By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky has a coach telling players if they are scared of the daily competition, then don’t come to Kentucky. It’s not the place for them.
Yes, John Calipari says that a lot. But guess what? So does volleyball coach Craig Skinner.
“I tell players if you are scared and do not want to be challenged, this is not the program to come to,” said Skinner. “This team has taken good chemistry to another level. It’s like a Division I top 20 match in practice and they are all happy no matter who has the success.
“I wish you could watch our practices. It’s a bloodbath. There’s no doubt practice has prepared us for the success we’ve had.”
Kentucky has won 14 straight matches after road wins at LSU – where the Cats dropped the first two sets before rallying to win -- and Texas A&M over the weekend. It leads the SEC going into tonight’s home match against Florida in Memorial Coliseum. The Gators were the nation’s No. 1 team before losing to UK two weeks ago.
Junior Olivia Dailey was an all-SEC performer in 2016 and an honorable mention All-American. She was SEC Setter of the Week five times, started 31 of 32 matches, and was fourth in the nation in assists at 11.78 per set.
Junior Meredith Jewell transferred to UK from Morehead this season where she was a first-team all-OVC pick, was 12th in the nation in attack and had double-digit kills in 25 matches in 2016.
Brooke Morgan made the all-SEC freshman team in 2015 and last year started 25 matches and was fifth on the team with 146 kills.
Freshman Kendyl Paris played on the USA junior national team in 2015 and was ranked as one of the nation’s top 80 recruits.
Senior Harper Hempel played in 17 matches last season and is one of the team's leaders off the court. She came in to serve an ace on match point at LSU.
But as good as Dailey, Jewell, Morgan, Paris and Hampel are, they have had to settle for minor roles and limited playing time this season because of who plays in front of them.
“We just have to embrace the position we are in,” Skinner said. “We’ve been doing this for a while. We’ve been to the Sweet 16. We have competed for conference championships. We got here in 2005 and had 60 kids in our elite camp. Now our camp fills up in April and has 240 girls. We just don’t have any more courts to put kids on. It’s just booming.
“My goal was to build a program and not just a winning team. One of my dreams is to fill Memorial Coliseum and we have come close several times.”
Maybe it will happen tonight against Florida, a team UK has beat three of the last four times the two teams have played. Kentucky has a dynamic team with seniors Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek, Emily Franklin and Darian Mack; junior McKenzie Watson; sophomore Leah Edmond; and freshmen Madison Lilley, Gabby Curry and Avery Skinner.
It’s a team that could challenge for a national title. It’s so focused that Watson said recently the team didn’t even know how long the winning streak was — a statement Skinner believed.
“In the past some teams here would have counted every single one of them (wins). This team is not that way,” the UK coach said. “I tell the team, ‘Be where your feet are and not looking back or ahead.’ They don’t spend a lot of energy dwelling on the past. They don’t have any expectations except for the next match.”
Kentucky’s freshmen came to UK with the expectation of winning a national champion. They embraced that idea from day one — and older players bought into the same mentality.
The nation’s top 16 teams get to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament matches. The top four overall seeds get to host regional semifinal and final games. If UK can keep winning, it could be in line for a top for seed.
“Last year we didn’t get one of the top 16 seeds and got shipped to Washington and played No. 4 Washington in the second round and ended up losing,” Skinner said. “Our RPI is in the top 5 this year. We could have a chance to get in the top four and if we advance get to host a region if we can keep improving.
“That’s motivation each and every match to get a good draw at tournament time. I think there are eight to 10 teams that have a legitimate chance (to win the national title) and maybe more that could make the Final Four. We just want to be one of those teams with a chance to do that at the end.”
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