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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Gators' freshmen will have their first brush with Southeastern Conference play tonight, but that doesn't mean the match will be entirely foreign for a few first-year players.

When No. 11 UF (6-1) squares off with Georgia (7-4) tonight in the O'Connell Center, there will be a couple familiar faces on the other side of the court.

UF freshman Kristy Jaeckel played high school volleyball in Colorado with Georgia's starting middle blocker, Ann Dylla - the team's second leading blocker (1.07 per set).

"It's always fun to see people that you know from back home out here," said Jaeckel, who plans to go out to dinner with her old friend while she's in town.

Freshmen Colleen Ward and Kelly Murphy played on the same Illinois-based club volleyball team with Georgia libero Carla Tietz, who has logged the second-highest dig per set total on the team (3.17).

Ward said she hasn't kept in touch with Tietz since coming to college and added it's a weird feeling seeing an old teammate on the other side of the net.

When the freshman class takes the court and kicks off the start of a new conference slate, history would indicate that they will become familiar with something else: winning.

In the 17 years coach Mary Wise has been at the helm, the success the Gators have enjoyed in the SEC can only be described as utter domination.

UF's collective record over that time span is 294-9, and 11 times the Gators have run through the conference schedule without a single slip-up.

On the way to winning games at a 97 percent clip, six teams in the conference - Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Auburn - have never defeated Wise.

If the Gators are able to defeat the Bulldogs tonight, Wise will improve to 44-0 against the team from Athens.

Despite all the impressive statistics and tradition of mowing down SEC competition, Wise noted the improvement across the conference.

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"This is not your mother's SEC," she said. "This is a very different-looking league."

Wise said every team in the league has a go-to player that is capable of carrying her team to a victory on any given night, which will keep the league more balanced from top to bottom.

"We're all an ankle sprain away from being in the middle of the pack," she said.

In preparing for the Bulldogs, the Gators have been focusing on senior outside hitter Maria Taylor, who comes into the matchup averaging more than four kills per set.

UF will have to key in on Taylor - a player Wise called the early favorite for SEC Player of the Year - in order to prevent their second consecutive loss.

Wise and many of the players said they learned more from losing to Colorado State than they would have from a win, and they hope to use that to get better and raise their game against Georgia.

"We know that we can come out and be a way better team," Jaeckel said.

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