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No Championships, No Problems

Photo: Jimmy Mitchell

Gator soccer players are excited to compete this fall – NCAA championship playoff or not.

Three cheers for the student-athletes who are about to play their longest, weirdest seasons ever.

Every time head coach Mary Wise collects her Florida volleyball team together for another practice or workout, she starts out the session with some applause.

This is a group of players who has yet to win anything this season, not even a match or a game or a serve.

But she appreciates them.

“I just want to give them a cheer for the efforts they are making,” said Wise. “They are about to play the longest volleyball season in history and we’re also asking them for a lot.”

UF soccer head coach Becky Burleigh says she’s been pushing for a split season for several years. Photo by Tim Casey

It’s a similar story over at women’s soccer where head coach Becky Burleigh is trying to get her team ready for a season that has only part of a schedule.

“There are some real positives,” she said. “You just have to look for them.”

Their seasons appeared to be doomed when the NCAA decided not to hold the championship tournaments for any fall sports (football’s championship, of course, is not conducted by the NCAA).

Even Scott Stricklin, the Florida athletic director, said when the NCAA decision came down that he doubted there would be seasons for either sports because there would be no champions at the end.

But a compromise paved the way for a weird season in the weirdest of sports years.

The SEC decided to go ahead and play a fall season and then come back to finish it in the spring. And while there is plenty of adjusting to be done, there is no complaining.

“We’ve been pushing for split seasons for four or five years,” Burleigh said.

Volleyball head coach Mary Wise says despite the ripple effects of COVID-19, she’s choosing to focus on the positives of their altered season. Photo by Tim Casey.

Volleyball and soccer are very popular on the Florida campus but still live in the overwhelming shadow of football. The coaches also know that football pays the bills and that it’s important for the Gainesville community to have the sport.

They are just thrilled to have their own sports to prepare for. Even if they don’t know what the full schedule will be like.

The soccer team already had its opener postponed because it had too many positive COVID-19 tests – a result of players being forced to huddle together during a lightning storm. COVID-19, once again, is dictating a season.

Soccer will play its other division foes and eventually close with the SEC Tournament. Eventually, they will finish it off in the spring, and they hope to have a shot at a national title.

“We’re not quite sure yet,” Burleigh said. “But I will tell you, for us, playing once a week is like heaven. The players don’t have to hold back anything. We’ve been playing two games a weekend for 30 years.

“And I’m officially jealous of the coaches who don’t play in the fall. You get to know your team rather than start playing in the summer.”

Volleyball will start Oct. 21 with four doubleheaders, two away and two at home. There are also two makeup weekends built into the schedule.

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Volleyball and soccer teams will have a split season with half their games this fall and the other half in the spring.

“You can’t really plan too far ahead because everyone has to stay healthy,” Wise said. “And we have to wait to see what the spring schedule is going to look like because a lot depends on what the other conferences are doing.

“It’s a unique challenge. Maybe we’ll find out that it’s a better way to do it.”

Just doing it is a treat for both coaches, no matter how strange it will be to have split seasons in the weirdest year ever.

“Everything we’ve asked them to do, I mean, it’s a lot,” Wise said. “Stay safe, get ready but know we aren’t playing for a while.

“But for them, it’s still better than when we couldn’t practice. They’d rather not know the rest of the schedule than not be able to get into the gym.”

That’s the thing. No matter what gets thrown at you, whether you are a coach or a student-athlete or you work at a restaurant or write silly columns, no matter what, you have two choices: evolve or get left behind.

The evolution of these two teams and everyone dealing with this situation on campus will be fascinating to watch.