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Friday, March 31, 2023

After the UF volleyball team edged FSU in a five-set thriller on Aug. 31, coach Mary Wise said she received feedback from a number of fans saying they couldn't wait to come back and see another match in the O'Connell Center.

Unfortunately for those in attendance that night, they have had to wait, and they'll have to hold out a little while longer before the Gators take the floor in the O'Dome again.

Since defeating FSU, No. 5 Florida (6-1) has participated in tournaments in Stockton, Calif., and Tampa and won't return to its home court until Sept. 25. UF will travel the final leg of its nearly month-long road trip this weekend, playing at Ole Miss and Arkansas to kick off the Southeastern Conference season.

"All of us would like to play at home every single match, but it's not always going to happen that way," junior setter Brynja Rodgers said. "Being on the road really challenges us, and that's something every team needs, is to learn how to play without the fans."

The 25-day period without a home match is the Gators' longest since the end of the 2003 season, when the eventual national runners-up played in Columbia, S.C., Lexington, Ky., and even Puerto Rico - but never Gainesville - from Nov. 9 to Dec. 4.

All of Florida's losses last season were away from home - one during nonconference play, two in the SEC season and one in the NCAA Tournament - and UF's only defeat this season came at a neutral site against No. 3 Washington last weekend in Tampa.

Sophomore setter Kelly Murphy said the Gators can't afford any letdowns on the road, as it seems they draw their opponents' best performances and toughest crowds wherever they play.

To describe the intense competition UF faces on the road every season, Wise referred to her squad as a "band team."

"There would be teams that normally don't have a band at their home matches. They will when Florida shows up," Wise said. "All promotions, all efforts go into having the best crowd when Florida comes to town."

UF has already had to deal with harsh crowds and a similar atmosphere this season against Pacific and South Florida, but the Gators fed off the opposing fans' energy and came away with wins in both matches.

"You have to embrace the fact that other fans are there literally cheering against you," Rodgers said. "As an athlete, it kind of provides a little bit of motivation. It's always fun to go on a point rally, and the crowd has to be quiet and sit in their seats for a little while."

Though it is convenient to be playing at UF and not having to disrupt the players' class schedules or the team's practice routine, the substantial amount of time spent in transit provides an opportunity for the team to bond and develop chemistry off the court.

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"We spend a lot of time on the bus, so that helps, especially with new freshmen when we try to mix them in," Murphy said. "It definitely makes us a lot closer spending like six hours on the bus every weekend."

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