Volleyball Team Making Strides

The Florida volleyball team has been one of the automatics for the Gator sports program. Ever since the arrival of Mary Wise the Gators have dominated the SEC (17 straight SEC titles) and been a major factor in the NCAA Tournament (7 Final Fours) as well.

But this year is very different, or at least it's supposed to be. Florida has completely re-tooled its roster with the addition of six true freshmen and a redshirt freshman taking up half the roster. Despite relying so heavily on youth Wise has her team where it usually is; Florida is unbeaten and ranked 8th in the nation.

Thursday night the Gators beat a competitive, experienced and scrappy Colorado team in four sets for its second road win of the weekend. Combined with a Monday night sweep of Florida State the young Gators have grown up in a hurry and will face a strong Colorado State team Saturday night in Ft. Collins.

The Tim Duncan of Volleyball

One key for the Gators' early success is the play of remarkable freshman Kelly Murphy. The 6-2 rookie serves both as an effective outside hitter and a setter in the Gators scheme. In these two wins Murphy has twice flirted with the rare triple-double in assists, digs and kills. Against FSU the numbers were 25, 9 and 10. In the Colorado match they were 25, 8 and 12.

Murphy does not do one thing spectacularly well, but she does everything very well. That's why I call her the Tim Duncan of volleyball. I remember when Duncan and Wake Forest came to the O'Dome years ago and beat the Gators. It might be off on a number or two, but the 6-11 star finished up with something like 11 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and 7 blocked shots. It was a tremendous performance, but it wasn't overwhelming in any one area.

In addition to Murphy Florida has two freshman "thumpers" In Kristy Jaeckel and Colleen Ward. Both hit the ball extremely hard and against Colorado they combined for 29 kills. Add in the skills of Callie Rivers and defensive brilliance of Elyse Cusack and Florida has plenty of talent to remain an elite program.

The Biggest Concern

Florida has long been known for its strength at middle blocker but that's a big worry for this team. Senior Kelsey Bowers is battling a chronic back problem that flared up in a big way last spring, while junior Kristina Johnson is coming off a torn ACL and has not yet returned to her top form. They combined for 7 block assists in the Colorado match, which is progress but there's a long way to go. Florida did get a lift in the middle from Lauren Bledsoe. The California sophomore is normally an outside hitter but showed her versatility Thursday night with 8 kills and 7 block assists. To put that in context, Bledsoe had 8 block assists all of last season. If the Florida middles can be productive, this could be another championship season.

Coming Attractions

The Gators match with CSU will be televised on Cox Sports TV Saturday night at 9:00 EDT. The Gators return home for the start of SEC play next weekend. Georgia comes to town on Friday night with SEC favorite LSU visiting the O'Dome Sunday. If the Gators are still unbeaten by then, they'll be well on their way. If you're not going to Knoxville, you need to check this team out.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel

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