Wildcats reach new heights in volleyball

UK learning role of being the hunted

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 22, 2009 

  • Next Game

    LSU at UK

    When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Memorial Coliseum

It's a new deal, going from hunter to hunted. Each year, you're the up-and-coming program, trying to beat the conference powers. And then, all of a sudden, you're a conference power and the up-and-comers are trying to beat you. The target is on your back.

Welcome to Kentucky volleyball, which entered Wednesday night's match at Memorial Coliseum ranked seventh in the nation, with a 19-1 record, a perfect 9-0 conference record and one important lesson to be learned.

"We need to be ready to go against every team," said senior Sarah Rumely.

This night, playing archrival Tennessee, before an ESPNU audience, Kentucky wasn't ready to go, falling behind early in sets, failing to capitalize on a 10-5 lead in the final set, and ultimately losing 3-1 to the Lady Vols.

"As a team, I don't think we were playing to our potential," said Sarah Mendoza, a junior from Winter Park, Florida.

It was just the second loss of the year for the Cats, the first at home.

"This is our home court," said Blaire Hiler, the 6-foot-2 junior from New Washington, Ohio. "No one beat us on our home court."

The Cats haven't lost many at Memorial under Craig Skinner, their fifth-year head coach. In fact, it was just the eighth loss in the last 56 home matches.

Skinner, 39, a Ball State graduate and ex-Nebraska assistant, has done a phenomenal job rebuilding a program on the rocks. In four years, the Cats have gone from 17-12 to 19-12 to 22-10 to 26-6 last year.

This year has been another giant step forward, with the season's only other loss coming at in-state rival Louisville back on Sept. 16, followed by a huge win at No. 5 Florida a little over two weeks later. It was Kentucky's first win in Gainesville since 1989.

In fact, led by Rumely, the New Palestine, Ind., native and SEC leader in assists, and Mendoza, the league-leader in kills, the Cats had rolled to nine straight conference wins, climbing to seventh in the national media poll and eighth in the coaches' poll.

People notice that sort of thing. Especially people in your own conference.

"Not only as a ranked team but just beating teams in the SEC, people are going to want to beat us," said Mendoza. "Everyone is like that for Florida, and they're like that for LSU.

"So any team in our conference is going to want to beat us."

Especially Tennessee, an archrival with a, shall we say, active coach in Rob Patrick, and a history of beating UK in Memorial. The Vols did that to close out the regular season last year. They did it again Thursday, winning the first set 25-23, dropping the second by an identical score, but winning the last two 25-23, and 25-22.

"I don't think this one had anything to do with last year," said Skinner.

One thing goes for every year: Even as the nation's seventh-ranked team, if you don't play to your potential, you can get beat.

"Everyone wants to beat us, that's obvious," said Skinner. "We have to be able to handle that better."

"It goes from the least-ranked team in the SEC to the first-ranked," said Hiler. "Everyone is going to be after us. And we have to come prepared for every game, every practice."

LSU comes to Memorial on Sunday. The Lady Tigers are ranked 20th in the nation and no doubt still stinging from being swept by Kentucky in Baton Rouge last month. They no doubt see a target.

Does the hunted have to learn how to deal with that?

"Maybe," said Skinner. "We don't really change anything about what we do. We do the same thing training-wise and teaching for all season long. It's about executing, and we did not do that, and Tennessee did that better than us."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com.

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