PACE Center Touches Nerve With Mary Wise

Whenever Florida volleyball Coach Mary Wise hears one of her athletes or anyone on the UF campus complain about having a bad day, she wishes she could let them hear from one of the girls who has made it through the program at the PACE Center in Gainesville. There are bad days, and then there are the bad days these girls have survived to talk about.

"The PACE Center has really hit a nerve with me," said Wise Wednesday morning. "This is a center for at risk girls who didn't have access to the Girls Club, Girl Scouts, volleyball or sports or anything that could give them something to hang on to, something that could have helped them. These are girls who were given a bad lot and they're at risk. All you have to hear is the testimony of the girls who have made it through the program and what they have been through. Then you know what a bad day is all about."

PACE (Practical, Academic, Cultural Education) is an Alachua County charity that is devoted to at risk girls age 12-18 who have fallen through life's cracks and need help to gain some focus and direction. It's a charity that Wise became involved with because she believes so strongly in the positive effects. This year, she's serving as the honorary co-chairman for the charity's most visible fund raiser, a golf tournament that will be held April 30 at Plantation Oaks Golf and Country Club. All the money raised from the tournament goes to help these girls get a second chance in life.

"This is such a worthy cause," said Wise, "so I'm thrilled to have my name involved with the PACE Center."

Wise believes so strongly in PACE because she's seen a long time pattern of success.

"As a coach you could only wish to have this kind of success in terms of getting girls back in school and what they have accomplished once they are through," said Wise, who knows something about success. Mary's 512-106 overall as a collegiate volleyball coach, 431-43 in 14 years at Florida with 13 consecutive regular season Southeastern Conference championships, seven Final Fours and one NCAA runner-up.

The PACE golf tournament has a $75 registration fee that includes the round of golf, lunch and a goodie bag.

"Nothing comes free so that's why the golf tournament," Wise said. "If I thought a volleyball tournament could do it, we'd be doing volleyball, but this is Florida, it's spring, the weather's great and people love to play golf. I'm hoping we have a record turnout because this is such a good cause." align="center" ****

After 14 consecutive years of winning the Southeastern Conference regular season volleyball championship, the fire still burns deep within Mary Wise. She's put the Florida program among the nation's elite in her 15 years at the Florida helm, but if you ask her, there's still much more to be accomplished, which is why she's as intense as ever taking her team through its spring paces.

Florida finishes out its spring practice Saturday when the Gators host Atlantic Coast Conference champ Georgia Tech for a pair of matches at the Lemerand Center. While it has been a very good spring for the Gators, Wise feels there is much to prove since Florida didn't finish 2004 the way she wanted.

Florida tied with Tennessee for the regular season SEC championship but lost to the Vols in the SEC Tournament championship game, then a week later lost to eventual national champ Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Florida finished 28-5, a great record at most schools, a disappointment for the Gators. In her 15 years at Florida, Wise has set the bar high. The Gators are 459-48 under Wise, who is 540-111 overall in her coaching career.

From the 2004 team Florida lost All-America middle blocker Sherri Williams along with All-SEC middle blocker Michelle Chatman and defensive specialist/setter Lauren Moscovic.

"This is what happens in Florida volleyball every year," said Wise. "We're always going to graduate some pretty talented players. Graduation does always affect us."

Graduation will have an effect, but it's not like Florida's cupboard is bare. All-American Jane Collymore returns with her high wire, big hitting game and the Gators return three impact freshmen who had to do a lot of growing up last year in Marcie Hampton, Angie McGinnis and Kisya Killingsworth. Senior libero Rachel Engle is back and a familiar face is back on the right side in Amber McCray. McCray blew out an ACL last spring, then took a redshirt for 2004. She will be a third-year sophomore.

Florida has played a strong spring schedule so Wise has had a chance to see how far her team has come since December.

"What we know is that we have a group of young players who have worked hard to have a good spring," she said. "With the returning players we have, we're feeling we have a good nucleus in terms of a veteran setter, two veterans on the left side and on the right side where we have Amber McCray back. Where we're young and inexperienced is in the middle."

Youth and inexperience does not translate to lack of talent, however. Killingsworth is a 6-3 leaper with enormous talent and Wise says, "I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I tell you she will be the next great middle at the University of Florida. She has the potential to be one of the really elite middles we've ever had here and that says something because we have had some great ones."

Collymore made All-America last year and Wise says her game has improved in the spring. Last year, the 6-0 rising senior from Colorado had to shoulder the load for Florida's attack and it was a growing experience.

"She went from playing in the shadow of veterans like Aury Cruz and Benavia Jenkins to being the key player so last year was a growing process for Jane," Wise said. "I think she handled it very well, but now we're seeing what that year of experience has done and how it pays off. She's learning that every play doesn't have to have an ESPN highlight reel play every time. She's added some diversity to her game and I think over the summer she'll keep on improving."

Wise has been very impressed with the offseason development of Marcie Hampton and Angie McGinnis who played key roles last year as freshmen. Hampton came to Florida last year off knee surgery that killed most of her senior year at PK Yonge, plus she had her tonsils out.

"Physically she's a lot different now because she's had an opportunity to make significant strength gains that weren't there last year," said Wise. "It's just now that we're really seeing the effects of her offseason conditioning and strength training because she's jumping higher and hitting the ball with so much more power."

There was a silver lining to Hampton's recovery from physical problems last year. Because she couldn't simply outmuscle people as she did in high school, she had to learn to hit a variety of shots.

"In the big picture, it was probably worked out best for her because she had to learn how to hit shots," said Wise. "Now she's got the shots and the improved physical abilities."

McGinnis was a rail-thin six-footer as a freshman who has now added some muscle. Wise thinks she is ready to become one of the truly elite setters in the nation.

"She is so much stronger and still I don't think we're anywhere close to seeing her top end," Wise said. "I think this is just the beginning and that her best is still ahead of her."

McCray's return is crucial in a number of ways. In addition to being a powerful hitter, she plays the right side naturally and she's a lefthander which makes her tough to defend. Wise said she's overcome the anxiety of getting back on the floor after rehabbing a knee.

"We could tell there was some anxiety the very first competition in the spring, but she was so excited to play again and that helped her a lot," said Wise. "We've still got some things to work on to get her all the way back, but in terms of jumping, hitting and blocking, we're seeing her develop every practice."

Rachel Engle returns as the starting libero. Engle had the daunting task of replacing Jen Mendes last year, but she responded to the challenge and Wise thinks she will have an outstanding senior year.

"Every team needs a player like Rachel," said Wise. "She's our MVP --- our Most Versatile Player. She's a great back row defender, she can set, she can pass and when we need someone to imitate another team's best hitter, she can do that."

Though the team will be young, Wise is excited about the potential.

"The one thing you can always say about freshmen is that in a year they are sophomores," she said. "Our young players from a year ago are a year older now and they should be better, but once again we're going to go into a year in which there is a lot of room for improvement."

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