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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

For the last 10 years, there's been a McCray on the UF volleyball roster.

But that legacy is nearing its end.

First it was All-American middle blocker Nicole.

Now it?s her younger sister and the Gators? starting opposite hitter, Amber.

B[My teammates] joke around and call me 'Grandma,?C Amber said. BPartially because I?ve been here five years and partially because they always say I?m old and falling apart.C

Either way, it?s clear she?s left an imprint on the program.

ATHLETICISM IN THE GENES

The McCray sisters seemed destined to play sports as they grew up in Longview, Texas.

Their parents met playing basketball at Panola Junior College in Texas.

BWe were constantly around some sort of sports or watching sports,C said Nicole, Amber?s older sister by five years, now the volleyball coach at Georgia Southern. BOur parents wanted us to play basketball, so when we started playing volleyball, it was kind of weird. But they jumped on board and loved it ever since.C

An athletic background helped McCray?s parents understand what their daughters were going through.

BWe knew about working hard, working out, going to the gym, getting home late,C said Darlene McCray, Amber?s mother. BIt was really just the family continuing on.C

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Amber remembers watching Nicole join the East Texas Juniors, a club volleyball team, at age 12.

The next year, she wanted in.

BI begged my mom, because I just wanted to be on a team,C she said. BI didn?t care that I didn?t play. I just wanted to travel and be on a team.C

So Amber began her volleyball career playing on the 12-and-under team at 8 years old.

BMy whole memory from that year is watching the game from the sidelines,C she said. BI was awful. I might have got in to serve a couple times in a year, and I missed my underhand serve, but that was pretty much my memory from that whole year.C

Amber took a year off from club ball during the sixth grade to play city-league basketball, but she still played volleyball in school. Taking the time off from club may have actually helped her game.

BIt was funny, because I?d say that was actually the year I made the most improvement because I went to my sister?s (high school) practices whenever I could,C she said.

While she played basketball and ran track throughout high school, she always returned to volleyball, her favorite sport, her first love.

TOUGH SELL

With her older sister playing at UF, it may have seemed natural that Amber would become part of the Gators when Nicole graduated.

While Amber had known UF coach Mary Wise since the seventh grade, it wasn?t anywhere near that easy.

BIt was a really up-and-down process,C Amber said. BFor the longest time, I didn?t want to come to UF because she came here, and I didn?t want to live in her shadow.C

Nicole did not try to sway her sister one way or the other.

BAmber?s her own person,C Nicole said. BI only talked to her if she needed me to or if she asked for help with anything.C

Darlene, as any mother might, had watched one daughter play out of state for four years and had bought many plane tickets for Nicole to come home.

She hoped Amber would be different.

BI was trying to get Amber to stay in Texas because that was my baby and I wanted her to be close,C Darlene said.

Darlene said Coach Wise?s visit to the McCray home was a big factor in Amber?s decision.

Wise addressed Amber?s concerns about coming in after Nicole right away. She stressed the fact that Nicole, a middle blocker, played a different position at UF than Amber would.

Wise also played up the fact that Amber knew a lot about how the program worked, considering she had been around it for the last five years.

Amber began to think it over, and as time went on she realized UF possessed many of the qualities she desired.

A few weeks later, while playing out of the country with the US Junior National Team, she made her decision.

BShe called me and said, 'Mom, I want to go to Florida,?C Darlene said.

The outcome was unexpected, even to her sister.

BUntil the day she committed, I thought she was going to Texas,C Nicole said. BSo when she told me she was going to Florida, I was ecstatic.C

TORN FROM THE GAME

If Amber thought the recruiting process was hard, she had no idea what was to follow.

During the spring of her freshman year, Amber tore her anterior cruciate ligament and her medial collateral ligament in her right knee.

She said it started out as any normal spring practice.

BI just jumped to hit a ball and landed off-balance on one leg, and it just buckled,C Amber said.

The injury would pose her greatest challenge yet.

BThat was most definitely the hardest thing I?ve ever had to do,C Amber said. BBecause I?ve always been playing, whether it was high school, club, summer league with USA - I?ve always been playing volleyball.C

Nicole knew just what her younger sister was going through, having been forced to redshirt her freshman year after a rotator cuff injury.

The toughest part might have been the fact that Amber had seen action in 25 of 38 matches her freshman year, playing a key role on a team that went all the way to the national final before losing to Southern California.

The injury forced her to spend her second year watching from the sideline.

BI just told her to stay positive,C Nicole said. BI told her that year was going to go by fast.C

Darlene also had an idea of what her daughter was going through, having had a similar but less-serious injury during her basketball playing days.

Despite hearing that it was an injury that might force Amber to quit playing volleyball, she stayed positive.

BI always felt she was going to come back,C Darlene said. BI never felt any negatives or spoke any negative statements to her about her possibly not playing volleyball anymore. It was just a known to me that she was coming back. I felt like God would bless her to continue her volleyball career, and He did.C

LEAVING HER LEGACY

Amber returned to the floor in spring 2005 in a spring scrimmage at Louisville.

She remembers trying to make up for it all in one play.

BI was over-running every ball,C she said. BMary could tell me, 'Amber you?re really, really anxious because you?re so anxious to be back.?C

It hasn?t exactly been smooth sailing from there, however.

All those volleyball swings over the years took their toll on Amber?s rotator cuff, and she developed a tear last season. She sat out some games, and Wise makes sure not to overwork her these days.

BThere?s good days and bad days,C Amber said. BI still wouldn?t say 100 percent, but I?m really working on getting better every week, so that by the end of the season and the postseason when it?s really counted, I?ll be ready.C

Still, she played well enough last season to be named a second-team All-America by both the American Volleyball Coaches Association and Volleyball Magazine.

With her final season winding down, Amber will look to lead UF back to national prominence.

The Gators have not returned to the Final Four since her freshman season.

However it ends, Wise knows Amber has made her mark at UF.

BAmber McCray?s injuries - she?s had the short end of the stick there,C Wise said. BBut the legacy she?ll leave is the perseverance. I?ve never seen anything like it.C

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