Most athletic programs can go multiple years without hosting the nation’s No. 1 team in a given sport, thanks to the elite company those top teams keep. On Friday night, thanks to a rather inspired bit of scheduling, the Florida Gators ended up hosting two of those teams in Gainesville.
Thanks to the Gators on the field, both No. 1s left with their first loss.
The No. 12 Florida soccer team began the night with a dramatic 3-2 upset of No. 1 Stanford, a perennial nemesis, while the No. 8 Gators volleyball team made its ballyhooed first match in the renovated O’Connell Center an unforgettable one by upending No. 1 Texas, 3-1.
Of the two victories, the former was probably more surprising, if no sweeter.
Florida’s soccer team is — was? — entering the 2017 season without the sensational talents of the graduated Savannah Jordan, the second-leading scorer in program history behind someone named Abby, and has been repeatedly defeated and disappointed at Stanford’s hands and boots in recent years. The Gators entered Friday’s match with an 0-4-1 record against the Cardinal, with three of those four losses coming in overtime — and the tie was really a loss, too, a 2-2 game that went to Stanford on penalties in the quarterfinals of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
But only one of those five games had come in Gainesville, with the rest all taking place in Palo Alto. And the Gators welcomed the Cardinal back to Florida for the first time in 16 years with an upset.
Florida did not dominate play on the night, falling behind 1-0 in the first half and 2-1 in the second before equalizers by Samantha Chung and Gabby Seiler, respectively, and getting out-shot by a 14-8 count. Seiler’s goal, though, came on a fine back-post header in the 79th minute, and just three minutes later Lais Araujo — a junior college transfer, and the captain of Brazil’s 2016 U-20 World Cup squad — fielded a seeing-eye pass from midfielder Melanie Monteagudo, crossed a defender to put the ball on her right foot in the box, and curled in a shot from six yards out to put Florida ahead for the first time on the night.
The Gators would have to fight to defend that lead, with goaltender Susi Espinoza making her fifth save of the night on a blast from outside the box in the 90th minute, but when the whistle blew, Florida had its first win in six tries over the Cardinal, a perennial Pac-12 power that won the 2011 NCAA title.
For the Gators, and coach Becky Burleigh, it’s only one game, and not a season-defining one, as Burleigh noted in a postgame interview.
But Florida securing a win over a team likely to stay near the top of the national rankings all year, and one likely to make a run at a third straight Pac-12 title, is a great portent for success after Jordan. Florida may play teams as good and talented as Stanford this season, but it will probably not meet one better, and the Gators can use that confidence to fuel them this fall.
Yet the action at Dizney Stadium was only the undercard on the evening — and the Gators of the court delivered in even more emphatic fashion in the nightcap.
Florida’s marketing department made an enormous deal of this match — its first regular-season contest in the new O’Connell Center after a 2016 season spent displaced to the comparatively tiny Lemerand Athletic Center on campus — and aimed to get 6,000 or more fans into the O’Dome to see the Gators take on Texas, a program that competes for national championships on an annual basis. More than 7,500 fans ultimately packed the stands in the O’Dome on Friday, producing the second-largest crowd in program history.
The Gators gave them a memorable show.
Florida seized control of the first set early on, and did not trail after taking an 8-7 lead en route to a 25-16 victory. And the second set featured a fine finish for the Gators, who got a long ball from Texas to go up 24-23, then a kill from Mia Sokolowski to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
While Texas rallied to take the third set in dominant fashion, 25-18 — the ‘Horns verged on a 30 percent kill percentage in the frame — the Gators responded in the fourth set, building 15-9 and 23-16 leads before Texas scapped back to make it 24-21 on its serve. Senior Shainah Joseph finished the Gators’ third victory over a No. 1 team ever with a kill, pegging Florida to its first toppling of the nation’s top team in 15 years.
It was a night to remember as Florida beats #1 Texas! pic.twitter.com/34FycLa5x1— Gators Volleyball (@GatorsVB) August 26, 2017
Like her counterpart on the pitch, Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise remained even-keeled after the match, calling the victory “a starting point.” But for Wise and the Gators, this was surely both sweet revenge and a powerful affirmation of fan support for the program.
Texas, you may recall, ousted Florida from the 2015 NCAA Tournament in the quarterfinals on an atrocious call that left the Gators incensed and led to the NCAA instituting new replay and challenge rules. Beating the Longhorns on home court — before a throng of thousands, instead of the huddle of hundreds who packed the “Lem” in 2016, as Florida’s volleyball team was the only program of the Gators’ nearly 20 varsity sports to be displaced for a full season by the O’Dome renovation — is assuredly a reminder by (and for) Wise and her charges that these Gators, too, are among the nation’s elite, and deserve to be followed as such.
And Florida now has a chance to roll through a weekend at home in this year’s edition VERT Challenge — a four-year event featuring Florida, Nebraska, Oregon, and Stanford that has effectively taken the place of a similar Nike-run event that featured Florida, Penn State, Stanford, and Texas — and take wins over two top-five foes, as the Gators will face No. 5 Nebraska, a winner over Oregon on Friday, in a matchup at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
If the Gators take down the Huskers, they will have defeated two Final Four participants from 2016 in the first two days of their 2017 season. That would be only a starting point, too — but it would be a hell of a foundation for a program that is still in search of its elusive first national title.