Volleyball grinds toward an SEC title

It’s not the Southeastern Conference schedule where everyone plays everyone. Familiarity does not lead to fatigue. However, the grind of college volleyball does.

So says Florida coach Mary Wise, whose Gators enter the home stretch of their season with a match against Arkansas Sunday. After that, the Gators (21-1 overall, 14-1 in the SEC) have four league games left – at Tennessee (Nov. 9) at Kentucky (Nov. 11), Alabama (Nov. 16) and Mississippi State (Nov. 18).

If all goes well, No. 10 Florida will win its 17th consecutive SEC title, but not without a bit of labor. It’s early November and everyone is tired, even the winners.

“Even if we weren’t playing (the SEC’s) double round robin, you’re still playing at the end of October,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “The challenge, I think, for seniors is you hold your breath that you get them through. Seniors who play and seniors who play hard, they’re going to have injuries. If they don’t have injuries, it’s one of two things; either they’re not playing, or they’re not playing hard. It comes with the game, the wear and tear.”

It’s not just the college season. The top players compete year round, often in international play.

“Marcie Hampton hasn’t had a break in over a year,” Wise said of her senior outside hitter, who played in the Pan Am Games last summer. “Anyone who watches us play knows how hard Marcie competes. It’s one of the things you live with. We try to get rest where we can. It is true for all teams at this stage.”

The Gators, who began the 2007 season in August, have one more month of regular-season play. NCAA competition begins the last weekend of November.

“They signed up for this,” Wise said. “The break will come at Christmas. But we will be watching more film than we will be on the practice court. That part is true. That would be a difference. Practices become shorter. It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality.”

UF has won five straight matches since losing their only match of the season at Arkansas, defeating Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and South Carolina. Four of those wins came in three games.

Rarely have the Gators been more impressive than they were against LSU last week. Florida got 45 assists and nine digs from All-America setter Angie McGinnis to dominate the Tigers from start to finish.

“I think Friday against LSU we played as well from point one of game one to point 30 of the third game as well as we have all season offensively and defensively,” Wise said. “One of the keys to that was how well we served. LSU, statistically one of the better offensive teams in the league, never got on track. I think our team’s ability to execute and maintain that over the course of the entire match never gave LSU much of a chance to get into it.”

The key against LSU was the Gators’ surging service game, which helped control the flow of the points and the outcome of the match.

I think it started with the serving passing battle and how well we controlled the ball behind the service line,” Wise said. “You might question that when we had six service errors in game one, but they were aggressive errors. We felt to beat LSU that we’d have to take some chances behind the service line. As the match went on, our serving got better. That helped negate the play of their middles. Kelsey (Bowers) and Kisya (Killingsworth) were nothing short of outstanding in their play offensively and defensively. They were putting up big numbers at both ends. On paper, LSU has two of the best middles in the league and (Kelsey and Kisya) did a great job defending them.”

The same could be said for Elyse Cusack. Florida’s defensive specialist/libero hustled for 20 digs and appears to be on pace for 1,000 career digs before the end of this season.  Not bad for a sophomore.

““Elyse Cusack, it’s a recurring theme,” Wise said. “I thought Friday night was one of Elyse’s best performances of her two-year career. She took a lot of balls with her hands above her head.  That’s a skill she was not able to do a year ago. She did not have the strength. Now she’s able to return serve with her hands above her head and that makes it even harder to get our team out of its system.

“I think going into it Elyse knew that LSU had one of the better liberos in (Elena) Martinez and I think Elyse took that as a challenge. Elyse answered the bell. We are certainly encouraged by the play of our passers — where we are now and where we continue to move.”

Two days later on Sunday, the Gators continued their momentum, thumping Ole Miss in three straight, but it wasn’t easy.

“Having to learn to be patient offensively hasn’t been one of our trademarks all season,” Wise said. “I thought we showed good patience, and for those who were in the O’Dome Sunday, they saw some great rallies and balls that were brought back and stayed in play. Mississippi came in there and competed. It’s no wonder that they won seven of eight straight matches. We in the volleyball world know that to beat Ole Miss in three is a really, really big win. Right now we’re trying to hold serve and hold serve with the lead we have in the SEC race and maintain it.”