By Jim Harvin, Correspondent
Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise remains philosophical as she enters her 28th season with the Gators program.
“There have been years like last year where you could pretty much pencil in the starting lineup maybe the January prior,” Wise said. “That’s just not the case this year. With the development of the returning players and the talent of the first-year players, it will be a very different look from weekend to weekend. But we think that could be one of the strengths of this team.”
The Gators, ranked No. 7 nationally, are coming off an NCAA runner-up finish, having fallen to five-time champion Nebraska in last year’s final, 3-1, to cap a stellar 30-2 campaign. That tied for UF’s best finish, equaling the 2003 season when Florida also was NCAA runner-up after dropping the final to Southern Cal. In addition, Wise was named AVCA National Coach of the Year for the third time.
Tonight, the Gators open the 2018 season against the defending champion Cornhuskers, ranked No. 2 in this year’s AVCA Preseason poll, and will face No. 3 Texas on Saturday as part of this year’s VERT Challenge in Lincoln, Neb.
Despite some key graduation losses, Wise welcomes a deep and talented squad that features 11 returnees, five highly-rated freshmen including the top recruit in the nation (Thayer Hall) and a 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore transfer from North Carolina (Holly Carlton).
Junior Rachael Kramer, a 6-foot-8 middle blocker who earned All-SEC honors in 2017 and was a third-team AVCA All-American, is understandably pumped.
“We did lose four very important starters, but we brought in some extremely good freshmen and an awesome transfer in Holly,” Kramer said. “I’m super excited about this year. We really filled in the spots that we lost and it’s a new beginning.
“It’s a great team. The defense in this gym is out of this world. It’s better than it was last year. It’s extremely hard to kill a ball.”
The 6-foot-3 Hall, who played for Dorman High School in Spartanburg, S.C., was the 2017-18 Gatorade National Player of the Year and a three-time South Carolina Miss Volleyball.
“We’re definitely not rebuilding; we’re reloading,” Hall said. “This group is so talented, and I have never been in the gym with so much talent. I love the situation that I’ve been placed in. We are definitely deep at every position on this court.”
Sophomore outside hitter Paige Hammons concurs.
“That’s the goal, hopefully, is to take another step,” Hammons said. “Honestly, I would do anything for this team to go back to where we ended last season in the national championship. I definitely feel much more confident and comfortable with my play.”
Redshirt senior setter Allie Monserez also returns and is joined by younger sister Marlie, a UF freshman and the third family member to play for Wise. Oldest sister Maddie (2011-14) was the first.
“I really think that this year we’ve all grown together in a short amount of time,” Monserez said. “These past two weeks of two-a-days have been really good for us in kind of figuring out how we play with each other. It’s just been a really awesome experience.”
What: VERT Challenge
Who: No. 7 Florida vs. No. 2 Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Lincoln, Neb.
Who: Ohio State (0-2) vs. No. 5 Florida (2-0)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Dizney Stadium on campus
Tickets: Free admission
Notes: OSU, the defending Big Ten champ, opened the season No. 23 on the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll, but fell out this week after losses last weekend at No. 3 Duke and No. 6 North Carolina. UF begins a stretch of seven consecutive matches against 2017 NCAA Tournament teams.