By LARRY VAUGHT
The correct answer should probably be that Wednesday’s match against Florida is just another match for Kentucky.
That would be a lie, but that’s still the answer most college athletes would give because they know that’s what the coach would want them to say.
Kentucky sophomore Madison Lilley is a little bolder. She’s not afraid to make a big play on the volleyball court and she’s not afraid to be honest about Wednesday night’s match with the Gators in Memorial Coliseum.
“We are really excited. We are trying to focus one day at a time but we’ve all had Wednesday on our mind,” Lilley said after Sunday’s win over South Carolina. “We have ben waiting for it for a while. We are excited and know the fans are going to be pumped to watch us play. It should be a great match.”
Sunday was UK’s 13th straight win and kept the Wildcats perfect in Southeastern Conference play at 10-0. Florida, last year’s SEC co-champion with UK, is 10-1. Missouri is 10-2 — and lost at UK but won at Florida. Tennessee is 9-2 — with both losses to Kentucky and a home win over Missouri
If Kentucky beats Florida, the Cats have a two-match lead in the SEC with seven matches left — three at home and four on the road. But this year UK does not have to go to Florida due to the way the SEC schedule rotates.
“It does put us in a great position if we win and we definitely know that but we have to stay match to match with our focus,” Lilley said “But we definitely are excited about what that (a win over Florida) could set us up with.”
Last year Kentucky (16-4) beat Florida on the road but lost to the Gators (19-4) at home.
Freshmen Allí Stumler and Lauren Tharp have become big contributors for Kentucky just like Lilley and Gabby Curry were as freshmen last year.
Stumler knows Florida’s tradition and what Wednesday’s match means.
“Of course it is special. We know this is obviously a big match for the SEC,” Stumler said. “We can’t come in overhyped but we also can’t dumb it down. We have to stay focused on our game. In a sense, it is kind of another game where we focus on our side before we focus on their side. I think we will be prepared for that.”
All-American junior Leah Edmond has confidence in both freshmen going into this SEC showdown that could put UK in position to claim a solo SEC championship this season.
“We just have to try to keep them calm and treat it like every other game,” Edmond said about the freshmen. “I do not think they have to play any different because it is Florida.”
“Alli is very composed and knows how to be smart with the ball,” Lilley said. “So does Lauren.”
Lilley said UK’s season-opening series in Los Angeles where UK went 0-3 exposed both freshmen to big-game atmospheres just like UK’s comeback win at Texas A&M did.
“I think they both grew up at lot at A&M,” Lilley said. “They are ready for Florida. Even if they are not, they have us to lean on.”
Coach Craig Skinner admits he wasn’t sure what to expect from Stumler and Tharp because the transition to SEC volleyball is not easy even for the most talented players.
“I couldn’t have predicted a few months ago that this is where we would be with them,” Skinner said after Sunday’s win. “Pressure hasn’t phased them much. They’ve really responded and are really impacting our team, both in practice and matches.
“Tharp is playing very confident. She had some digs today that got people off their seats and created momentum shifts. She’s a special defensive player.”
Kentucky will need all that and more to beat Florida. But the Cats might have an edge — the new huge video board that players see during a match. It was in use for the first time Sunday.
“They have had it on in practice but this was our first time to really see it,” Edmond said Sunday. “I could see it all and still try to focus. It was a lot to adjust to.”
The All-American hopes Kentucky’s defense is an adjustment for the Gators, too.
“We have been harping on how defense can be a momentum changer and how we are physical team at the net that can change a lot,” Edmond said. “We have taken more pride in having a great defense and now we’ll find out Wednesday just how much we improved on that since the season started.”