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It didn't take long for the University of Florida to go from a team that was picked to finish third in the Eastern Division of the SEC to being a legitimate contender for the national championship.
|Kelly Murphy led the Gators to two big wins in the opening weekend of play.|
The Gators defeated No. 9 Iowa State (3-1) and No. 2 Nebraska (3-2) at the Runza/AVCA Showcase last weekend at Qwest Center Omaha, wins which propelled UF from No. 13 in the preseason poll to No. 6 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association's Top 25 Coaches' Poll.
Not a bad opening weekend for a team that head coach Mary Wise considers a work in progress.
"We're encouraged by how hard the team played in that atmosphere," Wise said. "But we know we have a long way to go. The words 'a work in progress' were stated before the weekend and that hasn't changed after the weekend."
As usual, Florida is stocked with athletic and skilled players. In addition to five returning starters from last year's team, which advanced to the regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament, the Gators added three transfers and a pair of talented freshmen.
What makes the victories over Iowa State and Nebraska even more impressive is the fact Florida's 6-2 rotation has different players in six of the nine spots, when including the libero.
Freshman Chanel Brown is one of the setters; senior Erin Fleming, a former walk-on, took over at libero; sophomore transfer Tangerine Wiggs is one the right-side hitters, senior Lauren Bledsoe moved from the right side to the middle; senior Callie Rivers moved from the right side to the left, where she likely will be joined by one of two junior transfers, Stephanie Ferrell or Cinthya Roberto.
There have been so many lineup changes since the end of last season Florida fans might not recognize their team when the Gators take the court on Friday against Albany in the first home match of the season.
Only senior outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel, junior middle blocker Cassandra Anderson and junior setter/right-side hitter Kelly Murphy are back in the same position. With so many new faces on the court, it's obvious Florida will lean on its most dynamic player while the Gators develop their chemistry.
During the victory over Nebraska, Murphy demonstrated how important she will be to Florida's continued success. She recorded her 16th career triple-double against the Huskers, tying her career high with 20 kills while adding 23 assists and 10 digs. Having already squandered four match points in the third set, Murphy had a kill and a block assist to help the Gators close out the set and the match on an 8-1 run.
As important as Murphy's statistical contributions are, she also brings many intangibles to the court.
"Kelly is one of those players, like the great players, who can make everybody around her better," Wise said. "She is so unique with her all-around talent. At 6-foot-2 in this game, that's not exactly the biggest of hitters. She's got great vision and great range.
"To win the big matches, you have to have somebody on the floor who: one, is capable of doing it, and two, is comfortable doing it. There were times this past weekend when there wasn't anybody in the arena who didn't know Kelly was going to get the ball. And she wanted it."
Murphy, who was named the AVCA's National Player of the Week for the second time, might be the go-to player, but Florida is hardly a one-person show. In addition to her 31 assists against Nebraska, Brown served five consecutive points late in the fifth set to help the Gators turn a three-point deficit into a 13-11 lead. And Rivers had three of her 12 kills late in the deciding set to ignite the comeback.
"We've had some great wins, but we've never played in front of a crowd like that before," Murphy said. "It definitely gives us a lot of confidence. It reassured us that everything we'd been doing over the summer and everything we've been doing so far in preseason has been working."
The Gators couldn't have asked for a better start to a treacherous nonconference schedule that includes matches against three of the four top-ranked teams in the preseason poll (No. 1 Penn State, No. 2 Nebraska and either No. 3 Texas or No. 4 Stanford).
Add in the victory over Iowa State, this Saturday's home match against Colorado State and a trip to No. 14 Kentucky and No. 19 Tennessee to begin the conference schedule, and the Gators will have played seven ranked opponents during the first four weeks of the season.
One of the many benefits of that brutal schedule is that Florida is playing teams that will expose its weaknesses while there is time to make adjustments. After all, the real goal is to be near the top of the rankings at the end of the season.
"You put yourself in a position where you want to be playing your best volleyball at the end of the season," Wise said. "That goal is always there. We're trying to compete for an SEC title and be a team that no one wants in their half of the bracket come December. The faces change, but the goals do not."
