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UK volleyball making noise around SEC

Quick: What University of Kentucky fall sports team has a double-digit winning streak and is nationally ranked?

If you know the answer, give yourself a high five.

The 25th-ranked UK volleyball team, riding a 12-match winning streak, operates well below the radar that tracks Wildcat football and basketball. Average attendance for 11 home dates: 442.

Yet, the volleyball Cats have achieved one success after another since Craig Skinner became coach in 2005.

UK has reached the NCAA Tournament a school-record three years in a row and is on track to make it four. Last year, Skinner also directed UK to its first 20-win season since 1993. He has improved his victory total every season with the Cats.

Skinner has recruited three top-25 classes, including the No. 8-rated class in 2007, and has a real shot at a Southeastern Conference title.

So, how about those Cats?

At 15-2 (6-0 SEC), UK leads the conference and is among the nation's top 20 in blocks per set (2.83) and hitting percentage (.272). The Cats are among the nation's top 35, second in the SEC to Florida, in assists (12.61) and kills per set (13.92).

"We have a really competitive, mature group of athletes that are internally driven to be successful, both individually and as a team," Skinner said. "It makes for a pretty special group when they compete."

The Cats stand tall, literally and figuratively.

UK's eight middle blockers and outside hitters average nearly 6-foot-2, topped by 6-4 freshman Becky Pavan.

"When you're 6-1 or 6-2 at the net, you're able to block and defend very well, and hit at a very high point above the net," Skinner said. "So it's just difficult for teams to compete with."

Fifth-year senior Queen Nzenwa, a 6-2 All-American middle blocker, leads the SEC with a .373 hitting percentage, tops UK with 68 blocks and is third on the team with 147 kills.

Sarah Mendoza, a 5-11 outside hitter, has 187 kills, seven up on 6-3 middle blocker Lauren Rapp. Pavan has 104.

Sarah Rumely, a 5-11 setter, leads the SEC with 10.66 assists per set.

As the roster has grown, so has confidence.

"We are believing that we can win the SEC," said BriAnne Sauer, a junior libero out of Louisville's Mercy Academy and the team leader with 248 digs. "I mean, every year your goal is to win the SEC. Every team's is. But once you start winning, it gives you confidence, and then you run with that confidence. It makes you play with more aggressive(ness). We're going out on that court thinking that there's nobody in this gym that we can't beat."

Skinner took over after UK went 12-18 (3-13 SEC) in 2004. His squads have progressed from 17-12 (10-6) to 19-12 (11-9) and, last year, 22-10 (13-7). This may be his best team yet.

"We really have great team chemistry and we enjoy each other on and off the court," said Rumely, a junior from Indiana. "We're having fun playing out there. We all have a passion about the sport and we really enjoy every match, every point and just 'getting after it' as a team."

Rumely, who finished first in her high school graduating class of 89, is among five Cats who have earned academic all-conference honors. Four others earned high school academic recognition.

As UK volleyball has risen since 2004, the bull's-eye on its collective back has grown. Now, the Cats get the best each foe has to offer.

"That's how we like it, though," said Nzenwa, from Baltimore by way of Nigeria. "I mean, you have to be the best to want the best to beat you. So that doesn't phase us. We like it."

Friday, though, the Cats' foe will be wearing the bigger target. UK will visit No. 9 Florida, coached by Mary Wise. A former UK assistant (1986-90), Wise has 17 regular-season SEC titles and 17 NCAA trips since taking over the Gators in 1991.

Florida can expect an up-tempo, aggressive style. The Cats lead the SEC in blocks.

"Blocking is the biggest momentum changer in the game," Skinner said. "I think it really helps us get runs and points in matches."

The Cats have more than twice as many blocks as their opponents, 167-77. Nzenwa, Paven, Rapp and Rumely each have been in on 52 or more.

Skinner says there is no danger of peaking too soon. There is plenty to improve.

"I think they realize that we haven't come close to reaching our ceiling yet," Skinner said.

"I hope that we just keep continuing on this win streak," Sauer said. "And even if it does break, we can't let that affect how we play. We've got to keep building up and still look out for that SEC championship."

SEC championship: words that may draw attention on the Wildcat radar screen.

"For our athletes' sake and how hard they've worked, I really hope that the Big Blue Nation has a chance to see us play," Skinner said. "It's a fun sport to watch. I'm biased, obviously, but I think that our athletes play a style of volleyball that Kentucky fans will be proud of."

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