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Volleyball Cats chasing crown

John Clay
John Clay

Here it is, the weekend of his young coaching life, and Craig Skinner is fighting a cold.

He needs your support. OK, he doesn't need your help fighting a cold, and he doesn't really need your support as much as he'd sure love to have it this weekend, of all weekends, when his 19th-ranked University of Kentucky volleyball team gets down to the task of possibly deciding the Southeastern Conference title.

To be clear here, Skinner is not the one asking for your support. This is me writing, not him, and while my core belief is that customer is king and the customer can support what he or she likes, when you're a university Olympic sport and you are building a terrific, competitive product, it's always nice when the public at large takes notice.

Kentucky volleyball is that kind of product. The Cats are 23-4 overall, 14-2 in the SEC. They sit just a half-game behind perennial power Florida in the SEC East, and as the schedule has it, after a 10-5 South Carolina visits Memorial Coliseum on Friday night (7 p.m.), Florida comes to town on Sunday afternoon (1:30 p.m.).

There are two regular-season matches left to play after that. But if UK can win Friday, chances are the Cats could be playing for at least a share of the conference championship on Sunday.

"Our players have been working since January to have a successful season," Skinner said Wednesday morning inside his office at the Joe Craft Center. "So far we've put ourselves in the position where we can compete for a conference championship. Every little help you can get to win each set and each match — our players survive off the support of our fans."

For whatever reason, Memorial Coliseum volleyball crowds have been slightly down this year. Blame it on unfortunate scheduling. Many matches are on Friday nights, high school football nights. This Friday night's match goes up against the men's basketball home opener.

But the crowds have improved as the season has progressed. "And there's a core group that really gets into it," Skinner said.

That can make a big difference. Take Mississippi, where UK played and lost 3-2 last Friday night. The Rebels didn't draw a huge gathering, but the crowd was loud, and the configuration was close, and a difference was made.

"They had a group of guys, frat guys or something, who were screaming and yelling, which is actually kind of motivating, to a point," Skinner said.

The coach is a difference-maker. Skinner came to UK four years ago from Big 12 power Nebraska, where he was recruiting coordinator. His first Kentucky team went 17-12, reached the NCAA Tournament, and earned Skinner SEC Coach of the Year honors. His second team went 19-12. Last year, the Cats were 22-10. This year's team already has 23 wins with four matches (plus NCAAs) to play, meaning UK has upped its victory total each year Skinner has been here.

"I love our kids; I love what we're doing so far, and it's just a matter of taking another big step," Skinner said.

So this is a big-step weekend. South Carolina is on a three-match win streak. Florida, is, well, Florida, led by Coach Mary Wise, a former UK assistant (and wife of Georgetown native Mark Wise, who also does the color commentary for Florida's basketball radio network).

Wise was a head coach at age 21. Her teams have won more than 600 matches.

They've been to seven Final Fours and won 17 straight SEC titles. This year's team, which is 20-2 overall, beat UK 25-21, 25-21, 16-25, 21-25, 15-8 at Gainesville on Oct. 10.

"They kind of handled us the first couple of sets, then we played really well the third and fourth set. We didn't pull it out in game five," Skinner said.

Sunday brings the rematch. Here's hoping it will bring a crowd, too.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or (800) 950-6793, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at johnclay.bloginky.com.

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