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THE NEXT LEVEL

We've beaten the best, and now we want to be the best.

It's the rallying call for the 2000 Florida Gator volleyball team that tells all. It's the slogan that has been adopted by Coach Mary Wise's 10th Gator team that speaks volumes for its persistent drive to continually improve and seek more challenges. It’s this type of attitude that has helped UF teams leave behind a legacy that has dominated Division I volleyball for the last decade of the century.

Last season, the Gators were just a win away from going to their fourth consecutive Final Four. Also, Florida was the only blemish on Penn State’s national title after a 15-12, 8-15, 15-10, 10-15, 15-12 marathon upset over the top-ranked Nittany Lions in the first round of the State Farm Volleyball Classic. From knowing UF was the only team to defeat the defending national champion and was in striking distance of returning to its sixth-ever national semifinal, emerged the team's proverb, Wise said. "Every team wants to end its season with a win. And, certainly, we were the only team to beat Penn State. In that lies the kind of thinking that we were good enough to beat the best, now let’s take it to the next level."

This 13-member squad, nearly half-comprised of freshmen, certainly has its work cut out for it. After the graduation of two All-Americans (Jenny Manz; 1999-second team, 1998-first team and Jen Sanchez; 1998-second team) and just three starters returning, UF faces what is being hailed as the best schedule ever. But, believe it or not, that's a good thing, according to Wise. "Fortunately, that's where our program is…that each year we are graduating great players. It's part of the process. When a program is established, you want your graduating class to include great players. We know that, in time, the younger players will be able to step in and create their own legacy."


Jerilyn Hattendorf

In their fourth year, outside hitter Jerilyn Hattendorf and middle blocker Heather Wright have a surmountable task besides providing consistent statistical performance. Wise puts the leadership functions of her team—on and off the court—into the hands of her seniors. Both two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll students and NCAA national semifinalists, they need to display qualities to maintain the heart and soul of the team, and groom the underclassmen as they once were.

"Heather and Jerilyn were two of the most mature freshmen that we've ever had," Wise remembered. "As seniors, they have the leadership ability and the skill level. We're in real good hands in the terms of quality of players and people in the senior class. "

Wise's confidence in the duo is important, as the veterans of this team will have to make some adjustments. "We're changing positions, we're changing names and faces, and we have some very talented young players. Last year we had four players that were ‘givens’ in our lineup entering the season. I think there are more question marks going into this year. But those are fun questions to answer. Perhaps, the answers won't become definite until later in the season. It's our job as coaches to figure it out."

The junior class has two players who will be stepping into starting roles this season. Outside hitter Niki Hartley and setter Kris Bova are both experienced and talented back row players, but will be regulars in their respective positions for the first time in their careers. As the "quarterback" of the Gator offense, Bova will be expected to provide in-game leadership. Wise is confident that Bova will step up in this capacity, given her new responsibilities as the setter, instead of a defensive substitution. "Kris is ready to take over. She's waited her time for two years. I think she's physically, emotionally and mentally ready."


Nicole McCray

Nicole McCray, UF's starting middle blocker and second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection as a redshirt freshman last year, headlines the sophomore class. Jessica Riester and Tammy Foxworth, both outside hitters, are viable contenders to help the Gators this season. Specifically, according to Wise, with Riester's blocking ability and Foxworth's offense.

UF's freshman class is heralded by some as the most impressive class in school history. Wise agrees. "I think this is as talented of a freshman class as we've ever had. What makes it more unique from the other classes, is the players are more experienced. We've always thought that our freshmen have the opportunity to make an impact before they're done. We think, though, that this group has the potential to make it sooner."

Aury Cruz was the marquee name on the recruiting circuit last season, given her credentials. The 5-11 outside hitter has been a Puerto Rican National Team player since age 15 and is a product of the same Superior League team as former Gator All-America Aurymar Rodriguez. Standing 6-2, Jacque Robinson and Sherri Williams are the two tallest players on the squad. Robinson is an athletic hitter with a jump touch better than 10 feet, and she could add depth in the middle if needed. Williams, a middle blocker from nearby Orlando, Fla., is recovering after having her right knee reconstructed following an injury. Her contributions as a frosh will depend on how quickly she will heal. Benavia Jenkins looks forward to contributing in the middle after redshirting her freshman year. She also has tremendous jumping ability and has honed her blocking skills.

Wise added two more players to her arsenal with defensive specialists Kelli Notestine and Jen Mandes. Notestine brings an added bonus with her setting abilities. Mandes played the Libero position, an international term for the defensive specialist which does not count against substitutions, in the Puerto Rican Superior League.

THE SCHEDULE

Gator fans and Florida Volleyball faithful will be treated to what is being hailed as the best schedule ever, featuring 11 1999 NCAA Tournament Teams, the nation's premier preseason competition and the best duals in the Southeastern Conference during the 2000 campaign.

Wise has enlisted eight squads which were ranked in the '99 Final USA Today/AVCA Poll, seven of which will visit the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. UF will play 28 regular-season matches; 16 are at home.

