always close, but the Gators almost always led. The arena was far quieter after many of the Nebraska fans here for the first match left.
In the first set, Florida never trailed by more than one point. In the second set, when Florida was down 18-16, the Gators (30-1) responded with six straights points to give themselves a cushion that the Cardinal (30-4) couldn’t overcome.
That 6-0 Florida run included kills by senior outside hitters Shainah Joseph and Carli Snyder, who combined for 27 of Florida’s 58 kills.
Snyder also had nine digs, and she tied Rhamat Alhassan with a team-high 20 points.
The Gators finally struggled in the third set. Rachael Kramer’s and Joseph’s attacks went wide on three straight points to go down 15-10. The Gators called a timeout after getting down 16-10, but that didn’t fix anything. Attack errors remained a problem, and the Cardinal would jump out to as large as an 8-point lead that proved insurmountable.
Stanford carried its momentum from the third set into the fourth and established a commanding 11-2 lead. The Gators pulled within 4, down 21-17, after a double block by Kramer and Cheyenne Huskey, but the Cardinal’s early lead was too big.
At least mentally, though, Florida was beginning to rebound.
These Gators had already had to come back from down 21-18 in a do-or-die fourth set in the regional championship. They staved off match point in that game, against Southern California, with three straight points of their own. So they reminded one another not to get complacent with just winning two sets. Just being at the Final Four was not enough.
“I think it was just a question of not settling for what we have, not settling for two sets,” Joseph said. “… We have to go and fight for every single point. We have to go and take every single point.”
In the fifth set, Alhassan was responsible for four of Florida’s first nine points. She helped Florida take a 11-6 lead in the final set and recapture the momentum. Kramer, who had five blocks, recorded the final kill.
“I don’t care where you are,” Alhassan told her setters during that final set. “Find me.”
After the win, Alhassan flailed her arms and ran to the contingent of Gator fans, who filled about the first 12 rows behind the Florida bench. Finally, that group could celebrate, perhaps two sets after they thought they would be able to.
Note: For the third time in her 31-year career as a head coach, Florida’s Mary Wise was named the USMC/American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I National Coach of the Year, the AVCA announced at their annual awards banquet Thursday afternoon.
Wise, who also won the award in 1992 and 1996, is the second three-time winner in history, joining longtime Penn State head coach Russ Rose (five times) as the only other person to accomplish the feat.
Nebraska rallies past Penn State: Mikaela Foecke had 19 kills, Annika Albrecht and Briana Holman had 13 apiece and fifth-seeded Nebraska fought off match point in the fourth set to beat Penn State in a five-set thriller in the earlier semifinal, which finished past 10 p.m.
The Huskers took advantage of a series of service mistakes by the top-seeded Nittany Lions to beat their Big Ten rivals for the seventh straight time. They also advanced to their eighth title match, where they will try to secure their fifth national championship.
Nebraska won the opening set 25-18 before dropping the next two, and then rallied to win the fourth 28-26 and force a deciding set. The Huskers took it 15-11 to advance to the finals.