GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Yes, it’s early.
But not for Rachael Kramer.
The 6-foot-8 Florida sophomore middle has arrived right on time. Her performances this weekend, including a career-high 20 kills in 28 attempts with just one error in the eighth-ranked Gators’ 19-25, 25-18, 17-25, 25-18, 15-11 victory Saturday over fifth-ranked Nebraska, served notice that Florida not only has the best one-two middle combination in the country, but that the Gators stand a legitimate shot at going unbeaten in the regular season.
“Florida is a great team and probably should be ranked No. 1 in the country this week,” Nebraska coach John Cook said a day after the Gators knocked off No. 1 Texas.
In the nightcap of the VERT Challenge Saturday, Texas bounced back to beat Oregon 23-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-23, leaving Florida 2-0 in the VERT for the first time, Oregon and Texas 1-1 and Nebraska a surprise 0-2 to start the season.
Next weekend Florida is in Puerto Rico to play NC State and No. 11 North Carolina, a team likely to fall in next week’s poll. There are challenges ahead, for sure, like matches ahead with Michigan State, currently No. 17, and the annual battle with Florida State, right now at No. 15. And then comes the SEC, a league not overburdened with depth but Florida plays host to No. 14 Kentucky in their only meeting this season.
“Gee, there’s no pressure,” Florida coach Mary Wise cracked.
“There are two things that the game has evolved to. One is 3-0 wins are just not going to come easy anymore. There’s just too much talent. And there was a day when 3-0 wins were the norm. That’s not going to happen.
“And no one’s going undefeated anymore. The parity is there across the country. it’s great for the game but not necessarily for coaches’ sanity.”
A lot of coaches are going to have their sanity checked when they face Florida’s middles, especially if the Gators continue to pass well and get them the ball. Senior All-American Rhamat Alhassan had eight kills against Nebraska and a match-high eight blocks.
Florida lost only All-American left-handed right side Alex Holston, no small subtraction. But Canadian Shainah Joseph, a big-time leaper with a whip of an arm, has moved into that spot and Saturday had 11 kills and hit .310. Senior outside Carli Snyder continues to sparkle, adding eight kills and another career high in digs, this time 27. Junior setter Allie Monserez is running the show with confidence and addition of freshman outside Paige Hammons as a defensive specialist — she had 11 digs — gives Wise another nice element.
But nothing like the emergence of the lanky Kramer, a product of Phoenix and the Aspire Volleyball Club. Last year, as a gangly freshman, she led the SEC with a.537 hitting percentage (176 kills, 24 errors on 283 total attacks). But she was hardly a force.
In the last eight months, she’s gotten stronger, put on weight and taken advantage of the opportunities in front her, including being with the USA Volleyball junior women’s national training team.
Kramer said she was always the tall kid.
“I never had a growth spurt,” she said. “I would always continuously grow like an inch, an inch and a half. I was almost taller than my kindergarten teacher. I had a very short kindergarten teacher. So I’ve always been tall.”
She’s the tallest player Florida has ever had. Kramer played YMCA volleyball and her mother was her coach. She started club when she was in the seventh grade.
“We saw her length and size when she was very young,” Wise said. “She was a rising ninth-grader and the game was too fast for her even at that level. But we saw online a video from her freshman year of her and her team dancing. And we saw the great feet and at that time she was only like 6-5.”
Now she’s three inches taller.
“They recruited me here for potential,” Kramer said. “I was never a superstar. I was always pretty good because I was tall and could get around blocks but I was never an all-star in high school or an all-star in club. I’ve just kind of flourished once I’ve gotten here.”
She’s proud to report that she’s up to 182 pounds. Her metabolism is such that one time Saturday while out during the fourth set she had to run to the trainer to get a high-energy snack to eat during the match.
“I love our strength and conditioning coach, Matt DeLancey, here. He is a genius and I’ve bought into the program. I’ve gained 20 pounds from when I stepped onto this campus as a freshman and I’ve continued to grow from there.
“And I think getting to play USA Volleyball really helped me and kind of shaped my mind of what I want to be on this team this year and that’s be more of a leader, have a bigger role. I feel like I didn’t play a big enough role last year and I just want to have a better sophomore season.”
She’s certainly off to a great start after getting 11 kills and five blocks against Texas. That’s a pretty stout opening weekend.
“Personally it’s a significant point in my career where I can be the M2 to complement Rhamat,” Kramer said. “I’ve always been in her shadows and she’s been amazing on this team, but I finally feel like we can be a middle-based team.”
None of that is lost on Alhassan, nor Snyder, the senior spokesman for the team.
“It was great to see her break out today,” Alhassan said. “Me being her mentor, it’s great to see her apply everything we’ve learned and just the growing and seeing all that work we did in the spring paying off. And I’m excited to see what she’s like in the future.”
“In the gym she always wants to learn,” Snyder said. “She’s accepting a bigger role and clearly flourishing in it.”
Nebraska had another tough offensive match. The Huskers, who hit .174 in its Friday loss to Oregon, hit .155 against Florida.
Junior Mikaela Foecke led with 18 kills and hit .203. She had 16 digs. Freshman Jazz Sweet added 16 kills and hit .353. Senior Annika Albrecht had 11 kills and 16 digs.
“It’s early and we’re not used to playing a nearly three-hour match. There were also a lot of delays that took momentum away,” Cook said. “It might have been a boring match to watch because it was so dragged out.”
Well, not really, but …
“It’s just early. It’s hard to play at a high level and we’re not used to that.”
Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter sat this weekend rehabbing an undisclosed injury. Redshirt-freshman Hunter Atherton got the nod again and seemed more comfortable in her second match. She had 43 assists and 16 digs and new libero, junior Kenzie Maloney, had 18 digs.
“They hit us with some tough serves, we couldn’t pass, and we just completely got out of rhythm,” Cook said. “We had a hard time doing anything and they were making us pay. They did a great job.”