Two weeks and five very big matches away, the Kentucky volleyball team is in position to lock up the Southeastern Conference championship in what would be nothing short of a historic accomplishment. The Cats haven't captured the league crown since 1988, and no team has overtaken Florida in an astonishing 18 years.
But that is neither here nor there for Craig Skinner's team. He's always been a coach to preach one game at a time, and that's not changing anytime soon. As far as his team is concerned, an SEC championship is still a long ways away.
"Putting ourselves in the driver's seat in the SEC is exactly where you expect to see ourselves, but there are still five conference games left and you have to take care of each one individually in order to achieve the goal you want at the end of the year," senior setter Sarah Rumely said.
Fine. After last season's last-game letup, we'll give the Cats that much. After all, UK was in the same position it is this season.
But building a program is all about putting yourself and your team in position. It's about competing for an SEC championship on an annual basis, a vision Rumely had when she entered the program four years ago.
"I knew that coming in that I wanted to be the change of the program," Rumely said. "That was what I was looking for and I wanted to do great things. We talked about that and I trusted coach that he was going to get the right players in here to do that, but it's just been above and beyond what I could have ever imagined."
The change began five years ago when Skinner took over the helm of the UK program. The former Nebraska assistant said he's never had a timeline of what he wanted to accomplish at UK, but the goal has always been to compete for a conference title year in and year out.
That dream has become a reality at Lexington - faster than some could have imagined - because of the players Skinner built the program around. When he was looking to jumpstart the Wildcat program, he wanted what he called selfless, high IQ players who understood ball control and setting.
Skinner found those pieces in Rumely, senior defensive specialist BriAnne Sauer and junior outside hitter Sarah Mendoza. Ironically, as the team enters the final leg in its quest to close out an SEC championship, the trio sits on the brink of achieving several milestones.
Rumely, the school's first and only SEC Player of the Year, is just 68 assists away from becoming the program's all-time assists leader. Meanwhile, Mendoza is nine kills away from 1,000 career kills and Sauer is 15 digs shy of 1,500.
"One of the first things that comes to mind with them is just their passion about the game, passion about the people and passion about the University of Kentucky," Skinner said. "I think they do all that they can to make themselves and everybody around them better."
That unselfishness was apparent when Mendoza was asked about breaking the millennial kill mark.
"Is that a record or something?" said Mendoza, who had no clue she was on the verge of a career accomplishment. "I'll just try to do better next year."
It's no coincidence that the milestones have come within weeks of the team's ultimate goal to win a league title. It's been a gradual building process built from the ground up. It began with the recruitment of players like Rumely, Sauer and Mendoza and then trickled down to younger players like Becky Pavan, Gretchen Giesler and so forth.
The sturdiness of the structure Skinner has built is personified in the play and dedication of Sauer, a Louisville, Ky., native who dreamed of having the chance to play at Kentucky.
Skinner said Sauer was the first recruiting e-mail he received at UK.
"She really was very excited about being part of the Kentucky program and you could tell just by the way she wrote that e-mail that she was very excited about this possibility and that's the way she's played every day in practice, in lifting, in conditioning and in matches," Skinner said. "Putting that jersey on is a huge source of pride for her."
Mendoza, a native of Winter Park, Fla., said she didn't know what to expect when she came to Kentucky, but she could tell the program was something she wanted to be a part of. Rumely, a bit surprisingly, was an overlooked and underrated recruit out of New Palestine, Ind. However, Skinner saw a fire of competitiveness and love for the game in Rumely that he knew he could build a program around.
"If you have those two qualities, you're always going to want to be better," Skinner said. "You could say that about all three of them."
The milestones and long-awaited goals have taken time, but none of it would have been possible without the ongoing hard work and dedication of Rumely, Mendoza and Sauer.
The trio, who admittedly knew nothing about one another when they came to Kentucky, shared a common goal to put Kentucky in position to win a championship every single year. They put in countless hours in the gym and weight room the last few years to develop a chemistry that goes far beyond the court.
"Over time we've learned to build up trust," Mendoza said. "I think what helps is that our communication is really good and we're not afraid to be honest with each other. They can tell me if I'm playing bad or what we need to work on. We're good at communicating and not really getting mad at one another."
That bond takes time and experience to form.
"It's a great connection, kind of like an Andre Woodson and a Keenan Burton. They just know where each other is going to be and have a feel for what is going to happen on each particular play," Skinner said. "You kind of connect the dots between BriAnne, who is passing the ball to Rumely, who is setting it to Mendoza. It makes a great trio of people to connect the dots with on the volleyball court."
All dots are leading to a historic SEC championship. A few more lines - namely five games - still have to be connected, but the trio has once again put Kentucky in position to do it.
Whether or not they capitalize and finish it off this year is irrelevant. No matter what they do from here on out, they will have left the program in better shape than it was when they arrived.
On the eve of a milestone weekend, that's the only accomplishment that ultimately matters.
"You want to be in a program that when you're five or 10 years out of the program, you're still looking back and saying I was a part of that change," Rumely said.