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Thursday August 29, 2013Giving-Back Gators Getting Back on the Floor

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One by one, each was asked the question.

OK, how much? 

For Noami Santos-Lamb, it was 10 inches. Nikki O’Rourke gave 12. Dana Backlund sacrificed the most.

“About 15,” the sophomore setter/outside hitter said. “We all had really long hair.”

And they all did a really neat thing in visiting their respective salons recently and asking their trimmed hair be bagged to sent to Locks for Love, which makes wigs for children with cancer.

“It was spur of the moment,” said O’Rourke, the sophomore defensive specialist. “Just kind of random.” 

The act, yes. The practice, no. Not when it comes to the Florida volleyball team.

The ninth-ranked Gators, who open the 2013 season Friday with matches against New Orleans at noon and LIU-Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m., in the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational at the O’Connell Center, may be taking the court for the first time, but the practice of donating their time is a year-around endeavor for Coach Mary Wise and her program.

“This is just another example of this team’s persona,” Wise said of her trio’s wig gig. “I mean, is there anything more special to a college co-ed than their hair? But what really makes me proud is that they did it on their own and without a lot of fanfare. They researched it and just did it.”

It’s what these Gators do.

Whether it’s Chloe Mann squirting paint with kids at Caleb’s Pitch or Mackenzie Dagostino serving meals to the homeless at St. Francis or the entire squad visiting the pediatric ward on Thanksgiving Day -- an annual event for the last 22 years, by the way -- Wise’s team is known for the time it pays back to a region that has helped make Gators volleyball so popular.

“Mary makes it a priority,” said Santos-Lamb, the redshirt-sophomore outside hitter. “Obviously, the community has a lot to do with how well we have done over the years, with all the support we get. It’s such an advantage having them out there. So she wants us to give back and show them how much we appreciate what they do for us. We don’t take them for granted.”

Take the last week or so, for example.

On the first day of fall semester classes, Wise gave her team the day off, yet four of her players went to Shands Hospital for volunteer work. On Sunday, another day off, a handful of Gators went to St. Francis.

For this team, it’s not something to do, but the right thing to do.

“Wearing a Gator on your shirt is a big deal around here,” O’Rourke said. “There comes a responsibility with that.”

Madison Monserez, the junior defender from Orlando, takes that responsibility seriously. Monserez is the team’s self-appointed community relations organizer. She’s the one calling and group-texting her fellow Gators on off days and dispatching groups to various locales for volunteer work.

“She keeps us all in check,” Santos-Lamb said. “If we’re going, she makes sure we’re going to do it right and have a great attitude.”

The team thoroughly enjoyed its recent call to Caleb’s Pitch, which gives children with life-threatening or debilitating conditions a chance to interact with UF athletes. The volleyball team’s outing involved painting with syringes.

And making some colorful faces.

“We bring the poster boards,” O'Rourke explained. “The kids just spray paint all over us.”

She smiled.

“It’s fun.”

Rewarding, too.

“It’s important to us,” Backlund said.

So is the season, of course. It begins Friday, with the reigning Southeastern Conference champion Gators scheduled to play three matches in about 30 hours. Then it’s off on a trip to Texas next week for a three-match swing, including dates with powerful Stanford and Penn State.

Somewhere in between, they’ll have a day off.

A busy one, no doubt.


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