No. 6-ranked Gators volleyball team opening season with West Coast trip
The last 18 months have been unlike anything Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise has seen or experienced, though she’s far from alone when it comes to experiencing sudden change in a sport she’s spent nearly her entire life around.
Considering her role as an overseer of a revered program, it’s been Wise’s additional responsibility to be a guiding presence for collegiate athletes, assistants and her fellow coaches through all of the unknown and unforeseen aspects of the pandemic.
Through it all, it doesn’t sound as if Wise, now in her 31st season as the Gators’ head coach and one of the all-time winningest coaches in Division I history, has lost any love for her craft.
With the Gators preparing to open the season Friday at 7 p.m. ET, beginning with a cross-country trip to Sacramento, California for the Hornet Invitational before ending the month of August with a contest at Stanford, Wise is still looking forward, where new challenges await, rather than falling into retrospection.
“We reached out to Sacramento State, and really appreciate what they did — two years in a row, last year was canceled — but it allowed us to play matches and already get out west before we have to play the return game against Stanford,” Wise said. “We’ll be playing teams that we aren’t familiar with against players that we haven’t seen. It’s a great learning opportunity, and playing three matches in two days presents another challenge.”
It’s a new season, but it’s still the same year, meaning the COVID-19 protocols and the conversations regarding social distancing, masks and vaccines aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
They now serve as a constant reminder of the path to this point.
“I really thought when we were recruiting and traveling, and I’m flying all over the country and going into these major convention centers with thousands of players, really thought we were back to normal, and then obviously we’ve hit the brakes,” Wise said. “So we’re back in masks. But we know how to do this now, and we’re using the exact same protocol we used back in the fall, and the good news is we’re over 80 percent with the entire program vaccinated, and that’s all of the support staff and anybody who would be around the players. Hopefully we can get to 100 percent, but we’re doing everything we can to keep the players safe, and that’s what’s most important.”
Considering the possible repercussions of a COVID-19 outbreak, how can anyone — let alone those tasked with the development of future generations — avoid constantly thinking of the worst-case scenario?
From both a competitive and health aspect, it’s become abundantly clear the second year of the pandemic may ultimately be of greater concern.
“The challenging thing will be, is that there no longer is any thought of rescheduling matches if we get shut down. Those are forfeits,” Wise said, “and that can keep a head coach awake at night. But I’ll take a forfeit over any person in our program getting sick. That’s what’s most important: keep everybody healthy.”
To recap the team’s experience with the pandemic to this point, the Gators split the 2020 regular season over two semesters, with eight games in fall and the remaining 16 in the spring, although the team would end up canceling two games due to health and safety protocols.
Florida suffered a lone loss in the latter portion of the regular season, to then-No. 3 Kentucky, the eventual national champion, before the season ended in Omaha at the hands of No. 1 and unbeaten Wisconsin on April 19.
For a sport that typically finishes before the conclusion of the fall semester, the truncated schedule ensured the offseason wasn’t exactly brimming with rest and relaxation.
That difficult path here, it typically has an end in sight, and it’s one so many yearn for when the going gets tough. It hasn’t yet come for Wise and her coaching staff.
“The hardest part was going from zero to 100 in recruiting,” Wise said. “That was by far the most difficult.”
The return of recruiting in Division I athletics has been staggered; for some sports, the NCAA’s month-long “quiet period” began June 1, meaning those programs could begin hosting recruits on official visits.
For DI volleyball, Wise and her coaching staff weren’t allowed to contact prospects until June 15, and visits weren’t allowed to begin until August 1 — meaning programs are currently juggling the preseason preparation in the midst of a vital period of recruiting.
“I think for everybody in the program, maybe for everybody in athletics, needed a break when the school year ended, because it was so hard, and rightfully so,” Wise said. “But there wasn’t much of a break for volleyball coaches, because we went full-on-sprint mode, and the re-entry was not easy, to go into recruiting, and then from recruiting to camps to preseason, and now here we are.”
The sprint on the recruiting trail had Wise scouting tournaments from Orlando to Las Vegas, all while preparing to lead her latest iteration of Gators, who enter the season ranked No. 6 in the AVCA preseason coaches poll.
Florida returns T’ara Ceasar, Thayer Hall, Marlie Monserez and Lauren Forte — four of the team’s five AVCA All-Americans from the 2020-21 season — along with SEC All-Freshman Elli McKissock, although the Gators are faced with a literal tall task: replacing the production of 6-foot-7 All-American setter Holly Carlton.
Lauren Dooley now takes the role of the team’s tallest player, standing 6-foot-6, though help arrived in the summer in the form of four freshmen — middle blockers Bre Kelley and Gabrielle Essix, standing 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively, along with 6-foot-3 outside hitter Merritt Beason and 5-foot-9 defensive specialist/libero Trinity Adams.
A Hoover, Alabama, native, Essix made the 2020 U.S. Women's Junior National Training Team and most recently represented the team at the 2021 FIVB Women's Under-20 World Championship. Though the U.S. didn’t medal, it was valuable experience for Essix.
The adjustment and preseason development process, at the very least, has been far less difficult, thanks to last season’s blueprint for success.
“I think a year ago, because volleyball was the first indoor sport to play, there were some real challenges, because we had no one to look at. There was no model of, ‘Well this is how you should do it and can do it.’ We were making it up on the fly,” Wise said. “So, I think now a year later, we understand the practices that work for us, and some of the things we’ll continue. We’re not switching benches, like we did a year ago, the masks we wear at practice, the masks that we all will wear when we meet as a team.”
Now, having adjusted to the protocols required to ensure the season goes off without any setbacks, the team realizes they’re for the greater good, which is maintaining the quest for the ever-elusive NCAA Championship.
However, health still comes first, and Wise isn’t denying the continuation of the pandemic weighs on her mind in the middle of the busiest month of her storied career.
“A year ago, I think we were all under the misguided assumption that as long as we were doing our part, we couldn’t get it,” Wise said. “Now we’re in a situation where this population is now more at risk, so those are some challenges and things that I think any college coach, you can’t deny that it’s on your mind.”