UNF volleyball poised to soar to new heights in upcoming season

Riley Platt, Sports Editor

The Ospreys are coming off their most successful season in program history, but head coach Kristen Wright believes this is just the beginning.

Wright enters her fifth season at the helm of the University of North Florida’s (UNF) volleyball squad, with last year’s results warranting a contract extension through the 2024 season. The 2021 campaign came to a disappointing end in the quarterfinals of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship with a loss to the Connecticut Huskies, but reaching this point is merely a step in the direction of Wright’s long-term goals for her program.

“I think when it’s more than just winning — it’s you fighting for the next person — and you truly care, that’s when special things happen,” Wright said.

Coach Wright kneels in huddle surrounded by players.
Coach Wright can always be found coaching up her players to their fullest potential, as seen in this team huddle during the 2021 season. (Justin Nedrow)

This summarizes the nature of the program. A team becomes a family when the development of human beings, not just athletes, is the primary focus. Principles like these have led Wright and her program to the position they’re currently in.

As for the team itself, things will be quite different from last season. The Ospreys lost six players to graduation but welcomed a total of nine new faces that will help bolster the lineup. Wright believes in her team not only as athletes but as leaders. 

“I’m really proud of the talent, but more importantly, the people we brought in,” Wright said. “It’s a very, very talented group; we’re not going to miss a beat.”

Mahalia White spikes volleyball over the net.
New Osprey Mahalia White brings valuable experience from facing top-tier opposition in the Big West Conference. Photo courtesy of UC Davis athletics.

Wright believes that her newcomers will contribute early on, which will be helpful given the daunting schedule. Jenna Zimmerman, a setter who transferred in from Daytona State, will serve a pivotal role in a vast majority of battles this year. Kierstyn McFall, a 6-foot-4-inch freshman from Texas, will provide a wall of defense against opponents. In addition, UC Davis transfer Mahalia White will be critical as a finisher at the net.

Players won’t be the only newcomers to the squad, though. The freshly renovated UNF Arena will serve as the team’s base of operations, beginning with the home opener on Oct. 21 against Jacksonville State University. A new gray court and luxury suite area highlight the upgrades to the facility, something that Wright and her players are looking forward to.

“I’m so impressed and excited that our girls, that’s going to be their home,” Wright said. “This whole year is like a feeling of new.”

Renderings of new lounge area in hospitality suite.
The renovations to UNF Arena include a 72-seat hospitality lounge for luxury seating accommodations. Photo courtesy of UNF athletics.

With this comes one major challenge: The team will be spending the first twelve weeks of the season on the road. For context, picture your favorite college football team and imagine them going the entire regular season without a home game. 

While this certainly presents challenges and could easily cause even the strongest of units to stumble, the Ospreys are looking for the silver lining in everything. The amount of time spent with each other will produce a formidable amount of chemistry throughout the roster, which is something that can take teams a long way.

This family-based approach is nothing new for Wright’s program. Going back to her earliest days on campus, it’s always been this way. With the right system, the wins will follow.

Players celebrating a point.
While celebration is commonplace in college volleyball, the family nature of the squad shines especially after the Ospreys pick up a point. (Justin Nedrow)

“It isn’t just about winning for us, it’s about cultivating an environment that we take pride in: A place where people can be psychologically safe and loved,” Wright said. “Just a family, we preach family.”

As if being on the road for nearly three months to start the season wasn’t difficult enough, UNF’s opponents won’t make things any easier. The Ospreys get things started this weekend in Gainesville, Fla., where they’ll take on the likes of the Florida Gators and the Virginia Cavaliers. 

The next weekend, the team takes to Orlando, Fla., where duels with Kansas State and Syracuse await. A road affair with Auburn will be sure to produce excitement before the gauntlet caps off with a matchup against Iowa in the Hawkeye State. 

Construction equipment lays upon the floor of UNF Arena.
Construction has pushed back UNF volleyball’s home opener, but they couldn’t be more excited for the date. Photo courtesy of Brock Borgeson.

The Ospreys will then make their way to Jacksonville for their first home games of the season, but it’s not quite that. Their first four home matches will be played across town at Jacksonville University’s Swisher Gymnasium as the final touches are made on UNF Arena. 

The non-conference slate is not friendly by any means, but Atlantic Sun (ASUN) play is where things will really matter. Taking down defending champions Florida Gulf Coast will be no easy task, but Wright believes her group is more than capable of doing just that.

“They’re going to be incredibly tough to beat, but it’s possible if we focus on our side and where we’re our best,” Wright said. “I think it comes down to the intangibles.”

Winning the ASUN title is the main goal for the Ospreys, as doing so would grant them an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. This program just keeps improving under Wright’s wing, but they won’t be satisfied until they lift a championship trophy, a day that might not be too far out.

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