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Monday, April 22, 2024

The word was all over the white board in Florida's practice facility Wednesday - the area coach Mary Wise thinks her team needs to improve the most before the next match: blocking.

Despite an impressive 3-0 start to the season, the No. 5 Gators have not outblocked any of their three opponents, trailing 21.5-18 overall. Throughout the week, Wise has stressed the importance of blocking, and she planned to devote plenty of time in Wednesday's practice to working on that aspect of the game.

"We're not blocking balls," Wise said Monday. "The easiest way to look at it is just to look at the numbers."

UF is averaging just 1.6 blocks per set, compared to the two per set its opponents are recording. Last season, the Gators tallied 2.25 blocks per set, ranking 72nd in the NCAA.

But for a team that has the potential to make a run deep into the postseason this year, Wise said those numbers simply have to be higher. Her middle blockers are more than talented enough, she said, but they just need to get back into "that blocking rhythm."

"There are two really key stats in women's volleyball that determine success - one is hitting efficiency and the other is blocking balls," Wise said. "Over the years, I don't think there have ever been great teams that didn't block."

Sophomore Cassandra Anderson, who leads the team in blocks with eight, said the reason for the lack of production has been mostly mental for the Gators. With a little more practice, she said, UF should make strides toward blocking better by this weekend.

With four matches over the next two weekends - including showdowns with No. 11 Stanford and No. 3 Washington - it will be critical for the Gators to improve their defense at the net.

"To have it down in the next two weeks would be great," Anderson said. "That would be a really big part of us winning."

So far this season, Wise said Florida has yet to consistently make the blocks it should be making, let alone those the elite teams make. With improved blocking, offensive mistakes would not be quite as costly, and if an opponent keeps UF from scoring, the Gators' defense could provide another method of putting points on the board.

Aside from the obvious benefits of racking up points and slowing an opponent's hitting attack, Wise added that effective blocking can also change the way the rest of the match is played. If a hitter gets rejected early on, she could become frustrated enough to make a change she doesn't need to or isn't entirely comfortable with.

Senior Kristina Johnson, who has started all three matches at middle blocker, said slowing down teams like Stanford and Washington requires getting touches on the ball in any way possible. Solidifying their primary line of defense up front would be a huge benefit for the Gators when facing such highly ranked opponents this early in the year.

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"It's really important," Johnson said. "If we can block well, then everything else just sort of falls into place."

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