After unprecedented preparation, Florida volleyball returns to action Wednesday at Auburn

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
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Thayer Hall (20) is back to lead the Florida Gators volleyball team this season.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise, the fourth-winningest coach in the history of Division I athletics, had rightfully felt as if she’d seen all the sport could throw her way. 

She was used to answering questions with certainty, and her players would stop in at her office almost daily for discussions ranging from athletic inquiries to personal concerns. Regardless of the topic, Wise either had an answer or words of encouragement; now that area’s off-limits as safety is emphasized over personal interaction between coaches and athletes. 

Now, with the Gators set to open the eight-game 2020 season Wednesday with an 8 p.m. match-up at Auburn, the first of two contests against the Tigers in a 24-hour span, Wise and her players are looking forward to a return to said normalcy after an offseason that’s been anything but ordinary. 

“We’re living on the edge. That’s how it feels,” Wise said. “I think the road trip will be the best thing for us, because even when we came back we were separated.” 

Wise said the Gators have been divided into bubbles since arriving back on campus, resulting in a noticeable lack of team-wide activities — ones which typically will improve team chemistry, both on and off the court. With volleyball classified as a high-risk transmission sport by the Southeastern Conference, the Gators have taken multiple precautions to ensure the group’s collective return will subsequently be a safe and sanitary one.

“Whenever I write my book, I’m going to talk in the COVID chapter about how to build a dysfunctional team. I’m not talking about our group, but any group. Our players were back, but they couldn’t be with one another, they had to be separated by roommates,” Wise said. “They couldn’t even go visit their friends, they had to train at different times, they couldn’t even be in the gym at the same time. Just set up to be incredibly difficult for any team, but especially a women’s team. We like to be around each other and stay connected, and it’s been incredibly hard.” 

Yet there’s reason for Wise and the Gators to be optimistic, considering the outlook of the months ahead appears far more promising than the optics did on March 13. 

That was the day the Gators, like many athletes around the country, learned they’ll be heading home indefinitely rather than continuing to train and compete collectively. 

That was when Wise, after three decades on the sidelines, could no longer answer her team’s concerns with assurance and confidence.

“When we think back to March, the days, weeks and months just ran together, but I so vividly remember the UAA staff meeting and the cancellation of our Spring match with Georgia Tech and saying goodbye to the players,” Wise said. “There’s been a lot of volleyball matches I may not remember, but I remember that moment, because it was just surreal.”

Which understandably resulted in a rather pessimistic mindset: with the return of the sport hinging on limiting the spread of the virus, Wise admits she initially struggled to see a way forward in 2020. A return by year’s end was seen as unsustainable. 

“During those early months, I didn’t think there was any way we were playing this Fall. Everything was ‘when there’s a vaccine’,” Wise said. “Early on, the SEC coaches felt we were best served in putting our resources into football, obviously because of financial reasons they need to play, and we thought for sure we would just play in the Spring.”

That was then, and this is now, and the eight-match, conference-only schedule set to occur over the next six weeks admittedly pales in comparison to Florida’s typical slate of games. Without the NCAA’s decision to allow Fall athletes an extra year of eligibility, regardless of whether they play the 2020-21 season or not, Wise wouldn’t have just been understanding if athletes opted out of participating — she would have advocated for it. 

“If the NCAA had not extended eligibility, I think we would have had some players opt out. I would have encouraged them to opt out,” Wise said. “When they extended the eligibility, and the SEC and the UAA showed their leadership in terms of the amount of testing and the protocols we were going to put in place, and how much money we were going to spend to keep us safe, it was a much different feeling.” 

Those precautions have emphasized individual instruction or small-group workouts over team-wide activities, meaning Wednesday’s contest will be one of Wise’s first looks at the new group, and Thursday’s quick turnaround will bring a unique chance to improve in the immediate aftermath. 

The preparation may have been atypical in a year that’s been memorable for all the wrong reasons, yet the Gators are ready for business as usual once again. And that requires getting their typical head coach back, too. 

“I’ve never seen Mary not have a definitive, confident answer. It’s been interesting, but kind of fun to navigate that with everybody, which I think has ultimately brought us so much together as a team,” UF junior outside hitter Thayer Hall said. “I can’t wait to see gameday Mary again.” 

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