Photo credit: Florida Gators
The Florida Gators have had quite a fall season.
The football team by itself set us up on quite a roller-coaster in the last month and a half. From November 12’s throttling of what is now a ranked South Carolina team to the backup quarterback being jailed for child pornography charges sandwiched in between losses to Vanderbilt and FSU and a 30-3 loss to Oregon State in Las Vegas, it’s been quite a unique six weeks. Those two events, just in one sport, show the up-and-down year overall for Gators sports.
Since I’m just focusing on recent news and events, it’s only fair to give every sport a seat at this round-table- and look deeper into which teams have earned the best seats.
Florida Gators Head(s) of the Table
After making her 32nd straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Mary Wise and the Gators volleyball team had one goal this season, something never done in Gainesville. And that’s bringing a national title trophy back home and hoisting a banner in the O’Dome next year. It didn’t happen- but that’s not to say the year wasn’t successful anyway.
The Gators, a #3 national seed, hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA volleyball tournament in Gainesville. The co-SEC champions swept Florida A&M in round one and in a similar fashion, swept past lowa State this past Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16 in Wisconsin. Florida then ran into a tough Pittsbugh team and lost in four sets to the Panthers, thus ending their season. Many fans were hoping for a Florida-Wisconsin rematch similar to Septembers five-setter Gators’ win, but it didn’t come to fruition.
Still: Florida is a very young team with a bright future ahead for them. And this wasn’t any ordinary young team. Florida plays together as a team and knows how to expose opponent weaknesses, proven to knock off top teams in the process. On to next season, where the outlook remains bright.
A sport that is hardly talked about because of past blunders and failures is now in the right hands. Gators head coach Kelly Rae Finley led this Gator team to a 11-2 record heading into SEC play. Obviously, the non-conference schedule hasn’t been gold so far for a potential entrance into the top-25 for the second straight season, but the Gators are taking what they have and doing well with it.
After hosting Presbyterian on December 6th, Florida’s non-conference slate got considerably harder at what I think was the right time to test this young squad. On December 11th, Florida visited one-loss Miami in Coral Gables for their second “real” test of the season, with the team falling at FSU last month.
They passed it. The Gators defeated the Hurricanes in overtime, 76-73. Florida was down nearly the whole game but KK Deans (21 points) and Nina Rickards (23 points) knocking down tough, clutch shots helped the Gators pull away in the extra frame.
Just recently, the Gators, this past Wednesday suffered their second loss of the season at the Jumpman Invitational vs Oklahoma, a place the Gators did not fare well this week. Florida was down by as much as 27 and never lead or even challenged the Sooners. Ultimately, the Gators fell 95-79 after mustering over twice as many points in the second half (56).
Then Florida got its first taste of SEC competition on Thursday night against Tennessee. The Gators fought hard at home and had the Vols in a tight game in the fourth quarter, but Tennessee pulled away in the end and pulled out the 77-67 victory. That dropped Florida to 11-3 on the season.
In general, Florida has done a good job starting off games well and holding off late runs by opponents in the fourth quarter. But how they start off the middle quarters is what they need to work on considering how teams in the SEC no matter what, give you four quarters of even-keel ball. The team has really taken advantage of perimeter shooting knowing they aren’t the biggest team.
In any case, there’s still plenty of season still to go.
Grade so far: B+
Florida Gators Teams That Weren’t Quite Invited Yet
Ok, don’t get me wrong, this men’s basketball season has been off to what you might call an “up-and-down” start. The team shows spurts of playing well as a team and making shots, but then they play too frantically and hoist up poor shots. This is a major problem that was visibly displayed in the Gators’ 75-54 loss to #5 UConn, who’s had Florida’s number over the decade.
It was expected for the Gators to be out-rebounded by an obviously bigger and more physical UConn team, but the shot selection was unacceptable. Many shots Florida took were off the dribble and when defended fiercely at the mid-range point, lowers the overall percentage of scoring on the possession. Those are what you call “wasted possessions”, and something that shouldn’t be happening against a top team like the Huskies.
Looking at the bigger picture of the season, the Gators have a lot to work on mentally and emotionally. Emotions do run high in games like that; late start, prime-time, physical opponent. But it’s all on Todd Golden, who didn’t have his team completely prepared offensively with better run plays.
This goes to show that level of competition plays a huge part in how a team really looks, while pointing out preparation deficiencies and sloppy play. Florida had trouble controlling UConn on transition, who hustled hard and took advantage. Versus teams like Florida A&M, who is now 1-6, the Gators looked phenomenal in their shot making ability. But was it just a poor defensive team they faced? Likely.
