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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

After four straight road games, there's no rest for the weary.

UF volleyball coach Mary Wise picked Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference in August.

But more than two months later, the Wildcats are 5-1 in the SEC, a game behind the undefeated Gators (13-0, 6-0 SEC).

The Wildcats come to Gainesville tonight at 7 with a chance to tie UF atop the SEC standings and ruin the Gators? homecoming after 19-straight days without a match in the O?Connell Center.

BI think Kentucky brings in some of the best talent of any team in the league,C Wise said. BIt is by far the toughest stretch (of the season).C

UF has not lost to Kentucky in 35 matches under Wise.

Though the UF players get to sleep in their own beds for the first time in three weekends, they won?t sleep easy knowing the Wildcats are knocking at their door.

UF and Kentucky rank first and second in many statistical categories in the SEC. The Gators are first in hitting percentage, assists per game, kills per game with Kentucky right behind them.

The Wildcats, however, are first in blocks per game while the Gators take second in that category.

BI think Kentucky has the best middle blocking one-two punch in the league,C Wise said. B[They have two players] that are very different in that you?ve got one who is exceptional behind the setter, and the other is great in front of the setter.C

Junior Queen Nzenwa is first in the SEC with 1.60 blocks per game, and senior Nicole Britenriker is eighth with 1.26.

Not to mention, Kentucky?s freshman middle blocker Lauren Rapp has been named SEC Freshman of the Week three times already this season.

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But the prospect of facing great middle blockers like Nzenwa and Britenriker only excites UF sophomore middle blocker Kristina Johnson.

BIt?s challenging, but it?s always fun, going toe-to-toe with great middles.C Johnson said.

If anyone can go toe-to-toe it?s Johnson, who has the highest vertical jump of any UF female athlete - 31 inches. That?s more than two-and-a-half feet.

Wise had not heard about Johnson?s jumping until Tuesday.

BI knew K.J. had the best on our team,C Wise said. BWe got her out of cheerleading, she?s ours. It would be pretty funny if she was still cheerleading and had the highest vertical jump.C

Wise added that she would be suspicious if Johnson couldn?t out-jump female athletes on the soccer, golf and swimming teams.

The excellent blocking won?t end Friday since UF takes on rival Tennessee (7-6, 2-4 SEC) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. The Volunteers are the No. 3 team in the conference in blocks per game.

Tennessee?s sophomore middle blocker Leah Hinkey is third on the blocks-per-game list with 1.45 and junior Mindy Flynn is tenth with 1.22.

Senior Kisya Killingsworth, who has 1.19 per game, just dropped out of the top 10 after Wednesday night?s SEC matches.

The Gators are also one of only five teams left in Division-1 volleyball with no blemishes on their record. Dayton, Stanford, Washington, Nebraska and UF are all undefeated.

Though Wise would prefer the team not to lose at all, she acknowledges the difficulties of learning from a win.

BIt is true that it is easier to learn from a loss than a win,C Wise said. BBut I?ll take any win … than a good loss. So we?re OK at this point without the loss.C

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