Florida's Kelly Murphy in a world of her own

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Welcome to Murph World.

"That's where teammates sometimes accuse her of living," Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise says about the Gators' senior All-American, Kelly Murphy.

The with-love volleyball dig is directed at the 6-foot-2 setter/hitter's occasional penchant for drifting into her own one-woman zone. Game films are being broken down; Murphy might be caught with a distant gaze. Strategy sessions are under way; Murphy's face could be as blank as a freshly painted wall.

"You think she's not paying attention," Wise said. "But then she never misses a beat."

Much the same can be said about the Gators ever since Murphy brought her world of hurt to the Southeastern Conference.

After arriving on campus in 2008 from Joliet Catholic Academy in Illinois as Gatorade National Player of the Year, Murphy has started every game. During that time, Florida is 107-17 with two SEC titles and on Friday will make its seventh consecutive appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16. As hosts of the Gainesville Regional, the Gators will take on Michigan after Illinois plays Ohio State. Saturday's final will determine who advances to next week's Final Four in San Antonio.

"I came here because I wanted to win a national championship,'' Murphy said. "To finally do that, that would mean everything. That's the one goal that I've always wanted.''

Nobody can ever say Murphy didn't do her part.

Murphy, an education major, is a four-year All-SEC selection and 2010 conference player of the year. In 2008 she was national freshman of the year. She's a three-time All-American, guaranteed for four selections as soon as the 2011 squad is announced in the coming weeks.

This season, Murphy has led the 26-5 and Gators with 651 assists. She ranks third in the SEC in service aces (38) and sixth in hitting percentage (.329). She is second on the team in service aces, kills (267) and points (336.5), and third in digs (244).

She also is a finalist for this year's Lowe's Award, an honor that weighs a combination of accomplishments in community involvement, academics, character and competition.

"A unique talent," Wise said. "She has a picture-perfect arm swing coming from a 6-foot-2 left-hander. She has great court vision and great arm speed. That by itself would be enough to make her a special talent. But then she has one of the best deliveries and touches on the ball ... of any setter in the college game. She makes it look effortless."

That's just life in, well, you may have heard where Murphy often visits.

"Oh, I know all about Murph World," Sandy Murphy said when asked about her daughter's favorite destination resort. "I've lived with Murph World for almost 23 years.

"I remember she could get me so frustrated as a kid. She'd be sitting on the couch watching TV and get so engrossed in a show that I swore the house could fall down around her and she'd not even know.

"She'd get that focused on something. And I think that is part of what makes her such an incredible athlete, because she can tune out crazy crowd stuff and focus on what needs to be done. Not a lot of people can do that."

On demand, Sandy delivers an example.

"She'd sit there on the couch watching a TV show, and I'd say, 'Kelly ... Kelly ... Kelly ... Kelly! Is your homework done? Is your homework done?' and not get a response. So I'd go turn the TV off and ask, 'Kelly, did you hear me?' She'd look at me and say, 'Yes, my homework is all done.'

"You are ready to strangle the kid, and she answers, 'Yes, my homework is done.' Why didn't you respond in the first place? 'Well, it was a really good part of the show.'''

"I've gotten better as I've gotten older," Kelly insisted. "I don't really know. I'm just not a real talkative person in general, so I guess sometimes I kind of zone out a little bit. But, no, I don't miss much. I don't know how to describe it."

Much easier to explain is Murphy's volleyball skill.

Sandy was once a pretty good player in her own right, starting for Illinois State University. After graduating, she taught school and coached the game. "I grew up with volleyball," Kelly said.

Literally. As a toddler, she could be found sitting in a baby seat just off the court as her mother ran her high school team's practice. As she grew older, hanging out with Mom's team was still the thing she wanted to do.

"She has coached me ever since I was born," Kelly said. "I was always in the gym, always around volleyball. I tried some other sports, but I always liked volleyball best and always wanted it to be part of my life."

And she means always.

"She's going to die when I tell you this story," Sandy said. "But she's 22 now, so I can tell it without her being too mad at me."

Kelly was "probably 4" at the time. Sandy was coaching the high school team in Wilmington, Ill., where the family still lives. She had a star player by the name of Jennifer Davis.

"It was way back in the day when they didn't wear spandex shorts like today," Sandy said. "Then they wore like a brief bottom. Players called them 'bun huggers.' That was the style for the bottoms they wore for uniforms.

"Well, one night in our living room, there was Kelly in her underwear, pretending she was a volleyball player on our varsity team. She was standing there and I said, 'Kelly, what are you doing?' And she said, 'I'm Jennifer Davis.'

"She was there, all set up in a ready position in her underwear because it looked like the uniforms they wore back then. And it was hilarious."

What's really worth a smile is that now little girls all around Gainesville are in the ready position to be just like Kelly Murphy.

A few weeks after the Gators' Senior Day, a Sunday afternoon victory over Auburn, some 100 young girls lined up after the game in hopes of getting Murphy's autograph. Wise marveled at the sight, then went about the postgame duties of a head coach. More than an hour later, she returned to the court to find Murphy playing doubles with three of her young admirers.

"Kelly's legacy will be huge," sophomore teammate Chloe Mann said. "Coming into the program, she was pretty much the face of the program. She was a big pull. I know many of us came to Florida just being able to play with her.

"I remember watching her when I was a senior [in high school] and just being blown away. Here, she's given so much to the program offensively, defensively, on and off the court. She's a great player, great teammate, a great friend. I'm going to miss her when she leaves."

Last train to Murph World, all aboard.