Florida volleyball’s magical season ends with national championship loss to Nebraska

It’s a moment that has been in the making all season.

The No. 2 seed Florida volleyball team lived for what could happen on Saturday night as they played in the national championship match against fifth-seeded Nebraska.

But once again, the Gators and coach Mary Wise saw their season end just short of their final goal.

Florida dropped its national championship bout with Nebraska 3-1 Kansas City, Mo., ending the Gators’  magical run of a season on a sour note.

Errors proved to be Florida’s demise, with the Gators (30-2) amassing 22 attack errors and hitting a season-low .141 in the biggest match of their season.

The Gators lost an error-prone first set 25-22 despite rallying back from three-point deficits twice. After Florida jumped out to a 15-11 lead midway in the set, Nebraska ripped off a 7-0 run to go up 18-11. The Gators tied the set at 22-22 after a Nebraska attack error, but the Huskers scored the final three points to take the early 1-0 lead. Overall, the Gators hit just .025 in the first set and had 13 total errors (9 hitting errors; 4 serving errors).

The second set — a 25-17 loss — wasn’t much better. Nebraska dominated from start to finish while finding a groove on offense and keeping Florida questioning. Florida only scored consecutive points three times during the set.

Florida began to rally after the intermission, winning the third set 25-18 behind a solid offensive front. The senior trio of middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan, right-side hitter Shainah Joseph and outside hitter Carli Snyder combined for 10 of 14 kills and, for a moment, gave Florida a moment of positivity.

It didn’t last long. Nebraska jumped out to a 9-1 lead in the fourth set and never looked back, closing the match with a 25-16 victory.

Even with the loss, Florida has looked the part of a national championship team all season. The potential was evident from the first weekend, when the Gators opened the year with back-to-back top-5 wins over No. 1 Texas and No. 5 Nebraska.

It was evident throughout SEC play, during which the Gators went 17-1 and earned a share of their 23rd conference title under Wise. The lone loss of the season came against fellow co-conference champion Kentucky, a 3-1 defeat at home on Oct. 15. Just 17 days later, Florida returned the favor and swept the Wildcats on their home court.

And it was evident throughout the NCAA Tournament, with Florida making just its second national championship appearance in program history and first since 2003. The Gators had to defeat a pair of those same powerhouse teams that had normally stood in their way at the end of the road season after season — Southern Cal in the Elite Eight and Stanford in the semifinal, both five-set thrillers.

And Wise will point to her five-person senior class — Alhassan, Snyder,  Joseph, libero Caroline Knop and defensive specialist Lindsey Rogers — as a testament to the team’s success even if the national championship doesn’t come home with them to Gainesville.

Alhassan, the self-proclaimed grandmother of the team, has been an unwavering force for the Gators since her freshman season and continued the Gators’ long standing tradition of dominant middle blockers. She was an AVCA All-American all four seasons and is Florida’s career leader in blocks. Standing at 6-foot-4 with a reach that surpasses 11 feet at peak jump, Alhassan regularly stymied opponents who tried to defend her.

Snyder evolved from a three-rotation outside hitter during her freshman season to becoming one of the Gators’ most reliable players on the court. Her versatility separated her from the pack. She created kills from both the front and back row, played as a steady defender in the back row and was one of the most effective servers in the country with 56 aces on the year. Snyder had 14 double-doubles this year.

Joseph, a fifth-year senior, rarely played during her first four years before bursting onto the scene in her final season at Florida. The 6-foot-1 pin hitter took over as Florida’s right-side hitter after four-year starter Alex Holston graduated and has flourished late in the season. She recorded double-digit kills in 11 of her final 15 matches — including the final five of the NCAA Tournament.

Knop transferred in from Michigan before her junior season and immediately stepped in as the Gators’ libero, a role reserved for the team’s best back-row defender and passer. Knop earned honorable mention All-America honors both seasons and played the gritty, instinctual defense Wise’s teams have been known to play. Her resilience was evident through the Gators’ final push over the last month, playing in every match despite breaking a bone in her right hand on Nov. 10 and having to wear a bulky wrap on her dominant hand.

Rogers rarely played during her four-year stint as a reserve defensive specialist and occasional substitute server. Even at that, Rogers served as a rallying force for the team even if her production and time didn’t translate to the court.

And now for Florida volleyball, it’s back to the drawing board as they once again begin their journey to win the program’s first national championship.

Gone will be those five seniors, but a host of players who contributed to this season return.

Sophomore middle blocker Rachael Kramer, who led the team in hitting efficiency, will be the offensive leader along with setters Allie Monserez and Cheyenne Huskey.

Allie Gregory will likely assume libero duties for Knop after two seasons as a three-rotation defensive specialist.

Outside hitters Paige Hammons, Mia Sokolowski and Morgyn Greer will likely have enhanced roles in the offense with Snyder and Joseph graduating.

And with Wise returning for her 28th season and not planning on leaving anytime soon, the Gators will still be in good hands.

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