LINCOLN, Neb. — Florida coach Mary Wise might have been a little coy, saying the day before that freshman setter Marlie Monserez might get some playing time when her Gators played host Nebraska on Saturday night in a rematch of the 2017 NCAA championship final.
Well, all the younger Monserez did was play the entire match in what was quite an introduction to college volleyball, a 25-20, 25-22, 23-25, 25-23 season-opening victory before 8,435 in the Devaney Sports Center.
“I really did not feel as nervous as I thought I was going to,” said Monserez, who finished with 23 assists, an ace, eight digs and even three kills in as many attempts with no errors. “The crowd was awesome. It was so fun to play with the whole team and just our energy matching the crowd’s energy was incredible.”
Florida, ranked seventh in the AVCA preseason coaches poll, was hardly mid-season sharp, hitting .182 with 12 service errors. Second-ranked Nebraska, which has won two of the last three NCAA titles, hit .126, but that included a fourth-set surge that finally got the Huskers into triple figures. They had 30 hitting errors and 13 serving errors.
“We can win messy as long as we stay together as a team,” Monserez said. “That’s what we did tonight.”
The Florida focus all match was on another freshman, big outside Thayer Hall, who had 20 kills and just six errors in 60 swings.
“We’ve never had a freshman with that strength,” Wise said.
Hall hit .233 and had six digs and a block.
“Obviously a great start and great team win,” Hall said. “These are the games we live for to play in this environment. The odds were against us with this crowd. We have 30 fans.”
But they were loud.
“Oh, yeah,” Hall said with a laugh. “My mom was killing it up there.”
Junior libero Allie Gregory finally got her shot and made the most of it, finishing with 21 digs.
“I thought it was a great battle between both of the teams,” said Gregory, who was a defensive specialist the past two seasons. “Both of the teams are young with new lineups and new starters and I think it was a great battle. It’s always a good day to get a win in the end.”
Gregory also had two aces and seven assists.
“Big props to the outside hitters for putting them away,” Gregory said. “I’m just chucking the ball up in the air for them.”
By comparison, Nebraska’s senior Kenzie Maloney, with whom Gregory played at Assumption High School in Louisville, Ky., had 14 digs, and also two aces and seven assists.
“First time in the libero jersey, playing against one of the best liberos in the country from the same school,” Wise said. “And she’s alway’s been in Maloney’s shadow. But everyone has, because she’s that good. Gregs was under-recruited and played behind CK (Caroline Knop) the last two years, but had a great spring. But you never know. How do you know until they’re in this environment how they’re going to respond? And she was terrific.”
Mia Sokolowski had eight kills, middle Rachael Kramer had six kills but hit .000 to go with three digs and six blocks, and North Carolina transfer Holly Carlton had four kills and five blocks. Marlie’s older sister, senior setter Allie Monserez, had 13 assists and nine digs. And Paige Hammons had just two kills and hit negative, but added seven digs and three blocks, one solo.
“It was ugly,” Wise admitted. “There are a lot of first matches of the year that aren’t pretty, but it was a gritty performance.”
Last year, Florida opened the season at home in this tournament, beating Texas (which it plays Saturday) and then Nebraska. And, of course, it got the Huskers again in the national title match, losing 25-22, 25-17, 18-25, 25-16.
“I did think that if we don’t get Nebraska today, well, this is the best chance to get Nebraska. Without (injured All-American transfer) Lexi Sun, their first match, they’re only going to get better. So I felt we need to get ‘em today.”
Gregory offered that this Florida team is still figuring out its identity — “The 2018 Gators are trying to find a name for themselves, what we’re going to be and who we’re going to be. I think this is a great start for us. ‘’ — but Hall took that a step further.
“I’ll preach it until the my four years are over,” Hall said. “This is not a rebuilding team, this is a re-loading team. We are not the 2017 Gators, but we are still the Gators. And that will never change.”
The odds are things won’t change at Nebraska, which plays Oregon on Saturday.
Jazz Sweet led the Huskers with 13 kills and hit .273. She had two blocks.
Mikaela Foecke had 11 kills in 47 swings, hit .085, and had 10 digs and a block.
“I don’t know if I’d use the word frustrating necessarily, but we definitely learned a lot about ourselves tonight and I think that it’ll give us an opportunity to come back stronger tomorrow night,” Foecke said. “I mean the majority of the reason we lost tonight was errors on our side. We had way too many between serving and attacking, and I think that that’s something very controllable by us and so we just have to pick that up.”
Nicklin Hames, taking over for graduated All-American Kelly Hunter, got the nod at setter and the freshman had 35 assists, two kills, three blocks and 19 digs, which Nebraska coach John Cook credited with the Huskers forcing Hall to hit line.
“We’ll be better tomorrow. We have to look at our preseason as we have to be great by Big Ten (play) and this is going to be a process we’re going to go through,” Cook said.
He was able to get court time for quite a few new players, especially at outside hitter, where sophomore Sami Slaughter (four kills, minus .062) started and freshman Capri Davis (seven kills, .000) came in, and freshman middle Callie Schwarzenbach had five kills and three blocks, two solo.
And there was this note about Nebraska’s Brooke Smith, a setter from Weatherford, Texas, who played for Nebraska as a freshman and sophomore. She then transferred to Kansas State and played there last year, before transferring back to Nebraska.
“We found out this afternoon that the NCAA denied her waiver from transferring back, so right now, she’s not eligible,” Cook said. ”We’re going to fight it, so we’ll see what happens. You’re able to practice. You can’t suit up or travel.”