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UK volleyball All-American Rumely set for big senior season

Ringlets of fire framed a 5-year-old face that intensely studied the cards in her hand.

The little girl's grandparents were nearby teaching her the ins and outs of playing euchre and pinochle.

"Ever since I could count, my grandma had a deck of cards in my hands," says the little redhead, who is now a 21-year-old All-America volleyball player for the University of Kentucky.

A shark was born.

That's when Sarah Rumely figures her competitive nature started to take hold.

"I just always wanted to be the best at everything I did," she said.

It carried over from the card table to the playground.

"I was a little 5-year-old and playing at recess and always wanting to run faster than the boys," she said.

As that hyper-competitive girl grew up, she became smitten with volleyball. She was a setter who wanted to play at a Division I school.

The problem was that no player from her small private high school had ever been given a volleyball scholarship.

So she graduated first (naturally) in her class and then became the first (naturally) to sign a volleyball scholarship when she joined UK and Coach Craig Skinner in 2006.

Skinner, who had just taken over the program at Kentucky, followed up on a voice mail (or three) left by Rumely's father to come watch his daughter play.

Rumely didn't come from one of the Indiana powerhouse volleyball programs, but Skinner saw the intangibles right away.

"There's a lot of things you can teach someone at the setter position, but it's difficult to teach leadership; it's difficult to teach passion; and it's difficult to teach someone to be a great competitor," Skinner said.

He took a chance on Rumely, and the 5-foot-11 setter rewarded him almost instantly.

She has been a starter since she set foot on the Memorial Coliseum court as a freshman.

Last season, she became the first player in school history to be named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. She became just UK's seventh volleyball All-American.

She is on pace to break Kentucky's career records in assists and service aces.

Rumely is part of a three-player senior class that has helped the Cats earn their first national pre-season ranking (No. 21) in 16 years.

In her three years as a starter, Rumely has led UK to the NCAA Tournament three times.

You can bet that not being recruited heavily out of high school has driven Rumely.

"It's always in the back of your mind that you could have gone other places, but they didn't want you," she said.

But she knows she landed at the right place.

"There's no place I'd rather be than here," she said. "I'm so happy they took a chance on me and recruited me and saw my potential and knew that I could be a great player."

Rumely can't just turn her uber-competitiveness on at the game's first whistle.

It carries over into everything she does.

"Even if she's never done it before, she wants to win at it," said fellow senior BriAnne Sauer, a Louisville native. "If she's not the best, she's not satisfied. She does everything she can to be at the top."

That often includes a little gamesmanship on the practice court.

"She'll find a way to change the drill in her favor if it gives her a chance to win," Skinner said.

Rumely's face turned the color of her hair for a moment when she was asked about that practice scenario.

The kinesiology major collected herself and then argued that it helps the team.

"It's harmless in practice," she said. "I wouldn't go out and cheat in the real world. It's harmless, and it's getting your teammates to be more competitive."

Skinner has seen his setter's competitiveness rub off on her teammates.

"It's hard not to like playing with someone who is so giving and so competitive and so passionate about people," he said. "They'll go anywhere to play volleyball with her and do anything else with her."

Motivating and driving teammates is a part of the job description of a setter, who usually touches the ball at least once on every offensive possession.

The offense runs through Rumely, which is how she likes it.

"I like the pressure situation when the game's on the line," she said. "The competitiveness of it. I like it when there's pressure on me. I perform better under pressure."

This season, the pressure is on Rumely and UK, which returns five starters and its starting libero from a team that went 26-6 last year and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

The Cats lost in the first round to Michigan in five sets.

Coming so close and falling was painful for Rumely.

"I still have dreams about it sometimes," she said. "But it drives you to come out the next time and be better."

Perhaps a deeper run will be in the cards for Rumely and her teammates this year.

"I have one more year now," she said. "I'm running out of next years, so I've been focusing on doing everything I can do to prepare myself to have the best season I can."