VOLLEYBALL: 4th-Ranked Gators Improve To 19-1

The way they disrupt their opponents with their blocking and defense, Coach Mary Wise knew the Arkansas Ladybacks were just what the doctor ordered for her Florida Gators. They really needed a check-up to see just how far they have come since the beginning of the season and Arkansas provided the perfect barometer.

Arkansas was in many ways a mirror of Notre Dame, the only team that has beaten the fourth-ranked Gators (19-1, 9-0 SEC) this season. Like Notre Dame, Arkansas (13-8, 6-3 SEC), is a formidable blocking team, ranked among the top ten teams in the nation in that critical statistical category. Unlike Notre Dame, which dominated Florida early in the year, the blocking didn't factor in the outcome as the Gators took out the Ladybacks in three games, 30-10, 33-31 and 30-23 before a crowd of 2,522 at the O'Connell Center.

The final outcome was a nice indicator of progress for Wise, who felt the Gators showed the ability to play better defense and make great recoveries when Arkansas's tall front line got hands on the ball at the net time after time. Even though they proved to be highly disruptive, the Ladybacks finished the match with only five blocks, about half what they would normally get in three games.

"One of the other great blocking teams we played this year got the best of us and that was Notre Dame," said Wise. "I think this is an example of how much we have improved since September. Credit our passing and Angie (McGinnis, Florida setter) with her decision making along with the learning curve of our hitters."

After a first match blitzkrieg led by All-American Jane Collymore, who recorded four service aces in a 7-0 mid-game scoring run, Arkansas settled down and played tenaciously on the front line, stretching the Gators to the limits in game two and then playing the Gators tough once again in game three.

"Game one came awfully easy and as a coach you almost figure that it could come too easily the way we ran so many points just off the serve," said Wise. "Game two and game three were much more indicative of the Arkansas team that we were prepared for and expecting."

Collymore had what is becoming her typical match. She led the Gators in kills with 12 and contributed 13 digs to go with her four game-one service aces. It was the first game serving that was highlight reel material.

Collymore is a jump server who has learned to hit what looks like a split-finger fast ball the way it starts tumbling downward once it crosses the net. In game one, Arkansas defenders had trouble judging the downward flight of the top-spin fast ball. Even though they did a better job getting to the ball in games two and three, the velocity and downward motion made accurate passing next to impossible.

"If your analogy is the 95 mph-plus pitcher with the fast ball who can pinpoint accuracy and they're hard to hit, well, she's hard to pass," said Wise.

Collymore hit the ball equally as hard last year as a junior but not with the downward movement caused by top spin that she shows this season.

"I think it's because I'm tossing the ball higher and I'm able to hit down on the ball better this year with more snap of my wrist," said Collymore. "Whatever it is I'm doing, it seems to be working."

The Gators once again got balanced offense with nine kills from Marcie Hampton (also 11 digs), eight from Kari Klinkenborg (two solo blocks), six from Kisya Killingsworth (one solo block, two block assists) and five from Amber McCray (one block assist). McGinnis, the SEC leader in assists, had a game-high 38 to go with four kills and a service ace.

Before the season, Wise said that two areas that had to improve if the Gators were to become an elite team capable of winning the national championship were blocking and serving. With Killingsworth and Klinkenborg in the middle, the Gators have seen improved blocking and consistent scoring, particularly since the SEC schedule began.

For Klinkenborg, the improvement has been simply the result of taking what she learns in practice and applying it in games.

"Every practice I'm trying to work on something that I'm not all that good at and getting better at it so by the time I get in a game situation I've done it what seems like a million times," said Klinkenborg, a sophomore from Colorado who played the right side last year.

Defensively, the Gators turned in a dominating performance. Arkansas hit a poor .076 for the night (37 kills, 27 hitting errors), in part because of the back line play of libero Rachel Engel, who teamed with Collymore and McGinnis to give the Gators an outstanding effort. Engel finished the match with 23 digs. She came into the match ranked second in the SEC in that category.

"I think that Marcy, Jane and I have gotten into a real nice groove," said Engel. "I think we're working well together to give us good court coverage and I like the way we're passing the ball."

Florida is at home Sunday afternoon to face LSU at 1:30 p.m. in another SEC match.

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