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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Great teams have it, struggling teams search for it.

It can be the difference between climbing to the peak of achievement and sinking to the depths of disappointment.

Everyone does it differently, and you can't ever ask for it. It's not a tangible attribute, but when someone has it, everyone knows it.

When the No. 9 Gators (14-1, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) take on South Carolina (14-3, 6-2 SEC) in the O'Connell Center tonight, they will be getting it from a number of different places.

All the talent in the world means nothing without leadership.

"We sell to the team that everyone leads," UF coach Mary Wise said. "To be a good leader, you have to be able to know when to lead, and you have to be able to follow. What we ask all the players to do, in their own way, is to lead."

In her third year under Wise, junior libero Elyse Cusack has become one of the veterans that the team depends on for vocal leadership.

Along with the rest of the upper classmen, Cusack can be found directing the action on the court, dishing out high fives on a great play and picking up a teammate after a mistake - all this in between digging out would-be kills.

"She's always consistent, whenever something isn't going well you can always count on her to make a dig or make a pass," freshman Kelly Murphy said. "She's just a really great leader, vocally, and by her actions and the plays that she makes."

Cusack, senior Kelsey Bowers and junior Kristina Johnson help keep UF's young players in line on the court, but the trio gets some help from another senior when they're away from the fast-paced action.

"Christina Diaz leads for us in numerous ways," Wise said. "It may not be during a match but 24/7 away from it with the freshmen, in terms of paying attention to the details, their work ethic and the decisions that they make."

And those same freshmen are no exception when Wise says she expects everyone to take on some sort of leadership role.

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Turning in double-double, and often triple-double, performances on a regular basis is one player's way of filling that role.

"Kelly Murphy has definitely been led by example," Cusack said. "The way she plays and how hard she plays, that inspires you to play hard for her."

Murphy is just one component of an entire class that has led by example, be it in the starting lineup or coming off the bench, Cusack said.

As the freshmen get older, their method of choice may change. But for now, the differing styles have been able to blend together without encroaching on the other one's territory.

And directing it all from the sidelines is a coach who has won the SEC title in each of her 17 years as a Gator.

"What we're doing is growing leaders for the long term," Wise said.

Maybe it's something you can't ask for, but don't tell Wise it's something that can't be taught.

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