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Friday, March 31, 2023

After 18 years of conference dominance, coach Mary Wise has seen many successful graduating classes pass through Florida.

Perhaps none of them accomplished as much in their first two years as these sophomores.

The class includes setter Kelly Murphy, middle blocker Cassandra Anderson and outside hitters Kristy Jaeckel and Colleen Ward - all of whom have started every match this season.

They will lead No. 10 UF (16-3, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) as it heads to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama (6-16, 4-8 SEC) at 8 p.m. before traveling to Starkville to take on Mississippi State (5-18, 1-11 SEC) on Sunday.

This is not their first go-around. The sophomores now know what to expect from life on the road in the SEC.

"It was kind of trial by fire a year ago, but what a difference a year makes," Wise said. "You can talk about what it's like to play at Alabama or Mississippi State, but they have already been there now. We aren't spending any extra time on doing those types of things."

The four sophomores are already on their way to becoming the faces of the program this season as Anderson leads the team in blocks; Ward has the most kills; Jaeckel is second on the team in digs; and Murphy has the most triple-doubles, the most assists and the highest hitting percentage.

"I think we've definitely grown a lot," Jaeckel said. "It's hard sometimes to make the adjustment at first between high school and college because the speed of the game is just completely different."

But it's not like they didn't have an impact in their freshman year either.

Murphy, Jaeckel and Ward were all named to the SEC All-Freshman Team, and the trio finished atop UF's total kills list last season.

The sophomore class made history in 2008 as Murphy became the first player in school history to win the AVCA National Freshman of the Year. She also broke the school record for most triple-doubles in a career in her first season with six and now has five more to add to that total with another nine matches remaining in her sophomore season.

"I think it's just really exciting." Jaeckel said. "The youth of our team is something we can use as an advantage, but it's also something we also can't use as an excuse."

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The fourth member of the group was quietly impressive in her freshman season as well. Anderson has led the Gators in blocks ever since she first set foot on campus while also becoming one of just seven freshmen in school history to average more than one block per set.

"Cassandra is one of those players who may go under the radar of our fans or the media, but she is at the top of our list because she leads us in blocking," Wise said. "We understand that the only chance we have of making a run in the NCAAs is with blocking."

But all of these accomplishments and records don't mean anything to the sophomores. Their primary focus is on helping this program do something it has never done before - win a national championship.

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