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Sunday, February 25, 2024

With six freshmen on this year's roster, the No. 11 Gators (8-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) have had to build the chemistry between their young talent and veteran players.

It would be hard enough to gel two freshman setters (Cindy Bathelt and Kelly Murphy) with two veteran middle blockers (Kelsey Bowers and Kristina Johnson) without any additional obstacles.

However, the two middles have missed out on a lot of practice time due to injury, which has slowed the acclimation process.

"It was definitely difficult the first couple matches," Bathelt said. "But I think we're starting to get more of a rhythm."

Bowers has been slowed by a back injury that hasn't improved much since she first hurt it over the summer. As a result, the senior has seen limited action and has rarely been used in back-to-back games.

Similarly, Johnson has experienced soreness in her knee after tearing her ACL last season, which limited her action in UF's only loss this season against Colorado State.

Heading into this weekend's games at Arkansas on Friday and at Mississippi on Sunday, coach Mary Wise expressed concerns that Johnson's knee might not be able to handle flying on this road trip.

The situation becomes more complicated because both players are cleared to play as long as they are physically ready - something Wise doesn't find out until the morning of their practices or matches.

"We see signs of improvement, and it's been a really good week for Kelsey Bowers. But then again, today Kristina Johnson won't jump," she said. "It's a revolving door, good news then bad news."

The good news for the Gators offense is that nine games into the season, the setters are now becoming comfortable with the middle blockers despite their lack of practice time together.

"Even if Kelsey can't get as many reps, we make the reps quality," Bathelt said.

While it may not be the best time to figure out your teammates, the experiences they are gaining in matches are replacing the repetitions lost in practice.

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Bathelt said she learned something about each of her middles quickly and had to make an adjustment in her game.

"K.J. jumps really high, and Kelsey is really fast," she said.

Tuesday's practice was largely devoted to getting the middle blockers more action, and Wise said she thinks the team has performed well in recent matches.

"We are doing a better job of getting point production out of our middle blockers, serving better and we're definitely blocking better," she said.

If Bowers and Johnson aren't able to stay healthy throughout the season, the Gators will lose something a lot more valuable than kills or blocks - they will lose experience.

The duo constitutes half of the upper classmen on UF's roster and, along with junior libero Elyse Cusack and senior defensive specialist Christina Diaz, provides much of the leadership needed on a championship-level team.

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