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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

As the 2009 season drew to a close, many expected the libero position to become a weakness for Florida.

The Gators were faced with the graduation of Elyse Cusack, who is the Southeastern Conference’s all-time digs leader and a four-year starter. The options to replace her were freshman Taylor Unroe or first-time starter Erin Fleming.

But now, just ten months later, the emergence of Fleming and the addition of junior college transfer Cinthya Roberto has raised the libero position from a weakness to one of the team’s strengths, not just for this year but also as the Gators look forward to 2011.

With Unroe still recovering from a broken left ankle and Fleming suffering the effects of a concussion she sustained in Friday’s match, Roberto took control of the position Sunday against Arkansas.

And although Fleming is expected to return to the starting lineup when No. 2 Florida (12-1, 5-0 SEC) travels to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to take on Alabama (8-7, 0-5 SEC) tonight at 8, Roberto made a strong impression in her limited action.

“Cinthya did a terrific job for us,” coach Mary Wise said. “She handled it just as you would hope. She went after it, took every rep as learning but gave it great effort and great intensity.”

Roberto contributed eight digs, an ace, an assist and several settable passes in her first-ever start as a libero.

Perhaps most importantly, Florida’s back-row defenders displayed very little drop off in coordination despite being under new leadership.

“I felt really comfortable because my teammates helped me out a lot,” Roberto said. “We were all captains at the same time.”

Roberto’s journey to the starting lineup was not an easy one, as the Brazilian-born junior spent her first two years of eligibility as an outside hitter at Blinn (Texas) College due to her inability to speak English fluently.

There she became Blinn’s first ever two-time All-American in 2008 and helped the program to its first junior college national championship in 2008.

Despite the fact that Roberto finished in the nation’s top 15 with 3.39 kills per set as a sophomore, Wise felt she would be most valuable for her defensive skills.

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Upon coming to Gainesville, Roberto faced the challenges of learning a new position and a new defensive system, but she quickly overcame them and is now a strong option to substitute into the back row to pass against particularly effective servers.

Although her role at Florida is much different from what it was at Blinn, Roberto is pleased with how her transition has gone so far.

“When I decided to come here I decided to be as useful as possible,” Roberto said. “It didn’t matter if I had to be only cheering, or only defending, or setting.”

“Being a defensive specialist is making me as happy as I used to be at outside hitter.”

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