GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida worked hard to make this weekend a special college-volleyball event.
Largely by getting the students to get out on a Friday night to watch their Gators in the nightcap after Oregon beat Nebraska, the crowd in the O’Connell center numbered 7,523, second-largest in school history.
And, accordingly, veteran Florida coach Mary Wise was excited about her No. 12 Gators’ 25-16, 25-23, 18-25, 25-21 over No. 1 Texas to open the season in the VERT Challenge.
The opening-weekend gathering continues Saturday when Florida plays No. 5 Nebraska at 5 p.m. Eastern, followed by Texas-Oregon.
Wise hopes for more of the same.
“They got to see two teams play very hard in the preseason,” Wise said. “I’m not sure it was always the cleanest volleyball but you wouldn’t expect that. But, boy, the effort was great on both sides.”
Her team looked in mid-season form much of the night. Senior do-it-all outside Carli Snyder led with 14 kills, six aces and 20 digs. And the middles? Watch out. Senior All-American Rhamat Alhassan had nine kills, two aces and a block. Rachael Kramer, the 6-foot-8 sophomore, had 11 kills in 23 swings, hit .391, and had five blocks.
“I had so much fun this game,” Kramer said.
If Kramer can maintain, this will be one of the great middle-combos not only in Florida history, but something to give the rest of the nation pause.
“I do believe that’s a fair argument,” Wise said. “We’ve had some great middles come through this program.
“But the one-two combination. We felt like we could score there if we could control the first contact. And in sets one, two and four we did.”
Conversely, Texas had trouble controlling that first ball. And sometimes the second.
“It’s disappointing for us to come in here and lose, but credit Florida. They put a lot of pressure on us and it was a great crowd and a great environment,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said.
“We struggled early on with our first touch, we struggled with the quality of swings and we were tipping way too much and getting get good set tempos. I think we just had some nerves from our freshmen.”
And he’s got some. Texas, which played in the NCAA national-championship match last December, started two of them, VolleyballMag.com national prep player of the year Lexi Sun, an outside hitter, and setter Ashley Shook. Sun had 56 swings, most of any player in the two matches in the newly refurbished O’Connell Center. Sun had a team-high 11 kills, but nine errors, and hit .036. Shook, as highly touted a player as there is in the country, will only get better.
Her offense was hardly sharp. The Longhorns hit .156, leaving Elliott shaking his head.
“If you had told me Florida would hit .164 I would have told you we would have won the match,” he said.
Senior right side Ebony Nwanebu had nine kills in 18 errorless swings for Texas and hit .500 to go with six blocks.
“It’s the first game of the season,” Nwanebu pointed out. “This was more of a learning curve than anything else. Now that we’ve played a game against a team like Florida, which we might see in the (NCAA) tournament, we know what we need to work on in practice.”
Senior middle Chiaka Ogbogu, back after missing 2016, had eight kills, hit .280 and had six blocks, one solo.
Outside Micaya White, the VBM freshman of the year last season, left with an apparent injury in the third set after getting five kills with six errors. Elliott had no further details.
“Anybody that sees our team sees that we have the potential to be a very good offensive team,” Elliott said. “I just wanted to see us fight a little bit more, I wanted to see us rebound. And we still could have been in this match.”
Wise didn’t disagree.
“When they are at full strength and their young freshmen — two of the highest recruited players in the country — when they get experience,” Wise said with a smile, “they’re going to be tough to beat.”
“We told the team beforehand that no season is won or lost in August,” Wise said. “What it is is a starting point.”