"The 2000 schedule features five teams ranked in the Top 15 last season, and the top four of those will be coming to Gainesville," Wise said. "With the addition of the NACWAA and SEC tournaments, this is as good of home schedule that we've ever had."

Establishing the Gators as a perennial national powerhouse has paid its dividends during Wise's nine seasons. This year's squad will make its millennium debut as the host of the State Farm Volleyball Classic presented by the National Association of Collegiate Women's Athletic Administrators (NACWAA) Aug. 25-26. Since the tournament's inception in 1995, three of its 10 finalists have been national champions, two were national runners-up, three were Final Four participants, one was a regional finalist and one advanced to the regional semifinals.

This year's field pairs defending National Champion Penn State and UCLA, and UF vs. Colorado State. ESPN2 will broadcast the two semifinal matches and the championship taped delay. In 1999, the Gators finished runner-up at the Classic.

UF has also been selected as host of the SEC Tournament Nov. 17-19. The top eight teams in the league will vie for the SEC's automatic bid into the NCAA bracket. The Gators have won seven of the past eight such titles.

The Gators will also hold two other tournaments in the pre-conference season. UNLV, Ball State and Wisconsin are contestants in the round-robin SunTrust Invitational Sept. 1-2. In the first University of Florida Hotel and Conference Center Invitational, Florida Atlantic, Wake Forest and Pepperdine will compete for a spot in the championship match Sept. 15-16. In between, UF heads to California (Berkeley) Sept. 8-9. George Washington and McNeese State are the other teams in the Cal Tournament.

"Playing Colorado State, Ball State, Wisconsin and Pepperdine in our first four weekends is challenging enough by itself," Wise said. "But, we will keep up that level with North Carolina mid-season and finish strong with the Conference Challenge."

UF has a mid-week match-up Oct. 4 against North Carolina, which advanced to the NCAA second round last season. Then, the Gators start off November with a brutal slate. UF plays at Georgia Nov. 5, then travels straight to Arizona Nov. 7 for a single match, the first meeting between the schools since 1985. Five days later, UF is at South Carolina.

"Those are two pretty tough places to play on the road (Athens and Columbia)," Wise commented. "Then you sandwich that with a Top 15 team (Arizona), that's pretty challenging. Ask me in November if that was a good idea," she laughed.

In preparation for an NCAA bid, the Gators present the Florida Volleyball Conference Challenge at the Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., for the third consecutive season Thanksgiving weekend Nov. 24-25. It will feature showdowns between SEC Eastern Division-foe Tennessee, and Conference USA members Tulane and Cincinnati.

SEC action kicks off for the third straight season in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center against Western Division-rival Alabama Sept. 22. Seven more regular-season home SEC matches will follow. For the second consecutive time, SEC regular-season and tournament runner-up Arkansas highlights the league schedule. The Lady'Backs, which finished 25th nationally following an NCAA Second-round appearance, are on slate for Oct. 22.

Wise is excited about the SEC season this year. "We've had a number of coaching changes within the conference and some of the great players that were hurt last year will be back. I feel that Auburn, Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas will immediately be battling for an NCAA bid. Things look really good for the future of SEC volleyball."

Ironically, the coaching changes have Gator ties. Mary Buczek, who was named the head coach at Georgia in January 2000, was an assistant under Wise from 1993-94. Then in May of this year, Auburn named Kevin Renshler head coach. He was an assistant for Wise in 1992.

"When we play the SEC schools, you can throw out the record, throw out the stats…we will get their best shot," Wise said. "We see some of our opponents on video, and then how we see them perform in a match against us is not even close to what we were expecting.

"The target on our backs hasn't gotten any smaller. The difference is, the rest have gotten better."

Following is a position-by-position analysis of the Gator team.

SETTER

Kris Bova's time has come. While she waited her turn, she contributed as a defensive specialist, playing every match, while Wise and then-incumbent starter Jen Sanchez groomed her for two years. Bova is an offensively-oriented setter, too. She worked hard in the off-season and is in the best shape of her career. Setting the other side, and providing back-up for Bova is Kelli Notestine. Wise describes Notestine as a smaller version of Bova, in terms of height.

"Kris is ready to embrace the starting role," Wise said. "She's a very different setter from Jen Sanchez. I think she's going to add a whole lot with her foot speed. We haven't had a setter like her before. With her experience as a defensive specialist for two years, she may be the best defensive setter we've ever had.

"Kelli has great foot speed and is really a fun setter to watch. We're lucky to have her. She passed up offers from other schools to join us and committed in early January. If needed, she'll be ready to step in and take over for Kris."

Kris Bova was a member of the 1999 Pan-American Games Training squad with former teammate Jenny Whitehead…A 1999 SEC Academic Honor Roll student…Led the squad in eight matches in digs and had 11 matches with double-digit digs in 1999...Posted a match-high 19 digs at No. 5 Pacific in the 1999 NCAA East Region Final even after suffering a contusion to her lower back…Ran the offense at setter and dished out 19 assists through the second half of a three-gamer at Jacksonville (Sept. 1, 1999)… Started for the first time as a setter for the Gators against Pittsburgh in the 1998 SunTrust Invitational.

