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Saturday, January 28, 2023

In mid-air hangs an attacker, a defender and an orange and blue striped volleyball.

Within a split second, all three have landed back on the freshly polished court, finished with their momentary defiance of gravity.

The hitter was unable to find an alley for the would-be kill, and the defender, middle blocker Kristina Johnson, pumps a fist and lifts her surgically repaired knee before welcoming high-fives from her teammates.

When Jacksonville comes to town for a 7 p.m. showdown with UF in the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational today, a healthy Johnson will be looking to build on her team- leading 9 blocks through the first two games.

"I haven't actually tested my vertical to see what it is, but it's fine," she said when asked if her jumping ability is the same as it was before the surgery.

Last season, in the Gators NCAA regional semifinal match with Texas, Johnson landed on the foot of then-teammate Janine Williams, tearing her ACL.

A surgery and seven months of rehab later, she was cleared to play two days before the team's first practice.

"Prior to this August, the last time Kristina Johnson had even swung at a volleyball was in December," coach Mary Wise said.

With preseason All-Southeastern Conference middle blocker Kelsey Bowers unable to play full time with a back injury, the junior is being relied upon to provide a stable force in the middle of the floor.

SEC Freshman of the Week Kristy Jaeckel echoed Wise's emphasis on the importance of strong play from the "middles."

"The more involved we can get them, the better we're going to be," she said.

And the more reps Johnson gets, the better she will be blocking shots and killing balls for the Gators.

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Because of her knee injury and a shoulder injury the previous year, Johnson has missed out on training with the team the last two springs.

Listening to Johnson talk, it's hard to tell that she's only been able to go full speed for about a month now.

"It's been interesting coming back with new setters," she said. "That's been the biggest transition."

That's right, the biggest transition wasn't the surgery.

She said she put that out of her mind after the first week of practice.

Friday marks the beginning of a rigorous stretch that includes five games in eight days for UF and for the 6-foot-2 middle blocker they call "KJ."

Wise expects her to keep getting better with more playing time, and if that's true, fans should keep their eyes on No. 15 when it comes time for a big play at the net.

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