KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Florida came here with a chance to secure the school’s first volleyball national title. Instead, the No. 2 seed Gators are just the latest team to fall victim to No. 5 seed Nebraska, which took out three seeded teams to win the national championship.
The Gators (30-2) lost in four sets (22-25, 17-25, 25-18, 16-25) on Saturday at the Sprint Center.
“Congratulations to Nebraska,” UF coach Mary Wise said. “I thought they played a very clean match. Obviously, they put a lot of pressure on us with both their serving and their backward defense. But we look at this match, and this match will not define the 2017 Gators. There is so much to be proud of in terms of what they accomplished, and on this night as other teams that have played Nebraska in the past month haven’t had much — any better luck either.
“That’s a very, very well-coached team, very disciplined, that just took care of the ball exceptionally well tonight.”
Florida’s five-set win over the Huskers in the second match of the season in Gainesville means nothing now. Maybe it was even a bad sign. The last time Nebraska (32-4) faced an opponent in the NCAA tournament that it lost in the regular season was in 2015, and the Huskers beat Texas to win the national title that year.
This was essentially a home match for Nebraska. An NCAA-record crowd of 18,516 filled the Sprint Center, most of them in Husker red. The program, making its eighth appearance in the national championship, had made it to the final four three straight seasons.
Now the Husker program has won two national titles in a three-year span for the first time. And it came at the expense of a Florida team that made the program’s first Final Four since 2003, when the Gators played for the national title.
“This loss isn’t going to define our season,” said libero Caroline Knop, who had 12 digs. “This isn’t going to define Florida volleyball. So many great things happened this year to have that match be the one that we leave with.”
Knop had tears in her eyes as she spoke. She looked at her two senior teammates on the podium with her — middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan and outside hitter Carli Snyder — and neither wanted to say anything.
Both Alhassan and Snyder made the all-tournament team. Alhassan had 7 kills and 6 blocks in the national final. Snyder tied Shainah Joseph with a team-high 11 kills.
Snyder said she wouldn’t fixate on the defeat. She wanted to focus instead on the fact the Gators had made it here a year after a second-round exit.
“You can make a change,” Snyder said. “You can shift the culture. You can make a common goal.”
Wise had said Friday that her players would be competing for past Florida players who fell short of a national title. And just minutes after these Gators lost, they were thinking about the players who would eventually accomplish what they could not.
“When somebody from Florida is holding that trophy in a few years, that’s going to be us,” Snyder said. “That would have been our chance.”
The national championship matchup pitted two strong defensive teams against one another. This wasn’t supposed to come down to quick and explosive kills, but patience and spread-out offense.
Florida’s first three points all came on Nebraska errors. Almost every point in the first set required a long rally, and both teams struggled to hit well. The Huskers hit just .081 percent, and the Gators were even worse — .025 percent. The teams combined for 6 blocks and 34 digs.
The Huskers scored 7 straight points in the first set, including two kills by Mikaela Foecke — who finished with 20 kills, the only Husker to reach double digits— to take a 18-15 lead. Two straight Florida errors gave Nebraska 24 points, and another Foecke kill sealed the first set for the Huskers.
“I think we knew that the serve-pass game was going to be crucial in this match, and they definitely won that game tonight,” Snyder said. “It puts us in a difficult position trying to play out-of-system balls. They’re a great defensive team and a great blocking team.
“I think that when that got better, when our passing improved, we made uncharacteristic errors, it is a very tough environment. The grittiest of teams in that environment are going to struggle. And I think that was part of it as well.”
Problems really brewed for the Gators in the second set, when Nebraska settled in and the Gators still flailed.
Nebraska hit .417 in the second set. Five consecutive Husker points came on kills by four different players — Foecke, Kelly Hunter, Lauren Stivrins and Jazz Sweet — to help put the Huskers up 12-7 and force a Florida timeout.
Florida, which hit .286 on the season, continued to struggle offensively in the second set and hit just .108. The Gators gave Nebraska a 19-12 lead when Cheyenne Huskey tried to slap a ball back toward the Huskers with her back to the net. Instead, the ball hit the net and fell to the floor.
An attack error by Florida outside hitter Rachel Kramer, who hit just .100, gave Nebraska a 24-17 lead in the second set, and Foecke won it a point later with her fifth kill of the set.
But this Gator volleyball team, with just one loss in the regular season, wasn’t about to endure a sweep.
After never leading the second set, the Gators established an early 10-6 lead in the third after a service ace by Alhassan. Nebraska didn’t record a single block in the third set while the Gators hit .308. Alhassan had 4 kills in the set.
The Husker crowd became its loudest in the fourth set, though, and the Gators began struggling offensively again. Six service or attack errors by Florida helped establish a commanding 9-1 lead for the Huskers, and they would never let Florida get back in the match after that.
During a news conference Friday, Wise said getting to this point in the season requires breaks — proper matchups, good health and a bit of luck.
The luck was on Nebraska’s side in this match. The Huskers’ libero, Kenzie Maloney, recorded a kill when she saved a hard spike from hitting the ground and ended up having it fall between some Gators. A point later, she had a service ace to put Nebraska up 17-10, and her teammates began a celebratory dance
Soon after, Foecke recorded the final kill. She and Hunter, who had 37 assists, shared the Most Outstanding Player award. They helped their coach, John Cook, win his fourth national championship and Nebraska’s fifth overall.
Florida’s seniors hope they built a program that will somebody resemble the Huskers’.
“Our goal from last year to this year was to change the culture,” Knop said. “If we did that, we’re going to be so happy leaving this program.”
The Gators finished with 30 wins, a second NCAA Championship berth and eighth Final Four appearance, a 23rd SEC title, and a single-season home average attendance record.
“It’s so hard to find a team that everyone likes each other, and I think that’s what we had, and that’s why we enjoyed it so much,” Alhassan said. “That’s kind of the reason why we wanted to change the culture. We were able to change the culture because everyone’s bought in. Everyone wanted to be there.
“We had people getting up at 6 a.m. for lifts and happy to be there and wanting to be there and respecting our coaching staff, respecting every single person that goes to work and stays up. Our trainers who come in before us and leave after us. That’s why we’re here. It’s kind of the people, the people are what made it fun and made us want to be here. It’s made the last four years an amazing journey.”