GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All 15 of Mary Wise’s volleyball players walked out of the O’Connell Center Saturday, making Verizon Fan Day a rousing, feel-good success.
Unlike last year’s.
That was a rotten, feel-bad bummer for Noami Santos-Lamb and the Gators.
“It was just a freak thing,” UF’s sophomore outside hitter said of the season-ending knee injury that occurred nearly one year ago to the day. “It happened doing something I do the same way every day, every practice, every game.”
Santos-Lamb was her normal, active and powerful self during the team’s first public scrimmage, making clear why the ninth-ranked Gators and defending Southeastern Conference champions are thrilled to see her back on the floor after sitting out the 2012 season following repair to the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
UF rolled to a surprising 27-5 record and 19-1 league mark during its run to the Sweet 16 and along the way unearthed some rookie gems in Živa Recek, Simone Antwi and Gabby Mallette, each of whom took the SEC by storm as freshmen.
Now, throw Santos-Lamb -- and her blistering 58-mph serve -- back into the mix and the Gators have something of a bonus element to release on the opposition this season.
“She’s worked so hard to get back,” junior defender Holly Pole said. “Now, she’s ready to go.”
The same could not have been said after Fan Day last year.
On Aug. 18, 2012, the O’Dome was bubbling with enthusiasm and anticipation. Fans were scattered in the lower-bowl bleachers watching the Gators play a mock match. And like Santos-Lamb said, the sequence of events was no different than those that unfold dozens of times each day at Lemerand Center.
The set. The jump. The kill.
Except when Santos-Lamb landed -- with no one around her, by the way -- everyone in the building knew something had gone terribly wrong.
“I didn’t see it, but what was chilling was that I heard it,” senior middle blocker Chloe Mann recalled. “I was like, ‘Who let their banshee into this game?’ That’s literally what it sounded like. A screeching dog.”
“For me, it was really hard because I was right behind her,” Pole said. “I just stopped and put my hands on my head as the play was still going on. She was on the floor and most of the team was on the bench in tears.”
Just like that, what was supposed to be festive celebration to the start of the season morphed into a cruel and crushing end to Santos-Lamb’s season.
“Good thing the O’Dome wasn’t air-inflated anymore,” Wise said. “That was pretty much a life-sucker.”
Over the next few months, the Gators collectively replaced the void left by their service ace.
“With Noami out, it was almost like we had something to fight for,” defender Madison Monserez said. “With all the younger players, we adopted this fearless-like attitude and it was awesome to build on throughout the season.”
Santos-Lamb returned to her team in the spring and was cleared for full-blown workouts two months ago.
Now, she figures to jump (and serve) into that fearless attitude thing, too.
“I definitely feel I’m a plus for this team,” she said. “At first [coming back], it was hard. Thinking about whether you need to guard it and not hurt yourself. Sometimes, you’ll get flashes. ‘What if I do this wrong?’ But that’s something I think everybody has had if they’ve been injured. More and more, I feel my game is getting back to its natural place.”
Though Santos-Lamb played sparingly as a freshman, she blossomed the following spring to lead the team in offseason scoring. She was on pace to erupt last summer.
Now comes this summer.
Better yet, this fall.
“We’re banking on less screeches and screaming -- and more cheering,” Mann said with a smile.
So is Santos-Lamb, who doesn’t look at last year with any bitterness. Instead, she figures it was part of a bigger plan.
“Honestly, I feel it was more of a thing that was going to happen regardless; whether I was playing that day or home that day,” she said. “Like everything, there is a story written for us and you just can’t escape it.”
Hers has a chance to be an inspirational one. And after last year’s beginning, The Santos-Lamb story is due for a great ending.