By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
To look at the resume of Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise, it might be hard to believe that she could have packed all of those accomplishments into a 22-year period. What Wise has done during her time in Gainesville has been nothing short of remarkable and her impact has been the driving force in revolutionizing the sport of volleyball in the Southeastern Conference.
Wise, who became a head coach at just 21 years of age at Iowa State in 1981, arrived at the University of Florida in advance of the 1991 season. At that time, the Gators had made just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the program’s history, had never captured an SEC title and had won just 60 percent of its matches to that point, since the school revived the sport prior to the 1984 season.
In her first season in Gainesville, Wise directed her team to a 35-5 overall record and the program’s first-ever SEC title. A year later, she had her team in the NCAA Final Four in what would become the first of seven such appearances in the national semifinals.
In her more than two-decade long tenure, Wise’s team has advanced to the NCAA Tournament in each of her 22 seasons, qualifying for the NCAA Regional Semifinals on 21 occasions. Last month, she led Florida to its 20th SEC Championship.
Given the almost surreal accomplishments that Wise’s teams have been able to achieve, one might look on the surface and think the 2012 campaign was another in a list of outstanding seasons that end with a trophy.
The reality is: this may have been Wise’s finest coaching job.
That’s a concept that may be, on the surface, hard to fathom, especially considering that Wise’s 2003 team that finished as the NCAA runner-up may have been one of the most talented teams in college volleyball history.
But consider this: the 2012 season was the first without a decorated gallery of players that comprised the nation’s top recruiting class, including the nation’s top recruit in 2008, Kelly Murphy, a dynamic hybrid combination of setter and attacker that transformed her team’s offensive scheme. The Gators would have to account for the loss of six players from the year before.
When the Gators lost Noami Santos-Lamb, an expected starter, to injury just before the start of the 2012 campaign, Wise wasn’t sure how her team would be able to compensate for that loss.
“We knew that it was going to be a rebuilding year because of the graduation of the talented senior class of 2011,” Wise told me before the start of this year’s NCAA Tournament. “What we didn’t know was that we were going to lose Noami Santos-Lamb right before the season started. She was our only returning outside hitter, our leading point scorer and she was positioned for a great sophomore season. When her injury happened, I remember exactly where in the O’Connell Center that we were standing as a staff. Even before her MRI, we knew that she wasn’t going to be back this season. My comment was that if we can get into the NCAA Tournament, it will be a remarkable season.”
When a preseason vote of the SEC’s head coaches was revealed prior to the start of the 2012 season, the Gators were picked to place third in the league’s Eastern Division. It was clear that not many expectations were placed on Florida, except what the team expected of itself.
That fueled a desire within the Florida team to defy the odds, and that they did.
The Gators went 27-4 and finished with a 19-1 SEC record that earned them their first conference crown since 2010. Florida advanced to the NCAA Regional Semifinals before falling to third-seeded Texas on its home court.
“It’s been one of the most special groups I’ve ever been around and one of the most special seasons,” Wise said. “Whatever is greater than remarkable is what we accomplished this season.”
For its ability to overcome obstacles and maximize its talent, the Florida volleyball program became a little Wiser this year.
A Look At Wise’s Accomplishments
• AVCA National Head Coach of the Year (1992, 1996)
• USA Volleyball All-Time Great Coach
• 13-time SEC Coach of the Year (1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2010, 2012)
• Led teams to the Final Four seven times (1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003)
• Only female in NCAA history to coach in the national championship match
• Only female in NCAA history to coach in more than one Final Four
• Fastest female head coach to 500 career wins
• At age 21, became the youngest Division I head coach ever hired (at Iowa State)