Tuesday, July 29, 2014

UF Volleyball: 2014 Season Preview

In less than a month, another volleyball season will be upon us here at the University of Florida. Ever since the Gators' National Championship run ended much earlier than I expected in last year's postseason, I have been itching for the 2014 season to arrive. I bet the girls have as well. There is nothing worse than ending your season with a loss to your arch rival.

Every now and then, that Round of 32 match against Florida State pops in my head and I think about what could have been. After that game, I began to question if my fandom/reporter passion for Florida volleyball the entire year had blindly caused me to overrate the team. Looking back on that December day seven months later, I can proudly say my loyalty to the team has not faltered one bit.  As the volleyball program enters its 19th season, I figured it was about time that I offered my outlook for how this season will shape up.

The Florida Gators' 2014 volleyball schedule caught my eye the first day it was released as it offers some compelling non-conference games against Texas, Oklahoma, and UCF in the O-Dome. With the customary game against FSU in Tallahassee and a trip out west to play powerhouses USC and and San Diego, the Gators will have their work cut out for them this season.

I applaud head coach Mary Wise for her scheduling this year as she has the Gators finishing the regular season on the road against Texas. It was clear that the Gators ran out of gas last year and it showed in their postseason performance. With Coach Wise keeping the girls on their heels with tough games around every corner, they should be in better shape heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

In regards to SEC play, I believe the Gators will take back the conference title this year. Missouri will not beat the Gators twice again. I'll even go out and say that the Gators will go undefeated in conference play this year! I am going to stick by this prediction.

On top of that, I will also say that I think the Gators will go nearly perfect at home again like they did last year. The Gators only lost two games in the O-Dome in 2013 and I think this year they will trim that number down to zero.

When the NCAA Tournament does roll around, I am predicting that the Gators will make it to the Final Four this year. The match will go five sets and they will lose a heartbreaker to USC in the semifinals.

The games aside, let's look at the players who the volleyball squad will need to count on if they want to have any chance of making a National Championship run.

The 2014 team sports three seniors: Holly Pole, Maddie Monserez, and Taylor Unroe. All of them are defensive specialists and defense is what wins championships. Combined, this year's seniors totaled 68 service aces and 752 digs as juniors last season. I would even go as far to say that Taylor Unroe is one of the top five liberos in the country with one of the best serves in the country as well.

Behind them is a touted group of six juniors highlighted by my favorite player in Slovenian outside hitter Ziva Recek. She is the returning leader in kills with 335. Look for her to surpass that mark this year. With other great offensive weapons in Gabby Mallette and Simone Antwi accompanying Recek, the Gators will boast a very strong and talented front court.

Rounding off the junior class is outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb, setter Mackenzie Dagostino, and defensive specialist Nikki O'Rourke. Santos-Lamb has a wicked fast serve that is similar to Taylor Unroe's and will be vital for the Gators from an attacking standpoint. Dagostino is the team's only veteran setter and will be called upon to most likely start every game barring poor play. O'Rourke may be the shortest girl on the team at 5'6, but she has a ton of heart on the defensive side and it showed in their final match against FSU. I am excited to see what she does on defense this year.

After the juniors lies three sophomores headlined by outsider hitter Alex Holston. She played in every single match last year and was a force to be reckoned with as just a freshman. With an entire offseason to get better, all 6'1 of her should be poised for an even better sophomore year.

The two remaining sophomores in Shainah Joseph and Denise Belcher saw limited action last year. Unfortunately, it might be the same story this season since most of the team is returning. However, I can assume they have been training diligently in the offseason and will be more than ready when Coach Wise calls their numbers this year. Every player is important to this team, regardless if they play or not.

Finally, we have the newcomers to Gator volleyball: The Freshmen. In total, there are five freshman with Middle Blocker Rhamat Alhassan towering above the rest at 6'4. This is great! If there is anything the Gators needed it was height. Alhassan's height will play a huge role in the team's success as her career progresses at Florida.

