Vicky Graff Photo
Think about losing the national player of the year (Madison Lilley), three-time Southeastern Conference libero of the year (Gabby Curry) and another All-American (Avery Skinner) off last spring’s national championship team if you are Kentucky coach Craig Skinner and then coming back and winning a fifth straight SEC title with a 17-1 league record.
Kentucky capped a sensational regular season by sweeping No. 20 Florida — the one-time queen of SEC volleyball — on Saturday for the second straight day. Kentucky will take a 24-4 record into NCAA play and two of the losses were to Louisville and Wisconsin, two of the nation’s best teams, on the road.
“I am ecstatic for the program and players to have the outright (SEC) championship,” Skinner said. “I don’t know if this was the hardest or most difficult year, but we had two seasons in one year (due to COVID). To see a mix of players from freshmen to seniors contribute and make a huge impact for us shows the quality of people we have.’
Skinner wanted his team to be mentally tough in Saturday’s match knowing it beat Florida Friday and at worst was going to tie Mississippi State — a team it beat during the season — for the league’s best record even if it lost to Florida. The Gators played at a high level, but not high enough to offset UK’s balance. Kentucky is 6-1 in the last seven matches against Florida and has won the last nine sets.
— Freshman Eleanor Beavin had 15 digs and sophomore Riah Walker had nine as UK held Florida to a .224 hitting percentage in the match.
— Senior All-American Alli Stumler had 11 kills and five digs.
— Junior Reagan Rutherford had 10 kills and a career-high three blocks.
— Bella Bell had nine kills and five blocks while Azhani Tealer had nine kills and four digs.
— Freshman setter Emma Grome had 37 assists along with eight digs and two blocks — the kind of numbers that Lilley put up.
“We do have a lot of balance,” the UK coach said. “It is a complete team effort.”
Skinner said to credit the coaching staff for “teaching and preparing” younger players and upperclassmen for having the patience to let younger players develop.
“We want a sustainable thing for a long period of time. You have got to recruit players who understand expectations are high,” Skinner said.
Skinner said this year was “rewarding” knowing UK just won the national title in April and the overall SEC was much stronger this season.
“The beginning of the year we had some ugly and some really good moments,” Skinner said. “It is a daily process of getting to that point (of being good daily).”
The 2021 NCAA Volleyball Selection Show will be broadcasted on ESPNU tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET. The top 16 teams will host first and second round matches on campus sites next weekend. Kentucky should obviously be one of those teams hosting matches next weekend.
Skinner wanted his players to celebrate last year’s national championship because it was “too big an accomplishment” to move on from.
“We are pursuing championships. The first one is this one (SEC) and the next one is the national championship. To pursue championships you have to be really good every day,” the UK coach said.
“We have won five-set matches, won on the road, won at home, won fast games. Playing a variety of styles is important because you never know what type of team you will play in the NCAA. We know everybody is coming after Kentucky. It will be hard, be difficult.”