Well, some around the SEC think that the volleyball title might be up for grabs. Florida lost a huge and talented senior class, leaving Wise with the youngest, least proven squad in her 18 years coaching the Gators. While LSU returns a very good team and Tennessee thinks it has gotten past some injury woes, the Gators are just going about their preseason business knowing the SEC title road still comes through Gainesville. Wise was asked if she ever thought there would be so many championship banners hanging in Gainesville.
MW: "I didn't think I'd be here this long when I first came here, but as I've often said there are no "push" factors. If you're coaching at the University of Florida there are no "push" factors to make you want to leave. Outside schools might show an interest and create some "pull" factors, but there are not enough push factors to ever leave here."
As mentioned Florida is an extremely young team with six true freshmen and a redshirt freshman on the 14-player roster. That means half the players at practice each day have never played in a collegiate match. Still, Wise insists it's not something completely foreign to her.
MW: "We've had similar situations in terms of a large freshman class but with as small a returning group. I mean you look at our juniors and seniors that's four (total), and two only play in the back row. So we're real thin at the top in quantity but not quality. When you have Kelsey Bowers, Elyse Cusack and Kristina Johnson those are three key players that will help lead this team.
Cusack is an all-American category libero as Florida's defensive specialist and one publication listed her as one of the top 20 players to watch this season. She's been a top defender and passer for two years, but Wise points out she will be out of her comfort zone at least a little bit.
MW: "When Elyse looks to her left and to her right and doesn't see Marcie Hampton, this will be new territory. She is going to have to stabilize our passing. It's almost like asking one football player to stabilize and entire defensive unit. That's how much responsibility we're going to have to put on Elyse.
Perhaps Wise's biggest concern is the health of the two veteran middle blockers, Bowers and Johnson. Bowers has been slowed by back problems she experienced at a tournament this summer; while Johnson just got cleared to play after suffering a torn ACL.
MW: "Fortunately we don't play tonight because they're still a few weeks away. KJ we figured was just a matter of time. Everything went well with the surgery and the rehab. She's back, but we have to monitor her number of jumps and slowly bring her back into it. We didn't plan on Kelsey's, Kelsey's was the shock. She returned from Atlanta in a wheelchair and took us all by surprise. The way the format of that tournament works she played three matches in one day on a cement floor with a sport court on top of it. Kelsey only knows one speed and that's full out. It was a freak injury, but could it have been avoided with a better schedule? Perhaps.
One thing this Gator team will have that no other Florida squad has ever had is the consensus number one recruit in the nation. Kelly Murphy is one of the most unique athletes ever in that she is a dominating outside hitter at 6-2, but also has the great hands and timing to excel as a setter. I asked Wise about the challenge of maximizing that skill set.
MW: "I think I need to take a page out of Urban Myer's playbook. Kelly brings some of that similar skill set as Tim Tebow in that she's they are so unique to the position. She could set for us. She could hit for us. Can we combine both? Can she score points for us serving, blocking and attacking and still play the role of the setter in distributing? How can we change an offense that can maximize her talents? That's our challenge."
By all rights, this should be the year that someone in the SEC dethrones the Gators, but it has seemed that way a couple of times in the past. Mary Wise may have her youngest team ever, but it is in extremely talented one. If they stay healthy, another ring design may well be on the agenda.
Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel
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