The Gators volleyball team are reeling after losing three of their last four matches, but they will continue to rely on their legendary coach and seasoned roster as the season moves forward.
Head coach Mary Wise, now in her 31st year at Florida, earned her 900th win with the program on Aug. 28, but her team fell to 4-3 following a sweep at the hands of No. 17 Baylor on Sept. 11.
Florida looked the part of a true title contender after three straight sweeps to start the season. The Hornet Invitational was by no means elite competition, but with nine straight set victories and three sweeps, the Gators were firing on all cylinders.
UF took a huge step up in West Coast competition with a match against Stanford. The then-No. 21 Cardinal handed the Gators their first loss of the season, upsetting the top-10 squad and halting their early momentum.
“Practices were really, really, really important,” said middle blocker Lauren Forte about the week between the Stanford loss and Florida’s home opener against Minnesota.
Freshman outside hitter Merritt Beason took the court inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for a home match for the first time on Sept. 5. The rest of her fellow starters played at home several times over their years in Gainesville, but for the first time since 2019, Florida fans could see them in person.
The orange and blue faithful returned in full force at the O’Dome and provided a huge spark to the then-No. 5 Gators. The opponent that day, the No. 10 Golden Gophers, were no slouches and gave Florida all kinds of trouble. Wise and her team had seemingly no answers for Minnesota outside hitter Stephanie Samedy, who crushed down 31 kills.
Despite Samedy’s impressive individual effort, the Gators put together a solid team showing with 69 kills and a .306 hitting average. Beason and outside hitter T’ara Ceasar led the way with 19 and 16 kills, respectively, in the 3-1 victory.
Following the win, Florida had no time to let off the gas as No. 17 Baylor headed to Gainesville for two consecutive matches.
Riding the momentum of their previous win, the Gators turned on cruise control, while the Bears began speeding.
Seven sets was all it took for Baylor to leave Gainesville with two wins. Both nights the Bears topped Florida in kills and hitting percentage. Outside hitter Yossiana Pressley averaged 15 kills per match for the green and gold.
The No. 7 Gators seemed sluggish compared to the immensely energized Bears. Florida’s hitting percentage dipped below .200 for the first time this season in both matches.
Despite the rough stretch of games, the Gators lineup bursts with experience. Other than Beason and libero Elli McKissock, all of Florida’s starters are seniors.
Ceasar and setter Marlie Monserez are viewed as the cornerstones of the team. Ceasar leads the team with 94 kills, averaging 3.92 per set and Monserez accounts for 253 (84.9%) of the Gators’ 299 assists.
Following matches against Stanford and Minnesota, Monserez was named SEC Player of the Week. The Windermere, Florida, native averaged 12.12 assists and 4.83 digs per set through those two matches.
“[She is] just what you would want in a senior,” Wise said about Monserez after the win over the Golden Gophers. “Work ethic, competitiveness, attention to detail. Right now she is playing with the full package"
Meanwhile, Ceasar consistently manufactures statement plays as her game revolves around powerful kills and crushing blocks. The redshirt senior brims with confidence in her surrounding team and the chemistry they have.
When asked if she thinks the Gators have the ability to make a run at a national title, Ceasar said, “I don’t think, I definitely know.”
A rebound looks likely as the Gators wrap up non-conference play this upcoming week with a trip to Florida State on tap Sept. 15 followed by two matches with Coastal Carolina on Sept. 18 and 19.