By Mitch Stephens
Imagine the Red Sox landing Alex Rodriguez or the Spurs signing LeBron James or Universal Music Group (UMG) scoring Alicia Keys.
That's what it was like when Kelly Murphy, the nation's No. 1 girls volleyball recruit according the prepvolleyball.com, verbally committed to the University of Florida on Oct. 12.
Florida, ranked seventh nationally by CSTV and winners of 16 straight conference titles, already landed one of the nation's top early 2008 recruiting classes with other blue chippers Betsy Smith, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker/outside hitter from the Wesleyan School (Atlanta), and Cassandra Anderson, a 6-1 middle blocker from Bakersfield (Calif.).
But when the Gators secured Murphy, a 6-1 setter/right side hitter, from Joliet Catholic (Joliet, Ill.), they cemented the No. 1 class.
Murphy, Anderson and Smith are just three of five Florida recruits expected to sign today, the first day of the early signing period.
"That is one impressive class," said John Tawa, the nation's top high school girls volleyball expert who is CEO, owner and editor of prepvolleyball.com. "To get the top player on top of two other girls among the top 30 in the country is hard to beat."
Tawa doesn't officially pick his top recruiting classes until after the spring club season to see how the high school seniors have progressed. He also, at that point, gets extensive input from college coaches.
However, if all players who have committed early and sign today as planned, Tawa said Florida is definitely in the lead.
He said that Murphy, a left-hander, is probably the nation's most versatile player with an ability to be a top hitter, setter or defensive specialist at the next level. She was a right side hitter for the junior national team and twice was voted MVP twice at junior nationals. Add in a remarkable jump serve and a granite team-first attitude, Murphy is a can't miss for Florida.
Other early signees for the Gators are 5-7 libero Taylor Unroe (Muncie Burris, Muncie, Ind.) and 5-9 setter Cindy Bathelt (Pine Creek, Colorado Springs, Colo).
Add 2006 All American Kristy Jaeckel, a 6-3 outside hitter from Heritage (Littleton, Colo), who redshirted this season, and Florida will have six new players who should contribute immediately. Florida, currently 24-1, has just four seniors on their roster.
Other programs that scored biggest during today's first day of early signing:
California - The sixth-ranked Bears signed just two players, but they are monsters in 6-3 outside hitter Tarah Murrey (St. Mary's, Berkeley, Calif.) and 6-2 middle blocker Shannon Hawari (Plano West, Texas). Murrey is rated No. 2 on Tawa's top 100 list. "She's as polished and mature a player as there is," Tawa said. "Hawari is a terminal hitter. Both those players are difference makers."
Cincinnati - Not a traditional power, watch out for Bearcats after signing 6-3 middle Kelsey Brandl (Lakeville North, Minneapolis), 6-foot outside Missy Harpenau (Mother of Mercy, Cincinnati) and 5-10 setter Ashley Nevelle (Caledonia, Mich.). Harpenau is the reigning Player of the Year in Ohio and Brandl "is an absolute beast," Tawa said. "She'll come in and dominant right from the start."
Georgia - The Bulldogs are unranked but with his first recruiting class, first-year coach Joel McCartney has unearthed a mammoth class that includes seven recruits. They key one is 5-11 setter Kathleen Gates (Hoggard, Wilmington, N.C.) who for the next four years should set up at least three hitters with boundless potential: 6-2 Briana Bahr (Tate, Pensacola, Fla.), Ann Dylla (Heritage, Littleton, Colo) and 6-3 Michele Simmons (Thompson, Alabaster, Ala.). Kansas State Player of the Year Corinne Stringer, a 6-0 outside hitter at Hayden (Topeka), is also among McCartney's early signees.
Kentucky - Another Southern school without a ton of volleyball tradition recorded an impressive class led by 6-4 middle blocker/outside hitter Becky Pavan (Forest Heights Collegiate, Kitchener, Canada), the younger sister of Sarah Pavin, the reigning collegiate National Player of the Year from Nebraska. She's not quite as tall as her 6-5 sister or as polished, "but if she was from the United States she'd definitely be one of the 10 best," Tawa said. The Wildcats also landed 5-10 setter Christine Hartman (Rosary, St. Charles, Il.) and 6-2 middle blocker Gretchen Giesler (Saint Charles North, Ill.). Third-year coach Craig Skinner, a former assistant at Nebraska, has gone 36-24 in his first two years at Kentucky.
Nebraska - The second-ranked and perennial power Cornhuskers got richer with two terrific outside hitters in 5-11 high flyer Kaitlynn James (Assumption, Louisville, Ky.) and 6-1 tactician Jordan Haverly (Keith Country Day, Cherry Valley, Il.). Add in elite 6-3 middle Allison McNeal (Schulenberg, Texas) and 6-foot setter Sydney Anderson, a 2005 prep All American who just transferred in from Utah, where she was the West Region Freshman of the Year, and Nebraska will undoubtedly continue to contend for a national title.
UCLA - The Bruins landed three humongous recruits, figuratively and literally, in 6-5 middles Amanda Gil (Archbishop Mitty, San Jose, Calif.) and Katie Camp (Cardinal Gibbons, Raleigh, N.C.) and 6-3 outside hitter Sara Sage (Huron, Ohio). "If all three of those players stay healthy, watch out," Tawa said. "(Sage) is an athletic terminator who can be a real monster. Camp and Gil can make an immediate impact in the middle."
Think other programs did as well or better? E-mail Mitch Stephens at email@example.com.