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Friday, February 03, 2023

It will be a season of firsts for Janine Williams, even though it is technically her second.

She already tallied her first career kill Friday against Illinois State, she will play in her first Southeastern Conference matches in mid-September and her first home start is likely to come today.

After playing in only two games last year because of a knee injury, the redshirt freshman outside hitter is off to a great start.

"It was really exciting," she said of her first two matches. "Going from redshirt to actually starting was a big deal for me. It's kind of weird. Everybody says, 'You're a freshman,' but I don't really feel like it at all."

Williams will have the chance to start in either of the Gators' two matches today. UF first plays Georgia Southern at 12:30 p.m. and then has a match against North Carolina State at 7:30 p.m. It is the only time the Gators play two matches on the same day this season.

On Saturday, UF will play its third match in two days, facing No. 19 Santa Clara at 4 p.m.

The four teams are playing in Gainesville as a part of the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational.

Williams had surgery on her bad knee in July 2006 and spent most of the year watching her team compete from the bench.

"Last year, being on the sidelines was pretty hard for me," she said. "(Starting) is definitely a change, and definitely a positive change for me."

Through two matches and seven games played, the Gainesville native has 10 kills, 13 digs and is second on the team with a .360 hitting percentage.

The Gators' game against Georgia Southern provides an opportunity for Williams' parents to see her play, something they are looking forward to.

"Hopefully I'll start," Williams said. "My mom was really ecstatic when she called me after (Sunday's) game. She watched it on TV. She got calls from some of my family members, my grandparents - she was really proud of me."

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Her parents both attended UF and her father, Keith, played defensive line for the Gators from 1982-86.

Georgia Southern is coached by a face familiar to the UF volleyball program - Nicole McCray, senior outside hitter Amber McCray's older sister.

Nicole is a former All-American middle blocker from UF now in her second year coaching the Eagles.

"I think it's a great setup," UF coach Mary Wise said. "Nicole was a terrific player for us, and obviously her younger sister is, as well. We're now in our tenth year coaching a McCray, and now they go head-to-head. How many families get a Division-I head coach playing a Division-I player?"

Georgia Southern and UF have only met once, with the Gators winning 3-0 in the 2003 NCAA Tournament's first round.

Williams' parents might miss the N.C. State game Friday, as her younger brother, Jordan, plays defensive end for P.K. Yonge High.

N.C. State, with a 3-1 record, already has one more win than it did in the entire 2006 season. The Wolfpack went winless in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

But the best game of the weekend should come against Santa Clara on Saturday, the first ranked opponent the Gators will face. The Broncos are 3-0 this season after losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year.

UF and Santa Clara have never met before.

When they meet for the first time, Williams will likely play a significant role. Wise knows the long-term value of redshirting a freshman means a fifth-year senior down the road.

"Janine just now starting her career, it's very exciting," Wise said. "She's a very physical player. If you compare her to other freshmen around the country, she's one of the strongest players in the country."

Williams' philosophy is dedication and diligence, and she is reaping the benefits by getting into the action.

At practice Wednesday, Williams was one of two Gators to hit a "smoothie cone" - a six-inch orange traffic cone - when the teams were practicing serving to specific spots on the court. Her reward for that is a free smoothie from a coach when the team gets smoothies next.

Her reward for hard work? Playing time.

"I work hard at every practice, every day," she said. "If that means that I?m going to get on the court, then that?s what it means."

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