Sophomore Merritt Beason had just delivered a pair of scorching aces to leave the Virginia Cavaliers defense helpless. Virginia head coach Shannon Wells felt the need to call a timeout.
Wells brought her team to the bench hoping to cool off the Gators momentum in the second set of Florida’s eventual sweep. Despite the intention behind the break, Beason would not miss a beat. The Alabama native fired yet another stellar serve deflecting off of Virginia’s Brooklyn Borum to further prove that nothing would stop the Gators’ offense.
Hot on the heels of defeating North Florida in Friday night’s season opener, the No. 15 Gators volleyball team took down the East Tennessee State Buccaneers three sets to one Saturday afternoon. Then, UF sent the Virginia Cavaliers back to Charlottesville, Virginia, in three brisk sets to cap off the night.
“[Associate head coach] Dave [Boos] has done a great job with the game plan, and I think the difference tonight was we executed that game plan to a tee.” Beason said. “We just pretended like we were playing against ourselves, like we do every single day in practice.”
After dropping the opening set to East Tennessee 26-24, Florida nailed down the final three sets to record its second victory of the season. Beason led the way with a career-high 17 kills. Sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix and junior libero Elli McKissock starred defensively, recording eight blocks and 22 digs respectively.
The Gators got off to a promising start in the first set, taking a 10-4 lead thanks to a pair of kills from Beason during a 6-0 run. After a kill by outside hitter AC Fitzpatrick made it 15-9 Gators, the Buccaneers took 13 of the next 15 points. ETSU took advantage of several Florida attack errors, sparking a seven-point run to take a 20-17 lead.
East Tennessee would never again relinquish the lead despite a pair of Gators comebacks. A block from junior setter Birdie Hendricksen knotted the set at 24 before a kill and ace from Buccaneers middle blocker Abbey Thomas sealed the opening set for the visitors.
Florida bounced back to take set two 25-17 on 13 kills. ETSU held the momentum early on, but allowed it to slip away by the middle of the set. With East Tennessee ahead 13-10, Florida went on separate runs of four and seven. The UF bursts included five straight kills from Beason, Bre Kelley and Sofia Victoria to hand the Gators a 23-15 lead.
Back-to-back kills from Kelley and Victoria would seal the first set win of the day for Florida.
Florida kept pace with ETSU in the third set before pulling away midway through. Hanging on to an 8-7 lead, the Gators rattled off eight points in a row — three of which were aces from Beason — to stretch their advantage to 16-7. Beason, the newly named team captain, hit .484 during the match to pace the Gators, which held the Bucs to a .067 hitting percentage throughout.
UF maintained its consistency into the fourth and final set, only allowing three consecutive scores from East Tennessee once. Florida equaled its second set kill count of 13 through strong performances by Beason, Kelley and Russian outside hitter Marina Markova. The Syracuse transfer’s 6-foot-5 stature makes her quite the threat up front. Markova’s third and final kill of the match secured the Gators first victory of the day.
The nightcap pinned the Gators against the Virginia Cavaliers for the first time since 1995. It was a homecoming for Wells, who served on Florida head coach Mary Wise’s staff as assistant coach from 2014-2016 and associate head coach from 2017-2020.
The first set was a Gators masterclass, featuring six kills from Markova, four from Essix and three from Beason. Florida’s relentlessly aggressive offense spurred a five-point run early in the set. Later, an 8-0 stretch extended the Gators lead to 23-9. UF mixed in a few finesse soft touches to go along with several explosive spikes to keep Virginia off balance.
Fitzpatrick fired home the final kill of the set for Florida.
The second set was more of the same for the Gators as they continued to outclass the Cavaliers. Florida started the frame with a 4-0 run and never looked back. During a period where UF took home 11 of 14 points, Beason sizzled three consecutive aces across the court. As the Gators continued to find the gaps in Virginia’s defense, freshman setter Alexis Stucky added on three aces of her own to secure the set.
Florida relied heavily on Stucky, who joined the Gators with U.S. National Team experience, to facilitate the offense and keep things running smoothly. The Wyoming native has averaged 33 sets per match this season.
“It is pretty special to have a freshman setter who can control the ball as well as she does,” Wise said. “There are parts of her games that by decision aren't a high priority that will evolve over time, but we've asked her to set killable balls and she did that today.”
The final set of the evening was closer than the first two, but Florida prevailed to win 25-18. Markova finished the night with 14 kills and Beason 12.
Florida will host the No. 14 Stanford Cardinal at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Tuesday. First serve is set for 7:00 p.m. and will broadcast on the SEC Network.
Contact Ethan Eibe at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators volleyball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.