Tuesday, July 29, 2014

UF Volleyball: 2014 Season Preview

In less than a month, another volleyball season will be upon us here at the University of Florida. Ever since the Gators' National Championship run ended much earlier than I expected in last year's postseason, I have been itching for the 2014 season to arrive. I bet the girls have as well. There is nothing worse than ending your season with a loss to your arch rival.

Every now and then, that Round of 32 match against Florida State pops in my head and I think about what could have been. After that game, I began to question if my fandom/reporter passion for Florida volleyball the entire year had blindly caused me to overrate the team. Looking back on that December day seven months later, I can proudly say my loyalty to the team has not faltered one bit.  As the volleyball program enters its 19th season, I figured it was about time that I offered my outlook for how this season will shape up.

The Florida Gators' 2014 volleyball schedule caught my eye the first day it was released as it offers some compelling non-conference games against Texas, Oklahoma, and UCF in the O-Dome. With the customary game against FSU in Tallahassee and a trip out west to play powerhouses USC and and San Diego, the Gators will have their work cut out for them this season.

I applaud head coach Mary Wise for her scheduling this year as she has the Gators finishing the regular season on the road against Texas. It was clear that the Gators ran out of gas last year and it showed in their postseason performance. With Coach Wise keeping the girls on their heels with tough games around every corner, they should be in better shape heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

In regards to SEC play, I believe the Gators will take back the conference title this year. Missouri will not beat the Gators twice again. I'll even go out and say that the Gators will go undefeated in conference play this year! I am going to stick by this prediction.

On top of that, I will also say that I think the Gators will go nearly perfect at home again like they did last year. The Gators only lost two games in the O-Dome in 2013 and I think this year they will trim that number down to zero.

When the NCAA Tournament does roll around, I am predicting that the Gators will make it to the Final Four this year. The match will go five sets and they will lose a heartbreaker to USC in the semifinals.

The games aside, let's look at the players who the volleyball squad will need to count on if they want to have any chance of making a National Championship run.

The 2014 team sports three seniors: Holly Pole, Maddie Monserez, and Taylor Unroe. All of them are defensive specialists and defense is what wins championships. Combined, this year's seniors totaled 68 service aces and 752 digs as juniors last season. I would even go as far to say that Taylor Unroe is one of the top five liberos in the country with one of the best serves in the country as well.

Behind them is a touted group of six juniors highlighted by my favorite player in Slovenian outside hitter Ziva Recek. She is the returning leader in kills with 335. Look for her to surpass that mark this year. With other great offensive weapons in Gabby Mallette and Simone Antwi accompanying Recek, the Gators will boast a very strong and talented front court.

Rounding off the junior class is outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb, setter Mackenzie Dagostino, and defensive specialist Nikki O'Rourke. Santos-Lamb has a wicked fast serve that is similar to Taylor Unroe's and will be vital for the Gators from an attacking standpoint. Dagostino is the team's only veteran setter and will be called upon to most likely start every game barring poor play. O'Rourke may be the shortest girl on the team at 5'6, but she has a ton of heart on the defensive side and it showed in their final match against FSU. I am excited to see what she does on defense this year.

After the juniors lies three sophomores headlined by outsider hitter Alex Holston. She played in every single match last year and was a force to be reckoned with as just a freshman. With an entire offseason to get better, all 6'1 of her should be poised for an even better sophomore year.

The two remaining sophomores in Shainah Joseph and Denise Belcher saw limited action last year. Unfortunately, it might be the same story this season since most of the team is returning. However, I can assume they have been training diligently in the offseason and will be more than ready when Coach Wise calls their numbers this year. Every player is important to this team, regardless if they play or not.

Finally, we have the newcomers to Gator volleyball: The Freshmen. In total, there are five freshman with Middle Blocker Rhamat Alhassan towering above the rest at 6'4. This is great! If there is anything the Gators needed it was height. Alhassan's height will play a huge role in the team's success as her career progresses at Florida.

Another freshman who draws my attention is 6'1 setter Abby Detering. She is three inches tall than returning setter Mackenzie Dagostino and I think this height advantage can help her compete for some playing time as a freshman. She will also be a good backup to have at the position so Dagostino can rest when she needs to.

Apart from Alhassan's and Detering's heights, there is really not much more I can say about this incoming freshmen class. Clearly, each and every one of them is talented and competitive as they selected the challenge of playing SEC volleyball. I am looking forward to watching them all as they become fixtures in Gator volleyball lore.

After looking at the team that will be on the court this year and the caliber of their opponents, I can confidently say that this will be a very successful year for the 2014 Florida Gators volleyball team. What we also shouldn't forget is that the Gators have one of the best coaches in the business leading them, and that is Mary Wise. This is going to be a season for the ages.

*All stats accredited to Gatorzone.com

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