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Thursday, February 02, 2023

The banners in the Lemerand Athletic Center practice facility hang neatly in a row, a proud collection that is never complete.

There is one banner for each of the UF volleyball team's 16 consecutive SEC regular season titles, and a 17th seems hardly out of reach.

But for a team that has dominated its conference for more than a decade and a half, been to the NCAA Final Four seven times during that span and been consistently ranked among the nation's top 10 teams, something still feels lacking.

Notably absent from the rafters is a national championship banner.

"It's always on our minds," junior setter Christina Diaz said.

This season may be the Gators' best chance to achieve that goal and join the Titletown parade.

"I think it's very attainable for this team," senior setter Angie McGinnis said. "Obviously that's our biggest goal."

This year's seventh-ranked volleyball team has a great deal of experience, returning all six starters from 2006, as well as the libero.

Outside hitter Marcie Hampton, middle blocker Kisya Killingsworth, opposite hitter Amber McCray and McGinnis make up a senior class as strong as any in Gators history.

"I think in college athletics - pick any sport - teams are a reflection of our senior class," head coach Mary Wise said. "If that be the case, I really like the upside of this team."

UF finished the 2006 season with a 30-3 overall record, including a 19-1 record in SEC play. They lost in the NCAA regional semifinals to Minnesota.

Opposing conference coaches unanimously selected UF as the favorite to win the 2007 SEC Championship in a preseason poll.

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Sophomore libero Elyse Cusack hopes to repeat her high level of play after winning the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2006.

"It was a great freshman season for me," she said. "But we only made it to the Sweet 16. Definitely our goal is to make it to the championship."

Hampton honed her skills playing volleyball in Brazil with the US national team for the Pan American games over the summer.

"Summer was great," Hampton said. "Any time you play with players of that caliber… you're going to get better no matter what."

Wise expects a spectacular season out of Hampton.

"If she stays healthy, Marcie has a chance to really have her name all over our record book," Wise said.

Also returning to start is junior middle blocker Kelsey Bowers and sophomore middle blocker Kristina Johnson.

Bowers was second-team All-SEC in 2006 and Johnson made the SEC All-Freshman team.

Sophomore setter Alli Cecchini played on the US Junior National A2 Team over the summer and will help the Gators out on setting and defense again this year.

One player who won?t be returning is middle blocker Kari Klinkenborg. Klinkenborg could not overcome a knee injury, and her UF career is most likely over.

The Gators will be helped this season by a heralded freshman class.

Outside hitter Callie Rivers from Winter Park was the No. 13-ranked high school player in the country by PrepVolleyball.com in 2006. Middle blocker Lauren Bledsoe was ranked as the No. 26 prospect and comes to Gainesville from Long Beach, Calif.

All-Americans Erin Fleming and Kristy Jaeckel round out the recruiting class. Fleming should take over as Cusack's backup.

The team will also have the services of redshirt freshman Janine Williams. Williams sat out all but two games of 2006 with knee problems, but Wise says she is now at 100 percent.

Cusack said she thinks a national title is within reach.

"Our seniors are experienced," Cusack said. "They know what it takes."

Though the team is optimistic about its chances, Hampton wants to remain cautious.

"Right now it looks great," she said. "It's easy to sit back and look on paper and say we should be the greatest (UF) volleyball team ever, but we haven't even played a match yet."

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