But there were were also some positive aspects of the game. Florida had spurts of phenomenal defensive possessions where UConn struggled and heaved up last-second prayers, and don’t forget about Alex Fudge, who showcased his driving and jumping ability. But this ultimately wasn’t enough, in a game where it was hard to find multiple positive moments.
Most recently, Florida did something they have been doing a lot this year; blowing out easy opponents and struggling mightily vs quality teams. The Gators on December 14 blew out Ohio in Tampa 82-48. Nearly a week later this past Tuesday, Florida fell to Oklahoma at the Jump-man Invitational in Charlotte 62-53. The Gators shot only 9% from three (2-22) and 32.8% overall (20-61).
Then SEC play started, and Florida played hard but couldn’t finish the job on the road and lost the SEC opener to Auburn. All in all, the Gators have a tough hill to climb with the meat of the SEC schedule looming over the horizon.
Grade so far: D+
Florida Gators Teams Hoping For An Invite
The season for women’s soccer under new head coach Samantha Bohon, was a very, very bad one. And that’s being overly kind.
In fairness, the past year was clouded with the Tony Amato mess. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Bohon’s team could only manage to win two games all season and score just 16 goals in the process, averaging less than one goal per match. The Gators, giving up 37 goals, went 2-14-1, which was worse than the paltry 4-12-1. There were hardly any bright spots, maybe the tie against Kentucky, shut-out win vs Setson early on, or the two goals against Vanderbilt? Not really that even.
The bottom line is that this program has a long way to go. 2-14-1 is simply not the Gator standard for soccer, which produced legends such as Heather Mitts and Abby Wambach. Going 1-6 at home and winless in conference is unacceptable. But I do believe Bohon, who spent 15 years as the coach at Embry-Riddle in Daytona, has the experience to coach up these girls to win some more games. Maybe this was just a bigger than expected mess she had to clean out and 2023 will be an impressive turnaround? We can only hope so.
My final word is this: 2023 has to be better. It just has to. We have the resources and brand to improve in recruiting and bring Gator soccer back to its glory days; such as, going deep into the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
After finishing the season 6-6, coach Billy Napier is actively retooling and bringing culture back to the Gators’ roster. Nearly two-fifths of the roster entered the transfer portal, including RB Nay’Quan Wright, RB Lorenzo Lingard, WR Daejon Reynolds, CB Avery Helm, S Donovan McMillon, DL Jalen Lee, LB Chief Borders, and LB David Reese. And then there were the surprise portal entries, including offensive linemen Ethan White and Michael Tarquin as well as CB Jordan Young.
Florida also has had a few players declare for the NFL Draft, which may have had something to do with the 30-3 trouncing at the hands of Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Among those declaring for the NFL draft and opting-out of the upcoming bowl game were WR Justin Shorter, OL O’Cyrus Torrence, and QB Anthony Richardson.
That Vegas Bowl beatdown capped a season filled with ups and downs. The Florida Gators earned a euphoric win over a top ten team in Utah to start the season, and then promptly turned around and lost to Kentucky (for the second year in a row) at home. Florida bludgeoned a South Carolina team that finished the regular season ranked, but the momentum and goodwill purchased with that win was wiped out by a horrifying loss the very next week to Vanderbilt. And then there was the near-calamity at home against a South Florida team that finished the year 1-11.
Last but not least, there are a couple of players that were dismissed from the team in the likes of DE Brenton Cox Jr, LB Diwun Black, and, in the midst of especially horrifying circumstances, QB Jalen Kitna.
That all comes out to earn a grade of “inconsistent.” There’s really no other word for the 2022 Florida Gators football season.
Some good news is that Billy Napier and Florida got a commit from 2024, 5-star, duel-threat QB DJ Lagway. Lagway is the #12 recruit in the ESPN 300 and joins the nation’s #2 LB Myles Graham and four-star RB Chauncey Bowens in a phenomenal start to the ’24 recruiting class.
Coming back to this year, the Gators have mustered up a very good recruiting class with 16 ESPN300 players. The Gators hold 22 early enrollees and have every player that was expected to sign write their name on paper this past Wednesday. Florida holds the #9 recruiting class according to ESPN and has the third highest “blue-chip” players in the SEC.
Florida Gators Fall Bottom Line
Whew. What a few months it has been. Call your heart doctor if you’ve been following Florida Gators sports this year like me. Anyway, I still believe the future is bright in all these sports and that we have the right leaders for these programs. Time will tell and patience is key.
Overall Fall Sports Grade: C+