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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Nothing says coming-out party like a Most Valuable Player award.

After two inspired matches over the weekend, redshirt freshman Kristy Jaeckel took home the Aquafina Invitational MVP award as the Gators came away with two victories.

"She may be the strongest freshman in the entire country," coach Mary Wise said of Jaeckel.

In Saturday's 3-0 victory against Pacific, Jaeckel led No. 8 UF (2-0) with a 12-kill performance where she posted a .786 hitting percentage - the best in UF history by a non-middle blocker.

Making the feat even more impressive was the fact that she was playing out of position for much of the match.

Senior middle blocker Kelsey Bowers sat out due to a nagging back injury, forcing Wise to shake up the lineup.

Sophomore Lauren Bledsoe moved from opposite hitter to the middle of the court, and Jaeckel adjusted to blasting high-arcing sets from the right side instead of the left, where she logged 15 kills the night before in a 3-1 win over Alabama Birmingham.

Bledsoe filled in for the preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection by recording a team-high four blocks.

Along with Jaeckel, junior libero Elyse Cusack and freshman setter Kelly Murphy made appearances on the All-Tournament team.

Cusack was all over the court and collected 28 digs in two days while keeping her young teammates focused.

"Elyse is both the offensive and defensive line for us," Wise said. "More than just skill, Elyse provides leadership."

Murphy dished out the most assists for the Gators this weekend and was second only to Jaeckel in kills in her first two games in the Orange and Blue.

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Her teammates and coach raved about her versatility heading into the season, and the No. 1 recruit in her class has proven them prophetic.

Murphy's game from behind the service line was the only thing that seemed to be lacking.

Against the Tigers, she committed four service errors without a single ace. Wise attributed the serving struggles to the extraordinarily large load Murphy has taken on as a freshman.

"Imagine if you asked your quarterback to also be a linebacker and play both offense and defense, two very different positions," she said. "Then they had to take care of the extra point kicks."

Wise is more than happy to take a few missed extra points after big-time scoring plays and exceptional defending.

In addition to Jaeckel and Murphy, freshman Colleen Ward made her presence known in her O'Connell center debut.

Against Pacific, she put up a complete line of seven kills, nine digs, three blocks and three aces.

It was fitting that Ward ended the final set of the weekend by holding serve for the last four points of the 25-18 win.

"First, I just try to get a good toss and then just hit it as hard as I can over," she said of her big jump serve.

With the easy win against Pacific, Wise now has at least one victory against every team that she has faced in her career at UF - the Tigers had won the previous six matches.

After the Gators coasted through a lightning-quick three-set match, Wise issued a warning to all the UF faithful.

"I hope our fans will understand that a 3-1 win is a win," she said. "With the combination of our youth and 25-point sets, 3-0's just aren't going to happen."

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