By LARRY VAUGHT
His team went 29-4, shared the Southeastern Conference championship with Florida and reached the Elite Eight for the first time in his tenure at Kentucky before losing to eventual national champion Nebraska.
Yet just when coach Craig Skinner thought the Kentucky volleyball team couldn’t do anything else to surprise him, it did. The team finished the first semester with a 3.62 grade-point average, the highest of any of the 20 athletic teams at Kentucky.
High grade-point averages are not new for the volleyball team. Skinner says his team typically has between a 3.3 and 3.4 GPA and once got to 3.6.
“We had a pretty good semester. I was really excited to be the best in the (athletics) department. That was the first time that has happened,” Skinner said. “It’s not something you sit down and shoot for, but it’s a huge honor.”
Remember, Skinner has 17 players on the team. For them to have a cumulative GPA at the same time they were successfully competing for a SEC title and potential national championship is mind boggling.
“You certainly don’t recruit kids based on GPA,” Skinner said. “You recruit based on character, work ethic. You do want to see that they care what their career will be about after volleyball.”
Kentucky had to win a thrilling, come from behind match against BYU in Memorial Coliseum to reach the match with Nebraska in the Elite Eight. Several of Skinner’s players had semester finals hours after the BYU match. Skinner said the team had to wait to watch video of Nebraska until after the players had completed their semester exams.
“That happens at that time of year. That’s just the way it is if you advance in the NCAA. If you are going to a Final Four, it happens,” Skinner said. “If you get to a regional, you have to deal with some of that stuff. It’s actually harder to make it up or take it early than it is just to take the exam when it is scheduled.”
He’s had players have to take final exams while the team was on the road playing in the NCAA and credible proctors had to be found at other universities to administer the tests.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart certainly appreciated what Skinner’s team did on and off the court.
“Championship teams differentiate themselves by the way they pursue excellence in everything they do,” Barnhart said. “Our volleyball team is proof of that. Their commitment in competition and in the classroom is a reflection of what it will take for us to reach our goals of becoming one of the nation’s elite athletics departments in all facets.”
The team’s seniors — Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek, Emily Franklin, Darian Mack and Harper Hempel — combined to win 100 matches. They also were what Skinner called “great students” and maintained grade-point averages of at least 3.5.
“They are just quality people and great athletes at the same time,” Skinner said.
The team had terrific competition for playing time this season because of the depth of talent Skinner amassed. He doesn’t think that competition carries over to academics.
“I don’t think they know what each other gets grade-wise,” Skinner said. “We don’t encourage them to compete against each other in the classroom. We just encourage them about how to be better each semester.”
Skinner knows he’s a bit spoiled by having four or five athletes per semester have perfect 4.0 grade-point averages. He does use that as a recruiting advantage.
“It is important that recruits and their families know we are trying to develop the whole person and not just develop them on the court,” Skinner said. “
He makes sure that academic advisor Amy Craiglow meets recruits and their families on campus visits. The team GPA is an “important” piece of the recruiting process.
“I am just so proud of what our team did academically,” Skinner said. “It says so much about our program and the way we try to do things. Sure, we want to win and win a national championship. But we also want to prepare our players for careers after they leave us and this shows we are doing that.”
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