Senior send-off weekend for Florida’s Caroline Knop did not start off on the right foot.
During the first set of the Gators’ 3-1 win against Arkansas on November 10, Knop broke her left hand. That’s why the libero plays with a bandage that reaches to her forearm, her broken fingers wrapped inside.
“It was a little painful at first,” said Knop, known as “CK” in Florida volleyball circles.
But instead of calling it a night, Knop, an AVCA All-American honorable-mention selection and a repeat all-Southeastern Conference selection this season, stayed out there and grinded it out against Arkansas, finishing with 25 digs.
Two days later, in a four-set victory against Missouri on the program’s actual senior day, she led all participants with 18 digs.
“The way she handled it originally was impressive,” Florida senior middle Rhamat Alhassan said. “I watched her stay on the court and continue to pass. She got hurt in the first set, yet stayed in there and continued to pass. I think she literally passed with two different arms.”
And despite the now nearly month-old injury, the product of Pasadena, Calif., has stayed out there and has continued to pass and pass and pass some more.
Since the injury, all Knop has done is average 4.2 digs per set during a 10-match stretch, helping the Gators (30-1) reach Saturday’s 9 p.m. Eastern NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship title match against Nebraska (31-4).
Florida, riding a 16-match winning streak since losing to Kentucky in mid-October, also ranked second nationally in opponent hitting percentage (.136).
“To be able to pass the numbers she did and to be in that much pain was amazing to watch,” Alhassan added. “It was uplifting. I wanted to fight for her after seeing that. I wanted to be right out there with her.”
The 5-foot-8 Knop, who played her first two years at Michigan as an outside hitter before transferring, said there never was any question on her end concerning calling it quits when the injury occurred.
“No way,” she said. “With this group of seniors and for Mary (Florida coach Wise) there was no way I wasn’t going to play. Ultimately it’s Mary’s decision. If 70 percent of me wasn’t going to be good enough that was her call. If she wanted to play me she would play me, but I was going to be available and ready to go and be ready to learn every day in practice.”
Alhassan said Knop’s arrival from Michigan was a key building block in the Gators continued progression the past two years.
“Having her come in the last few years, she’s helped so much,” Alhassan said. “Our passing has been helped so much. We’re passing at like a 2.2, which is amazing. CK doing her job makes everybody else’s job that much easier. It’s easier for the setters to find the hitters. She helps us as a whole. She’s kind of been our backbone defensively, taking control out there.”
Alhassan, a two-time AVCA All-American first-team selection, added Knop “can be very demanding.” She means that in only the most positive way.
“She’s asking players to be better and wanting better from everyone,” she said. “She pushes this team. She has the drive and wants to win and you can see it in the way she approaches everything, matches, practice and everyday life.”
Wise talked about her previous experience with transfer players and how Knop has bucked that trend.
“Our experience has been when players transfer, it often takes them maybe a year to really find their groove,” she said. “CK found her groove the second she walked on campus. It helped she had the previous relationship with Carli (senior outside hitter Snyder) and Rhamat, having played in the USA program. But we asked her from the get-go, we needed her leadership, her competitiveness. Don’t take a back seat. And her confidence level and competitiveness have driven all of us.”
Wise was asked about Knop’s flying under the radar as one of the top liberos in the land.
“I think part of it is because she wasn’t a great libero those first two years where she played outside hitter for Michigan,” she said. “She was an undersized, gritty, tough-nosed left side who didn’t think she was undersized. That’s CK, so perhaps if she had played four years in a position it would be different.”
Wise, named AVCA Division I coach of the year Thursday for the third time, laid out the ultimate compliment to her libero.
“She’s one of the highest volleyball IQ players I have ever coached as an undergrad, and I’ve ever coached, for that matter. She’s going to make someone an awesome assistant.”
Wise then made this declaration to the college volleyball community.
“Hire her at once,” she said. “They don’t come with that much volleyball IQ the way she does.”
Speaking of volleyball IQ, Knop said that very attribute is a major reason the Gators are a win away from the NCAA title tonight.
“We talk about volleyball IQ all the time,” she said when asked what separates Florida from the pack. “We understand teams better than they probably understand themselves. That’s due to all the film we watch and the time and effort we put into video. Dave Boos (Florida associate head coach) is unbelievable with this. He’s prepared us for this. We walk through situations like, “When they are here, these are the shots they are going to take.’ This group is unbelievable. That’s what sets us apart and it’s what makes Florida different.”
Knop is in awe of how far she has come from a 12-year-old athletic kid trying volleyball at the behest of a family friend to playing in the NCAA final.
“I could never have told you I’d be here doing this,” she said. “It’s been an incredible journey thanks to the help of my family and friends. It’s been inspiring to be around a group of people at Florida that wants it as bad as they do. It makes me want it every day. I couldn’t be more excited to be a Gator and be here in this last leg of the journey.”
Knop knows the Gators will be in for a battle against Nebraska and is well aware with Lincoln, Nebraska, is just a three-hour drive away from the Sprint Center. The atmosphere will be quite different than it was in Gainesville when Florida defeated Nebraska 3-2 in late August in the second match of the season.
“Nebraska is an unbelievable team,” Knop said. “They aren’t here by chance. They have gotten a lot better since the second match of the season when we played them. It will be a great match. It’s going to virtually be a home match for them. We’re excited about that. We are embracing the challenge of having 16,000 people cheering against us. That’s OK.
“This group is made for this. We are so excited. It will be an incredible one and it will be one for the books.”