Volleyball primed for big year

By: Nicole Boyett

This time last year, nobody gave the Florida Volleyball team’s expected success – or lack thereof – a second thought. The Gators entered the 2012 season with 11 underclassmen on their 15-woman roster, but Coach Wise didn’t let that get in the way of her 19th SEC Championship. Instead, she showed Florida fans why she’s been the leader of the program since 1991 with an SEC Coach of the Year performance, leading the young Gators to a 25-4 overall record (19-1 in the SEC) and an NCAA Tournament appearance.

This year, the Gators will surprise no one, with high expectations following last year’s performance. The Gators are ranked No. 9 in the country and have been picked to win the SEC with two Florida players on the preseason All-SEC team: senior Chloe Mann and sophomore Ziva Recek, who won SEC Player of the Year and SEC Freshman of the Year, respectively.

But what exactly will make this team different? Head Coach Mary Wise said that the team was in first gear a lot last year. This year, things are moving much faster “because of the health of the returning players and the depth of this team. We’re seeing really good things that are happening in our gym right now.”

Coach Wise said the Gators have the best problem they could right now – depth. Beyond Mann and Recek, the Gators return a lot of talent to the court this year, namely redshirt sophomore Noami Santos-Lamb, who suffered a torn ACL before last season even started.

“That was a long year for her. She’s worked truly hard to put herself in this position,” Coach Wise said of Santos-Lamb on Friday. “The cannon of which [Santos-Lamb] is unloading with her arm” has impressed Coach Wise along with her expressiveness and love of the game. Santos-Lamb is excited to be back with the team this season and hopes to bring everyone closer together. It’s been one year since she’s played competitively, and she’s ready to translate her intense practices and hard work onto the court.

Defensively, Coach Wise is excited about the Gators’ speed and blocking. Coach Wise was impressed with sophomore Gabby Mallette’s blocking toward the end of the season and is looking forward to the speed that freshman Denise Belcher brings to the floor. Coach Wise spoke highly of Maryland transfer, sophomore Mackenzie Dagostino, raving that she is “easily one of the best defending setters that has ever played in this gym.” Coach Wise cited Dagostino’s high volleyball IQ and competitive spirit as qualities every coach looks for in a player.

Another big difference this year is the combination of point scorers on the floor. Rather than relying on Mann and Recek for the Gators’ offense, Coach Wise said, “There are more arms to go around,” mentioning sophomore Simone Antwi and junior Taylor Unroe as part of a more productive offense.

This year, Gators can expect even more out of sophomore Ziva Recek, who spent the summer playing for the Slovenia National Team. Recek says she feels more at home with a year under her belt and is comfortable giving advice to younger players still learning the system. Recek immediately credited her teammates and coaches when asked about winning SEC Freshman of the Year, an individual award by nature. When asked about the difference a year makes, Recek said that last year was about exceeding expectations and this year is about going as far as they can.

But the team still looks to seniors Chloe Mann and Taylor Brauneis for chemistry and guidance. Coach Wise said Mann “is a coach on the court and off the court and really has developed into an outstanding leader.” Brauneis, who spent the summer in China with the USA Development Program, has become more vocal as a setter for Mann. She hopes the connection her and Mann have lights a fire for the rest of the team to feed off of.

Gainesville native Chloe Mann has high expectations for herself and for the team during her last year. Her teammates call her “grandma” because she’s been at Florida for so long, but with experience comes wisdom. Mann wants the team to stay hungry and to never settle.  She has confidence that they will, as every Florida player said practices have been intense and more competitive than ever, with Coach Wise’s “grind it out” attitude ringing true. Mann said the team is balanced and collaborates well, receiving input from all classes. She may be a leader, but she doesn’t see any teammate as followers.

While Coach Wise and most players were hesitant to mention specific goals beyond another SEC Championship, they are trying to play like a Final Four team. Coach Wise said, “These players get it…they would be disappointed if we weren’t putting our goals high and trying to achieve the highest possible.” A Gator who has set the bar as high as possible is Chloe Mann – she’s looking to make the most out of her senior year with a national championship.

A tournament that always provides a good benchmark for national success is the Nike Big Four Classic, held this year in Austin, Texas. The Gators won’t get a rematch with the Longhorns, but they do have No. 2 Penn State and No. 3 Stanford on their plate. “It’s all about where you end, but we’re not focusing on the end now. We’re focusing on putting ourselves in position to be the best team we can be come August 30th and we’ll keep trying to raise that bar all the way through December.”

The Gators open the 2013 season on August 30th against New Orleans during the Campus USA Credit Union Invite. The Gators will also play LIU-Brooklyn and Duke that weekend before traveling to this year’s Nike Big Four Classic.