The fifth-ranked Florida Gators are the queens of the Southeastern Conference, winning the past 18 conference championships, and they know that someone is always trying to knock them off their throne.
This weekend Kentucky, one of the up-and-coming powers in the conference, heads to Gainesville with one of the more finely tuned offensive machines in college volleyball in an attempt to do just that.
Mary Wise’s Gators (10-1, 4-0 SEC) are riding the momentum of three straight conference sweeps into the 7 p.m. Friday showdown against No. 15 Kentucky (13-1, 3-0) that will decide the early front-runner for the SEC crown. Florida will turn around and play Tennessee (9-4, 2-1) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in the second match of what is expected to be the toughest four-match stretch of the season.
Kentucky comes into the match having not dropped a set in SEC play and with its only loss coming in five-sets to instate rival Louisville, a team that Tennessee handled 3-2 on Wednesday night. In fact, Wise says the only surprise about the Wildcats is that they are not ranked even higher.
“It’s not surprising as good as they are,” Wise said. “It’s one of the highest octane offenses in the country. They’re not just doing that against SEC opponents. They’re firing on all cylinders against everybody they’ve played.”
Kentucky has gotten to this point by feeding its offense through senior setter Sarah Rumely, the reigning SEC Player of the Year conference leader in assists at 11.86 per set.
Rumely’s distribution has caused the Kentucky offense to blossom as the Wildcats lead the conference in hitting percentage at .292, kills per set at 14.84 and assists per set at 13.72.
“Kentucky as you can see, based on how few times they’ve been aced, they’re a team that’s in system a lot,” Wise said. “If they’re in system, meaning they control that first contact, then they’re giving the ball to one of the best setters in the country who’s delivering it to some great hitters. That’s why they’re so good.”
Needless to say Kentucky’s offense isn’t the kind that you can just devise a game plan to shut it down. Wise plans on using all aspects of the game to somewhat take the gas out of the Wildcats’ full-throttle offense. That means the Gators’ blocking, serving, attacking and defense all need to be firing on all cylinders to combat that offensive machine.
“We worked a whole lot on the areas that maybe not stop it but at least neutralize it,” Wise said. “We don’t need Kentucky to come in here and be in fifth gear from the beginning of the match from the end, meaning full speed. What we hope is to at least create some stress on them that they aren’t getting free looks on every single transition.”
The Gators were not able to neutralize Kentucky’s offense in the teams’ second meeting last year in Lexington, a match the Wildcats won in five sets. The victory was the first for Kentucky against Wise since she arrived at Florida, dropping her record to 38-1 head-to-head.
Kentucky didn’t get to this point of being a conference contender by accident. Wise knows from first-hand experience as an assistant at the school for five years prior to coming to Florida. During her time there, the Wildcats made the NCAA Regionals her final three seasons.
Wise brought her talent to Gainesville, which soon became home to the juggernauts of SEC volleyball, but she knew it was only a matter of time before Kentucky put itself in the discussion.
“We knew we had it going there at Kentucky,” Wise said. “We knew it was a hotbed because of its location. It’s in proximity to one of the best high school volleyball parts in the country in Louisville. We knew it was a sleeping giant.”
Kentucky hired Craig Skinner, who won a championship as part of Nebraska’s staff, in December 2004 and immediately went to four straight NCAA Tournaments, ending a 12-year drought.
Last year was the point that Kentucky put the rest of the SEC on watch by finishing one game behind Florida for the SEC title. The matchup between the schools has taken off and turned into a full-fledged rivalry.
“We’re really excited,” said sophomore Kelly Murphy. “It’s one of those matches we get pumped up for. There’s a big rivalry there.”
With the program’s history of coming through in big matches and the early season slate against top-notch teams, the Gators are prepared to tame Kentucky’s offensive beast.
“Our preseason helped us prepare for this competition,” Murphy said. “I think we’ve gotten a lot better with our consistency. It’s just another big test for us. I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Gators have been here enough times before to deflect the pressure from an early SEC battle that will put the victor in the driver’s seat going forward.
