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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Sometime tonight, a Georgia hitter will spring off the floor, looking for the perfect kill.

Moments later, an orange-and-blue blocker will rise up to meet her for an in-air duel, hoping to return the ball to sender.

Lately the Gators have had a hand up in these mid-air matchups, out-blocking their opponents in every match but one.

No. 6 UF (7-0) looks to bring its improved blocking, including a season-high 16.5 blocks against Utah on Sunday, into the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference play as it hosts Georgia tonight at 7 and Auburn 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.

A combination of height, talent and experience makes the middle blocker trio of senior Kisya Killingsworth, redshirt sophomore Kristina Johnson and junior Kelsey Bowers hard to attack.

All three are taller than 6-foot, but at any given time there?s only room for two on the court.

So far the Gators have mixed up the lineup, even changing it mid-game.

But on this team, three is not a crowd.

"We talk to each other," Killingsworth said. "When one player's sitting out the whole time they see things that the other two players don't see."

Johnson agrees three is better than two.

"We really support each other, so it?s been really fun," Johnson said. "You never really know when [UF coach Mary Wise] is going to call your name."

During the non-conference schedule, the coaches emphasized blocking as a top priority.

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It has made a difference for the Gators, who have come a long way from their opening-weekend totals of six and seven blocks against Illinois State and Notre Dame, respectively.

"It's just one of those things they constantly, constantly beat into our heads," Killingsworth said. "We cannot win games if we don?t block."

Seven seasons of combined experience help the process move even quicker.

"Once you have experience in that position, that immediately improves your overall blocking," UF associate head coach Nick Cheronis said. "We're real comfortable playing any of the three middles in any of the two positions."

Winning 16 straight SEC titles ensures there won?t be any cakewalks.

"The target on our back is always going to be large because we are the defending SEC champions," Cheronis said. "Everybody's going to be out to play their best volleyball."

UF won all four matches last season against this weekend?s opponents, sweeping the Bulldogs twice, while the Tigers took one game at home after being swept in Gainesville.

Georgia (9-1) and Auburn (8-3) will give the middles plenty of block opportunities, as each team brings in three players averaging more than three kills per game.

To compare, UF has only one - senior Marcie Hampton.

Winning the battles above the net will go a long way toward assuring that this year?s team isn?t the one to end the streak.

"There's a lot of pride and tradition as far as the SEC is concerned," Cheronis said. "There really isn't a group that wants to go through here and say we were the ones that didn't get a chance to defend. … Each one of them takes a special pride in trying to repeat year after year."

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