Volleyball glad to be back home

Florida’s volleyball team has been road tested and has not only survived, but thrived. The Gators, who have played seven of the last 10 matches away from Gainesville, finished strong, thumping Auburn (3-1) and Georgia (3-0) last weekend.

“The way the schedule worked against us this weekend, we had to go four of five weekends on the road,” UF coach Mary Wise said. “I was talking to our staff, and in all of our years here I don’t ever remember an SEC schedule that required us to do that.

“To come out of it 6-1, we’re very fortunate. The best news is that the end of that long series of road trips is that we played our very best match (against Georgia). Friday against Auburn, there were spots of really good play, then we dropped game two, but it wasn’t so much that we made unforced errors. Auburn played that well. I liked the response by our team. We were tied 1-1 and then we took it to another level, as we were challenged on our Auburn’s home court to win in four.

“Then in Athens from point one of game one until point 30 of game three, that’s as complete a match as we’ve had all year. I felt the team starting with practice on Saturday they were way into it in terms of following the game plan. We got production out of so many different players.”

The 10th-ranked Gators were led by libero Elyse Cusack and middle blocker Kelsey Bowers. Bowers smacked a career-high 17 kills and six digs against Auburn; Cusack hustled for 21 digs, her eighth 20-dig outing of the season, against the Bulldogs.

“As Elyse Cusack goes, so goes our team. She was flawless (against Georgia),” Wise said. “She might have graded out passing the best she’s had all season. Georgia’s a good serving team, especially on their home court. As well as Elyse passed, and the set distribution by our offense and Angie (McGinnis), I was really encouraged by our blocking. We’re making really good steps toward becoming a good blocking team and Kelsey Bowers is a big part of that.”

The day off during the week helped rejuvenate the Gators physically and mentally. Last week, they played South Carolina on Wednesday before leaving for a Friday match against Arkansas, where they suffered their first SEC defeat of the season on Oct. 12.

“The extra time helped. The turnaround time—we had to travel the furthest distance from Gainesville to Fayetteville – and we had a flight canceled,” Wise said. “But having said that we could have had a week to prepare, and as well as Arkansas played, we wouldn’t have beaten them unless we had played a whole lot better. I think the opportunity and the time to prepare for Auburn really helped us.”

This weekend UF hosts LSU (Friday, 7 p.m.) and Mississippi (Sunday, 1:30 p.m.). Gators are (18-1 overall, 11-1 in SEC play) are in position to win their 17th consecutive SEC title. Alabama and LSU have three league losses. Kentucky has four.

“On paper it looks comfortable, but you just feel that with the parity in this conference and the grind of a double round robin… I get why the vote against the round robin was 10-1 and the vote against was Florida,” Wise said. “Because of the length of the regular season in the conference, there’s more opportunity to get the Gators. It was the right time. It was brought up in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t the right time to do it. …You play two matches on a weekend and that lead can go away in a moment’s notice. That’s why it’s important for our team to remember that we get everybody’s best shot. We have to do a better job of understanding that and relishing that. When you get everyone’s best shot, it only makes us better.”