Volleyball Sunshine Showdown: Young Florida Gators squad sweeps visiting Florida State

Ainslie Lee
Gator Sports

Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center housed a rambunctious weeknight crowd on Tuesday night as the Florida State Seminoles (7-3) visited the 16th-ranked Florida Gators (7-2) volleyball team in the most recent edition of the Sunshine Showdown. 

"We're just so grateful that on a Tuesday night, to get that kind of attendance," UF head coach Mary Wise said. "I think they were the, what we'll call, seventh player."

Wise and the Gators were able to appease Tuesday night's home crowd as Florida put on a gritty showing to sweep the 'Noles 25-19, 29-27 and 25-22, despite trailing in the second and third sets. 

Here are four takeaways from Tuesday's in-state rival match.

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Merritt Beason is back

Florida's Merritt Beason (13) hits the ball during the third set against the Florida State Seminoles at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Florida had been without Merritt Beason for three matches coming into Tuesday's showdown due to an undisclosed injury. 

According to Wise, she and the Gators weren't sure whether that number would grow to four matches until earlier in the day on Tuesday. 

Cleared to play, Beason was sure to make the most of her return. The second-year right-side hitter led UF in kills with 13, hitting at a rate of .400 and tallying 15 points in the process. 

"It was just all about trusting my training and trusting my teammates," Beason said of her return. "I knew that they all had my back, so it was pretty easy coming back. And yes, it was super fun. It's always fun playing an in-state rival, but tonight was definitely special."

Following Tuesday's performance, Beason has 79 kills through six matches, which puts her second on the team behind senior Marina Markova, who recorded 12 kills against Florida State. 

Gritty Gators come from behind

The Gators had to replace a lot of talent coming into this season after graduating five seniors in 2021. 

Some of those replacements came by way of rookies, while others were transfers. Nonetheless, this team is young — which is one of the reasons Wise said the Gators were able to rally back the way they did in the final two sets. 

"It's the beauty of youth," Wise said. "They don't know any better."

Though the Gators controlled the opening set from start to finish, the 'Noles held leads in the second and third sets, forcing Florida to come from behind to win them both.

"It was one of the most fun team wins of the season," Beason said. "Being down both the last two sets and rallying back together and never giving up ... after every single game, we're learning something new about each other. And so tonight we learned that we can fight no matter how far we were down. And I think that's really special."

Gators defend 'Noles offense well

With the pair of comebacks as evidence, Florida State was no cupcake on Tuesday night. 

The Seminoles were coming off a five-set loss to No. 17 Creighton when they arrived to Gainesville on Tuesday. Prior to that, FSU had strung together a five-game win streak and entered the match against Florida with a record of 7-2. 

"They run a really complicated offense," Beason said. "We knew blocking was going to be a key part of this game."

The Gators out-blocked the Seminoles three-fold, tallying nine blocks to the 'Noles three with sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix leading the way with five blocks. 

But there were definitely points in the match that Florida State was able to exploit the Gators — especially 6-foot-4 middle blocker Emily Ryan, who led the Seminoles' offensive efforts with 11 kills. 

"Every time you play a team with unique talents... their length, they're just so long and they hit some shots that we don't have in our gym," Wise said of the 'Noles. "And that's a learning experience."

UF prepares for huge stage Friday 

Gators libero Elli McKissock (23) and her teammates celebrate after defeating the Florida State Seminoles 3-0 at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, on Sept. 13, 2022.

It's a big week for Gators volleyball. After hosting their in-state rival, Florida now prepares to visit the fourth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, who are coming off a championship-winning season, on Friday night. 

But adding to the pressure is the fact that the Badgers are aiming to break the NCAA's regular-season attendance record, which currently sits at 15,797 spectators. Wisconsin's Kohl Center can house more than 17,000 fans. 

In her 35 seasons as a head coach, Wise says she's never coached a match in front of that kind of crowd. 

"What a great opportunity," Wise said. "I think it's such a compliment to our program that Wisconsin,  the defending national champions ... they could choose anyone to come there and they would choose Florida. I think it's such respect for the Gators."

Florida vs. Wisconsin is Friday night at 8:30 and can be watched on the Big Ten Network. Meanwhile, the Seminoles will prepare to host the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Saturday at 2 p.m.