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Friday, April 19, 2024

The Florida volleyball players had a lot to learn and little time to put it all together before their 2008 season began &n-; from how drills were run to what certain terminology meant even each other's names.

Far from the nametag-wearing group that went through training camp last fall, 14 of the team's 15 players were in Gainesville for at least part of the summer this year, playing pick-up games together and working out under the supervision of Matt DeLancey, the assistant strength and conditioning coach for UF Olympic sports.

The only player who wasn't at UF throughout the summer was junior setter Brynja Rodgers, who was finishing up classes at New Mexico State before transferring to Florida. Everyone else &n-; even the three new freshmen &n-; chose to attend classes and train during the summer semester, the most players to do so during coach Mary Wise's 19 years at UF.

With the players a year older and more accustomed to taking the court together, the opening match of the season is something to be excited about &n-; not nervous. Unlike last year, Florida's season-opening tournament, which begins with a 7 p.m. matchup with UNLV tonight and concludes with a 7 p.m. match Sunday against Colorado, won't have to be part of the feeling-out process.

"We've been planning for this season since way back in January, when we started individual sessions," Wise said. "That's the beauty of it &n-; we could actually be proactive because we had players to work with. This team, 14 of them here this summer, made that learning curve even faster."

Wise admitted she was a little nervous before the season began last year, a rare feeling for a coach who now has 18-straight Southeastern Conference championships to her name.

Each player made the choice to stay the summer and train at UF individually, but the result of their decisions will be seen through the team's performance, as the inexperience and unfamiliarity that worried Wise before last season should be a thing of the past.

"We feel like we're a step ahead already, that we don't have to use these first couple matches as practice, that we're ready to go and ready to compete from the first match," senior libero Elyse Cusack said.

The higher level of familiarity allowed the Gators to bypass the preseason formalities that slowed them down last year and will help improve the Gators' communication on the court, but sophomore outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel said it also allows them to play more aggressively and confidently.

"It helps us on the court because when you have that trust in your teammates, you know that they're going to have your back," Jaeckel said. "With passing, you have to know your responsibilities and you have to trust that the other person is going to do theirs too. If you have doubt in your teammates, you might try to do too much."

To match the improvement the team has made since falling to Stanford in the Sweet 16, the Gators have heightened their expectations accordingly. And with an NCAA Regional in Gainesville and the Final Four just 131 miles down Interstate 75 in Tampa, the team views this season as the perfect chance to achieve its lofty goals.

"Obviously we're working to get down to Tampa," setter/opposite hitter Kelly Murphy said. "At this point, I think that's a realistic goal for us, but we just have to take it one day at a time."

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