Larry Vettel's Women's Sports Weekly

After virtually owning the Southeastern Conference for the past 14 years, Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise actually will have something to prove in conference play come 2005. Not only did the Gators' ten-year run of perfect regular seasons end with Tennessee victory in the O'Connell Center, Florida saw the Vols post another win in the SEC Tournament final in the very same building one week later.

Tennessee's ascent to challenge Florida at the top of the league continued into the NCAA Tournament, where the Gators were ousted in the second round while the Vols will be in action later this week in the Sweet 16. Granted, the Vols had a dramatically easier trip to the Regional than the brutal draw Florida faced, but the roles would have been reserved had Florida beaten the Vols in either of their late-season match-ups.

Interestingly, this turned out to be a banner year for the SEC in volleyball with four programs (Arkansas and Georgia) reaching the NCAA tournament. The success of Tennessee should serve to further inspire the rest of the league that aspiring to challenge Florida is not a dream that's out of reach.

Not that it will be easy. After all, Wise's Gators did end up 28-5 on the year. All five losses to teams still active in the NCAA tournament and four of the five losses were in five game matches.

Looking Ahead To 2005

With all that working against the Gators' dominance of SEC volleyball, it would still be a mistake to assume Mary Wise and company will be satisfied to just be a contender in the upcoming season. Florida will return plenty of talent to return to its familiar perch atop the SEC, with just enough questions to make it interesting.

It starts with Jane Collymore, the SEC Player-of-the-Year, who will be returning for her senior season. The Colorado native is a superb talent who admirably stepped into the enormous void left by the departure of Aury Cruz to be Florida's "go to" player. Still, Collymore could improve in a number of areas, including cutting down on service errors, doing a better job of blocking and upping her hitting efficiency (.226) into the .300 range.

Collymore will be joined on the outside by sophomore Marcie Hampton, an All-SEC Freshman team selection. Hampton had an excellent rookie year with just under three kills and three assists per game. She too could up her hitting percentage (.240) while developing as a blocker. Depth on the outside will get a boost with the return of Amber McCray. The talented lefty missed this year after tearing her ACL but a full recovery is expected for next fall when she gives UF a much-needed option on the right side.

While I mentioned the opportunity for outside hitters to block better, the key for the 2005 Gators will be the play of the middle blockers. Kisya Killingsworth showed flashes of her amazing physical ability during her freshman season but will have to be a prime-time player next year. Junior-to-be Stephanie Douglas may get a shot in the middle as well. Florida will count on immediate contributions from one if not both incoming freshmen Kelci Bowers from Gainesville and Kristina Johnson from Indianapolis.

Libero Rachel Engel returns for her senior season after setting the school record for digs, but it would not be a shock to see the Gators bring in some competition there.

Setter is one place where you hate to play freshmen, and Mary Wise has a history of leaving talented first year setters on the sidelines, watching and learning. That changes this year with the arrival of Angie McGinnis who has the potential to be far and away the best setter Florida has ever had. The SEC Freshman-of-the-Year is an effective attacker and unusually good blocker from her position and that all-court game will likely earn her All-American recognition before her career is done.

So that's the 2005 Florida volleyball team. Despite a few uncharacteristic setbacks in 2004, they're still the team to beat in the SEC.

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