By Mari Faiello, Correspondent
It’s the first feeling 18-year-old freshman Thayer Hall could remember as she stretched out for practice seven months ago in the Gale Lemerand Athletic Center. It was Florida volleyball’s first practice of the spring season.
In eighth grade, the Spartanburg, South Carolina, native stepped on the University of Florida’s campus for the first time, knowing immediately she had found the right place to live out what could be the last four years of her volleyball career.
“I felt like my heart was always here,” Hall said. “As soon as I committed, volleyball was just fun again. I didn’t have to impress anyone, there were no jitters about who was watching because I knew where I was going to be.”
The 6-foot-3 outside hitter started practicing with the team in January alongside Lauren Dooley, a 17-year-old freshman from Plano, Texas.
The two agreed that starting in the spring was the best choice they could have made, giving them time to adjust before heading into the fall season full swing.
In the spring season, the team breaks down skills at a slower pace, focusing more on the training at hand instead of the matches ahead.
When the duo isn’t in class or the gym, they enjoy their own personal hobbies. Hall, an artist, enjoys painting using acrylics and oils. Dooley usually gets lost in the words of a book.
But the key to remain within themselves and not lose focus on the things a typical freshman student-athlete would worry about is simple: taking full-advantage of the opportunities given.
“I know where my talents come from,” Hall said. “They’re not mine, and any given moment that can be taken away from me. I’m expecting to do whatever I can to put the team in the best possible situation.”
It’s still fresh in the team’s mind. That moment on Dec. 16, 2017, when Nebraska took home its fifth title in Kansas City, Missouri, after a four-set match.
That moment will come back in a little over a month when Florida travels to Lincoln, Nebraska, and watches the Cornhuskers hang their fifth title banner right before the Gators’ first match of the 2018 season.
But for now, it’s a new team. A new season. A new opportunity.
And as coach Mary Wise says, they’ll just have to trust the process.
“We’re in new territory,” Wise said. “We’ve never graduated four All-Americans.”
Wise added that the new look for this year’s team will be a shift for most of the Gator fans because of not seeing mainstays like Rhamat Alhassan and Carli Synder on the court this season.
“It’s not just the talent that graduates, it’s the experience,” she said. “There’s no substitute for experience.”
Thayer and Dooley are joined by freshmen Marlie Monserez and Haley Warner, walk-ons Riley Fischer and Paula Cerame and University of North Carolina sophomore transfer Holly Carlton.
Carlton, a 6-foot-7 left-handed opposite attacker and setter, brings something unique to this class-divided Florida team, Wise said.
“For us, it will be her attacking that’s the No. 1 priority,” Wise said.
On the other hand, Dooley, a 6-6 middle blocker, will propose some unique challenges to other teams because of her size, especially her height above the net, Wise said.
They’ll need the support of Carlton, Dooley, Hall and the other freshmen to overcome their schedule in the fall, facing teams like Nebraska, Texas and Southern California in their first eight days of play alone.
“We’re just throwing them into the deep end,” Wise said. “We are not tip-toeing into this season.”