Most college volleyball teams would struggle without a star player.
Florida’s volleyball team was without one of its main weapons — middle blocker Nnedi Okammor — for Wednesday’s match against LSU, but it didn’t matter.
UF rolled without its freshman and knocked off LSU in straight sets (27-25, 25-15, 28-26) to win its fourth straight match. Florida now holds a 9-2 overall record.
Okammor wasn’t injured, coach Mary Wise said post-match. The coaches just wanted to give her the night off to let others get playing time.
The No. 9 Gators played their first game since Jan. 30 after two matches against No. 16 Missouri were postponed due to COVID-19 issues within Florida’s program. Every team member has cleared COVID-19 protocols, Wise said.
Despite the delay and Okammor’s absence, Florida still expected to roll over the Tigers, boasting a 43-5 record against LSU under Wise. The Bayou Bengals came out clawing in the first set due to senior Taylor Bannister’s stellar play. She finished with seven kills in the first frame.
“She’s [Bannister] one of the best athletes in the league,” senior Holly Carlton said. “It’s obviously a little tough to adjust in the first set, but I think we did a good job after.”
Although LSU had set point (25-24), UF rattled off two-straight points before a service ace won the first set 27-25.
After breaking enough sweats to cause a puddle in the first set, the Gators commanded the second set 25-15. Florida never trailed in the second and held the Tigers to a negative hitting percentage (-.086).
LSU kept it close in the third set, but Florida still had match point up 24-20. The Tigers then went on a run, scored the next five points and set up their own match point.
With LSU on the verge of taking the set and Florida’s sphincters fully tightened, Wise called a timeout. It paid off as the Gators won four of the next five points, taking the set and match 28-26.
“I’m so happy our team faced this so early in the spring,” Wise said. “It helped us play a lot looser.”
Without Okammor, UF received clutch performances from middle blocker Lauren Forte (eight kills), who played in only her third match of the season, and middle blocker Lauren Dooley (six blocks). Redshirt junior T’ara Ceasar led Florida in kills (14) — half of which came in the final frame.
“The depth we have at the middle position is a major advantage,” Wise said, adding that Okammor was an asset for the team when it only had two middle blockers.
Florida will be back in action Thursday night against LSU. First serve will be from the O’Connell Center at 6 p.m. and will stream on SEC Network+.
To Dooley, the team has some areas it needs to improve upon before Thursday’s match.
“We need to start with our defense earlier on,” Dooley said. “We struggled a little bit with Bannister, so if we get that fixed, it’ll be a great night.”
Contact Noah Ram at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @noah_ram1
Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.