Coach Mary Wise knew one of her student managers for Florida volleyball was different than most quickly. In her 33 years of coaching, she had never seen someone so interested in the minute details of her program.
So much so, that he would voluntarily sit around the video room at Florida’s practice facility — the Gale Lemerand Athletic Center — for a couple of hours, analyzing footage of another team to prepare for an upcoming match.
Florida volleyball student manager Aaron Gordon wants to become a coach someday. And he has tried to take in as much as he could over the past four years with Wise’s program to help prepare him for his next steps, in what he hopes is a successful coaching career.
“We’ve often said it’s an underpaid, overworked position that is critical to a team’s success,” Wise said.
And as a student manager, Gordon and the four other students who work for the team are the hidden figures for the program. They help create the backbone of Florida volleyball.
They’re not noticeable if you’re just glancing at the team’s roster or photo gallery. But if you look a little closer, they’re the ones that are always in the background — ensuring everything from shagging balls to helping coaches run drills to setting up the court and team benches is all set to go.
“When the managers do all of that work behind the scenes, they allow the players to focus on playing and the coaches to coach,” Wise said.
It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for Gordon (or one of the other four student managers) to set up the court on game days at the O’Connell Center and practices at the Lem.
When they’re lucky, the managers get to use the coveted golf cart to bring the gear over from the Lem to the O’Dome, which includes the team’s uniforms, about 45 towels for both teams and the referees, medical supplies, etc.
“Twenty percent of the time there’s a golf cart,” Gordon chuckled. “But really, it’s more like five.”
The offseason looks a little different for them. Less time is spent preparing for team practices, and more time is focused on individual work for the different student athletes. There’s only two trips they have to prepare for, too.
“And there’s no laundry,” Gordon laughed, which he admitted can take about an hour and a half between washing, drying and hanging it up.
The student managers don’t get the same perks the athletes do either.
They have to wait for their registration just like the tens of thousands of other traditional students at Florida. In other words, they don’t get to pre-register for classes like the student-athletes do.
“We wish that we could get that early access, but you just kind of know around 2:30 or 3:30 there’s going to be practice, so you just try to plan all morning or early afternoon classes,” Grace Pickron said, one of the five student managers.
In total, the two student managers estimate they work around 30 to 40 hours each week during the season. They’ll split travel for the most part, but they work every home game.
On the road, the managers don’t have to worry about setting up the court. But there’s only one of them on the trip, so helping run warm ups is a grind, Pickron said. But a fist-bump from strength and conditioning coach Matt DeLancey helps keep the morale up when the sweat is streaming down their face.
“It’s definitely an underrated job,” Gordon said. “But I think volleyball has it best from what I’ve heard from the other sports.”
Gordon and Pickron have been student managers together since their freshman year.
“I came to practice before I even came to class,” Gordon chuckled.
He came from a student manager position for the women’s volleyball team at Winter Park High School, and coach Stephanie Gibson liked him enough to give him a recommendation for the same position at the collegiate level.
It also helped his case that former Florida volleyball outside hitter alumna Callie Rivers attended the same high school and was coached under Gibson before going into Wise’s program.
The coaches knew each other through recruiting already, so why not recruit a student manager, too?
The coaches met, again, at a tournament during the spring before Gordon was slated to start at Florida. Gibson threw out his name in casual conversation with Wise, and the Gators coach was happy to take the recommendation.
“A lot of my current and, hopefully, future success, I have (Gibson and Florida) to thank,” Gordon said. “I don’t forget about that.”
The Winter Park, Florida, native played volleyball growing up starting when he was in sixth grade.
In 2015, he won a gold medal at the High Performance Championships with his USA Youth A1 team. But when it came time to decide what he wanted to do post-high school, academics outweighed athletics.
And now, 11 years later, Gordon plays for Florida’s club team.
“Ultimately, I figured it would be best for me to come here and have that opportunity,” Gordon said. “For girls (club volleyball in Orlando) is huge, but for guys, not so much,” Gordon said. “Guys volleyball isn’t very big in general so for guys volleyball, Orlando was the hub, but in reality it’s nothing.”
Pickron also played volleyball growing up in Tallahassee, playing club from seventh grade on. She played at Leon High School, too, but decided her offers to play collegiately couldn’t sway her enough to stray away from having the chance to attend Florida as a lifelong Gator.
She talked to her old high school coach, Angie Strickland, in the spring about opportunities to stay involved with volleyball past high school. The coach recommended Pickron look into a student manager’s position at Florida if she was serious. She didn’t know that kind of opportunity even existed.
Strickland was familiar with Florida’s program having coached a former Gators volleyball alumna herself in outside hitter Lindsey Rogers at the club level. She gave Pickron Rogers’ phone number to get in touch with her.
From there, Rogers connected her with another student manager at the time, who then connected Pickron to then-Director of Operations Alesha Busch. And the rest was history, Pickron said.
“It makes sense, because there are so many working parts to (the program),” she said. “But I tell everyone it’s the coolest college job possible. You get to work with athletes, and Mary Wise is one the idols you look up to when you’re growing up. Working for her and knowing her personally is amazing.”
Neither Gordon nor Pickron got the championship moment they wanted while at Florida.
They came close in 2017 when the team made it to the NCAA Tournament finals against the Nebraska Cornhuskers and they came within reach, again, in 2018 and 2019 when the team made it to the Regional Semifinals.
But after falling to No. 7 Minnesota in a five-set match on Friday in the Regional Semis, they’ll go their separate ways.
Gordon will have to wait for that championship moment somewhere else. He wants to be a head coach someday.
He’ll use his most recent opportunity — the 2019 American Volleyball Coaches Association Coaches 4 Coaches Scholarship – to help build his network outside of the state later this month.
The scholarship will give Gordon the opportunity to attend his first AVCA Convention with 13 other recipients from throughout the country in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Pickron is interested in helping out with some “mommy volley” opportunities with some little leagues when she settles down somewhere. It’s something less intensive than dealing with the collegiate or club levels, but it keeps her involved. She’s even interested in joining an adult league when she decides where she’s moving after graduation to help build some community in her new place.
But the memories they’ve made with this team are some of their best from Florida.
The 2017 season was special for both of them. A police escort for a super intense trip to Kansas City, and feeling the energy behind the hope of Florida volleyball’s first national title under Wise was something they said they’ll never forget.
Playing Sequence — a board game that has a Connect 4 vibe to it using playing cards — in a hotel lobby with DeLancey and associate head coach Dave Boos is one of Pickron’s favorite memories.
“Making super close relationships (is my favorite part),” Pickron said. “They care about you like you’re family and it’s not always easy, but when shit hits the fan they’re there for you.”
And like Pickron, Gordon agrees it’s the people that helps make this kind of opportunity more special than just a regular job.
“It doesn’t feel like work most of the time,” he said. “Winning helps, but it’s always just the people. People don’t make it feel like you’re coming to work every day. You’re with your people.”
Follow Mari Faiello on Twitter @faiello_mari.