“We don’t really look at it as pressure,” said senior Elyse Cusack. “The SEC is a long season. We are lucky we get a chance to play everyone twice. We’ll just take it one match at a time and see what happens.”
Of course, after that match they will have to turn around and play another talented conference foe in Tennessee before hitting the road to take on South Carolina and LSU.
“I don’t discount Tennessee because they’re a team that has traditionally played its best volleyball at the end of the year,” Wise said. “Do not discount Tennessee or LSU. I think what you’re seeing is — we talked about parity in the country — there’s parity in the SEC. That’s why I don’t want to put too much into the third week of the season. There’s so much volleyball left to be played.”
The Gators know well the gauntlet they will be facing this year and have prepared for each conference opponent that thinks it will be their year.
“I think it just means you can’t take a win for granted,” Murphy said. “Just because you beat them once, doesn’t mean we’re going to be able to beat them again, especially when we play them at their place.”
But until someone proves they are worthy of knocking the Gators off their throne, everyone will still be looking up at the queens of the SEC.
SEC Pct. Div. ALL Pct.
Florida 4-0 1.00 0-0 10-1 .909
Kentucky 3-0 1.00 0-0 13-1 .929
Tennessee 2-1 .667 0-0 9-4 .692
South Carolina 2-2 .500 0-0 10-3 .769
Georgia 1-2 .333 0-0 10-4 .714
SEC Pct. Div. ALL Pct.
Alabama 4-1 .800 1-0 6-9 .400
Louisiana State 3-1 .750 1-0 9-4 .692
Auburn 1-2 .333 1-2 9-5 .643
Arkansas 1-3 .250 0-0 7-8 .467
Mississippi 0-4 .000 0-0 6-8 .429
Mississippi State 0-5 .000 0-2 4-12 .250
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 30
Alabama 3, Mississippi State 2
Tennessee 3, Louisville 2
FRIDAY, OCT. 2
Kentucky at Florida, 7 p.m.
Louisiana State at Alabama, 6 p.m.
Arkansas at Georgia, 7 p.m.
Mississippi at Auburn, 7 p.m.
Tennessee at South Carolina, 8 p.m.
SUNDAY, OCT. 4
Tennessee at Florida, 1:30 p.m.
Mississippi at Georgia, 1:30 p.m.
Kentucky at South Carolina, 1:30 p.m.
Arkansas at Auburn, 2:30 p.m.
Louisiana State at Mississippi State
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 7
Florida at South Carolina, 7 p.m.
BISON/AVCA DIVISION I POLL
As of Sept. 28
Rank/School W-L Pts Prv
1. Penn State (50) 14-0 1487 1
2. Texas (8) 9-0 1440 2
3. Washington (2) 12-0 1393 3
4. Hawaii 11-2 1305 4
5. Florida 10-1 1255 5
6. Michigan 14-1 1160 8
7. Oregon 11-1 1122 7
8. Minnesota 11-3 1058 9
9. California 8-3 1015 12
10. Nebraska 9-4 886 6
11. Stanford 7-4 868 10
12. Illinois 9-2 788 15
13. Southern California 12-2 683 13
14. Iowa State 10-3 669 11
15. Kentucky 13-1 653 17
16. UCLA 11-4 591 14
17. Florida State 12-1 572 18
18. Arizona 12-1 552 19
19. Baylor 14-1 442 24
20. San Diego 8-3 298 22
21. Saint Louis 9-5 217 23
22. Long Beach State 8-3 201 25
23. Michigan State 12-2 184 16
24. California-Irvine 11-3 130 21
25. Wichita State 11-2 108 20
Others: UC Santa Barbara (11-2) 76, Texas A&M (9-2) 72, Purdue (9-4) 67, Notre Dame (8-4) 25, Duke (13-2) 21, Dayton (11-2) 20, Louisiana State (9-4) 20, Pepperdine (7-5) 20, Arizona State (11-3) 16, Colorado State (10-3) 16, Washington State (12-1) 16, Northern Iowa (13-2) 11, Missouri State (10-4) 10, Rice (10-3) 9, St. Mary’s (Calif.) (8-3) 9, Oregon State (9-5) 6.