Kentucky’s unbeaten Southeastern Conference mark this year and back to back conference championships are things UK’s four seniors can always cherish.
None of the four seniors — Brooke Morgan, Mckenzie Watson, Anna Nyberg or Meredith Jewell — would be considered the best player on the team. Junior Leah Edmond was named SEC Player of the Year. Sophomore Gabby Curry was picked as SEC Libero of the Year. Alli Stumler was Freshman of the Year. Sophomore Madison Lilley was named to the all-SEC team — and so was Morgan.
Yet ask coach Craig Skinner about his four seniors as UK gets set to start NCAA Tournament play this week and it’s easy to see the passion he has for all four.
No you don’t. But with this team, the seniors never did anything but stay fully bought-in and did anything it took to help the team win.
Kentucky opened the season 0-3, won three in a row and then lost again Sept. 7 at Texas. Since then, UK has not lost. It has ripped off 21 straight wins, including 15 three-set wins. The only close call was a 3-2 win at Texas A&M.
It shows selfless, tireless leadership that younger players have no choice but to notice and follow. Kentucky’s 2017 team (27-4 overall, 17-1 SEC) got the same type leadership from Ashley Dusek, Emily Franklin and Kaz Brown and this year Skinner had four more seniors show the way.
Curry said “unbelievable support” is what comes to her mind immediately when she thinks about UK’s four seniors.
“Stability emotionally and leadership-wise were other things we all got from them. I think that this group (of seniors) has the most leadership I have been part of on a team in my life. Off the court just making sure everyone is okay. It’s unreal what the seniors have done for us,” Curry said.
Skinner said his teams have not won 53 matches the last two years by luck.
Every time I see any of the seniors, they are always smiling. It doesn’t matter if they are on the court or on the sideline encouraging teammates or enjoying every point Kentucky wins.
“Other than when they are competing their butts off, yes they do smile a lot,” Skinner laughed and said. “But a lot of times they are smiling when they are competing, too. That group of seniors is really competitive. They will fight you for their toothbrush. They have earned everything they have gotten. For a group of seniors to go out with two championships in four years is something. I know our staff loves this group and is going to miss them.”
However, the seniors are not ready for this to end. Last year Kentucky reached the Elite Eight before losing to Nebraska. Kentucky was ranked No. 5 going into the season and is No.11 going into NCAA play.
“They (the seniors) broke the huddle (after the win over Auburn Saturday) and one of them said, ‘We’ve got six more matches to go (to win a national title).’ They love it. They are going to embrace this when the season is over but they have more they want to do,” Skinner said.
Skinner said he got into coaching to teach and motivate — not win championships. His best satisfaction comes from watching players improved and he believes his team has improved “every single day” this season.
“That’s the reward for me. That’s not coach speak, it’s just the truth,” Skinner said. “We have never gone undefeated (in conference play) and never won back to back championships before, so that was big. The next step is to try and win a national championship and we are not going to stop until we get that chance.”