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Is This the Year? The Florida women own an eight-year SEC winning streak, but it hasn't added up to an NCAA title--yet

Things seemed pretty bleak for the Florida women's volleyball
team following its final SEC match of the 1994 season. While the
Gators had earlier clinched their fourth straight regular-season
conference title, they lost their third middle blocker of the
season, to a knee injury, that day and dropped the match to South

But Florida wasn't as bad off as it appeared. Five days later, in
the SEC tournament, the Gators avenged the loss to the Gamecocks
and then went on to win the conference tournament for the third
year in a row. In fact, Florida has not lost an SEC
regular-season game since that South Carolina match on Nov. 13,

While much has changed in the intervening years--Michael Jordan
was playing minor league baseball eight years ago, and Monica
Lewinsky was a college student--the Gators have kept on winning.
On Sept. 29 Florida defeated Mississippi State to set the NCAA
record for consecutive conference wins in the regular season
(100), breaking a mark set by Western Michigan from 1982 through
'89. (Through Sunday, after notching SEC wins 103 and 104 against
Mississippi State and Mississippi, respectively, Florida was 16-1
this season.) During the streak the Gators have been led by 10
All-Americas, six SEC players of the year and coach Mary Wise,
who has a .906 overall winning percentage and nine SEC Coach of
the Year awards since taking over the program in 1991.

With each successful season, recruiting becomes that much easier
for Wise, who has even snagged a few players from volleyball's
mecca, California. The Florida record--11 straight SEC
regular-season championships, nine SEC tournament titles and
five Final Fours--speaks for itself. Junior outside hitter
Jacque Robinson of Merced, Calif., was so impressed during her
recruiting trip that she broke down as she watched her first
game at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. "When the lights went
out for the [introductions], I was bawling," says the 6'2"
Robinson, whose father, Jerry, played 13 seasons in the NFL. "I
cried the whole time I was here. I was so happy."

Says Wise, "That's a good thing in recruiting. If they cry, you
feel pretty good about your chances."

However, she is painfully aware that a crucial piece of the
recruiting package is missing. "I can't sell a national
championship," Wise says. Indeed, Florida holds the dubious
distinction of having made the most Final Four appearances since
'91 without winning the trophy. Five times the Gators have lost
in the semifinals--four times to a West Coast team--and every
one of those five series has been a 3-0 sweep.

One reason players flock to Wise is her competitive zeal. During
games she's up from her chair after each point, shouting
encouragement and cheering like someone in the stands. At the
end of her second pregnancy Wise even remained at a spring
practice after her water broke. "That's Mary in a nutshell,"
says associate head coach Nick Cheronis. "She's very committed."

The third-ranked Gators have reason to believe this might be
their year. Although they lost to USC early in the season, they
have since defeated defending national champ Stanford and
perennial power Penn State. The top player for Florida is Aury
Cruz, a 5'11" junior from Puerto Rico, who led the team in kills
(480) and aces (63) as a sophomore and at week's end had 152
kills and 16 aces this year. Her jump serve packs such a punch
that at home games the crowd chants, "Tick ... tick ... boom!"
"To win it all in women's volleyball you have to have a national
player of the year candidate," says Wise. "Aury Cruz is awfully

The Gators also rely on Robinson's strong outside hitting and on
the blocking duo of lone senior Nicole McCray and junior Benavia
Jenkins. "This is the most athletic team Florida has ever had,"
says Missy Aggertt Whittemore, who played for Wise from 1992
through '95 and is now a color commentator for the school's radio
station. "This is the first year I've thought, They can do it."

Wise hopes Whittemore is right. The coach is proud of the
conference winning streak, but she still hasn't reached her
ultimate goal. "I'd rather win a national championship," Wise
says. "If you gave me an either/or, I'd take the ring."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (2) KILLJOY Junior powerhouse Cruz is, like Wise (inset), a candidate for national honors.

Spiker Specials
Here are the longest regular-season conference winning streaks in
NCAA women's volleyball history.

Team Conference Wins Years

1. Florida Southeastern 104 1995-present
2. W. Michigan Mid-American 99 1982-89
3. Texas Southwest 67 1984-91
4. Northern Iowa Missouri Valley 66 1997-2001
5. Notre Dame Midwestern 62 1991-98
Collegiate, Big East*

*Notre Dame changed conferences after the 1994 season.