In Coach Craig Skinner’s 13 seasons at the helm of Kentucky volleyball, the Cats have made the NCAA Tournament 13 times.
This year, the co-SEC champion and No. 4 seed could make its deepest run yet, with probably the most talented and experienced team Skinner has ever assembled.
Here are five reasons the 2017 edition of Kentucky volleyball could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament which begins for the Cats at home Friday at Memorial Coliseum.
For the first time in Skinner’s tenure, UK earned a top four seed in the tournament.
Unlike basketball, where there are four No. 1 seeds in a 64-team bracket, volleyball only numbers seeds 1 through 16 in a 64-team field. So, Kentucky, as a No. 4 equates to being a No. 1 seed if it were divided up like basketball.
And as such, UK will be able to host through the regional finals if it keeps winning. It won’t have to play anywhere else but Memorial until it reaches the Final Four in Kansas City, Mo.
Standing in UK’s way early could be Western Kentucky. The Conference USA champion has a No. 28 RPI ranking and scrimmaged the Cats before the season.
UK must make it past East Tennessee State (No. 85 RPI) and the Tops must conquer Notre Dame (No. 40 RPI) to set up the in-state showdown at 7 p.m. Saturday.
On the other side of the bracket lurks perennial volleyball power and No. 5 seed Nebraska. Skinner came to Kentucky as a Nebraska assistant and was on staff for one of its four national championships in 2000.
Leah Edmond isn’t just one of UK’s top attacking players. She’s one of the best hitters in the nation.
This season, Edmond is averaging 4.56 kills per set, second in the Southeastern Conference and 14th in the nation.
She’s one of the few players who can play a full rotation without being subbed out. When she moves to the back line, she has a team-high 36 aces with a powerful serve she’s been working on since playing in the U20 World Championship with Team USA along with freshman Gabby Curry.
The Paul Laurence Dunbar alumna came to Kentucky ranked No. 7 among senior recruits by Prepvolleyball.com and through her sophomore year she has done nothing but live up to the rank and become a symbol of volleyball’s growth in Central Kentucky.
“I’d say the excitement and enthusiasm in the volleyball community in Lexington is off the charts right now, with the growth of the sport in the state and this city, obviously,” Skinner said Thursday. “Our success, the success of club volleyball, the success of high school volleyball around the area has been huge, and for us to be able to host an event like this continues our deal of always wanting to grow the game of volleyball.”
Kentucky comes into the tournament with a No. 3 rating in volleyball’s RPI and No. 6 ranking in the coaches’ poll.
The Cats have nine wins over NCAA Tournament teams, including victories over No. 2 Florida (the Gators’ only loss), No. 10 Southern California, No. 11 Utah and a sweep over ACC champion Louisville. UK’s three losses this season came to Florida, No. 9 Creighton and unseeded Kansas.
The Cats were down two sets to none at LSU, another tournament team, and rallied for the five-set win.
UK’s home loss to the Gators in front of 5,329 fans stung, but Skinner said the Cats learned from it. It was the Cats’ only home loss of the season.
“It was one of those environments and experiences you need to feel in order to know how to respond and how to perform,” Skinner said of the Florida game. “It was an opportunity for us to learn a lot about ourselves. … I like to think we took that loss as an opportunity and, as a team, I’m really impressed with the way we responded.”
UK won seven straight to finish the regular season.
Few teams have the combination of skill players that Kentucky has in one of the most important sequences of the game — the dig-assist-kill.
It begins with three-time SEC libero of the year Ashley Dusek. The senior out of East Bernard, Texas, has double-digit digs in every match she’s started this season and averages 4.64 digs per set, fifth-best in the SEC.
Great digs lead to the possible assists, and UK has one of the best setters in the nation in SEC freshman of the year Madison Lilley. Her 12.12 assists per set average is tops in the SEC and fourth-best in the nation.
Lilley sends it up to UK’s formidable attacking front, which led the conference in kills and hitting percentage. It includes Edmond and seniors Emily Franklin (.419) and Kaz Brown (.407), who rank second and third in the SEC, respectively, in hitting percentage (which measures how often an attack succeeds per attempt). Freshman Avery Skinner (3.3) ranks ninth in the SEC in kills per set, and senior Darian Mack has chipped in 139 kills in a reserve role.
Coach Skinner returned a large and impactful senior class for 2017.
“This group of seniors cares one heck of a lot about each other and cares a lot about the legacy they leave with this program,” Skinner said. “They are as excited to see someone on the team do well as they are for themselves. … I think that’s a special quality.”
Brown and Dusek have been All-SEC performers for three straight years and both took part in the U.S. National Collegiate Team’s international trip a year ago.
Brown broke UK career records in the 25-point rally scoring era in total blocks (543), blocks assists (483) and solo blocks (60) this season,
Franklin has been a starter for two years and among the team leaders in blocks and assists.
Mack has been a key contributor in a part-time role and was named to the SEC Community Service Team this week.
Harper Hempel, who sees limited game action, came on to serve up an ace to cap UK’s rally at LSU on Oct. 27.
NCAA Volleyball Tournament first round
5 p.m.: Western Kentucky (30-3) vs. Notre Dame (22-9)
7:30 p.m.: No. 4 Kentucky (26-3) vs. East Tennessee State (19-11)
Where: Memorial Coliseum
Online: For ticket and parking info, visit UKAthletics.com/NCAAVB