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Friday, February 03, 2023

Nick Calathes, Jai Lucas and much of the rest of the UF men's basketball team could be found chatting with Doc Rivers, coach of the World Champion Boston Celtics, in the O'Connell Center Sunday afternoon.

Except they weren't there to play basketball, and Rivers wasn't there to impart wisdom on a youthful squad.

On Sunday, they were all spectators of the volleyball team's annual Orange and Blue Game, in which Rivers' daughter, Callie, played for the blue team.

"It was a lot of fun," junior libero Elyse Cusack said. "The crowd was great. I love our fans."

Starting at 12:30 p.m., the team sat and signed autographs for anyone who turned out, provided they stuck with the NCAA-approved team poster and showed up before the 2 p.m. game.

After the players warmed up, coach Mary Wise took the microphone and introduced "some players for the first time and some for the last."

In her 18th season at UF, she presented the crowd with the youngest team to take the court during her tenure.

"Any college coach would tell you there's no substitute for experience," she said.

This year, the Gators add six true freshmen to their roster as well as redshirt freshman Kristy Jaeckel.

But experience might be the only thing holding this team back from elite status.

The freshman class was ranked No. 1 by Prepvolleyball.com and Volleyball Magazine.

Guiding the surplus of young talent will be UF's two preseason All-Southeastern Conference selections, Cusack and senior middle blocker Kelsey Bowers.

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Though much of the responsibility will be on the two stars' ability to mesh with the new talent, Wise said that she will be counting on all the returning players to teach freshmen how to fit into a system that lost its leading passer (Angie McGinnis) and scorer (Marcie Hampton).

Because of those two enormous losses, Wise also said that the team's No. 8 preseason ranking might be misleading.

"The ranking is a reflection of last year's team," she said.

The new group of players will have to earn its own spot in the pecking order as the season moves on.

Wise, Cusack and Bowers know the freshmen will be a big part of their success or failure.

Cusack named Kelly Murphy as the most impressive freshman thus far, citing her versatility as her biggest attribute.

During the Orange and Blue Game, Murphy was able to showcase her digging and setting in between a few booming kills from the opposite hitter position.

Along with Murphy, Cindy Bathelt will be expected to fill the void in the middle left by McGinnis, too tough a task for just one person, Wise said.

As for replacing Hampton's team-leading 4.49 kills per game, Rivers, a sophomore, showed she's up for the task, logging 10 kills in Sunday's match.

There are many roles to be filled as the Gators start the long season ahead, but that hasn't stopped the team from setting lofty goals.

"Our main goal, definitely, is to win a national championship and to win an SEC title," Cusack said.

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