Time and time again, Caroline Knop has the Gators' backs
The Florida volleyball team has a saying: "control the controllables."
You can control how much effort you give offensively or defensively. You can control how early you arrive to practice. You can control how kind you are to a teammate who fumbles a pass.
But Hurricane Irma, sustaining blistering winds around 185 mph? That's not something anyone could have controlled.
While dealing with game cancellations and rescheduling, the No. 3 undefeated Gators channeled fear into fun. Seniors like starting libero Caroline Knop, who lives off campus, huddled the team together and took refuge in the dorms to play board games such as Life and Monopoly for hours. One game lasted until 2 a.m. Another was so intense it resumed the following day.
Knop -- the 5-foot-8 firecracker known as "CK," who oozes determination, who is rarely seen without her orange and blue bandana that says "GO GATORS!" -- was probably the most competitive of the bunch during the board games.
She doesn't just want to win -- she wants to make those around her better. She leads Florida (8-0) with 137 digs and 4.89 digs per set.
Knop is always thinking about the teammate next to her. She knows every position and where each player is supposed to be at any given moment. Naturally, she aspires to be a coach once her playing career is over.
"She may have the highest volleyball IQ of any player we've coached. She just sees the game so well," said Florida coach Mary Wise, who became the fourth NCAA Division I coach to record 800 wins at a single school after beating Northern Kentucky on Sept. 15.
"She may be more prepared to go into coaching than really any player I've coached at that age," Wise said.
Players usually have offseason individual position training sessions, during which two or three players of the same position work for about an hour on position-specific skills. Knop could have been satisfied with her own training session, where she hustled through passing and defensive drills. She could have headed to the locker room, taken a shower and gone home, like all the other players.
But she didn't. She stuck around for the session for middles. Plopping down in the stands, Knop was doing more than watching. She was studying, strategizing her teammates, learning their strengths, their weaknesses, their thought processes, their tasks.
She continued to sit in on other position sessions as the offseason progressed, figuring, how could she be a true teammate to All-American senior middle Rhamat Alhassan, for example, if she didn't know what Alhassan has been working on? How could she help Alhassan if she didn't truly understand how hard she works on a daily basis?
"I'm continuing to try and find ways to get better and to build a connection with every one of my teammates and get them to truly believe I am there for them, that I will have their back, no matter what," Knop said.
The first step? Holding herself accountable. The Gators have to run if they aren't vocal during serve/receive drills. Knop is the first to halt practice and yell for everyone to get on the line if she isn't speaking up. She holds others to the same standard.
"People have to have faith that you're going to come in every day and do your job and simply be good at what you do and then help others," Knop said. "If you're not stable in your own game and confident in your own game, it's really difficult to lead others."
Knop is the type of player who will go wherever you ask her to. When she played for Michigan her first two years, she competed against 6-footers in the Big Ten as Michigan's 5-foot-8 starting outside hitter.
Even growing up, she never limited herself to one sport. She played volleyball, soccer, baseball, softball, basketball and golf, eventually earning 16 letters in four years at La Salle High School in Pasadena, California (volleyball, basketball, softball and golf).
Her freshman year, the volleyball team was stacked with talented upperclassmen. Her coach gave her a choice: ride the bench on varsity, but observe and learn and get reps in practice; or join JV and play much more.
Knop chose varsity. If she wasn't going to be on the floor, she'd like to be closest to it, taking advantage of the front-row seat that promised all the action. She spent the year learning from her teammates, dissecting plays and analyzing her own shortcomings.
"I think it was one of the hardest choices in sports she had to make at that point," said Kurt, her father.
Eventually, she became the glue for the squad, which won four straight league championships and a CIF Southern Section Division 1A championship in her junior and senior seasons.
"She began to see things through a coach's prism," Kurt said.
Years of studying the game has paid off. Knop morphed into a 2016 AVCA All-America Honorable Mention selection, totaling a team-high 459 digs last season, good for the 10th-highest single-season total in school history.
She has already had big games this season against Texas (22 digs) and Northern Kentucky (18 digs) as the Gators head into SEC play against Arkansas on Sunday.
Knop continues to challenge her teammates, including her best friend and roommate, senior outside Carli Snyder. Snyder had a season-high 19 kills Sunday against Lipscomb, tying the second-highest total of her career.
Dave Boos, Florida's associate head coach, recently came up to Snyder and told her she's passing much better than the previous season. Snyder tried to figure out why, thinking to herself that she isn't doing anything different technically. Then she realized: CK.
"It's not that I wasn't confident before," Snyder said, "but sometimes you need to have someone who has that confidence in you and gives you room to believe in yourself."