Kentucky volleyball has its sights on a second straight NCAA title. Here’s the path ahead.

·6 min read

The Kentucky volleyball program now knows what lies ahead in pursuit of a second straight NCAA championship.

During Sunday night’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show and bracket reveal, the Wildcats were given the No. 7 overall seed for this season’s event. That means Kentucky will host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament matches in Lexington at Memorial Coliseum.

The Lexington sub-regional features No. 7 Kentucky against Southeast Missouri State and Illinois against West Virginia in first-round matches on Friday, with the winners facing off in a second-round match on Saturday.

A wider look at the 64-team bracket reveals that Kentucky — which earned the Southeastern Conference’s automatic qualifier spot after winning the SEC outright over the weekend — could face Texas, the team UK beat for the national championship in April, in the Elite Eight.

The Longhorns are the No. 2 seed in this season’s tournament.

“Every team is different, we get to paint our own picture,” said UK head coach Craig Skinner of the season-long process that has brought Kentucky to this point. “It was blank at the beginning, now we’re painting whatever picture Kentucky volleyball is, but physically on the court we just don’t make very many mistakes right now.”

Kentucky, which owns a 24-4 overall record and went 17-1 in SEC play, has plenty of reasons to be confident entering the postseason.

The Wildcats have lost just once since Sept. 15, and after losing in five sets at South Carolina on Nov. 4, Kentucky has won eight straight matches in a sweep.

Ultimately, UK ended up going 9-4 this season in matches against teams that made the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, with victories over Dayton, Marquette, Stanford, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida (twice) and losses to Creighton, Wisconsin, Louisville and South Carolina.

“We’ve won several matches in five sets, we’ve won on the road, we’ve won at home. We’ve won against really fast teams, we’ve won against teams that run offense really high,” Skinner said. “The preparation and playing a variety of different styles is important because you never know who you’re going to play in the tournament.”

Kentucky closed the regular season with two victories over Florida at home to secure the outright SEC championship, which marked the fifth straight season that UK has won at least a share of the conference championship.

“The message was, ‘We’re pursuing championships and we’re continuing to pursue them in this current year,’” Skinner said of the mentality of his UK team after winning the NCAA title in April, but having less than four months to prepare for a new season. “This year is an extremely rewarding championship, there’s no question about that, because of how long a year it’s been and how much better volleyball is across the country.”

The weekend victories over Florida came in front of two of the largest crowds inside Memorial Coliseum this season, with a combined 6,580 fans watching the wins.

“We talk all the time about, ‘How do we want Kentucky volleyball to be represented?’ Because to the little girls in the stands, they’re watching us and they’re watching our program and we want them to want to be on our team one day,” senior outside hitter Alli Stumler said. “We want them to say, ‘Oh, I want to play for Kentucky volleyball.’ I think that’s slowly becoming a thing.”

Last weekend’s successes included a Senior Day win on Friday during which UK honored three players: Libero Lauren Tharp, setter Cameron Scheitzach and Stumler.

“Arguably the most important senior class we’ve ever had,” Skinner said about the trio. “What they do to this team, what they bring to practice every day, they are all in, all the time, for not just their teammates but the program, the university, the state. This group, I could go on and on for days about them.”

That Senior Day victory was also the 400th career head coaching win for Skinner, who has transformed the UK program and led the Wildcats to unmatched success since being hired in December 2004.

Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner celebrates after the Wildcats won the outright SEC championship with a three-set win over No. 20 Florida in Memorial Coliseum last Saturday. Skinner now has 401 career head coaching victories.
Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner celebrates after the Wildcats won the outright SEC championship with a three-set win over No. 20 Florida in Memorial Coliseum last Saturday. Skinner now has 401 career head coaching victories.

SEC honors for the Wildcats

Ahead of the NCAA Tournament reveal on Sunday, several UK players were recognized as all-conference performers this season.

Stumler was named the SEC Player of the Year, freshman Eleanor Beavin was named the SEC Libero of the Year and setter Emma Grome was named the SEC Freshman of the Year.

Stumler is the fourth UK player to win SEC Player of the Year honors, joining Sarah Rumley (2006), Leah Edmond (2018 and 2019) and Madison Lilley (last season). Kentucky has now had the SEC Player of the Year in each of the last four seasons.

Grome is the fifth different UK player to win SEC Freshman of the Year. With Beavin being named the SEC Libero of the Year, it marks the eighth straight season UK has had a player win that award.

UK also had four players named to the 18-member All-SEC team: Grome, Stumler, sophomore outside hitter Madi Skinner and junior middle blocker Azhani Tealer.

Grome and Beavin also both earned spots on the SEC All-Freshman team.

Kentucky freshman Eleanor Beavin (6) was named the SEC Libero of the Year on Sunday.
Kentucky freshman Eleanor Beavin (6) was named the SEC Libero of the Year on Sunday.

Other in-state NCAA Tournament teams

Three colleges from the commonwealth will be represented in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

In addition to Kentucky, both Louisville and Western Kentucky are in the 64-team field.

The Cardinals went a perfect 28-0 this season, won the ACC championship for the fourth time in the last seven seasons and are the No. 1 seed for the tournament.

The Hilltoppers went 27-1 this season, going undefeated in Conference USA in both the regular season and postseason on their way to winning the C-USA Tournament. Since joining C-USA prior to the 2014 season, WKU has won seven of eight possible regular-season titles and seven of eight possible tournament championships. WKU, which has won 20 straight matches, did not receive a seed for this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Louisville and Western Kentucky are located in the same quadrant of the NCAA Tournament bracket, meaning the two teams could meet in the Elite Eight.

Louisville is hosting first- and second-round matches at L&N Federal Credit Union Arena and will open the tournament against Illinois-Chicago on Friday night, before the winner of that match faces the winner of Ball State-Michigan in the second round on Saturday.

Western Kentucky is playing South Carolina in its first-round match on Friday afternoon, with the winner then facing either The Citadel or No. 8 seed Georgia Tech in the second round Saturday night. Those matches are being played at O’Keefe Gymnasium in Atlanta.

Kentucky would not face either Louisville or Western Kentucky until the championship match.

The NCAA Tournament will begin Thursday and conclude Dec. 18 with the national championship match at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

This weekend

NCAA Volleyball Tournament in Memorial Coliseum

Friday

5 p.m.: Illinois (20-11) vs. West Virginia (19-9)

7:30 p.m.: Kentucky (24-4) vs. Southeast Missouri State (26-7)

Saturday

5 p.m.: First-round winners meet in NCAA Tournament second-round match.

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