As the first day of Fall classes at the University of Florida came to an end for some students, Florida volleyball head coach Mary Wise and the Gators walked into the Lemerand Gym to continue preparation for Friday's season opener.
Before any balls were hit across a net, Wise and sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason spoke to the media Wednesday.
Leading up to Florida’s season opening three-game slate this weekend, Wise thought mostly about her inexperienced team — which features five freshmen. Despite the squad’s youthfulness, Wise seems unafraid to push her players, especially the young ones.
“When we had an opportunity to schedule multiple matches over the course of the first weekend we thought that what was best for our inexperienced players, to get as much playing time," Wise said. "Nothing like matches to learn.”
Beason, who collected 217 kills last season, is excited for the Gators Invitational — featuring Virginia, North Florida and East Tennessee State — this weekend. She sees it as a chance for Florida to work out the growing pains and gain confidence early in the season.
“We’re super excited to kick this weekend off,” Beason said. “Three matches in two days is obviously a lot but we just look at it as growth.”
Beason doesn’t view Florida’s youth — nine of 16 players on the roster are underclassmen — as a negative. She sees everyone buying into the team’s goals no matter their collegiate experience, moving as one unit.
“From day in and day out, we’re all in here, we all have the same mindset and we're getting better each and every day,” Beason said. “ It’s been really cool to watch.”
She played for the USA Women’s U21 National Team this summer in the 2022 Pan America Cup in La Paz, Mexico. Beason left the tournament with multiple pieces of hardware, helping bring home the cup for her country and being named the tournament MVP.
The Alabama native found the international experience enhanced her development as a player.
I was working on finding who I was gonna be this upcoming season and I think this summer played a huge role in that,” Beason said. “Going to USA, playing with girls who are the best in the country and ultimately ending up winning MVP was so special and so surreal for me.”
Beason was also joined on Team USA by middle blockers Gabrielle Essix and Bre Kelley.
“The international experience for Bre and Alexis(Stucky) and Merritt when they played in the panhandle cup, there's nothing that we could do in Gainesville to simulate that,” Wise said.
Beason, who is now the UF team captain, is using the confidence from this summer to embrace a newfound leadership role.
“I play very calm, very steady and so that’s kinda how I lead,” Beason said “I like to lead by example more than necessarily words.”
Besides the five first years on the roster, three transfer additions will suit up for the Gators for the first time this weekend.
Two veteran newcomers, senior outside hitter Marina Markova and graduate student outside hitter Rhett Robinson, bring multiple years of volleyball experience and skill to Gainesville.
Markova, who was named the 2021 ECAC Offensive Player of the Year, spent three years at Syracuse thriving in the Atlantic Coast Conference. She finished 16th in the nation in kills per set (4.51) last season.
“She definitely has a lot of potential to leave her name all over this year's stats book,” Wise said. “Just like she did at Syracuse.”
With more than 1,000 career kills registered under her belt, Robinson was a utility player at North Texas, earning 2021 First Team All Conference USA. Wise is excited to see her unique ability to play from the right or left side of the courts. She said the skill isn’t commonly found on the Florida roster.
Changes can be found in the coaches room as well this season. The team announced the return of former Gators libero Caroline Knop, who was named to the All-SEC team twice during her collegiate playing career, as a volunteer assistant coach July 25. She is revered by Florida fans for starting all 32 games during UF’s run to the NCAA Championship match in 2017.
Wise coached Knop — also known as CK — during her time at Florida and saw the former College of Charleston head coach as a huge pick up for the Gators’ bench.
“She’s one of the best liberos ever played not only at Florida, but in the SEC, and her game, her IQ, her competitiveness, all of that you can see on the court and in the training,” Wise said “ Every day I feel lucky that she is on our side.”
Going into her 32nd year at Florida, coach Wise is excited for the offense this year. Believing the Gators will be more than capable of putting kills on the board.
“We’ve got some really good arms,” Wise said. I hope our first and second contact will be consistent enough that we can get the ball to those arms because we can score some points.”
Wise said her team began practices Aug. 9 and didn’t get a ton of time to work together. Limited action adds to the importance of the season’s opening weeks, as Florida’s game — especially on the defensive side — will continue to evolve, she said.
As Wise prepares for another season of college volleyball, she doesn’t plan on making any drastic changes to her coaching style this season. However, she does acknowledge how new people can make all the difference from one year to the next.
“In college athletics, you can just have one new player and it changes a team,” Wise said. “ So to have half your lineup new, and the novelty is what’s so fun.”
The Gators volleyball team will open its season at home against North Florida Friday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.