By Jenna Perlman
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Simone Antwi’s first experience playing Florida’s biggest in-state rival was one she’d just as soon forget.
Antwi was a redshirt freshman middle blocker last year when forced into duty after All-Southeastern Conference teammate Betsy Smith rolled her ankle in a match at Florida State. The Seminoles went on to roll the Gators in a three-game sweep, handing UF it’s first defeat in the series since 1994.
“It was nerve-racking,” Antwi said of being pressed into emergency duty that day. “But I realized I needed to be ready at any moment.”
Like Tuesday night, for example, when Antwi had a big hand (oftentimes two hands) in the Gators grabbing the brooms and sweeping the Seminoles out of the O’Dome 25-20, 26-24 and 25-23 to get back on the winning side of a rivalry UF dominated for years.
Antwi, the 6-foot-2 third-year sophomore from Fairfax Station, Va., finished with five kills, seven blocks, a .250 hitting percentage and was a force on the front row in a match against a tall and athletic bunch of Seminoles, who battled the Gators to 25 ties and 12 lead changes over the three games.
She may have led the team in smiles, too.
“She is our entertainer,” UF coach Mary Wise said.
Antwi was even more entertaining when she and freshman outside hitter Alex Holston were on the court at the same time.
Holston and Antwi teamed up for four stuffs, with Holston, one of the top newcomers in the SEC this season, hitting .462, with six kills, three digs and four blocks. Early season returns suggest the two will be a formidable duo at the net for the next several years.
“It is so much fun,” Antwi said of playing alongside the 6-1 Holston. “Alex has unbelievable shots.”
For Antwi, though, the performance had been a year in the making.
When you’re playing behind an All-SEC middle blocker like Smith and 2012 SEC Player of the Year Chloe Mann, now a senior, sometimes all you can do is watch, learn and wait your turn.
Which is exactly what Antwi did.
“During practice and games they talked to me a lot,” she said. “They helped me prepare for this season.”
The relationship Antwi and Mann developed over the past two seasons has evolved with a mutual understanding of how difficult it is to play their position.
“They are each other’s coach,” Wise said. “They are each other’s biggest cheerleader.”
The latest win gave the Gators a 36-17 lead in the series against Seminoles, including a 29-3 mark since Wise took over in 1991. The Gators are 21-4 at home against the Seminoles.
UF travels to Wisconsin this weekend for two matches in the Marquette Invitational, then opens its SEC season Sept. 27 at Mississippi State.
“This was an opportunity to play a quality opponent that will make our team better,” Wise said. “If you’re fortunate enough to win, those are wins that will come back and help you down the road.”
If her performances in an upset of Stanford earlier this month (13 kills, four blocks, .706 percentage) and now her latest against Florida State are any indication, Antwi is ready to rise to the challenge against the best competition in the country.
"I knew that I wasn't ready before. I was really young and needed to learn from good players and go through a couple springs," she said. "Now, I'm ready."