UF volleyball team eyes big season

Florida coach Mary Wise looks on at her team during a volleyball match against South Carolina at the O'Connell Center on Friday. The Gators beat the Gamecock in straight sets 3-0. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

By Jim Harvin, Correspondent

There’s a quiet sense of confidence surrounding the 2019 Florida volleyball team.

Today is Fan Day for UF, as the Gators host UCF in an exhibition match at the Exactech Arena at 1 p.m.

“The biggest difference is that a year ago there was so much learning that had to take place, and you can’t fast-forward the freshman to sophomore phase,” said coach Mary Wise, who is entering her 29th season at UF and 33rd overall.

“There’s nothing you do in practice that will replicate what the real matches are like.”

The Gators, coming off a 26-7 season in which they reached the NCAA regional semifinals, are ranked No. 10 in the AVCA preseason poll. They open the season at the Cardinal Classic on Friday against No. 25 Louisville, followed by a match Saturday with Dayton.

Then it’s back to the Exactech Arena for a match against top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Stanford to open the home schedule on Wednesday, Sept. 4, at 8 p.m. Three days later (Sept. 7), UF makes the trip north to face No. 3 Minnesota.

“We’ve been here since January working and grinding,” 6-foot-8 senior All-American middle blocker Rachael Kramer said. “We called it our preseason, so when we actually started our preseason in August, we were able to play six-on-six, and that never happens. We’ve never scrimmaged on the first day of practice before, so I’m really excited for this year.”

Kramer led the SEC in blocks per set (1.38) last season and ranked fifth in hitting percentage (.349). Redshirt junior right-side hitter Holly Carlton led UF in kills (302) and points (390).

“Last year I was kind of thrown into the mix and got here during the summer before the season,” Carlton said. “It’s been so exciting to train with the same team that is going to be here all fall, all summer and all spring. Just to see the growth of the team and all the individuals grow into their own identity is really special.”

Sophomore outside hitter Thayer Hall finished second in kills (288) despite missing seven matches with an injury.

“To have everybody here since January has been really cool,” Hall said. “Just being able to gel starting in January and not having to go through those awkward weeks in the summer when new people get here was big.”

Kramer, Carlton and Hall all earned honorable-mention All-American honors in 2018. Kramer and junior outside hitter Paige Hammons finished tied for third for UF with 267 kills apiece, while junior libero Allie Gregory had a team-best 514 digs.

Other schedule highlights include the Honda of Gainesville Invitational on Sept. 13-14, a date with instate rival FSU Sept. 17, and the Gator Invitational Sept. 20-21. UF opens its 18-match SEC schedule against Auburn and Georgia Sept. 27 and Sept. 29, respectively.

Florida was picked just behind returning champ Kentucky in the preseason coaches poll. The seventh-ranked Wildcats garnered 143 points, while UF had 132.

“Since we have such big depth on our team, I think a national championship is an easy reach away,” Hammons said. “Our pre-conference schedule and being together since the spring has made everything fantastic, so that’s a really easy accomplishment that we’re going to push for. We have grown so close together.”

Let the games begin.

“Not only was the entire team here in January, but it’s the first time we’ve ever had the team here the entire summer,” Wise noted. “All 16 of them, and that’s pretty amazing.”

UF volleyball

What: The Gators will play UCF in an exhibition match at 1 p.m. today followed by team autographs on Fan Day.

Where: Exactech Arena in the O’Connell Center