Another freshman who draws my attention is 6'1 setter Abby Detering. She is three inches tall than returning setter Mackenzie Dagostino and I think this height advantage can help her compete for some playing time as a freshman. She will also be a good backup to have at the position so Dagostino can rest when she needs to.

Apart from Alhassan's and Detering's heights, there is really not much more I can say about this incoming freshmen class. Clearly, each and every one of them is talented and competitive as they selected the challenge of playing SEC volleyball. I am looking forward to watching them all as they become fixtures in Gator volleyball lore.

After looking at the team that will be on the court this year and the caliber of their opponents, I can confidently say that this will be a very successful year for the 2014 Florida Gators volleyball team. What we also shouldn't forget is that the Gators have one of the best coaches in the business leading them, and that is Mary Wise. This is going to be a season for the ages.

*All stats accredited to Gatorzone.com

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Top 4 College Football National Championship Injuries

Winning a National Championship in college football is difficult enough considering your team has to essentially go undefeated. It doesn't get any easier when your favorite team makes it to the big game and then your impact player gets injured and can't play for the remainder of the contest.

Even though one player doesn't make up a team, the absence of these players did hinder their respective teams' chances of winning. Below are my Top 4 (I searched everywhere and could not find a fifth player) college football players who injured themselves in the National Championship and inadvertently cost their team the title.

#4 Chris Weinke, Quarterback, Florida State

Chris Weinke was a man playing among boys at Florida State. After a failed attempt at pursuing a baseball career, Weinke enrolled into Florida State at 27 years old! Keep in mind that most people graduate from college at around 21 or 22. I don't know how, but FSU managed to get Weinke in and he tore it up as he won the 1999 National Championship and the 2000 Heisman trophy. However, he is on the list for what happened his sophomore year before he brought FSU its second football National Championship.

In the 1998 season, Weinke led the Seminoles to an 11-2 (7-1 in the ACC) record, an ACC Co-Championship, and a spot in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl (the National Championship game for that season). That year, Weinke threw for 2,487 yards, 19 touchdowns, and completed 145 passes. These stats were nothing compared to his junior and senior campaigns, but it was enough to get FSU to the National Championship against the #1 Tennessee Volunteers.

Weinke would not participate in this game as he injured his neck in their final ACC game against Wake Forest. He was replaced by fellow sophomore backup Marcus Outzen, who gave Seminole fans hope when he led FSU to a 23-12 victory over the rival Florida Gators in Tallahassee. In the National Championship, it was a different story as Outzen threw two interceptions, one being a pick six and one being the title clincher for the Vols. The Seminoles lost 23-16.

This loss wouldn't hurt FSU for too long as they appeared in both the 1999 and 2000 National Championship Games, winning one of the two contests. After appearing in three straight National Championships, FSU hit a bit of a dry spell from 2001-2012 before winning it all once again in 2013 under the leadership of another Heisman winning QB named Jameis Winston.

#3 Ted Ginn Jr., Wide Receiver/Kick Return Specialist, Ohio State

Ted Ginn Jr. earned the reputation of a dynamic kick returner after running back four punts for touchdowns during his freshman season. When his junior year at Ohio State rolled around in 2006, Ginn was considered a preseason Heisman candidate. He didn't come close to winning the Heisman as his teammate, QB Troy Smith, won the prestigious honor.

The 2006 season wasn't too bad for Ginn however, as he amassed 781 receiving yards on 59 receptions with nine receiving touchdowns.  In the kicking game, he totaled 706 return yards and had just one punt and kickoff return for a touchdown.

Ginn's undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes were ranked #1 the whole year and made it to the 2007 BCS National Championship Game against the #2 Florida Gators. Ginn opened up the game on an electric note by running the opening kickoff back 93 yards for his only kick return touchdown of the year. It would also be his last. Upon celebrating the touchdown, fellow teammate Roy Hall fell on Ginn's foot and injured him. Ginn would have to leave the game and never returned.

With Ginn gone, Ohio State lost both a receiver and their return game. Florida capitalized and stomped the Buckeyes 41-14 to claim the school's second ever National Championship. This was the beginning of the Florida Gator dynasty of the mid-2000's.

