This past Friday and Saturday, the second-ranked UK Volleyball team completed a perfect slate of fall competition, sweeping its SEC-only schedule 8-0.
This club is a wrecking machine.
?4-0 on the road in the fall? pic.twitter.com/pUgU3yLtYi
— Kentucky Volleyball (@KentuckyVB) November 14, 2020
Coming into the year, with a stable of veteran stars accompanied by the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, the national title contender hype was warranted; and they sure have delivered on those expectations through eight games.
Across its first eight matches, UK won 24 of 27 sets, never dropping more than one set in a game.
It’s been a flawless run, and in the face of some adversity, with two primary rotation players — senior superstar Avery Skinner and freshman lefty Reagan Rutherford — going down in the middle of the season. No matter. Without two of their best hitters (Skinner is one of the best in the whole country), Kentucky didn’t miss a beat and continued to hammer their opponents.
Despite the injuries, the UK Volleyball team re-shaped itself and only improved. Madi Skinner, Riah Walker, and Sophie Fisher didn’t just keep the team alive, they thrived; freshmen, members of the top-ranked recruiting class, proving their pedigree after being tossed right into the fire.
This past weekend, all three of those rookies, plus fellow freshmen Elise Goetzinger and Bella Bell, all played prominent roles in Kentucky’s dismantling of Mississippi State. Walker contributed 18 digs over the two games, continuing her role as the NHL goalie of the back row, saving nearly every spike.
Over the course of the weekend, Fisher added a total of 13 kills, Goetzinger three, and Madi Skinner 17. Kentucky, one of the best teams in the country, is littered with budding-star freshmen at every position. Craig Skinner’s dynasty just keeps elevating.
Let’s not forget the upperclassmen, who were spectacular as always. The largest benefactor from Avery Skinner’s injury, at least statistically, has been junior hitter Alli Stumler. She recorded 11 and 10 kills in the back to back games vs. Mississippi State and added four digs in each outing.
Elsewhere among the older Cats, middle blocker Azhani Tealer contributed on 12 blocks over the course of the weekend, with 16 kills. Back-row specialist Lauren Tharp remained reliable, adding 11 digs in the matches with Mississippi State.
Of course, there are the two senior leaders: libero Gabby Curry and setter Madison Lilley. Each individual quarterbacks the ‘Cats from their respective position, and you could count on one hand the number of times Lilley was subbed out this season. She’s one of the best setters in the nation (and I honestly can’t imagine there are better), a vocal commander, and, quite frankly, always the smartest player on the court. Lilley collected 57 assists over the two games this weekend, adding six kills, while Curry recorded 18 digs.
With the fall half of the season finished up, and the volleyball ‘Cats not back in action until the beginning of the winter semester, I thought I’d hand out some midseason awards. Let’s start with a bang…
- Madison Lilley: As mentioned, a clever, genius player and leader that demands — and collects — ultimate respect from her teammates, coaches, foes, fans and the like. The senior is a steadying, error-less point guard at the net. They took a picture earlier this fall, so the comparison feels right…she really is a volleyball version of Rajon Rondo.
- Alli Stumler: The statistical gem of the UK frontline, leading the Cats in digs on the year with 121–50 more than anyone else. Not only is Stumler a ferocious attacker at the net, but she also plays the back and knows how to turn a dig or two. Since Avery Skinner went down, it was Stumler that picked up her production, finishing both Auburn matches with 18 kills in addition to her 10 and 12 digs. I don’t know volleyball stats very well, but that sounds like the basketball equivalent of one of Nick Richards’ monster 25-point, 15-rebound games. She’s an all-around beast.
Winner: Madison Lilley!
To the eye of an actual Volleyball expert, Stumler may be the clearly more-talented and better player, but is she harder to replace than Lilley? No way. As we saw with injuries to hitters Avery Skinner and Reagan Rutherford, Kentucky’s assembly of attackers run very deep. Waiting in the wings were players like Madi Skinner, who looks the part of a future All-American, along with Sophie Fisher, Bella Bell and Elise Goetzinger. UK is loaded at hitter. At setter, there is only Lilley to clean up everyone else’s mistakes, to set the tone, call out switches pre-serve, direct her teammates and set them up for their highlight reel spikes.
- Madi Skinner: Her playing time was sparse before her sister went down, but since, Madi has picked up where Avery left off. She’s athletic, relentless at the point of attack, and can slam the ball with some sheer force. Watching her up close vs. that paltry Auburn squad was like watching Tyler Herro’s high school tapes. A gifted athlete among amateurs.
- Riah Walker: She’s fun to watch scramble around in the back, diving for loose balls all over the place. Scoring on Kentucky with Walker, Gabby Curry and Lauren Tharp in the back is like trying to kill a hydra. You have to cut off every last head to score vs. the Cats, because if Tharp and Curry can’t get to it, you can bet Walker will make some ridiculous, contorted move to save the point.
- Elise Goetzinger: She’s played the most of any of the freshmen and has been a solid contributor at the net both as a blocker and hitter. She hasn’t made the same jaw-dropping plays these other two have, but she’s nearly as productive, and rarely misfires. Craig Skinner trusts her, and he’ll be able to for the next three years. Another solid piece to a young and ultra-talented UK core.
Winner: Madi Skinner! When a young player is elite, it’s often said they “ooze” talent. Madi Skinner oozes talent. Just from watching five minutes of her in her pregame warmups before the Auburn match, it was immediately clear that the younger Skinner was a world-class athlete. At a lanky and mobile 6-foot-2, combined with her crazy hops and ear-rattling spiking power, she’s got every physical tool to be a nation-best player. She was in high school, and the tear she was on to close out the fall slate suggests she’ll eventually reach that same esteem as a college player.
- The freshmen Coming Out Party vs. Auburn. Avery Skinner’s ankle injury is easily the worst moment of the fall, but the way her teammates responded in her absence demands recognition. Coming off the Reagan Rutherford injury the week before, Kentucky was already down a hitter, and then their best player went down. The Wildcats didn’t miss a beat. The freshman attackers — Goetzinger, Fisher, Skinner, Bell — stepped up and dominated. This was also the first game where Riah Walker saw significant playing time, and she was obviously great. The tape from this game is a foreshadow of the future of Craig Skinner’s program, a Death Star unit on the court.
- Back-to-back comebacks vs. Missouri. Against the biggest threat on the schedule, a top-ten team in Missouri, Kentucky was on the ropes in both matches early. The Tigers grabbed a one-set lead in each match before the Cats would rattle off three straight sets in convincing fashion. This was Avery Skinner’s best weekend ever as a Cat, and she helped lead Kentucky to two resounding victories over some of the stiffest competition in the SEC.
Winner: The Missouri sweep. Those two top-ten wins will be hugely consequential in the NCAA tournament selection process in the spring, and it was the only game(s) in which UK was actually challenged. The Tigers knocked the Cats off their block early, but Craig Skinner’s club, ever the adversity-defeaters, had no problem climbing back and clobbering Mizzou.
It’s been a fun fall covering the Volleyball Cats, and I’m sure an exciting, hopefully title-contending second-half of the season is in the future. As University of Kentucky students head home for the semester for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so will the volleyball team. But, when school resumes in late January, so will volleyball.
Get a nice bit of rest and let’s get after it in 2021!