UF takes court tonight with eight new players


The Florida volleyball team, which includes eight new players, opens its 2012 season tonight against Florida International.

Matt Stamey/ Staff photographer
Published: Friday, August 24, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 10:44 p.m.

With so many new faces on the roster, Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise quipped that she considered handing out name tags at UF's 2012 Media Day.

Facts

UF volleyball

What: Campus USA Credit Union Invitational
Who: Florida, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida A&M and Florida International
When: Starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday, and starting at 10 a.m. Saturday
Where: O'Connell Center

Eight players — half of the 16-member roster — will suit up for UF for the first time when the 18th-ranked Gators open the season against Florida International tonight as part of the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational in the O'Connell Center.

In the opening game at 5:30 p.m., Florida A&M meets Florida Gulf Coast, which features Buchholz alum Gigi Meyer, daughter of Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer and 2010 Gainesville Sun volleyball player of the year. Florida and FIU follow at 7:30 p.m. Four more matches are on tap Saturday in the two-day, round-robin event.

“The beauty of college athletics is that every team changes so much from year to year, even when you're just replacing one player, let alone two All-Americans, five starters and the like,” Wise said. “There are a lot of unknowns about this group, but the knowns are that all 16 of them were here starting the end of June for Summer B, and that healthwise we're in really good shape.”

Gone from last year's 27-6 Elite Eight team are five seniors, including two all-time greats in All-Americans Kristy Jaeckel and Kelly Murphy, UF's pin hitters. They were the only players to start all 33 matches last season and ranked 1-2 in kills with 405 and 297, respectively. In addition, Murphy, a rare combination of setter and left-handed, right-side hitter, led UF in assists (694).

Also gone is setter Chanel Brown, a Tempe, Ariz., native who played the past two seasons and was second to Murphy with 664 assists in 2011. She has transferred to the University of Arizona.

The large change in personnel has led Wise to implement a 5-1 offense rather than UF's familiar 6-2 for the first time since before Murphy's arrival in 2008. But the addition in January of junior Taylor Brauneis, an elite-level setter and two-year starter at Louisville who transferred to UF and is very familiar with the scheme, has provided an early boost.

“It's so great to have Taylor coming from such a successful program and the experience that she has,” said senior right-side hitter Tangerine Wiggs, a second-team All-SEC selection who is UF's top returning kills leader (243).

“She's been able to come in and she knows how to run a 5-1 offense. That's something we haven't done here in quite a few years. It's so different, and she has such a command of it.”

The majority of experience is at the middle blocker position, where fifth-year senior Betsy Smith and redshirt junior Chloe Mann return. Mann, a former Eastside standout, led the SEC in hitting percentage last season with a lofty .500 mark, while Smith (.392) was second.

Redshirt freshman Simone Antwi adds valuable depth.

“We can rely on the middles for their point production if we can get them the ball, and where we're better now is in our ball-handling,” Wise said. “Both of our setters, Taylor (Brauneis) and (freshman) Dana (Backlund), they play with no fear. They love getting the ball to the middle.”

Redshirt sophomore libero Taylor Unroe, who led UF in digs (432) last season and earned SEC All-Freshman kudos, also returns as do sophomore defensive specialists Madison Monserez and Holly Pole, senior Sundai Weston and sophomore outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb.

Backlund, defensive specialist Nikki O'Rourke and outside hitters Berkley Whaley, Jackie Swalchik, Ziva Recek and Gabby Mallette comprise a talented, six-member freshman class.

“Because of our inexperience, we have a chance to be much better later in the season than we are early,” Wise said. “But we can't push a pause button. We've got to be ready to go.”

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