Staying above the fray: the secret behind UNF volleyball’s fiery start

Riley Platt, Sports Editor

The Ospreys have posted a monumental 14-1 record to start the 2021 season, including wins over big-name programs, but what makes this team so special?

It’s difficult not to notice what this squad has accomplished, especially when they have the sixth best winning percentage in all of NCAA Division I, appearing alongside schools such as Texas and Ole Miss. In the grand scheme of things, though, the season is far from over. Conference play is heating up, but Head Coach Kristen Wright believes her team is prepared for this.

“Right now, we’re focusing on imposing our will on other teams and really trying to put ourselves in a position where we’re not having to be reactive… I think we’re starting to turn a few corners there.”

Narrowing down the scope of success so far for the Ospreys is a tricky task. There have been so many areas in which the team has excelled, but Wright believes it boils down to three things: maturity, confidence, and chemistry. These attributes aren’t exclusive to the players, though.

Kristen Wright took over as head coach prior to the 2018 season, and things couldn’t be more different now than then. With her first road trip with the team resulting in three rough losses in Laramie, Wyo., it’s clear to see just how far the program has come under her wing. Maturity, confidence, and chemistry have all been a part of the success enjoyed by Wright and her staff as well.

Photo by Justin Nedrow.

One major key to the team’s success has been newcomers, highlighted by Mizzou grad-transfer Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana. Her SEC experience and leadership is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Wright.

“[Hollingsworth-Santana] has played in the Sweet Sixteen… She came from Mizzou, a Power Five program, where the expectation of winning and going to the NCAA Tournament is normal. That maturity, where girls can see what someone of that caliber [is like] and what it takes to do day in and day out. She’s completely bought in, so happy, and is learning too.”

To this point, the highlight of the season has easily been the win over Virginia Tech. Not only was it a huge win, but the manner in which it was won was incredible. The match went down to the very last point, with the Ospreys clawing their way back into it in the fifth set to take the win.

Wins like this prove just what UNF is capable of, but it’s only the beginning. Other notable wins so far include Seton Hall and Houston Baptist. The one blemish on UNF’s record was suffered at the hands of TCU in a sweep, but Coach Wright made sure her players didn’t hang their heads.

“We had an off night that night. We have a really strong culture, one that prides itself on not having any regrets. A lot of the girls said that they had regrets in the things that they could control. I think we’ve used that- you’ve got to show up everyday, in practice and in games. There’s no days off to win a championship. You’ve gotta reset, stay humble, and stay hungry. We call it ‘stay above the fray.’”

Staying above the fray embodies the difficulty of being a Division I student-athlete. It’s a balancing act of family, school, and sport. This mindset, though, helps the Ospreys keep things in check while pursuing excellence both on and off the court. 

Photo by Justin Nedrow.

With all of the success comes a lot of exposure. Volleyball doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, but that’s certainly not the case this year. The crowd that packed UNF Arena for the Virginia Tech game was one of the largest the Ospreys have seen in years. Walking around campus, students can see fliers on the library walls, encouraging even bigger and better turnouts.

There is genuine excitement surrounding the team, something that has been noticeably missing from UNF athletics, largely due to reduced capacities and adjusted procedures during the 2020 seasons that were so heavily affected by COVID-19. This spotlight is something that Wright and her team embrace, though.

“It’s exciting. We’ve had a lot of girls in our program believe in us… First off, the year is not over, but seeing us in the same line as Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Texas in terms of winning percentage- and it’s not like our schedule is a soft schedule… The fruit of our vision is starting to blossom… It’s something that our school can get behind as well.”

While there are still months of volleyball to be played, 2021 is shaping up to be the first winning season under the Wright administration. The ultimate goal, though, is much higher than this. Winning a championship is what this team strives for. 

The first step is to win the ASUN Championship, which would put the team on track to compete for a national championship. This sets the bar high, but that’s the exact pressure that has pushed the team to where they are now, something Wright attested to.

“If you were to ask us if we want to win a championship or if we want to have a posting in the top six winning percentages in the country, all the girls would say they want to win a championship. You’ve gotta do the do and we’ve got to be consistent.”

The Ospreys will be in action this weekend against ASUN opponents Stetson and FGCU. This sets up a duel with rival Jacksonville on Oct. 9, as UNF looks to even up the score in the 2021 River City Rumble.

With this team, it’s hard to not be excited. The sky being the limit can often feel like a cliche, but it fits the squad very well. This is a group that has the potential to truly put UNF on the map. As long as they can stay above the fray, the Ospreys are poised to continue their flight towards greatness.


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