By LARRY VAUGHT
After an 0-3 start, Kentucky has rebounded to get its record to 10-4 overall — including six straight wins — going into Wednesday night’s home match with Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee.
Coach Craig Skinner’s Cats already have a 3-1 win over Tennessee in Knoxville as part of their 4-0 conference mark where they have dropped just two sets.
Libero Gabby Curry of Georgia is one of the talented sophomores on the Kentucky team that believes the Cats can win a national title. Kentucky lost to Nebraska in the Elite Eight last year and came into this season ranked No. 5 and picked to win the SEC title.
Despite the 0-3 start, Curry thinks all the pieces needed to win a national title are available.
“Honestly our goal is to win a national championship. That’s not bad to shoot for. We have to take it game by game but I think we have a really good chance,” she said. “Every day in practice Craig is big on just focus on the next game.
“Of course, every single person is thinking about what we did last year and capitalizing on that. I think it’s very cool we have last year to go off of because I don’t think anybody thought we could get to that point. Craig says just getting to Final Four is not high enough. A national championship is what we need to aim for, and I totally agree.”
Curry, who has a team-high 201 digs this year, was a high school Under Armor All-American and two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia. She also played on two state championship teams.
Curry played for USA Volleyball in the under 20 World Championship in 2017 along with UK teammate Leah Edmond. Last summer she played on the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team in Detroit.
“That was actually one of the best experiences I have had with USA Volleyball,” Curry said about her time in Detroit. “The girls were really cool and we had a cool balance of volleyball and free time. Last year it was mostly volleyball (at the world championship) and very controlled because we were young. This year they said we were adults, so we want you to act like adults and we will treat you like adults, so that was really cool.
“Volleyball-wise it was good seeing the speed. USA is pushing tempo, so that was different. To see different people and their leadership styles and gaining info from them was good for me and my game.”
Curry, a National Honor Society member in high school, also knows her football. Her father, Buddy, played at North Carolina and then for the Atlanta Falcons. One brother, Davis, is a starting linebacker for Georgia Tech and had five tackles in last week’s blowout win over Louisville. Another brother, Jessel, played football at Auburn and Delaware. Her third brother, Justin, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds out of high school.
Her father runs Kids & Pros football clinics — he’s had some in Kentucky — and Gabby Curry loves working at any of the camps she can.
“I like that it is free for the kids. The coaches there, the NFL guys, are amazing. They are all really friendly and I have known them forever, so it’s really reconnecting with them when I get to work a camp,” she said.
She remembers one camp where she talked the NFL players into going to lunch after camp ended and she shared volleyball training insights with them. They ended up admitting preseason volleyball practice might be harder than football workouts.
So what does a volleyball standout do to help at a football camp?
“I do a lot of setup and registration. I make sure water stations are good. When I was younger I used to participate in the drills. Now it is more structured,” she said. “I have always gone to camps every year. Every summer it is like go-time and I am always there. These past few years it has been harder with volleyball but I love going and helping.”
Curry admits she knew the volleyball would suit her at Kentucky but she did have some doubts about other things. Now she “loves” being at UK and everything about Lexington.
“Anyone that asks me, I am saying it is the perfect fit. When I was going through recruiting it’s hard to know the other aspects other than volleyball. I was very confident in volleyball but who knows if I am going to like the city and life around it,” Curry said. “It’s 100 percent the perfect fit.
“I really like that it is a city — I am not really a city girl but I can be — but you can go 20 minutes outside and it is like fields. I have friends who live here who have houses outside the city so we can go to their farm or pool, so that’s really cool. I have enjoyed it and these girls make it the funnest ever. That’s what really makes it so special being here.”
Curry has fun during matches. She’ll dive after any ball she has the smallest chance of reaching and plays more like a linebacker than a finesse player. She’s also a big talker on and off the court. However, there’s never a time she’s not all-in with her team.
“On the court, we might be like pissed because we are not doing well or somebody is better than us and we do try to focus on ourself. But off the court, there’s no recollection of that. We are all great together. It’s just a really, good even vibe this year,” Curry said.
“Last year we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and it worked. That was our vibe and thing to do. This year everything is very even. We don’t get really excited or really low.”
Curry spent time in the offseason reading books — she said she constantly read even when she went to the beach to visit her grandparents — and listening to podcasts about how to perform your best under pressure. One theme was to be confident and another was to make sure to be mentally prepared daily.
“The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford was one book coach Craig Skinner recommended the whole team read. Players also met with a sports psychologist to talk about how to implement the lessons they were reading.
“We have routines we go through every day to keep things the same. I think confidence is there with whole team. Each practice we get better and the confidence between each other is getting better every day,” she said. “The psychologist helped. He was a very good resource for us. There’s not a lot of time to calm the brain down during a match and that’s what we have always work on because it really, really helps you.”