After going 7-3 during non-conference play this season — a stretch that included losses at Wisconsin and Louisville and a home win over Stanford — the Kentucky volleyball team is turning its attention to conference play.
The Wildcats will play an 18-match Southeastern Conference schedule this season, as they aim to win a fifth-straight SEC title.
UK won outright SEC volleyball championships both last season and in 2018, and shared the conference title with Florida in 2017 and 2019.
In the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, Kentucky was ranked seventh in the country along with Purdue, 10 spots ahead of the next SEC team, Florida at No. 17.
Ahead of Kentucky’s first SEC match of the season — Friday night in Lexington against Missouri — here’s three things to know as the Wildcats aim for yet another conference title.
1. Kentucky will hope its young team is ready for the big stage. Irrespective of its record at the end of non-conference play, the first month of the season for Kentucky has been defined by experience.
The Wildcats lost three starters — libero Gabby Curry, setter Madison Lilley and outside hitter Avery Skinner — from last season’s national-title winning team, thrusting younger players into bigger roles.
A pair of freshmen now start for Kentucky: Emma Grome at setter and Eleanor Beavin at libero, and sophomore Madi Skinner has become the team’s most prolific attacker.
This shift toward youth hasn’t come at the expense of production. Grome has averaged more than 10 assists per set this season for the Wildcats, while Skinner leads the team in kills with 138.
Beavin, who went to Mercy Academy in Louisville and was named the 2020-21 Gatorade Kentucky Volleyball Player of the Year as a high school senior, has settled into the libero spot well and leads UK defensively with 93 digs.
“Libero may be the hardest position to play as a freshman … it’s so much harder to serve and receive in college than in high school and club. Decision making is so fast because the ball is hit so much harder, attacking-wise, to dig,” Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner said. “Her mental ability to be composed at all times is probably the thing I’m most impressed with.”
Sophomore Elise Goetzinger has also started all 10 matches this season for Kentucky, and has the second-best hitting percentage of all regular UK players at .358.
“Things are starting to slow down I think for our players in the middle of matches,” Skinner said. “We’re starting to make clearer decisions about what shot to hit and who to set and whose ball is what in the seams. That takes a long time to work out, especially when you have some of the younger players we do.”
2. If the Wildcats have a hitting percentage above .300, there’s a good chance they’ll win. A theme emerged during non-conference play for Kentucky: Record a hitting percentage above .300 and UK will win the match.
In all seven of UK’s wins this season, the Wildcats had a team hitting percentage above .300. In all three of UK’s losses this season, the recorded team hitting percentage was below .200.
“You typically want to kill the ball at least 14 times (in a set). You want to have two to three blocks. You want to have one to two aces and then you rely on the opponent to give you a few points by hitting errors or serving errors or whatever it may be,” Skinner said, noting that the three ways to score a point in volleyball are kills, serving aces and blocks.
“If you’re hitting over .300 consistently you’re one of the better offensive teams in the country.”
Part of this variance can be attributed to the Wildcats’ youth at key offensive positions — in particular Grome at setter — as she continues to develop rhythm and timing with her teammates against high-level college opponents.
That connection between Grome and her teammates was on display during Sunday’s five-set home win against Stanford, which was Kentucky’s first win of the season against a ranked team.
Grome had a career-best 58 assists in the win, which in turn led to big offensive days from Skinner and Azhani Tealer, as Skinner had a career-best 24 kills and Tealer tied her career-high with 18 kills against the Cardinal.
Tealer’s hitting percentage of .427 this season has also helped power the UK offense, and she’s also been UK’s most visible defensive presence with a team-high 45 blocks.
3. Schools return to a conventional SEC volleyball schedule. Last season, all 13 SEC teams played only conference matches in a season that began last fall, continued into the spring and was significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Kentucky had a stretch of four straight matches in February that were canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing in opponents’ programs.
While last season came to an end in April with Kentucky’s national title — meaning the Wildcats and other teams had a shortened offseason to recover — this season’s SEC schedule will have a more traditional format, spanning 18 matches and running from Friday until Nov. 27 for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats will play nine home and nine road matches in conference play, but there’s a good chance the SEC title will come down to UK’s final two matches, both at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington against Florida.
The Gators and Wildcats have combined for eight SEC volleyball titles since 2010 and again figure to be among the conference’s best teams this season.
“I’m very satisfied that we’ve improved a lot and that’s technically your goal,” Skinner said. “You want to be playing your best volleyball at the end of November going into the NCAA Tournament.”
Missouri at No. 7 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)