When Florida took the court inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for a match with Coastal Carolina Sept. 18, it was without an essential player.
Middle blocker Lauren Forte, who started the opening eight matches of the season, was confined to the bench, wearing sweats and a walking boot. The redshirt senior would go on to miss four matches with a sprained ankle, two against the Chanticleers and two against Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs pushed the Gators to their limits, splitting a pair of five-setters. Forte was finally seen without the boot during Florida’s win over Mississippi State Sept. 23..
Head coach Mary Wise was asked about how she was progressing after that game, and she quipped back, “Not nearly fast enough.“
Forte took the court again this week, and the Gators have sailed past their opponents throughout the last three matches, winning nine straight sets since their Sept. 24 loss to the Bulldogs.
The roadtrip to Athens, Georgia, marked the first road match of SEC play. Outside hitters T’ara Ceasar and Thayer Hall dominated the match, combining for 24 of Florida’s 47 kills. Setter Marlie Monserez accounted for all but one of the Gators’ 41 assists during the three-set sweep.
Forte made her return against Georgia, and she didn’t miss a beat. The Tempe, Arizona, native slid right back into the starting lineup, laying down eight kills and a .375 hitting percentage against the Bulldogs.
The momentum carried right over into a pair of home matches with Ole Miss Oct. 1 and 2. The Rebels just pushed No. 6 Kentucky to five sets before traveling to Gainesville, promising Florida a formidable opponent.
This didn’t phase the Gators at all. They broke out the brooms on consecutive afternoons, handing the Rebels their second and third losses of the season after they began the year an undefeated 12-0.
Forte continued to impress during the two matches with Ole Miss, averaging eight kills and a .5625 hitting percentage. Hall racked up 22 kills between both afternoons. Ceasar was not far behind with 21.
Veteran leadership continues to be the driving force behind Florida’s success, especially through the last three game stretch when practice was limited.
“The fact that our players were able to have this growth without practice, I think that comes with experienced players,” Wise said. “That would not be possible with a young team, you got to be in the gym.”
Team chemistry also continues to build with the starting lineup from the opening eight matches now back intact. The players’ communication and support of each other have become an integral part of the Gators’ identity.
“Giving each other feedback, being there for each other, if we make an error just letting the other know, ‘Hey you got it. Next point, that point is dead’,” Ceasar said.
Florida, now 10-5 on the year and 8-4 in SEC play, looks forward to some time without a match before their next series against Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“[We] have more time to fine tune things in the gym and we have a chance to recover with our bodies,” Ceasar said. “I think that this is a really good reset button. Those wins felt great, but I think we can continue to take it game by game, match by match, point by point.”
The Tigers are next up for the Gators Oct. 9-10. Florida doesn’t return to the O’Dome until Oct. 16 against Texas A&M.
Contact Joseph Henry at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.