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Thursday, April 25, 2024

As they suit up for a match, opposite hitters Lauren Bledsoe and Callie Rivers don't know what to expect any more.

The juniors make up the two-player rotation that the Gators have been using on the right side this season.

But when No. 9 Florida (18-3, 12-2 Southeastern Conference) takes the court to host Georgia (14-10, 5-8 SEC) at 7 tonight in the O'Connell Center one of them will start the match on the bench.

And the starter from tonight's match might not even start Sunday's home match against Auburn (14-10, 6-7 SEC).

However, it has worked for UF because it has given the Gators two players with two different skill sets that can come in against matchups that favor their games.

"Unfortunately, you can't play both at the same time, but we could go with what our needs are," coach Mary Wise said.

That is exactly what the Gators have done.

If UF needs kills and someone that can hit well around the block, it turns to Bledsoe. But if the team needs blocks and some defense, it can use Rivers.

The fact that there is a player breathing right down the other's neck for playing time has forced the two to step up their play.

"Having another option for your spot, that's always going to push you to do better and be more consistent," Bledsoe said. "Even if you are just average, it's not good enough. It really pushes you to be exceptional."

For the first part of the season, Bledsoe played most of the minutes. Since the LSU match on Oct. 11, that has changed.

Up until last Sunday against Mississippi State, Bledsoe played in only two sets and two matches in the five contests since the loss to LSU.

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"You are kind of just on the bench now knowing what's going to happen," she said. "It's rough because sometimes you can be cold, your knees and your ankles hurt, and you have to come in the match and have the world demanded from you."

During that same stretch, Rivers played well, especially on defense. She was forced to learn the right-side position on the fly this season, but it looked like it came natural to her as she recorded more than one block in three of the five matches.

Bledsoe finally got her chance to make a case for more minutes in UF's last match against Mississippi State, as she knocked down 11 kills on 14 swings off the bench.

"That's not easy for any athlete to go from a starting position to the bench because they have no control over it," Wise said. "We preach to the players to be ready so that when your name is called, you can take full advantage of it - and that's what Lauren did."

Although both would like to be on the court, they agree the depth that they provide to this team has been huge, especially with sophomore Kelly Murphy focusing less on her right-side position and more on setting.

"It kind of just lights a fire under you because no one wants to get taken out of the match," Rivers said. "At the same time, it's also good to know that if you mess up, you have teammates behind you that can come in and make sure to do their best in order for the team to win."

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