VOLLEYBALL: McCray's Return Helps Gators Past JU

It was only one match and against an inferior opponent at that, but Monday night's blowout win by the eighth-ranked Florida Gators over the Jacksonville University Dolphins at the O'Connell Center wasn't without significance. Winning was expected --- the talent gap between the Gators and JU is enormous -- but what made this season opener special was the return of Amber McCray to the Florida volleyball lineup.

After a season on the sidelines recovering from a devastating knee injury, McCray was eager to play volleyball again but there were a few nagging questions. Could she play without pain? Could she put thoughts of the knee totally out of her mind? Could she play with the same effectiveness she showed in her freshman year in 2003 when she was a key reserve on Florida's team that made it to the NCAA Championship Game?

The answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. Showing no after effects of the knee, McCray registered a career-high 10 kills in Florida's 30-19, 30-17, 30-20 win over the Dolphins, a performance that left her smiling and wondering where all the pain went.

"Tonight from the start I felt really great," said McCray, a 6-0, lefthanded sophomore from Longview, Texas. "I've been having some soreness in practice but tonight, it just never happened. I never had to think about my knee. I just stayed focused on playing and my knee felt really good the whole match."

The goal for Coach Mary Wise entering Monday's match was to let McCray play extended minutes but monitor the knee closely. When there was no soreness, it allowed Wise to keep McCray on the floor.

"Going into the match my hope was that I wanted to play her for a long period so she could get into a rhythm," said Wise. "The hitting errors she made (three in 20 swings at the ball) came early. I think that's from waiting a year and a half to hit."

McCray's presence on the right side was an ingredient that could have changed the chemistry and the outcome of last season for the Gators. Florida finished 28-5 and tied for the SEC championship without her. With her, it's likely that the Gators would have won the conference title outright.

Without McCray, Coach Mary Wise had to shuffle the lineup to compensate for the loss. It took more than half a season for the team to get totally comfortable with all the changes.

"Every player was playing a different position a year ago today," said Wise.

McCray's return to the Florida lineup enabled Wise to send sophomores Kisya Killingsworth and Kari Klinkenborg back to their more natural position at middle blocker and gave the Gators an extra hitter to take the pressure off senior All-America Jane Collymore and sophomore Marcie Hampton. Collymore had a match-high 16 kills to go with 10 digs and four blocks. Hampton also had a double-double with 10 kills and 10 blocks.

That threesome had a productive 36 kills in 76 swings at the ball, an efficient outing, particularly for the first match of the season.

"We just needed to get into a rhythm," said sophomore setter Angie McGinnis, last year's SEC Freshman of the Year. "Once we got into a rhythm hitting the ball, I think we really played well. The passing was awesome, too. The passing was just on the nail and when the passing is on the nail, the offense can run perfectly."

McGinnis had 41 assists in the three games. She also had five kills, a pair of service aces, eight digs and a block. Senior libero Rachel Engel turned in an outstanding defensive game with 18 digs.

The questionable position of middle blocker was a committee job. Klinkenborg and Killingsworth handled things in the first two games. In game three, they got help from freshman Kelsey Bowers, the former Gainesville High star, who saw her first collegiate action. The three produced 13 kills and six blocks. Bowers got to top off her first night of college volleyball by getting the match-ending kill in game three.

Getting the win was important to Collymore who says that it's starting to sink in that this is her senior year at Florida.

"As a senior your mindset is kind of like this is the last time on this date I'm going to be doing this thing so this is technically my last first match of a season as a Florida Gator so it's a little bit more sentimental … there's a lot more to value to it," said Collymore. "It's kind of an eye opener one you hit your senior year. You start to think 'wow, this is my last go around' so it's definitely something to cherish."

Collymore's hard hitting, high wire act was too tough for JU to counter. The senior from Colorado dominated game one with nine kills, the points coming on a variety of shots from soft, accurate dinks to high rising power spikes from the back line. Those are the kinds of hits that are expected of Collymore, who is one of college volleyball's top power players. Yet it was her defense and passing combined with the effort of Hampton that really caught Wise's attention.

"Jane and Marcie have the potential to rack up big time numbers defensively," said Wise, who praised the defensive backline of Collymore, Hampton and Engel for their consistency. "You saw in Jane, Marcie and Rachel very few problems against a very good serviing team. We passed so well. That may not happen every night but it happened tonight that they got into a good passing groove and when they do that we'll hit above .300 like we did today."

Florida hit an outstanding .331 for the match.

The Gators will play twice Friday in the Aquafina Volleyball Invitational at the O'Connell Center. Florida will play Dayton of the Atlantic 10 Conference at noon and then face Missouri State at 7:30. The Gators will play UC-Santa Barbara at 3:30 Saturday.

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