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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Building a Legacy: Junior libero combines toughness, intelligence, energy to lead team

High above the practice courts hang reminders of tradition.

Orange-and-Blue banners serve as guardians to the contemporary version of historic teams past.

Kneepads are grayed, ankles are twisted and elbows are floor-burned during the players' best efforts to get a touch on balls not likely to be returned.

UF coach Mary Wise and associate coach Nick Cheronis organize their team into groups for drills, which target weaknesses and demand consistency.

Physically gifted 6-footers roam the three full-sized volleyball courts in the Lemerand Athletic Center, highly touted recruits working to leave their mark on the Southeastern Conference's most decorated program.

Lost in the crisp sets and booming kills that come to rest only after bouncing off a nearby wall, the defensive specialists line up float serves before making routine bump-passes to a stand-in setter.

Float. Bump. Float. Bump. Float. Bump.

The first-contact passers are the backbone of a UF team looking for its 18th straight conference championship, and junior libero Elyse Cusack sets the tone for that unit - her unit.

For some athletes, greatness comes easy. It is nothing more than the manifestation of God-given natural talent measured over time.

For UF's veteran back-row All-American, greatness is a formula, and it can be found on a whiteboard on the north wall of the practice courts where a simple message governs the day's proceedings - "Toughness, Intelligence and Energy are required for the entire practice."

If a teammate has a hard time finding one of the three attributes, she can always lean on Cusack.

Toughness

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When Cusack was recruited to play libero for UF, she had the opportunity to be the school's first four-year starter at the position.

To get an early start on college volleyball, Cusack graduated high school after the fall semester of her senior year and enrolled at UF in the spring of 2006.

It wasn't until Cusack was practicing with the team on a regular basis that Wise knew what she had in her 5-foot-9 defender.

"I really got it in January, when she started with us," Wise said. "The embarrassing thing is that we didn't know this after all the high school matches, and she came to our camp, and the club matches I saw."

Cusack had good instincts and passing skills before Wise ever worked with her, but there was one area of her game that needed improvement if she was to be an above-average player at the next level.

"When she came in as a freshman, she didn't have the strength to play balls above her head," Wise said. "She worked overtime to improve that."

Now, whenever anyone asks what makes her libero such a special player, Wise glows about how strong Cusack has become, turning to a bulky bodybuilder of a man for confirmation.

"Pound for pound, she's in the top-five strongest athletes at the school," said Matt DeLancey, the assistant strength and conditioning coach for UF Olympic sports.

DeLancey has worked with Cusack since her freshman year, when he started her on a program of Olympic weight lifting, power lifting, core training and agility drills.

Three years and buckets of sweat later, she is bench pressing her body weight - rare for a female athlete - and power cleaning 185 pounds in addition to increasing her vertical (26.5 inches) and broad jump.

"I don't think all players love going to the weight room and lifting weights, but it's something that I enjoy, and I know it's only going to make me a better player," Cusack said. "I'm willing to do anything that is going to make me a better player."

Intelligence

Cusack began to show the drive to be the best player she could be long before she arrived on campus.

Growing up in Gainesville, Cusack was an outside hitter for P.K. Yonge High from the time she started playing for the varsity team in eighth grade.

In addition to high school volleyball, she played club volleyball with the Gainesville Juniors, a local team that has sent more than 60 players to colleges on scholarship since 1997.

It was in her 16-and-under season that program director Jeff Reavis proposed Cusack try a switch to libero, a strictly defensive position that had been added to the college and high school game the year before.

"She could play great defense and pass very well, but as a hitter she was a little on the smaller side," said Marcie Hampton, who played with Cusack at P.K. Yonge and UF. "The libero position is absolutely perfect for her."

Cusack hated the switch. At the time, liberos weren't allowed to serve, so she felt she wasn't helping her team because there was no way for her to score points.

Nonetheless, she gave the new position a chance and came to take pride in her foreign role.

"I matured into a better all-around player, mentally and physically," Cusack said. "I realized if I dig the ball every time, then there's no way the other team can score.

"I've learned that my role is very important to the success of the team, and figuring that out was the most important thing. It took me almost two years to figure that out."

Unfortunately for SEC foes, the cerebral libero had it all figured out by the time she laced them up for the Orange and Blue.

As a freshman, she earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, as a sophomore she earned an All-American honorable mention and as a junior she became UF's career-digs leader.

Energy

Night after night, the Gators take the hardwood as the most talented team in the SEC. Although this year's team is young, the Gators are poised to continue their dominance on that fact alone.

Before every match, the players talk about coming out with a lot of energy, asserting their will from the opening serve.

When a team is so much better talent-wise than its competition, letdowns occur because of a lack of motivation to play at the highest level possible.

Sophomore defensive specialist Erin Fleming says Cusack brings an extremely high level of energy every night, and her intense competitive nature fuels her team.

"If you're on her team, you better win," Fleming said. "She's very competitive, and that just brings so much more fun to the game. Because she's so competitive, she makes you want to be competitive, and she makes everyone around you want to be competitive."

DeLancey said Cusack hates to lose in anything - a volleyball match, practice drills or checkers.

In the spring, volleyball's off-season, the players train with the soccer team, which he said becomes a contest for Cusack to outwork the other sport.

But it's the one thing the Gators have never accomplished that Cusack hopes to inspire her team to achieve.

"We're definitely an established program, but there's definitely something missing," she said. "I think that everyone knows Florida, but they know Florida as the team that's never won the national title, and that's something this program needs and that we're trying so hard for."

Last season, a group of accomplished Gators left the O'Connell Center for good without reaching that ultimate goal.

Marcie Hampton, Angie McGinnis, Kisya Killingsworth and Amber McCray wrapped up their illustrious careers without delivering the ultimate prize to UF.

With the postseason of her junior year approaching, Cusack has two more chances to lead a young squad to the pinnacle of college success.

DeLancey said it's the combination of natural abilities and unmatched work ethic that makes Cusack the player she has become.

And if that isn't enough, she has a little extra motivation each time she steps through the double doors and onto the Lemerand Center practice courts.

For the next great UF legend, it's about the 18 banners that came before her.

And, more importantly, it's about the one national-championahip banner that may come because of her.

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