Eager, hungry and excited: UNF volleyball ready for 2021 campaign

John Watson, Sports Editor

In what will be the shortest offseason in program history, the Osprey volleyball team is practicing with a purpose as the regular season is on the horizon. While their finish last season was one of their best in the program’s D1 history, they are looking for titles this season and a chance at national recognition.

Last season, the Ospreys had a season to remember. Earning the No. 2 seed in the ASUN South Division, the Ospreys finished with a record of 10-10. After a tough non-conference schedule that included a long five-set loss to Clemson, the Ospreys climbed back and went 8-4 in their conference schedule.

 With all 2020 starters returning, the 2021 season will look to improve on one of UNF’s best seasons (Justin Nedrow)

With the first postseason opponent being the Stetson Hatters, the Ospreys had some familiarity as the two teams played four separate matches during the regular season. In their fifth meeting, the Ospreys prevailed 3-0. The semifinals provided a unique challenge for the Ospreys that has never happened before: going up against an ASUN team they hadn’t played in the regular season.

The Lipscomb Bisons were the top seed in the ASUN and had an 11-1 conference record to back it up. Getting past them would be no easy task for the Ospreys. The match was a nailbiter from start to finish, with four sets decided by three points or less.

Hanging with the top team in the conference is something that Head Coach Kristen Wright has been looking for since taking the reins in 2018. 

“We are focused on playing for a championship in a healthy way,” Wright said. “We still are dealing with the virus, but really not changing much in terms of process orientation and our culture. We’re really digging in and expanding that to another level.”

Coach Wright stressed the importance of communication and being real with her players. Mental health has been stressed throughout the offseason and having a clear mind helps create a supportive and healthy culture. With this mentality, Wright is confident that her players are more committed than ever to winning and also in their life away from sports.

The Ospreys are lucky to be returning many of last year’s players. Only losing one player to graduation, the chemistry is stronger than ever before. With this strong foundation, the Ospreys were able to build and add depth to their roster while also gaining one of the best SEC transfers in Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana.

The freshman class Wright and her staff have brought in is as decorated as ever, as the team has added freshmen such as Annie Antar and (with a quite familiar last name) Amy Burkhart. Wright believes that these new pieces will only add to the team’s output and that things are looking up.

“I think our offense is going to significantly improve,” Wright said.  “A big reason why we did so well last year was that we really emphasized our defense. That’s not going away. You have to put the ball away to score at a higher level. The difference between us winning conference and not, was that last year.”

In the locker room, the Ospreys are hungry to get out on the court and compete this season. With a full conference and non-conference schedule, the team will have some challenging matchups ahead of them. The schedule this year includes teams such as Virginia Tech, TCU and even Davidson.

With their first matchup on Aug. 27, against Wofford, UNF will have had less than a five-month offseason. A shortened offseason will mean more work for the players and coaches, but these Ospreys never give up.

Gabby O’Connell, who is looking at her final season with the Ospreys, has been with the team even before Coach Wright took over as head coach. Her veteran ability has been crucial to the foundation of the team and has contributed on and off the court throughout the years. With this being her last rodeo, she is preparing to leave everything on the court.”

“Give everything you can in the moment,” O’Connell said. “I love personally that we have a hard pre-season because it really prepares you going into conference. I think our goal is obviously to win but just getting better every single day.”

 Gabby O’Connell has been with the team since 2016 and is a key piece of UNF’s foundation (Justin Nedrow)

The team has been practicing hard and the coaches have been training for a season that looks to be a memorable one. With last season’s attendance being limited due to COVID-19, the team is looking forward to the support from the Osprey fanbase as well. Getting home fan support back for the upcoming season is something that O’Connell and her teammates are looking forward to.

“Our fans are incredible, we need them,” O’Connell said. “Volleyball is such a huge game of momentum. Whenever we score a big point, having the crowd behind you is awesome. We definitely want to be able to sway big games with them.”

The Ospreys will play their first home game Sep. 3 as they take on Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. The Ospreys will be hard at work until then and look eager for that first serve.


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