GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Once the game becomes perhaps nothing more than a recreational outing on weekends for her, it’s easy to imagine Kelly Murphy being the kind of elementary school teacher that little Johnny and Jimmy bring apples to regularly.
Maybe they’ll call her Ms. Murph as they race up to her desk in the morning with another ripe gift. That’s what her teammates on the Gators volleyball team call Murphy, one of the most decorated players in school history.
Murph, a rock for Mary Wise’s program the past four seasons. Murph, who along with fellow senior Kristy Jaeckel, is the backbone of the 2011 Gators. Murph, a fan favorite who on Senior Day recently hung around until every fan that wanted her autograph got one.
And finally, Murph, whose only goal left at UF is to win six more matches.
“I came here because I wanted to win a national championship,’’ Murphy said. “To finally do that, that would mean everything. That’s the one goal that I’ve always wanted.’’
Murphy knows the itinerary to get there.
It starts in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Friday when the Gators open the NCAA Tournament with a first-round match against Missouri. If they can pick up two wins in Iowa, the Gators will return to the O’Dome for an opportunity for two more wins. If they can make the home fans happy, then it’s off to San Antonio for the Final Four.
Two more wins there and Murphy can finally mark off the final goal on her checklist.
“There are certain players who have talents that are not coachable.’’
That’s a quote from Wise that I used in a story on Murphy a little more than a year ago. Murphy and the Gators were having a dream season. They rolled into the postseason as the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, ranked No. 1 in the country for most of the season and winners of 24 consecutive matches when they stepped onto the court to face Purdue for an Elite Eight berth.
Murphy said she considers the moment the Gators learned they were the No. 1 overall seed in last year’s tournament as perhaps her most memorable so far with the Gators.
“We really did earn it,’’ Murphy said. “We worked really hard and came from the middle of the pack and kind of rose up to the top.’’
As the Gators climbed the mountain, Murph was being Murph, dominating as usual from her setter/right-side hitter position on the way to earning first-team All-American honors.
And then the ride suddenly stopped, swept away by the Boilermakers. National title hopes dashed. Wait ‘til next year time.
Next year is now about over. So is Murphy’s distinguished career. The girl who showed up fresh off being named the 2007 Gatorade National Player of the Year at Joliet Catholic Academy in Illinois has done about all she can individually at Florida.
Her name appears all over the school record books, one of only six players in school history to rank in the top 10 of at least five statistical categories. She owns the school records for most career triple-doubles (27) and double-doubles (72).
She has earned All-SEC honors every season and was named National Freshman of the Year in 2008 and 2010 SEC Player of the Year.
“I don’t think I could ask for anything more,’’ Murphy said. “I’ve gotten pretty much anything I could ask for out of playing volleyball here. I’ve loved every team that I have played on.’’
With the departure of vocal leader Callie Rivers from last season’s team, Murphy and Jaeckel have taken over as the primary leaders for the 2011 Gators. They do it differently.
Jaeckel is more vocal and much more expressive on the court. Murphy is typically reserved and often lets her hammer of a left arm make her loudest statements. When you watch her play you wonder how such a soft-spoken person off the court can turn into such a force on it. She can make plays no one else on the court can because of her powerful swing.
“She’s a go-to player,’’ Wise said.
Still, the added responsibility of being more of a leader took time for Murphy to adjust to. At the start of the season she felt more pressure. As time passed, she began to have more fun and is now trying to pass some of that on to her younger teammates in their final stretch together.
“Having expectations on you, there is definitely a lot of pressure,’’ Murphy said. “But I feel I’ve worked through it and our team has been able to work through some of it. I’ve realized this is it … I’m never going to play college volleyball against after this.’’
The Gators enter the tournament this year in a much different position.
Instead of being the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, they are unseeded for only the second time in program history. Instead of winning their 20th SEC title in Wise’s 21 seasons, the Gators finished tied for second in the SEC East with Kentucky, both looking up at Tennessee.
Murphy’s outlook hasn’t changed.
“When NCAA starts, you get a breath of fresh air,’’ she said. “I know at the most we have six matches left. Maybe some teams will overlook us. But I’m confident that when we play our best volleyball, we’re as good as any team in the country.’’
Murphy enjoyed another outstanding season, racking up 603 assists, 242 kills, 223 digs and 57 blocks. She has also juggled a busy schedule away from the court, serving as a teaching assistant at Gainesville’s Williams Elementary three mornings a week.
After her teaching assignment, Ms. Murph raced back to UF’s campus for her own classes and then practices and games. Like her mom and one of her sisters, Murphy is planning for a teaching career.
She also plans to see what opportunities might exist for her in professional volleyball once her UF career ends.
But right here, right now, Murphy wants nothing more than to add the one piece missing from her Gators career. If she could do that, it would sure give Ms. Murph a good story to tell those students dropping off apples at her desk one day.
“You come to Florida and you expect to win,’’ she said. “We’ve won a lot. We’ve also had some disappointing losses. We really want to win that national championship.’’