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Saturday, February 24, 2024

If the Gators' plans for this season pan out, this weekend will only be the first time they make the trip to Tampa to play in a four-team tournament.

No. 4 Florida (5-0) will compete in the Tampa Twice Tournament this weekend in the Sun Dome, about 12 miles from the St. Pete Times Forum, the site of the Final Four this December.

UF will face host South Florida (5-0) tonight at 8 before taking on No. 3 Washington (6-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday.

The impetus for scheduling the early season tournament in Tampa was the opportunity to promote women's college volleyball in the area before the Final Four, but UF coach Mary Wise said she is more excited about the competition this weekend than the city her team is playing in.

"We'll get better if we play South Florida and Washington in a parking lot," Wise said. "It's not the venue, it's the teams."

But with three of the four teams participating ranked in the top 10 - No. 9 Minnesota rounds out the bracket - it's not out of the realm of possibility that at least one of them will, as the tournament's name implies, be back in Tampa at the end of the season.

"We're kind of just taking it one match at a time so far, but it's definitely a goal to be down there twice," sophomore setter Kelly Murphy said.

Although the Gators made it clear this week that their focus was on the Bulls and the Huskies, they still acknowledged their long-term goal of getting back to Tampa. Regular-season competition against highly ranked opponents, like the ones they will face in this weekend's tournament, can help prepare them for the postseason.

"Every time we do something correctly, every time we win a match, every time we beat a team to 25, it's practice for the Final Four, it's practice for the ultimate goal," junior setter Brynja Rodgers said.

The Gators haven't shied away from saying they have a potential Final Four berth on their minds. At the team's preseason media day on Aug. 13, Wise even joked that it was exactly 131 miles from the team's practice facility to the St. Pete Times Forum - "not that we counted."

Given the fact that Florida will host an NCAA regional and won't have to leave the state once tournament play begins, some have argued that the Gators' road back to Tampa in December could be easier than the two-hour drive down Interstate 75.

Murphy said reaching the Final Four will be no less of a challenge for UF than usual despite the convenient location, and the team still has plenty of room to improve before the opening serve tonight.

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The Gators still have not outblocked any of their five opponents this season, and they recorded 28 service errors last weekend. An elite team like Washington is more than capable of exploiting Florida's weaknesses, so UF placed a strong emphasis on both areas in practice throughout the week.

"Missing serves is an automatic point lost," right-side hitter Lauren Bledsoe said. "By not getting a block, then you have all these confident hitters who just want to get kills on us all the time."

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