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AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP: Caroline Knop finds home at Florida

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Volley Feature

Before Carli Snyder (left) and Caroline Knop (right) became best friends, the two weren't so friendly. "I hated her guts," Knop said. "Blonde, frizzy hair ... I mean, it was just like, 'Who is this girl?'"

 

University of Florida volleyball player Carli Snyder was preparing for bed on a quiet night in her hometown of Macomb, Michigan, when her phone flashed and buzzed beside her.

The caller ID read “C.K.”

Caroline Knop was calling.

The ensuing conversation was a shock to Snyder’s system.

Knop, one of the top volleyball players in the country and one of Snyder’s best friends, was transferring from the University of Michigan, where she starred for the Wolverines as an outside hitter.

And she was committing to the Florida Gators.

Now a star player in the Gators’ backcourt, Knop’s journey to Florida is an interesting tale, and her relationship with Snyder is even more intriguing.

Knop and Snyder hadn’t always been close. When the two first met, they hated each other.

But, a connection once defined by hatred and rivalry turned into a relationship of confidence and trust.

And now, their close relationship is paying dividends on the court, where Florida has a 14-2 record and features one of the most high-powered offenses and one of the most physical defenses in the Southeastern Conference.

In the 32-year history of the program, the Gators have never won a national championship.

Knop hopes this is the year, and she’s ready to give it her all.

“I’m very passionate about what I do, in everything that I do,” Knop said. “If you’re not gonna do it right, if you’re not gonna give 100 percent, I don’t believe in really doing it at all.”

• • •

Snyder and C.K., as Knop is affectionately known, had a history together.

The two first crossed paths as eager high school freshmen at a Michigan volleyball camp.

It wasn’t a friendly meeting.

Knop recalled Snyder constantly bragging about Florida’s volleyball program.

“Oh my gosh, I just really wanna go to Florida,” Knop recalled Snyder saying. “‘They just have these nutritionists, and the program’s amazing.’ And we were at Michigan camp together!”

Knop’s first impression of Snyder?

“I hated her guts,” she said. “Blonde, frizzy hair — even crazier than it is today — I mean, it was just like, ‘Who is this girl?’”

After camp, they went their separate ways — Snyder back to Macomb, and Knop 2,000 miles back to her home in sunny Pasadena, California — unaware that this first engagement wouldn’t be their last.

Eventually, the two young athletes blossomed into high school stars. Snyder became an elite outside hitter for Macomb’s Dakota High School. Knop, who was a multiple-sport athlete at Pasadena’s La Salle High School, became a first-rate libero for the Lancers.

They both had very successful prep careers.

In addition to being named the 2013-2014 Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year, Snyder was a four-time First Team All-Michigan selection and was one of only three sophomores recognized by Volleyball Magazine’s “25 Underclassmen to Watch.” Across the country in Southern California, Knop was making waves throughout the west coast.

In addition to being added to the MaxPreps California All-State First Team from 2011 to 2013, Knop, with her fearless and unrelenting playing style, led La Salle to four-straight league championships.

Eventually, each athlete’s respective high school career came to an end, and they both had to make a choice: where to play college volleyball.

Ultimately, Snyder chose Florida. Knop chose Michigan.

After years of separation — and over a year into their collegiate careers — Snyder and Knop crossed paths for the second time. On the first occasion, the two women were young girls just delving into their volleyball careers. This time around, however, they were suiting up for the USA Women’s Volleyball Junior National Team at the 2015 European Global Challenge in Croatia.

“If there’s one person on this team I would hate to room with, it would be Carli Snyder,” Knop remembered telling her parents before her flight to Europe. “I hoped, dear God, I never see that girl this trip.”

They became roommates.

And by the time they departed back to the United States, Snyder and Knop left with more than just gold medals. They left with the beginning of a close friendship.

“I loved her after day one,” Knop said.

“Now we’re the best of friends,” Snyder added.

• • •

During the fourth set of Florida’s match against Oregon on Aug. 27, the Gators were in a rut. Up 24-22 and only needing a single point to extend the match to the fifth and final set, Oregon was closing in.

In front of a packed, raucous crowd at the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Oregon, the Ducks could smell impending victory like a predator can sense its wounded prey.

It could have been all over for Florida.

But Knop wasn’t about to let that happen.

“It was a look on her face,” UF coach Mary Wise said. “She just refused to lose that set.”

She didn’t.

The Gators won the fourth set 26-24 and successfully closed out the match.

That’s just a microcosm of what Knop has brought to this Florida team.

She has brought passion. She has brought energy. And although she’s only 5-foot-8, she has a personality as large as the state she hails from.

Before Florida’s matchup with in-state rival Florida State on Sept. 14, Knop had yet to experience what it meant to be apart of the intense, hate-filled rivalry.

But that didn’t stop her from getting in the spirit of things.

“I want raucous crowds. I want people yelling obscenities at me,” Knop said before marching into FSU’s infamous Tully Gym. “Let’s go crazy.”

Knop has a killer instinct, a mentality that she so boldly and unabashedly presents.

Before the Gators’ second home match of the season, a night match against Jacksonville University in the Lemerand Athletic Center, the Gators’ starting lineup was announced before an excited crowd of over 700 Gator fans in “The Lem.”

Knop was hyped, dancing, pumping her fists and kicking her legs like this was the last volleyball game of her life.

But that’s just one part of her athletic persona.

“You talk about C.K.’s mentality. That’s only half of it,” Wise said. “The other half is her game.”

With her incomparable attitude and swift reflexes, Knop has been an anchor for the Gators in the backcourt.

“She just plays the libero position with the aggressiveness and the IQ you want in that jersey,” Wise said. “She transferred, did not sit out, changed positions and to be playing at this high a level? I think that tells you a lot about how talented she is.”

• • •

It’s early in the morning. The sun has barely peaked over the horizon, and Knop is already awake, buzzing with excitement.

Snyder, in a deep, comfortable sleep, is shaken awake by her roommate.

There’s no time for rest.

They’ve only been awake for a few minutes and have only just begun to erase the sleep from their eyes, but they don’t care.

It’s time to dance.

Knop turns cranks up the volume on her loudspeakers, and the party is on.

The lyric “Do you believe in life after love?” from Cher’s song “Believe," accompanied by an inspiring electronic beat, ripples through the morning silence and sends the two serious athletes into a dancing frenzy.

“On the court, everyone sees how intense she is,” Synder said of Knop. “It’s just so funny because she’ll wake me up 8 a.m. and we’ll start blasting music and have morning dance parties. Every morning.”

With her coaches, her teammates and her best friend by her side, Knop’s journey has come full circle.

From the hatred, the mistakes, the new friendships and the decisions, Knop remembers it all.

And that’s what drives her to push forward.

“I think everything in life truly does happen for a reason, and I’m so happy I’m here,” Knop said.

“I could not be happier.”

Contact Ray Boone at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @rboone1994.