Ohio State would once again play in the National Championship the following year against LSU and lost 38-24. The Buckeyes have not been to any National Championships since 2006 and 2007 and sport a 1-2 record in BCS games, not to mention the whole tattoo and Escalade scandal that led to a vacation of 12 wins from the 2010 season.

#2 Willis McGahee, Running Back, Miami (FL)

Willis McGahee was one of the many talented players to attend the U during its glory years in the early 2000's. After winning a National Championship with the Hurricanes in 2001, McGahee and company were back at it again in 2002. McGahee led the Hurricanes on the ground with 1,753 rushing yards (a single season school record) on 282 attempts and 28 rushing touchdowns. He finished fourth in Heisman voting for the 2002 season.

In the National Championship Game, which took the form of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, the undefeated #1 Miami Hurricanes were set to take on the #2 Ohio State Buckeyes. The Hurricanes were a 11.5 point favorite. Coming in with a 34 game winning streak, the Hurricanes trailed the Buckeyes 17-7 at the start of the fourth quarter.

McGahee, who already had one touchdown in the game, caught a screen from QB Ken Dorsey on 3rd down and 10 and took off running with the ball. He gained no yards and was hit hard by Ohio State cornerback Will Allen. McGahee suffered a devastating knee injury and had to leave the game with a torn ACL, MCL, and PCL.

The Hurricanes would go on to lose the game in double overtime by a score of 31-24. Had McGahee been in the game for overtime, it could have been a completely different story for the Hurricanes. This would be the last National Championship that Miami would play in. Things would only get worse from this point for the Hurricanes. From 2003-2013 they would win just two bowl games. I still personally believe that this loss helped trigger the Miami Hurricanes' downward spiral into mediocrity.

#1 Colt McCoy, Quarterback, Texas

Colt McCoy was on another list I made regarding players who had never won a Heisman. In that article, I lauded all about how he broke records and came close to winning the Heisman during his junior and senior years. I briefly mentioned his injury in the National Championship and how it severely hurt Texas's chances of winning.

Now, let's get into the specifics. During his senior year in the 2009 season, McCoy led Texas to a perfect 12-0 record and a National Championship berth after barely winning the Big 12 Championship Game 13-12 over Nebraska. McCoy literally almost threw the game away when he threw a pass out of bounds with one second left in the game with his team trailing 12-10. A game winning field goal for the Longhorns helped many look past McCoy's near disastrous blunder.

McCoy's subpar performance in the Big 12 Championship Game (he threw three interceptions) knocked him out of Heisman contention and put a damper on what had been a stellar season for him stats wise. McCoy completed 332 passes for 3,521 yards and 27 touchdowns. He also rushed for 348 yards and three touchdowns.

In the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, McCoy's #2 Longhorns were pitted against the #1 Alabama Crimson Tide. On the fifth play from scrimmage in the first quarter, McCoy took the snap and ran an option play. Instead of pitching the ball to his running back or sprinting towards the outside, McCoy ran right up the middle and was pushed straight into the back of his own offensive lineman by Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus.

McCoy would exit the game with a pinched nerve in his throwing arm and would not return. Freshman Garret Gilbert came in and did nothing the entire first half as he threw two interceptions, one being a pick six. Alabama went up 24-6 at the half.  Gilbert threw a couple touchdowns in the second half, but it would not stop Alabama as the Tide rolled to a 37-21 victory. Gilbert ended his disastrous night with four interceptions and one fumble.

Had McCoy not gotten hurt, it could have at least been a closer game. Texas could have even won! The Longhorns haven't been in National Championship contention since this loss. They would go 5-7 in the 2010 season and sport a 2-1 record in bowl games from 2011-2013. Legendary head coach Mack Brown stepped down after the 2013 season and Louisville's Charlie Strong was brought in to assume the role of head coach at the University of Texas.

Things could have been very different if any of these players had been able to play in their respective National Championships. The entire history of college football could have shaped up much differently than it is today! Like all things in history, however, all we can do is speculate and play the "what if" game. I hope you enjoyed this Top 4 list! I will be releasing another one next week!