The #13-ranked Florida Gators return to the friendly confines of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center this weekend as they take on a pair of SEC West rivals. The Arkansas Razorbacks will come to town on Friday, followed by the LSU Tigers on Sunday.
“We are looking forward to playing at home again,” junior middle blocker Betsy Smith (Atlanta, Ga.) said. “We are excited about playing in front of our fans and getting to play Arkansas and LSU, two good opponents.”
The Gators swept two SEC opponents—Auburn and Georgia—this past weekend to move 11-3 for the season and 4-1 in SEC play.
“The effort has been good, we are getting better at making some of the routine digs,” head coach Mary Wise said. “Our first step is to make that consistent and be at the right place and finish the dig. If we can get a combination, continue our strong blocking, make our plays in the back row, then we can be a much better defensive team and then we can show certainty what we are capable of being.”
The opening serve on Friday is set for 7 p.m. and Gator fans can tune into Sportsradio 850 with play-by-play announcer Tom Collett and Missy Whittemore. Sunday’s game will start at 1:30 p.m. on Sun Sports with Larry Vettel and Whittemore commentating. Florida fans can also tune in to Country 103.7 for live radio broadcast with play-by-play announcer Tom Collett.
“They both have some big hitters,” senior outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel (Littleton, Colo.) said in regards to Arkansas and LSU. “They can play really great defense and we know that everyone comes in here (O’Connell Center) and gives great effort so we know that we need to match that and just really get after it with our game. Also just defending, showing people that we can dig balls in the back row.”
The Razorbacks lost a pair of home matches this weekend to SEC East rivals Kentucky and No. 23 Tennessee to fall 10-6 for the season and 2-3 for SEC play.
Arkansas fell in four sets (22-25, 26-28, 25-21, 15-25) to the Wildcats as senior outside hitter Kelli Stipanovich had a team-high 16 kills to offensively led the Razorbacks. Sophomore setter Raymariely Santos had a double-double on the night with a team-high 38 assists and team-high 13 digs while junior middle blocker Janeliss Torres-Lopez added 10 kills.
Freshman libero and defensive specialist Christa Alvarez had 11 digs and junior opposite hitter Roslandy Acosta led in blocking with a team-high of six blocks.
In their three-set loss to Tennessee (19-25, 16-25, 19-25), Kelli Stipanovich led Arkansas’ offense once again with seven kills and scooped up eight digs. Raymariely Santos had the team-high 15 assists along a team-high nine digs and four kills. Christa Alvarez added seven digs for the Razorbacks.
LSU also lost at home last weekend to No. 23 Tennessee and Kentucky to fall 10-5 for the season and 3-2 for SEC play. It was the first time since 2004 that the Tigers lost two consecutive home matches.
In a 3-1 loss (17-25, 25-23, 21-25, 14-25) against No. 23 Tennessee, freshman setter Malorie Pardo earned a double-double for the Tigers on the night with 38 assists and nine digs. Freshman outside hitter Helen Boyle combined for nine kills, 14 digs and four blocks and sophomore middle blocker Desiree Elliot and junior outside hitter and right side hitter Madie Jones added 11 kills each.
Senior defensive specialist Lauren Waclawczyk had a season-high of 18 digs for LSU and junior defensive specialist Meghan Mannari chipped in with 17.
In a three game loss to Kentucky (24-26, 16-25, 17-25) Desiree Elliot and Michele Williams had 12 kills each and Madie Jones added eight for the Tigers. Meghan Mannari and Malorie Pardo totaled for eight digs each.
“LSU has some really good pin hitters and international players so they have a really high volleyball IQ,” junior right side hitter Tangerine Wiggs (Seattle, Wash.) said. “They know where to put the ball. We are really working on making sure that we are prepared on defense to stop those plays.”
Florida leads the SEC in hitting percentage with a .301 clip, ranking third nationally. The Gators are second in conference in opponent hitting percentage (.163), behind LSU’s only allowing .150.
Florida has two players ranking in the top 10 in hitting percentage, with Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award candidate Kelly Murphy (Wilmington, Ill.) recording a .341 hitting percentage, good for fifth, and Tangerine Wiggs registering a .331 hitting clip, good for sixth. Murphy is third in the SEC in service aces with .43 per set and Kristy Jaeckel who was just named SEC Offensive Player of the Week and Sports Imports/American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I National Player of the Week is sixth in the SEC in 3.44 kills per set and 4.11 points per set.
Mary Wise touched of how influential Jaeckel is as a leader to the younger players as they adjust to the college volleyball atmostphere.
“When you have a player like Kristy Jaeckel, so much of her leadership comes form just her work ethic,” Wise said. “They watch Kristy and how hard she works. She may not be the best jumper on the team, she may not be the fastest player on the team, but she has worked her way into being the player she is right now. So in many ways they see how hard she works and her attention to detail, that helps the younger players whether they are front row or back row.”
Betsy Smith is ranked third in the SEC with 1.13 blocks per set, contributing the Gators’ total 2.49 blocks per set.
“A player who has been such a pleasant surprise from the blocking standpoint has been Betsy Smith,” Wise. “And she is a whole different player than she was a year ago. She is helping us in both the offensive end and the defensive side.”
Redshirt freshman libero Taylor Unroe (Muncie, Ind.) is eighth in the SEC in digs with 3.55 per set and seventh in service aces with .31 per set.
“Arkansas and LSU are two really good teams,” Unroe said. “They have some great athletes and they are both scrappy teams. We need to play our best and control our side and not worry about what they are doing. We just need to play our game and we will be just fine.”