As the Gators volleyball team made its way to the back of the court for the starting lineup introductions, a familiar face stood with them, albeit not in uniform.
Sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason, her gray hoodie an outlier among a row of white jerseys, did not play in either of Friday’s tilts against Georgia Southern and Florida Gulf Coast.
Florida’s star pin, who had recorded five straight games with double digit kills entering Friday, cheered on her teammates from the sidelines. It is an undisclosed injury that will sideline the Alabama native for at least the rest of the weekend, head coach Mary Wise said. She did not provide a timetable for Beason’s return.
‘No Beason? No problem.’ proved to be the No. 16 Gators’ mantra again Friday night as they defeated Florida Gulf Coast in three sets (25-23, 25-19, 25-13) to improve to 5-2. The Gators outhit the Eagles .255 to .110.
“I couldn't have been more proud of this group or how they did respond,” Wise said. “It was a lineup that we have never had a chance to practice with, so we were kind of playing it on the fly.”
Wise praised the performances of her starters including freshman setter Alexis Stucky, senior outside hitter Marina Markova and libero Elli McKissock. She also acknowledged junior setter Birdie Hendrickson and junior outside hitter AC Fitzpatrick, both of whom came off the bench and filled key roles in Beason’s absence.
While fans saw a defensive clinic in Friday’s earlier sweep against Georgia Southern, Florida’s heavy hitters would be the star in this one. The Gators recorded 13 kills per set, almost a full kill better than the 12.2 figure they sported entering play.
FGCU matched UF step for step in the opening set. Neither squad was able to string together more than two points in a row for the entire set.
Fifth-year setter Chelsey Locke set the tone with an ace for the Eagles on the first serve of the match. After back-to-back service errors, the Gators and Eagles traded kill for kill for the majority of the frame. Markova provided the thump for Florida to a tune of six kills in the first set and 12 on the night overall to lead the Gators. Stucky facilitated a slew of second-volleys for sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix and junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria to drive home UF points.
The Eagles, however, did not allow Florida to build any sort of momentum. FGCU’s outside hitter tandem of sophomore Skylar English and senior Erin Shomaker continued to keep the Gators defense off balance. They racked up 10 and seven kills respectively throughout the match. While unable to go on any significant run, Florida captured six of the final 10 points to put the set to rest.
The last three Gators points came from the wicked fast right-handed attack of Markova, whose final kill was a sliding ball towards the back left corner.
Back-to-back kills from sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley and Markova put Florida out in front to begin the second set. The Eagles equalized on a pair of errors from UF. Two more kills from Kelley and Victoria, along with a service and attack error, had the Gators up 9-6. FGCU then strung together four points in a row on kills from Shomaker and English to take a 10-9 lead.
A few plays later Florida began to pull away, scoring five consecutive points on two more kills from Markova to make it a 17-12 game. The Gators held on to the lead for the remainder of the frame and took a two set lead on a kill from Stucky.
Florida’s domination only became more apparent in the third and final set. After allowing the Eagles to record a .353 hitting percentage in the first set, FGCU could only muster .086 and -0.129 figures in the final two frames. Stucky continued to set up kills from Markova, Kelley and Hendrickson before adding on two aces of her own to carve out a 15-9 UF advantage.
A rally of six in a row, including five Eagles attack errors, propelled the Gators to a 23-12 lead and essentially put the game on ice. A nifty service ace from sophomore Trinity Adams put a bow on six sets of dominant play in front of the home crowd.
“We did so many good things today,” Wise said. “[FGCU] is a tournament team and they are competing for a league title every year. This could be one of those really good [Rating Percent Index] wins by the end of the year.”
Florida will wrap up the Sunshine Invitational Saturday afternoon against Virginia Commonwealth. First serve is scheduled for 4 pm on the SEC Network +.
Contact Ethan Eibe at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators baseball 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.