Today at 5 p.m., the volleyball team will take on #1 Penn State in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. It’s the second straight year the Cats have reached the Sweet Sixteen, and the seventh consecutive year they’ve made the tournament, a feat only sixteen other schools have accomplished.
On the eve of their big match, I talked to head coach Craig Skinner, who has transformed the program over his eight seasons in Lexington. Here’s what he had to say about tonight’s match, the program’s success, and how the Big Blue Nation is catching on:
You’re about to face Penn State, the #1 seed in the tournament. How have you guys prepared for them this week?
We took Monday off, did cardio stuff, practiced about an hour and a half each day and then got more specific with Penn State game plan the last few days. Penn State’s not a real complicated team in terms of what they do, but they do it really well, so you have to be efficient on the things you do to slow them down.
It’s hard to keep us not loose, to be honest! We have a group that’s really close and enjoy being around each other. They’re trying to enjoy being in the tournament and they relish the opportunity to keep playing together. It’s an exciting time in an athlete’s career. At the same time, they know how good Penn State is and the opportunity we have in front of us, so they’ll take it pretty seriously once that whistle blows.
Tell me a little bit about this squad’s seniors. What does it mean to them to be playing in what could be their last match?
Ashley Frazier, Christine Hartman, and Stephanie Klefot have well over 90 wins in their career and put a lot of time and energy and effort into what they do. We set lofty goals at the beginning of the year, we ranked really high and stumbled early. We had a really tough schedule and at times, lost our confidence a little bit. But you have to give our seniors a lot of credit for their perseverance and commitment to getting better each week. They’ve really had a huge impact on our success recently. Now, we’ve gotten to this point and it’s a chance to knock off a great team and continue their season.
Three of your players were recently given All-South region honors (Stephanie Klefot and junior Whitney Billings First Team All-Region; Christina Hartmann Honorable Mention). How much does that recognition mean to both you and the program?
It means a lot. It means the people voting have a lot of respect for the program and the success we’ve had and they understand the impact that those players have had as well. They’re very proud and we’re very proud of them. The nice thing about our kids is they understand how important our team is and what the team gives them to be successful too.
Coach, tell me a little about Ashley Frazier. I heard she led the team in kills in the first round against East Tennessee State and crossed the 1,000 mark in career kills.
Ashley transferred to us from Alabama two years ago after they had a tough couple of years and she wanted to be on a program at the time that had a chance to be successful, so she came in and redshirted her first year. There’s no team that we play against that doesn’t prepare for Ashley and what she brings to us offensively, how hard she hits the ball and her experience and blocking ability.
She’s very selfless kid and really bright kid, one of ten finalists for the Senior Class award out of all the Division 1 volleyball players in the county. She’s already in the MBA program, graduated with a 3.95 GPA in marketing, and is just a great all around person who’s been a huge part of us the past couple of years.
I saw where you attended the UK Hoops game vs. Miami (Ohio) last week. How important is it to you to support other sports at UK and how much contact do you have with the other coaches?
I’ve been to a lot of different universities and this is one where you really feel it’s a fraternity of people and coaches specifically. We want each other to do well. We share facilities, weight rooms, all kinds of things, and I’ve gotten a lot of support from Joker when he was the football coach, Coach Cal, Coach Mitchell, Coach Henderson, Lipsitz, on down the list.
I talked to Coach Cal the other day about his team, our team, and Coach Mitchell and I have known each other for years when he was on staff with Coach DeMoss. and I have a lot of respect for the things all those coaches have done. I try as hard as I can when my family permits it to support all the teams as much as possible and get to know the players because it’s a short period of time in these athletes’ lives and you want to do everything you can to support them when you get the opportunity.
What kind of response are you getting from the fans?
It’s been phenomenal. We’re around the top 15 in the country in attendance and I still think we’re just scratching the surface with the volleyball community in Lexington and the surrounding areas. Their knowledge of the sport is unreal compared to a few years ago and just understanding and seeing what they did during the first and second rounds (at Memorial) and recognizing situations, seeing how our kids are playing and sensing if they need more from the crowd. It’s been rewarding for our players and our program to see what they do. One of my goals going forward is making sure our kids to see more people in the stands. If people continue to come and bring more people, we’ll just continue to blossom.
Looking back over your eight years at Kentucky, how does it feel to be in your second straight Sweet Sixteen?
It’s great, I was talking to a coaching friend of mine the other day and I said when you get past the second round of the tourney, it’s a different level of accomplishment, and now it’s time for us to go beyond that. We’ve been to three (Sweet 16s) in the past four years and the last couple years, we’ve come across a number one team in the tournament and obviously it’s a challenge. All of the teams on this level are really good and the energy and enthusiasm from the media, the crowds are off the charts. It’s a dream for my kids growing up to have thousands of people to come watch them. Every day you’re motivated to get to this point and beyond as a coach, and you hope your players understand that. You hope you give them the sense of urgency to get to that point.
I asked my Twitter followers to send in a question for you to answer, so here goes:
“@SteveRuddy2012: What has been the biggest thing you’ve done since being here that has turned UK into a national power that wasn’t here before?”
Believing in all of the players who are currently here. We had a chance to be successful no matter what our team was, no matter what our roster was. Some of the biggest wins we’ve had are beating Florida for the first time here, beating Florida for the first time at their place. Florida’s a program that dominated the SEC for 18 years. Wins like that create a sense of belief running through the program so that every match we step on the court, our players feel like they have a chance to be successful.
You know I can’t let you go without a basketball question. One of the basketball team’s commitments for next season, Marcus Lee, was a big volleyball player in high school. Would you be cool with him coming to a practice next year to try out his skills?
When he came for Midnight Madness, he asked what time our volleyball match was. There’s no question, I’d love to get him in the gym and have him come over and hit some balls. A few years ago, Coach Cal and I tried to set up an exhibition for the students between his guys and our team. It didn’t work out for whatever reason compliance wise, but I’d love to invite Marcus in and I’m sure we’ll see him around the gym and get him swinging some balls in practice.
We have a great relationship with the basketball team. Both of the basketball staffs have been great to work with. It’s not very often you have such a cohesive group in terms of staff and programs. You’ve gotta include some basketball guys in with the volleyball.
Any shout outs you want to give, anything you want the KSR readers to know?
Get on ESPN3 Friday at 5 p.m. and check us out live in action from West Lafayette. If you’re in China you can see us play!