Coming into this year with a preseason No. 5 ranking after last season’s run to NCAA Volleyball Tournament quarterfinals, Kentucky expected to keep rolling in 2018.
But reality set in quickly. A trip out west to begin the season against some of the top teams the Cats were supposed to be on par with or better than yielded three tough losses.
“No one ever goes into a game thinking you’re going to lose, so to go 0-3 definitely changed all of our perspectives,” Leah Edmond said Tuesday as her team prepared to host Murray State at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Memorial Coliseum. “It was a wake-up call. This team is going to be different than last year’s team, but that’s a good thing. We really need to embrace it and come together as a team and we really did that this year.”
Two weeks later a trip to Texas brought another loss, matching UK’s loss total for all of 2017 on Sept. 7.
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“I think there was a little taking for granted how hard it is to win,” UK Coach Craig Skinner said of those early losses. “I firmly believe if we did not go through that first weekend, we would not be standing in the position we are today.”
Kentucky hasn’t lost since that match against Texas, which, by the way, is the No. 5 overall seed in the tournament. UK is the No. 10 seed. All of UK’s losses were to teams that are in the NCAA field, No. 9 Creighton, No. 11 Southern California and Northern Iowa, which gained an at-large berth.
The Cats responded by going unbeaten in the Southeastern Conference for the fifth time in program history and nearly sweeping every SEC postseason honor with player of the year Edmond, libero of the year Gabby Curry, freshman of the year Alli Stumler and the second SEC coach of the year honor in a row for Skinner. Edmond, a junior, is the second player ever to win SEC freshman of the year and player of the year in a career.
This weekend, the Cats will try to prove they are who everyone thought they were right from the beginning — one of the best teams in the country. Murray State (22-9) comes in as the Ohio Valley Conference champion. It is the second year in a row that UK will face an in-state school in the tournament. The Cats defeated Western Kentucky in a thrilling five-set second-round match last year. Waiting in the second round will be the winner of the Purdue-East Tennessee State match to be played at 5 p.m. Friday at Memorial.
“We know that people still underestimate us,” Edmond said. “We’re just going to keep focusing on Friday and what we can do to put ourselves in the best position to win.”
Even with a 21-match unbeaten streak and a sweep of an SEC that sent one more team to the NCAAs this year than last, the Cats (24-4) could not get back into the top echelon in the volleyball RPI or coaches’ rankings. And that means it comes into the tournament as a lower seed than maybe it could have expected in other years. But that doesn’t matter, now, Skinner said.
“August 26, after that weekend, no one thought we’d be seeded ... ,” Skinner said. “I don’t think anyone gave us the shaft or anything like that.
“It is what it is. And we need to respond.”
NCAA Volleyball Tournament first round at Memorial Coliseum
5 p.m.: Purdue (23-8) vs. East Tennessee State (28-6)
About 7:30 p.m.: Murray State (22-9) at No. 10 seed Kentucky (24-4)
Tickets: Online at UKathletics.com/NCAATickets