By LARRY VAUGHT
There’s no guarantee that senior Harper Hempel will get to play when Kentucky hosts East Tennessee State in the NCAA Tournament.
However, my guess is that Hempel is not even thinking about that. Instead, the former Ryle High School standout is likely just thrilled that Kentucky volleyball team got one of the top four seeds in the tourney and gets to play in Memorial Coliseum again.
If UK wins Friday, it will play the Notre Dame-Western Kentucky winner on Saturday in Memorial Coliseum. A win in that match would enable UK to host a regional where two more wins would send coach Craig Skinner’s team to its first Final Four.
Hempel is not one of the team’s stars. Those roles belong to Ashley Dusek, Leah Edmond, Kaz Brown and Madison Lilley. But no one has sacrificed more to get to this point than Hempel.
Hempel was ranked as the fourth best prospect in Kentucky after earning all-state honors at Ryle. She had been playing volleyball since fourth grade and decided she was done playing to focus on academics at UK. It took only a few months for her to figure out she was wrong. She emailed coach Craig Skinner asking to join the team as a walk-on player.
“I didn’t really know what to expect (from the email). I just went in with an open mind and did it and waited to see what happened,” Hempel said.
Skinner knew Hempel because he had tried to convince her to join the team as a walk-on after high school. He agreed to give her a tryout, but knew he was not going to make it easy.
“I will never forget that day I heard from her,” Skinner said. “I tried to make it really hard for Harper to be on the team. You have to really want to do it. We will always be indebted to her for having the guts to send the email and then fully committing to the program.”
She’s become a beloved member of the volleyball team. That’s easy to tell even when she’s not playing. Even without playing a significant amount of time, she’s a team leader.
Maybe it’s because the older players know how hard Skinner made Hempel’s tryout.
“We had her come once a week for a while and then we had her come join us for extended tryouts for a couple of weeks and then go through our winter boot camp with no commitment on our part,” Skinner said. “About a month or so into it, I told her we wanted her to be part of the program. We just kind of made her sweat it out a little bit.”
A little bit?
Dusek, a three-time SEC Libero of the Year, doubts she could have survived what Hempel went through just to be allowed to be on the team.
“She did so well and fit so well into our group and we all love her. I really appreciate her,” Dusek, also a senior, said.
Hempel says making the team was “one of my greatest accomplishments of my life” and considers it a dream come true to be part of this team.
“This has just been a great time. I am really glad to I got to do this and I am really proud of the team and the seniors,” Hempel said. “Coach Skinner made it so hard for me just to be on the team. I wanted it bad, so I did whatever it took to be with these wonderful girls and have absolutely no regrets.”
Skinner calls Hempel a “giver” willing to do anything to help the team.
“You ask her to do something and she just does it. Never complains,” Skinner said.
She’s also not afraid of failure.
Her father got her a camera when she was a high school junior. She enjoyed taking pictures and still does with some members of the UK volleyball team.
“After my senior year (of high school), I started my own photography business,” Hempel, a digital media major who hopes to work in the sports industry, said. “I tried to keep up with it (at UK), but it is kind of hard with volleyball. I am going to try and get back into it after I am finished (with school). I just take pictures for fun right now.”
Her immediate task is to have fun helping UK win more matches any way she can. Kentucky lost to host Washington in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year to finish 23-8.
Kentucky has lost only three matches this year and shared the SEC championship with Florida, another top four seed in the NCAA.
“I love watching everyone on the team succeed. Just being on the bench and being part of it has been a great experience for me,” Hempel, who has played in 43 matches in her three seasons at UK, said.
She’s tried to pass that feeling on to Kentucky’s talented freshman class that will try to extend the legacy this year’s seniors leave.
“They are probably one of the best freshmen classes I have ever seen. They are all great. I think once they are seniors they will be great leaders, or even before then. They understand what it takes to win,” Hempel said.
Watching and listening to Hempel this season should have only reinforced their beliefs.
Now they all have the same goal going into this weekend.
“We want to win. We are trying to get to that Final Four, and we think we can do it,” Hempel said.
Considering all she’s already done, why doubt her.
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