The Gators volleyball team ended its 2022 season in disappointing fashion with a four-set loss to Pittsburgh in the NCAA Regionals. With the 2023 season on the horizon, familiar faces look to fuel Florida to a deep postseason run.
Florida heads to Tampa Friday to play the No. 8 Penn State Lions for their 2023 season opener.
The team lost some key members like former team captain Merritt Beason, who transferred to Nebraska during the offseason. However, the Gators will still feature key players like senior libero Elli Mckissock and sophomore setter Alexis Stucky will look to guide their team.
McKissock, who made 423 digs last season, and Stucky — the American Volleyball Coaches Association Southeast Freshman of the Year — made 1,194 assists last season to give them prominent team leaders.
“We really embody the play for each mindset; I think we really grind, we work hard, and it all comes together when we play big matches,” Stucky said.
To preview the season, the No. 11 Gators hosted the Stetson Hatters for a variable-set exhibition match in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Sunday. In a previous case last season, the NCAA permitted Florida to play an actual opponent rather than an Orange and Blue intrasquad scrimmage.
Fans packed into the stands to watch Florida head coach Mary Wise's team showcase their skills in the exhibition.
“The same recipe we think that has held true all these years is playing a challenging pre-conference schedule as we can to prepare us for the league,” Wise said.
Wise said Florida’s season can be thought about in three parts: the pre-conference, the conference, and the postseason. After the pre-conference game, they will know more about how they can best succeed as a team.
The Gators dominated the first set after they fell behind Stetson, dropping the first two points, and came back with three kills and then with a hit from outside hitter senior AC Fitzpatrick.
The Hatters began to struggle to get kills past senior middle back Nnedi Okammor and senior outside hitter Sofia Victoria as they blocked all of what led Stetson to trail by 13.
Gators sophomore middle back Amaya Thomas sealed the next kill with a deep center hit. Florida won the first set 25-9 after a pass from Thomas led to an assist for graduate student setter Kennedy Muff who hit the ball deep into the cornerback of the court.
UF kept strong momentum at the start of the second set against Stetson. However, the Hatters kept pace early into the game with the Gators as they trailed by two after numerous blocks by outside hitters and freshmen Kiara Hutson and Kennedy Martin.
Despite the Hatter's best efforts, the Gators conquered the second set 25-17 after sophomore setter Alexis Stucky hit a bump pass to Hutson, who spiked the ball deep onto Stetson's side.
Stetson sealed the first point of the third set, but shortly after, UF followed with a pair of consecutive aces from senior Libero Elli McKissok. The following points that were scored featured multiple deep corner hits.
Florida eased through their third set as the Hatters could not make a comeback as they trailed by nine before a quick intermission. However, the Gators continued to dominate as Stetson tried to fend in the last set, but they failed to grab point-saving dives, which left them stranded.
Thomas brought the O'Dome on its feet with her block against Stetson to give the Gators their third straight win 25-15.
Stetson fought back early in the fourth set to try and stop UF from a fourth consecutive win by tying up the game. Sophomore Libero Emily Canaan hit a pair of aces that put the Gators back in the lead.
Florida fans rose to their feet for the final play of the game, an ace hit from Canaan to win the game 25-15. Stetson could not seal hits past the front of Florida's net middle back Gabrielle Essix and their outside hitters, leaving them to trail most of the game.
UF will play Penn State on the road at the Tampa Bay Invitational at 8 p.m. Friday for its season opener.
Alyssa Britton-Harr is a second-year journalism major and a sports reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, she enjoys cheering on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and spending time with her friends.