Team of the week (other than Florida): Hawaii won all three of its matches, including a come-from-behind, five-set decision against No. 22 San Diego and a 3-1 victory over No. 16 UCLA on Sunday to clinch the Chevron Rainbow Wahine Volleyball Invitational. The Bows trailed two sets to one against USD, but pulled away at the midpoint of the final two sets to secure the win. Hawaii won the first two sets to take command of the match against the Bruins, but had to reassert itself after UCLA won the fourth set to make the crowd of nearly 6,500 at the Stan Sheriff Center get a little nervous. But in the end, Hawaii's Dave Shoji prevailed over UCLA's first-year head coach Mike Sealy, who was the associate head coach at UH for the previous four seasons.
USA strikes gold at FIVB Grand Prix: The last time most volleyball fans saw Alisha Glass, Megan Hodge and Destinee Hooker, they were battling each other in Penn State's epic five-set victory over Texas in the 2009 NCAA national championship match. During the last two weeks of August, they teamed up to help lead the U.S. women's national team in the 18th FIVB World Grand Prix in Ningbo, China. The Americans defeated No. 1 Brazil, China and Japan in their final three matches to secure the U.S.'s third Grand Prix title and the first since 2001. Brazil had won eight of the previous 12 Grand Prix matches against the U.S. The last time the United States defeated Brazil in an FIVB match was during the 2007 World Cup. Foluke Akinradewo, who played at Stanford, was named the Grand Prix's Most Valuable Player and Best Blocker. Glass earned the Best Setter award.
Shondell returns to Ball State: One of the most recognized names in the history of Ball State volleyball returns to the bench at Worthen Arena when the Cardinals make their home debut on Friday night against Tennessee State. Steve Shondell, who played and coached under his legendary father, Dr. Don Shondell, became the sixth head coach in the history of the women's program on April 13. Shondell already is an AVCA Hall of Famer, thanks to a stellar 34-year career at Burris Laboratory School in Muncie, Ind., where he led the Owls to four national championships (1990, 1992, 1997 and 2004) and seven undefeated seasons (1985, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1997, 2004 and 2009). He also was a co-founder and coach at the Munciana Volleyball Club, which has sent numerous prospects to Division I programs. His brother, Dave Shondell, recently began his seventh season as head coach at Purdue.
The week ahead: Nationally ranked teams will go head-to-head again this weekend as the top volleyball programs continue to gear up for conference play. On Friday, No. 5 Illinois visits No. 2 Texas as part of the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational. The four-team field also includes No. 23 Long Beach State. On Saturday, No. 6 Florida plays host to No. 15 Colorado State, No. 8 Minnesota welcomes No. 20 Dayton and No. 11 California visits No. 25 San Diego. The second weekend of the season concludes Sunday with No. 4 Hawaii playing host to No. 10 USC. The field at the Hawaiian Airlines Wahine Volleyball Classic includes two teams vying for a spot in the top 25 -- New Mexico and Michigan State -- while No. 22 Northern Iowa and Baylor round out the lineup at Minnesota's Diet Coke Classic.
No. 1 Penn State extended its NCAA volleyball record winning streak to 105 matches with victories over North Carolina, Villanova and Campbell at the Carolina Classic. Utah State defeated Utah on the road for the first time since 1990, snapping a 13-match losing streak in Salt Lake City, while claiming the title at the Utah Classic. Fordham defeated Northeastern, Boston College, Holy Cross and Quinnipiac to win the Beanpot Classic and start a season with a 4-0 record for the first time in school history. Sophomore middle blocker Brittany Hewitt broke Hawaii's rally scoring record with 16 total blocks in the season-opening victory over San Diego. That mark also tied her for the third highest block total in any match in the program's history. Stanford's John Dunning picked up career victory No. 700 when the Cardinal swept Tulane in its opening match of the season at the MCM Elegante Lobo Classic in Albuquerque, N.M. Now in his 10th season on The Farm, Dunning improved to 265-45 at Stanford and 702-147 overall. He is one of only three women's coaches to own four NCAA Division I Championships. The others are former Cardinal coach Don Shaw and Russ Rose of Penn State. North Carolina's Joe Sagula earned his 600th career victory when the Tar Heels defeated Campbell University, becoming just the 17 coach to reach the milestone. Miami of Ohio's Carolyn Condit coached her 1,000th career game on Aug. 28 against the University of Memphis. Now in her 27th season with the RedHawks, she became only the 10th volleyball coach in NCAA history to reach 1,000 games exclusively at Division I level. Including four seasons at Xavier, Condit's 31-year record is now 571-429.Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.