Sidelines with John Clay

Craig Skinner has been one of Mitch Barnhart’s best hires

Kentucky head volleyball coach Craig Skinner directs his team during a win over the Louisville Cardinals at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Friday, September 15, 2017.
Kentucky head volleyball coach Craig Skinner directs his team during a win over the Louisville Cardinals at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Friday, September 15, 2017. Lexington Herald-Leader

If you go down the list of coaches whom Mitch Barnhart has hired since becoming Kentucky’s athletics director in 2001, surely Craig Skinner is near the top of the success list.

In 13 seasons as Kentucky’s volleyball coach, Skinner has led the Cats to 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, but this is best team yet as the overall No. 4 opens play Friday night against East Tennessee State at Memorial Coliseum.

Conference USA champ Western Kentucky meets Notre Dame in Friday’s first match at 5:30 p.m. The winners meet Saturday at 7 p.m.

NCAA Volleyball Tournament bracket

Jared Peck of the Herald-Leader gives five reasons why Kentucky should make some noise in this year’s NCAA Tournament, including:

“Kentucky comes into the tournament with a No. 3 rating in volleyball’s RPI and No. 6 ranking in the coaches’ poll,” writes Jared. “The Cats have nine wins over NCAA Tournament teams, including victories over No. 2 Florida (the Gators’ only loss), No. 10 Southern California, No. 11 Utah and a sweep over ACC champion Louisville.”

Indeed, with a 26-3 record, Kentucky is coming off winning a share of its first SEC championship since 1988, the highlight of a year that saw the Cats defeat three ranked teams -- including No. 1 Florida in Gainesville -- on the way to reaching No. 1 in the RPI as well as No. 6 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings, its highest ranking since 1993.

Skinner shared SEC Coach of the Year honors with Florida coach Mary Wise. UK and Florida each finished 17-1 to share the conference title. After Kentucky defeated Florida in Gainesville, Florida returned the favor in Lexington.

UK’s Madison Lilley was named the SEC Freshman of the Year after the Overland Park, Kansas native averaged 12.12 assists per set, tops in the SEC and fourth nationally.

Ashley Dusek was named Libero of the Year for the third consecutive year, as picked by the coaches. A 5-foot-7 senior from East Bernard, Texas, Dusek leads the SEC in passing average (2.45 on three-point scale) and good pass percentage (62.5).

Lilley, Dusek, Kaz Brown, Emily Franklin and Leah Edmond were all named All-SEC. The five set a UK record for All-SEC selections topping the previous best of four, which happened four times.

Also, if Kentucky wins Friday night it will be the 300th career victory for Skinner, against just 112 losses since the former Nebraska assistant came to UK.

Be sure and follow Jared on Twitter Friday for updates from Memorial Coliseum.

NCAA Volleyball Tournament first round

Friday, 5 p.m.: Western Kentucky (30-3) vs. Notre Dame (22-9)

Friday, 7:30 p.m.: No. 4 Kentucky (26-3) vs. East Tennessee State (19-11)

Where: Memorial Coliseum

Tickets: $10

Online: For ticket and parking info, visit UKAthletics.com/NCAAVB

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