Marlie Monserez

Now-junior Marlie Monserez sets for the Gators at last year's home match versus Kentucky. The setter and her teammates will be back in the O'Connell Center Friday for the first home match of the 2020 season.

There were multiple instances in the past few months that Florida coach Mary Wise didn’t think Florida’s home opener on Friday against Alabama would happen.

“There were many moments throughout the summer and even early Fall where truthfully, I didn’t think we’d be playing,” Wise said. “If you had told me this in August, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UF’s home opener was delayed by nearly two months, and the only time so far this fall UF students went into the O’Connell Center was to get tested for COVID-19.

That changes this weekend. 

Gators volleyball finally returns to the fabled O’Dome Friday evening. It will be the first time a Florida sports team has hit the court since the Florida-Kentucky men’s basketball game on March 7. Friday’s match starts at 7 p.m. and will be broadcasted on the SEC Network. Saturday’s match will be at 3 p.m. and available for listening on ESPN 98.1 FM/850 AM.

A limited crowd of 2,500 will be allowed, about 25% of maximum capacity (10,306). Face coverings will be required, except while eating or drinking, and available seats will be six feet apart to allow for social distancing. This is similar to the rules put in place for Gators football games.

Wise is ecstatic about having fans in the building.

“We are grateful we play in a venue like the O’Connell Center that’s big enough to have fans,” Wise said. “We got the hype squad coming in and the band, and that is pretty unique.”

No. 4 UF has been incredibly successful in Gainesville, having only lost five matches at home over three seasons.

Not only that, but the Gators will also be playing a squad that it is literally perfect against. Florida has never lost to Alabama, currently holding a 47-0 record over the Crimson Tide – 43 of which came in three sets, including last October when the Gators dominated the Crimson Tide in Gainesville.

It was much of the same for UF in its first two matches against Auburn last Wednesday and Thursday – another Alabama school Florida has historically dominated. It stomped over the Tigers, winning both matches in straight sets.

Junior setter Marlie Monserez spoke about how different the road trip to Auburn felt with COVID-19 protocols in place.

“It was different for sure,” Monserez said. “We took two buses to get there, and there were plenty of open seats on each bus. So, there wasn’t as much bus activity, but it was so exciting to get back out there and play.”

Redshirt junior outside hitter T’ara Ceasar was the star of the doubleheader with Auburn. A transfer from Georgia, Ceasar finally suited up after having to sit out the 2019 season. She finished with 23 total kills and three aces, leading the team in both statistics.

“We knew that she was a special talent, and where she helps us so much is, she makes everyone around her better, just like Thayer (Hall) has done the past two years. So, that one-two-punch of T’ara and Thayer can, in time, be really good.”

The Crimson Tide didn’t have as much success the first week of the season. Alabama welcomed No. 9 Missouri and lost both matches in commanding fashion. The Tide suffered a four-set setback on Wednesday and a three-set defeat on Thursday. It is looking to recover from a disappointing 12-17 season in 2019.

Wise said it would be a challenge for UF this weekend, despite what records say. She said this is because Alabama has six newcomers, and Florida only has two matches of tape on them.

“Like everything else in 2020, it feels a little different,” Wise said regarding this home opener. “But once the ball is in play, it’s volleyball.”

Contact Noah Ram at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Noah_ram1.

Noah Ram is the gymnastics beat writer. He previously covered men's and women's tennis. He is a sophomore majoring in journalism and this is his third semester at The Alligator.