After top-5 wins to open season, Florida volleyball poised for another big year

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If the expectations weren’t already high for Mary Wise and the Florida volleyball team this season, they are now.

The 12th-ranked Gators opened their season with back-to-back wins over top-5 teams, first a 3-1 win over No. 1 Texas on Friday and then a 3-2 win over fifth-ranked Nebraska on Saturday.

And with the pair of big wins early comes the responsibility of maintaining that momentum over the course of a 14-week regular-season schedule and the NCAA Tournament.

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“Gee, there’s no pressure,” Wise said Saturday with a smile.

Except Wise, who just started her 27th season at Florida, isn’t expecting her team to go undefeated. It would be great, she said, but after watching the parity in the sport evolve over the years, setting a perfect season as the benchmark would be too much of a burden.

“There are two things that the game has evolved to,” Wise said. “One is 3-0 wins are just not going to come easy anymore. There’s just too much talent. And there was a day when 3-0 wins were the norm. That’s not going to happen.

“And no one’s going undefeated anymore. The parity is there across the country. It’s great for the game but not necessarily for coaches’ sanity.”

Florida (2-0) knows it still has room to grow and problems to fix after the opening weekend, especially on the offensive front. The Gators hit just .190 in the two matches, far below their nation-leading average of .338 from last season.

“What we told the team beforehand is no season is won or lost in August,” Wise said. “What it is is a starting point.”

Replacing Alex Holston

Florida graduated just one player from its 2016 team in right-side hitter Alex Holston, a four-time All-American, who led the Gators in points last season.

Wise said she knew it would take more than one player to replace Holston’s production, so she’s using a revolving door of new faces to maximize her team’s potential.

Such as redshirt senior Shainah Joseph, who is playing on the right side for the first time at Florida and had 20 kills and 6 blocks through the first two matches. Joseph isn’t the tallest pin-hitter at 6-foot-1, but she has a power arm swing that can slice through opponents trying to block her at the net. She is on the court for three rotations on the front line and then is substituted for defensive specialist Allie Gregory for the three back-line rotations.

Such as Paige Hammons, the highly touted freshman who is helping control the second outside hitter position opposite senior Carli Snyder. Hammons, the 2016 FloVolleyball High School National Player of the Year and a high school All-American, has the potential to be a six-rotation player, but Wise has used her mostly as a back-row attacker in the first two matches because of her potential behind the service line and as a passer. Hammons recorded 4 kills and 17 digs in the first two matches but also had 3 reception errors on serves.

Such as Mia Sokolowski, a redshirt freshman who is splitting time with Hammons at that second outside hitter spot and primarily playing at the net. Sokolowski struggled in her collegiate debut with a minus-.053 hitting efficiency (11 kills and 14 attacking errors on 57 swings), but Wise said it’s just a matter of Sokolowski finding a rhythm before she breaks out.

Keep feeding the middles

Florida has always heavily recruited middle blockers. Wise’s combination this year in senior Rhamat Alhassan and sophomore Rachael Kramer might be her best tandem yet.

The two combined for 48 kills and 22 block assists in the wins over Texas and Nebraska and continued to find ways to stymie opponents.

“We’ve had some great middles come through this program,” Wise said, “but [with] the one-two combination, we felt like we could score there if we could control the first contact.”

Stabilize the first pass

The back line gave up 10 aces in first two matches — including 7 in the 5-set win against Nebraska. There were multiple occasions in each match where the Gators struggled off the serve, which allowed Texas and Nebraska to go on set-winning runs.

An easy way to look at Florida’s offensive efficiency is by looking at its sideout percentage — a statistic that shows how often a team scores off the opponent’s serve. Overall, the Gators had a 57.9 percent sideout efficiency in its first two matches, a relatively low rate for a team that usually competes as one of the top offenses in the country. When looking at just the 3 sets Florida lost, its sideout percentage was just 45.3 percent.

Again, it was a pair of opening-weekend matchups against top-5 teams, but the Gators will look to increase their sideout efficiency. That starts on the first touch with libero Caroline “CK” Knop, her fellow defensive specialists, and Snyder and Hammons when they’re on the back line.

The post After top-5 wins to open season, Florida volleyball poised for another big year appeared first on SEC Country.

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