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Friday, March 31, 2023

It's easy to get caught up in the gaudy hitting percentages, the electrifying kills and the smooth sets.

One offensive attack seems more impressive than the last, and the wide range of players scoring points for the Gators jumps off the stat sheet.

But when No. 10 UF (10-1, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) heads into Tuscaloosa tonight to take on Alabama (8-4, 1-2 SEC), it could be the team's defense that carries it through the match.

And leading the charge will be junior libero Elyse Cusack, whose hustle and aggression sets the pace for the Gator's defense.

"It takes a different personality," Cusack said. "From what my coaches have told me, you have to be a little odd to be a libero."

This season, Cusack, the team's unquestioned leader, has averaged 4.38 digs per game and has quietly guided a young team to an impressive start.

With lack of experience an apparent weakness coming into the year, the defense is where UF counts on its leadership.

Middle blockers Kelsey Bowers and Kristina Johnson, along with Cusack, are relied on to lead their team, but injuries have slowed their playing time.

While coach Mary Wise raves about their work ethic and commitment to getting back on the floor full time, she admits health concerns have kept her team from playing to its full potential.

"I feel like we've been playing with one hand tied behind our back," she said.

Having an All-American caliber libero like Cusack has kept the unit running effectively, but the 5-foot-9 junior can't do everything a dominant defense demands.

"I don't think you can win a championship without blocking," Wise said.

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Throughout the history of volleyball, college and international, Wise said the best squads in America, and in the world, have been those who can block balls.

She said that if you ask her players what skill she gets most worked up about, they would say blocking.

"We have our effort stats, which are serving, blocking and digging," Bowers said, "which Mary holds above all of our other skills."

As a middle, Bowers said her priority is to record at least two rejections per game.

It is at the net, with her hands straight up in the air, that she has the greatest value to the team.

"We call it a two-point play," she said. "You get the block, which is a point, and it demoralizes the other team a little bit, especially if it's a good block."

As the middles regain form, the defense will look better and better in matches. Until then, Wise pointed to an often-overlooked aspect of defensive play that the team hopes to master.

"Defense all starts with the serve," she said. "The better a team serves, the more opportunities they're going to have to block and to dig."

This season, Cusack has logged 18 service aces against 10 errors, far and away the best on the team.

Even though she doesn't reject opposing spikes at the net, No. 7 anchors the defense in every other way.

"I don't think any team can look at Florida and not know that Elyse Cusack is the key to our success," Wise said.

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