Volleyball: Gators Begin Road Back To Elite Level

At most schools, 28-5 with a share of the conference volleyball championship is an accomplishment to celebrate. That's most schools. That's not Florida where the Gators had won 13 consecutive championships outright before settling for a tie with Tennessee for the SEC title in 2004.

The Gators have had nine months to live with the disappointments of 2004, but as they take the floor of the O'Connell Center Monday night for their season opener against Jacksonville University, Coach Mary Wise is hoping that some of the disappointments of last season will serve as motivation for what could be a return to elite national status.

There is plenty of reason for optimism for the eighth-ranked Gators. All-America outside hitter Jane Collymore returns for her senior season along with 2004 SEC Freshman of the Year and second team All-SEC setter Angie McGinnis and outside hitter Marcie Hampton, a member of the SEC All-Freshman team. Those alone are building blocks for a great season, but when you throw in the return of sophomore Amber McCray, who sat out 2004 recovering from a serious knee injury, and the Gators have the look of a team that could return to the Final Four.

Having McCray back is critical. Last year at this time, not only were Wise and her staff scrambling to patch the holes in the lineup that was depleted by the graduation loss of Audy Cruz, Jen Mandes and Benavia Jenkins from a team that had made it to the national championship game in 2003 but they were trying to find a right side hitter due to the injury of McCray.

McCray's absence affected the Gators in so many ways. They lacked her strong presence on the right side and her quick leaping ability that made her a defensive force off the bench as a true freshman in 2003. It also forced Wise to force feed true freshmen Marcie Hampton and Kisya Killingsworth into the lineup. Killingsworth, a natural middle blocker at 6-3, played the right side and Hampton tried to take the pressure off Collymore as the team's number two hitter.

"How many ways did Amber's absence affect us?" said Wise. "I think today I can tell you. We are much further ahead in training camp because we're not trying to find a right side. We spent much of last year's preseason just filling that gap and now we don't have to do that. We're further along than we were a year ago."

McCray is back stronger than ever. In spite of surgery that had to repair a torn ACL as well as several cartilage tears, she's able to get off the ground faster and higher than ever.

"Her jump reach when it was measured here at the end of summer B (10-1) was higher than it was as a freshman," said Wise. "Credit Amber with her hard work but also credit the trainers. It was a group effort of trainers involved in her rehab. Her knee injury was so severe that there are a lot of athletes at that level who retire. They just don't come back from that. To not only come back from that but to come back and be jumping higher than you ever have is a credit to our trainers and to our strength coach, Matt Delancey."

McCray sat out the 2004 season although she dressed out for every game. She didn't play but she sat by the coaches and kept stats. Wise thought it was important for McCray to stay involved with the team.

"You do know that these are females," said Florida's coach, who has a 459-48 record at Florida and a 540-111 overall mark. "We don't even go to the bathroom by ourselves so keeping women in a group is important to us."

McCray said that the stat-keeping experience opened her eyes and made her see the game from a totally different point of view.

"I got to see how the numbers on paper determine the outcome or affected the outcome of a match," said the 6-0 sophomore from Longview, Texas. "The numbers rarely lie. The stats almost always tell the story about who won the match and why." The stats she will be most interested in this year are the ones she can accumulate in helping the Gators get back to their usual dominance in the Southeastern Conference.

"I'm not taking anything away from Tennessee," said McCray. "They beat us twice on our home court and they earned everything they got, but that was tough to take especially sitting on the bench and knowing there wasn't anything I could do to help the team. I'm ready to do anything I can to help us win like we used to."

Hampton, who is a 6-1 sophomore from Gainesville via P.K. Yonge, understands what McCray is going through in making a comeback from a knee injury. She missed most of her senior season in high school recovering from surgery on a torn ACL. She played well last year as a true freshman for the Gators, but she admits that in the back of her mind, there were always fears about blowing out the knee once again.

"Whenever you have a big injury like that it's somewhere in the back of your head that it could happen again," said Hampton. "You try not to think about it but any time you feel a sharp pain it goes through your mind. I can really appreciate what Amber's had to go through."

Hampton, McGinnis and Collymore all got extensive international experience in the summer. Collymore started for the US National team at the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo and then was a key player for the US team in the World Grand Prix that was played in Seoul, Korea. McGinnis was a backup setter on the Pan Am team and Hampton played in Switzerland for the US team at the Montreux Volley Masters Tournament and for the US under-20 team that played in the World Under-20 Championships in Turkey.

"There's nothing we can do on campus that can come close to equating to that [international experience]," said Wise. "In the world of volleyball there aren't the summer leagues that baseball has. I think the analogy is it would be closer to football … it's hard for football players to get game-like experience in the summer and for our players it has to happen at the highest level internationally."

Collymore, a 6-0 high wire act with a cannon of a right arm, will benefit tremendously from having a more experience Hampton and another high flyer in McCray on the right side.

"Having Amber back is huge for us," said Collymore, who is also on the SEC Academic Honor Roll. "She's a great right side with a really quick left arm. Marcie's more experienced and Angie, too. I think we're motivated to have a great season."

With senior Rachel Engel back to handle the libero position and Killingsworth returning to the middle where she will have backup help from 6-2 Stefanie Douglas and a pair of 6-2 freshmen, Kelsey Bowers (Gainesville High) and Kristina Johnson, this is a talented and deep Florida team.

"We are one fit team," said Wise. "We are one quick team. I don't know if we will be an elite level blocking team but this is the fastest team we've ever had at Florida."

The pieces are there for a shot at the Final Four in 2005. This is a confident team with experience to go with the motivation of a 2004 season that didn't quite measure up to Florida's normal standards.

"We lost three times at home," said Hampton. "We were probably the first team ever at Florida to do that."

Wise understands how disappointment can be a motivator, but she sees the big picture. Although the Gators didn't win the conference championship outright and they didn't advance beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament, that's not to say good things didn't happen.

"There were so many things about last year's team that I'm not sure that those outside the program can appreciate," she said. "What that group went through and the success they had, not just dealing with graduation and Amber's injury … but it was one tough year. I told the players when they got their rings last week that I was as proud of that SEC championship even though it was shared of any of the others previous. That one was well earned."

She's hoping there will be a well earned championship to celebrate at the end of the 2005 season. The road to that title begins Monday night at the O'Connell Center.

(Amber McCray photo courtesy UF Sports Info.)

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