Kentucky used a subtle change in tack to reach the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament for the second time in three years.
Friday, the unseeded Wildcats will face top-seeded Texas in Memorial Coliseum. No. 9 seed UCLA will face four-time defending national champion and eighth-seeded Penn State in the opener at 5 p.m. Friday's winners will play Saturday at 4:30 p.m. for the regional title and a Final Four berth at San Antonio.
"We've been talking from the beginning of the year, expecting things and not hoping," said UK junior Stephanie Klefot, a libero (defensive specialist) from Louisville. "My freshman year, I think we were just hoping that we would make it to the Sweet Sixteen. This year, we were like 'we have have to make it back here.'
"Now that we are here, why would we just throw all that away just because of a ranking? So it's exciting and it's a lot different from my freshman year just because our team's a lot different. The chemistry on the court is; our mentality is, literally, 'we're going to go out there and just play our hearts out. We're not going to be afraid of anything.' "
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Reserved seats in the Coliseum have sold out, and Coach Craig Skinner anticipates a large crowd.
"We need to see Lexington, the volleyball community and the Big Blue Nation to come out and support us," Skinner said. "It's going to be the highest level of volleyball that this part of the country has seen in a long time."
UK (28-5) defeated Dayton and host Texas A&M in last weekend's first two rounds. Tuesday, Skinner was named coach of the year in the South Region by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. The Cats matched their record of 2009 by having three players named All-Region: Klefot, Christine Hartmann and Whitney Billings.
Earlier, those three were named first-team All-Southeastern Conference, junior Ashley Frazier was named to the second team, Ann Armes took co-scholar athlete of the year, and Lauren O'Connor made the All-Freshman team.
After a 2-2 start, UK's season took off. A defining swing came with a high and a low.
"The combination of beating Tennessee at home and then losing to Mississippi State the next match, I think, really helped this team grow up and mature," Skinner said. "Things aren't given to you, and you have to earn everything that you get."
What the Cats have gotten has come with an extraordinarily balanced attack.
UK ranks among the top five in every statistical category in the SEC.
"So we're able to counter things that teams do with something else," Skinner said. "We have a lot of balance in our offense. We play good defense. We block pretty well. So I don't think any team that prepares for us can say 'we have to do this against Kentucky to win.' I think teams have to do several things well to win against us."
Texas (24-4) has three All-Central Region players — Rachael Adams, Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster — and the coach of the year in Jerritt Elliott.
Adams, a senior middle blocker, ranks 14th in the nation in hitting percentage (.388) and 47th in blocks per set (1.20).
Eckerman is the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, and Webster, a sophomore, is the conference Player of the Year.
"Texas has a lot of great players. Physicality is a big part of what they do," Skinner said. "We have to be aggressive. We have to be very good on defense. And we have to exploit a few things that they try to do offensively, to minimize the people that get opportunities to swing."
UK's Hartmann ranks 25th in the nation in assists per set (11.2).
Billings, a right-side attacker, averages 2.47 kills, 2.64 digs and 0.69 blocks. She had a career-high 20 digs in last week's first-round win and matched her season high with 17 kills in the second round.
Klefot, who led the SEC with 4.75 digs per set, repeated as SEC Libero of the Year.
"All the teams are good at this point in the tournament," Skinner said. "I think when you're at this point, it's about a lot of intangible things. It's a little bit of toughness, being relentless, being focused, being able to concentrate for long periods of time. Just doing the 'hustle' things that make a difference in momentum-changing parts of the match."
Klefot hopes — no, expects — to pass the test.
"It's a huge opportunity for us," she said. "Beating the No. 1 seed (would be) a big upset. It's funny because a lot of people doubt us at this point, but we're so pumped. We're ready for it. It's going to be hard, but that's what sports are about."