Experience yields optimism for volleyball

Florida’s volleyball team has been to five Final Fours in the last 15 years. A sixth trip could be on the horizon.

Mary Wise has four good reasons.

1) Marcie Hampton

2) Angie McGinnis

3) Amber McCray

4) Kisya Killingsworth

“I think in college athletics—pick any sport – teams are a reflection of their senior class,” Wise said. “If that’s the case, then I really like upside of this team, because of the upside of that senior group.”

Seven starters return from last year’s 30-win season. Four—surprise, surprise – are seniors. All are proven.

“I think you could take any of those four and they could be a leader,” Wise said. “They’re capable because of their experience and their leadership skills to lead. But add the four of them together – their talent and their leadership – we won’t ask any one to lead by themselves. They have the luxury of doing it as a senior class together.”

Wise will merely guide. Days of molding are largely done.

“If I told you that, you couldn’t tell (UF athletic director) Jeremy (Foley),” Wise said with a laugh. “We want people to think we’re still working hard. I think that that would be the case with this group if they didn’t want to keep learning and wanting. They’ve taken a page out of the great teams in that they have the beginner’s mind. Each day that they want to come to practice, they want to get better.

“Think about all the setting reps that Angie McGinnis has had over her career and yet she’s one of the first ones in the gym every day to get extra reps and sets. They allow us as coaches … It’s really fun to coach, because you can keep pushing them and working with them and they still want to learn.”

Wise has dismissed talk of a national title, but she believes the seventh-ranked Gators are chasing the big three – Nebraska, Penn State and Stanford. The gap, players say, will have to be closed win by win.

“It’s easy to sit here and say we’re the greatest team on paper,” Hampton said. “But we haven’t even played a match yet.”

At stake is an epic winning streak. Florida has won 16 consecutive SEC women’s volleyball titles.

“I don’t think in sports that there are any givens,” Wise said. “But our goals don’t change. Maybe that’s it. Each year we’ll put as competitive a group as we can on the court that will pay attention to detail and will compete. Hopefully, our talent level and preparation level will be good enough to win enough matches to win a championship.”

Many of the veterans spent much of the offseason playing overseas. One of the best known is Hampton, a Gainesville P.K. Yonge High alumna, who has traveled abroad and played internationally since high school.

“It helps Marcie individually, but it helps us collectively,” Wise said. “The experience she gained this summer playing overseas playing with some of the best players in our country and against some of the best talent in the world only makes us better. There is no substitute for that.”

Hampton was one of six Gators invited to try out for U.S. National team competition this winter. The others were Alli Cecchini Janine Williams, Kelsey Bowers, Elyse Cusack and Kristina Johnson.

Hampton played for the national team in the Pan Am Games; Cecchini participated for USA Junior national A2 team; and Cusack for the USA Selects, collective experience that shortens the preseason learning curve.

“With the way NCAA rules are through the summer months I can’t even watch the team work out let alone play,” Wise said. “If I had gotten to Brazil, maybe I could have watched Marcie play. She’s getting that kind of experience. We may not see it today, but where it will show up is at different times of the season whether it’s crunch time at match point in a tough environment. We watched Marcie elevate her game from the end of the year into the offseason. She’s playing with a lot of confidence. My biggest challenge is to keep her healthy. … If she’s healthy Marcie really has a chance to have her name all over our record book.”

Hampton, who sustained major knee surgery early in her college career, is one of several Gators to overcome injuries. Among the most noteworthy last season were McCray (shoulder) and Williams (knee). Both are said to be better than ever.

“You can go down our roster and see the players who take a turn (for the better) physically,” Wise said. “They’ve spent the summer training with (strength and conditioning coach) Matt (Delancey), and Janine has been hitting the ball as hard as she ever has, she’s jumping well. Everything’s improved.”

Johnson’s return allows Killingsworth to move from outside hitter to middle blocker, her natural position. Last year, Killingsworth created kills; now she will be asked to stymie them.

“That’s really where (Kisya’s) most comfortable,” Wise said. “With Janine hurt last year, we couldn’t really do that and only an elite athlete like Kisya affords a coach that opportunity. With Kisya in the middle we have an outside hitter position open opposite Marcie (Hampton) to be filled by Janine or one of the freshmen. That remains to be seen. Just because we start one player on August 24 (against Illinois State) in game one, it could be different against Notre Dame or a month later or two months later. Players evolve at different rates.”

Also back is McGinnis, the SEC Player of the Year and one of college volleyball’s top setters. McGinnis averaged 13.2 assists last season. Many of those went to McCray, who averaged 3.71 kills a game. In all, Florida returns five players, who received some sort of all-conference recognition.

McGinnis and McCray were first-selections; Hampton and Kelsey Bowers were second teamers. Cusack was the league’s defensive player of the year and Johnson was an all-freshman pick.

“I like the depth that we have on this team—depth that we haven’t had in a while,” Wise said.

Florida opens Aug. 24 against Illinois State. The Gators home opener is set for Aug. 31 against Georgia Southern (12:30) and North Carolina State (7:30). UF begins SEC play on Sept. 14 against Georgia.

Expectations are high, but Wise makes no definitive promises.

“What you want is to stay healthy and to control the things you can control,” she said. “As the saying goes in the movie Wizard of Oz, the monkeys always come. It’s just in different forms. One year it was hurricanes. Another it came in the form of MCL injuries. The monkeys will come. It’s just a matter of when they do come, and how do we react?”