MIDDLE BLOCKERS

Last year's phenomenal middle blocker tandem of Heather Wright and Nicole McCray will be pretty hard to beat. But, Wise thinks this year's foursome…that's right…foursome will be even better. UF has possibly the deepest middle blocker lineup in program history. Wright is coming off of a junior campaign in which she led the nation in hitting percentage, and McCray has a year under her belt for which she was named second-team All-SEC as a frosh. Additionally, Benavia Jenkins is a pure athletic talent, who will be anxious to get in the game after redshirting her first year. And, newcomer Sherri Williams, a two-time Florida Class 6A State Player of the Year, could be a force with her 6-2 frame at the net. But, all four are healing from injuries, which could present obstacles, Wise said. "A year ago, we had a pretty thin roster in the middle with just Nicole and Heather. This year, on paper, we have four very talented middles. Of course, all four are coming off injuries. So that's our question mark in the middle.


Heather Wright

Heather Wright is unquestionably one of the nation's most dominating middle blockers...After coming off shoulder surgery in July 1999 correct a rotator cuff tear in her right arm, she finished as the nation's leading hitter with a .451 hitting efficiency...The question this year will be if she can do it again after having a capsular shrinkage done to that same shoulder in January 2000... Holds the UF, SEC and NCAA Career Hitting Efficiency record at .424…Led the nation in hitting efficiency for nine consecutive weeks (1999)...Is seventh all-time nationally and first at UF and in the SEC for her .451 single-season hitting percentage in 1999...Now ranks third among UF's career blocks leaders with 424…Two-time All-SEC player (1998-99)...Voted to the AVCA All-District IV Team (1998-00)…A two-time SEC Academic Honor honoree (1998-99)... Named to the all-region team in the 1998 NCAA East Tournament...1998 SEC Tournament MVP...AVCA National Player of the Week honors (Nov. 23, 1998)...SEC Player of the Week (Oct.

Nicole McCray is a very good competitor with tremendous blocking skills...Second-team All-SEC selection in 1999…Saw the most playing time that a Gator freshman has had in a while during 1999... Received surgery on her left Achilles in April 2000...Redshirted (1998) after arthroscopic surgery on her right shoulder was performed to repair a rotator cuff tear ...A member of the U.S. Junior National Team before coming to Florida (1997).

OUTSIDE HITTERS

UF has six weapons on the outside, including two veterans. Jerilyn Hattendorf and Niki Hartley will be the focus at this position based on Wise's observations during the spring season. It's a duo which will also provide great defense and passing. Wise considers Hattendorf, who enters her second season as a starter, the best ball handler on the team. Hartley was an everyday defensive specialist for the Gators as a sophomore after playing Libero with the U.S. Junior National Team in summer 1999.

"Jerilyn gives us a lot of stability and Niki brings to us a very dynamic hitter," Wise said. "They're two different hitters, and that gives us a whole lot of looks."

Sophomores Jessica Riester and Tammy Foxworth could also contribute, according to Wise. "Tammy and Jess are two very talented players trying to work their way in. Jessica will help us initially with her blocking. She's one of the best blockers on the team. Tammy will initially help us with her offense. They are not as experienced as Niki and Jerilyn, but they have those two areas where they can help us immediately."

Wise might even go to her freshmen hitters Aury Cruz and Jacque Robinson more than she's done in the past. "Aury Cruz is the most experienced freshman we've ever had here, and Jacque is a great talent. They'll be hard to keep on the bench."

Jerilyn Hattendorf enters her second season as a starter in the Gator lineup...Has been a mainstay at the O2 position throughout her career...Had a career season as a junior after recovering from arthroscopic surgery, which she received in January 1999, to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder...A solid passer and a smart, consistent and mature player…SEC All-Tournament Team (1999)...Two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll student (1998-99)...InnTowner Invitational (at Wisconsin, 1999) and University Centre Hotel Invitational (1999) all-tournament teams.

Niki Hartley originally came to Florida as a middle blocker, but switched to the outside hitter role her sophomore season...Has been able to fill either of those positions, though, if needed...Is touted as one of the finest-conditioned athletes Florida has ever had, according to the coaching staff…Member of the 1999 U.S. Junior National Team...Team placed eighth in the medal round of the World Junior Championships….Had six matches with double-digit digs...Averaged 1.9 dpg in the 1999 SEC Tournament...Set a career-high .800 hitting percentage (4-0-5) in home sweep of Georgia (Oct. 17, 1999).

RIGHT SIDE

For the past two seasons, the right side was an easy question to answer-Jenny Manz. But, the two-time All-American is on the bench-as a student assistant coach after completing her eligibility in 1999. Now Wise gets to play with options. The top three are Aury Cruz, Jessica Riester or Jacque Robinson. But, "That's just one of those things we have to figure out," Wise comments with a smile. Based on nine consecutive SEC titles and five NCAA Regional Championships in eight years…it won't be long before she does.

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