It’s clear the Kentucky volleyball team has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder.
Getting upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and being just one victory away from sharing the Southeastern Conference crown hasn’t settled well for a team that’s bringing seven major contributors back, including All-SEC middle blocker Kaz Brown and SEC libero of the year Ashley Dusek.
“I still lose sleep over it,” Brown, a junior, said of letting the SEC title slip away last season when they could have clinched a share of it with just a split in their two games against Texas A&M. “We talk about it a lot. We think about it a lot. We’re coming in aggressive for it this year. I think we’ve got a good shot.”
Coach Craig Skinner, who has led the Cats to the NCAA Tournament in each of his 11 years at the helm, has the usual high expectations for his team. They rank No. 24 in the preseason American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll and are picked by SEC coaches to finish third behind No. 16 Texas A&M and No. 10 Florida. While he thinks this might be the toughest conference season yet, he also believes his team can win the SEC title.
“We’re as athletic as we ever have been … ,” he said at the team’s media day event last week. “Last year, we were so good at times and beat some great teams throughout the year and gave ourselves a chance to win the SEC. If you only have two or three of your starters who have been in the NCAA Tournament before, you really have to experience what that is all about.”
The team lost two seniors off last year’s 21-10 squad, including All-SEC setter Morgan Bergren. But with five juniors, four sophomores and a top-10 recruiting class that includes Paul Laurence Dunbar product Leah Edmund, Skinner likes what he’s seen, so far, this preseason.
We’re as athletic as we ever have been. … Last year, we were so good at times and beat some great teams throughout the year and gave ourselves a chance to win the SEC. If you only have two or three of your starters who have been in the NCAA Tournament before, you really have to experience what that is all about.
“Probably the biggest thing now is that we have experience in our ball control positions, which we didn’t have last year,” Skinner said, noting that last year’s postseason disappointment hasn’t been forgotten. “It’s certainly a motivating factor for this team this summer.”
Kaz and fellow junior Dusek are part of the heart of the defense. Both earned spots in the USA Volleyball Collegiate National Team program this year. Brown took part in the traveling team that toured China. Dusek participated in the Team USA collegiate training program in Indianapolis.
That unique opportunity has bolstered both players, Skinner said.
“Getting the chance to train with 12 of the best players in the country this past summer, I think not only helped (Brown) physically, but mentally I think she believes she’s a much better player,” he said. She feels like at any point in time, she can impact the match. … It’s exciting to see what she can do this year.”
Dusek led the SEC and ranked 29th nationally in digs last season with 566, including a team record against Auburn of 40 in one game. She said this team’s chemistry stands out so far this preseason. And she embraces playing in a tough conference and expectations that come with being at Kentucky.
“Some of it’s intimidating, but I like it, to be honest,” she said. “I like to feel pressure on me. I’ve had pressure on me all the time. It gets a fire in me to get going.”
Another key player will be sophomore Olivia Dailey, who steps into Bergren’s role as setter after being her understudy last season.
“I think, last year, we were definitely a young team, and I think this year, we’re definitely way more experienced at each position,” she said. “Me coming in is going to be difficult being a new setter and people adjusting to my sets and stuff, but we’re right there. … We’ve just got to push a little bit farther in the NCAA Tournament and I think we can do really good things this year.”
The Cats face early season tests in two tournaments to begin the season, highlighted by matches against No. 7 Southern California, No. 18 Creighton and No. 20 Purdue. Their home schedule begins Sept. 9-10 with the annual Bluegrass Battle featuring highly regarded Marquette, Virginia and Saint Louis.
Upcoming UK dates
Friday: Season opener vs. Washington State in Mortar Board Premier at West Lafayette, Ind. (noon)
Sept. 9: Home opener vs. Marquette in Memorial Coliseum, 7:30 p.m.