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Expectations still high for UK volleyball despite key losses

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Rapp.jpgAll-Southeastern Conference setter and four-year starting setter Sarah Rumely is not walking through that door anymore. Neither is All-SEC outside hitter Sarah Mendoza, the team's leader in kills the last two years. Kentucky's two-year starter at libero? Gone by way of graduation.

All reasons to tab the Cats No. 14 in the preseason - the team's highest preseason ranking since 1983 right?

Wait, what?

To the outsider it might not add up, losing three veterans yet earning the second-highest preseason ranking in program history. But to head coach Craig Skinner, it makes perfect sense.

The mark of a good program is consistency. There are no rollercoaster ups and downs. To be elite, in Skinner's mind, it's a steady trend toward an ultimate goal. It's not rebuild, it's reload.
Consider the 2010 Kentucky volleyball team reloaded.

"You have recruits in place that have been here, been around and have trained at a high level and have learned from (the veterans)," Skinner said. "It's about building a program with longevity and being able to sustain that for several years. We've got great kids in the program that are ready to step up."

Since Skinner's arrival at UK five years ago, the dream has been the same: win SEC championships and make it deep into the NCAA Tournament. The Cats have made it to the postseason a school-record five straight seasons under the tutelage of Skinner and have come agonizingly close to winning not only one SEC championship but two.

But in just about all of those seasons, he had the familiar faces in Rumely, Mendoza and Sauer to build around. Just because they're gone, the expectations have not changed.

"It doesn't matter who is on the court and what's going on," senior middle blocker Lauren Rapp said. "(Winning an SEC championship) will always be our goal and the expectation of our team."

Rapp is expected to be one of the centerpieces this year and will be relied on heavily to pick up the pieces and continue the program moving forward. The 6-foot-3 Indianapolis native is a three-year starter but really seemed to gain her confidence as last season wore on.

During the Sweet 16 match against Florida State, Rapp recorded 18 kills on a .536 hitting percentage to go along with a team-best six blocks. The effort earned her All-Region honors. It also firmly placed her as one of the leaders on this year's team.

"I just think knowing the system and what's expected of me, it's helped me come a long way," Rapp said. "My first two years it was kind of iffy, what's going to happen, how much do I need to perform and what's expected of me. I know now what's expected. (Understanding) has helped me grow as a player."

Believe Skinner when he says there are plenty of reinforcements waiting in the wings to take over. Remember, this is the team that is ranked No. 14 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

Players like All-SEC preseason selection Becky Pavan (10 matches with 10 or more kills last season), Blaire Hiler (career-best 2.26 kills per set), Ann Armes (career-best .297 hitting percentage) and Gretchen Giesler (squad-best 1.11 blocks per set) have been key the past few years and have been groomed for their time in the spotlight.

But replacing the leadership of Rumely, a mainstay on the court for four years who Skinner likened to a coach on the court, will be the biggest hurdle in the early season schedule, a first-weekend slate that includes the likes of No. 2 Nebraska and No. 9 Iowa State in the AVCA Showcase.

Skinner is confident his new veterans and newcomers alike are ready to step up and fill that void.

Skinner.jpg"If you look at where Blaire Hiler and Lauren Rapp were last season at this point in time, they are definitely beyond physically where they were, hitting the ball harder and their effort level is harder than they ever have been in practice," Skinner said. "I really think they're embracing their leadership roles."

As for the actual position of setter that will need to be filled, that was a two-player battle until just recently.

Redshirt sophomore Christine Hartmann and true freshman Elizabeth Kolberstein, who was rated as the nation's No. 16 overall prospect and the third-best setter in the class of 2010, had been in a neck-and-neck competition. But on Tuesday in an interview, Skinner revealed that Hartmann earned the starting position.

"Her IQ of the game is exceptional and she really has a great sense of who and when to set," Skinner said of Hartmann. "I think her ball distribution and getting people one on one is as good as anyone we're going to play. Right now, in our preseason, our hitting percentage is higher than it ever has been in the preseason."

Skinner credited Hartmann's patience and willingness to learn as key factors in winning the starting job. For two years, Hartmann watched from the sidelines as Rumely directed the offense. Hartmann, who Skinner called a "student of the game," has digested what she's learned and is ready to make her own footprint on the program.

"Part of my development is because of Sarah Rumely," Hartmann said. "She and I were very close and we trained together a lot, so I learned a lot from her. Being able to watch the way that she works with the team and seeing things that I like that she did or things that I would change once I'm out there, that's really helped me become the player that I am."

Sophomore Stephanie Klefot will take over the libero jersey after serving as a defensive specialist her freshman season. Skinner said Klefot may be the most athletic libero in the country.

"Athletically, she is off the charts, but her touch, feel and charisma and energy on the court is outstanding," Skinner said. "I think she's going to have a huge season."

There will be growing pains early as the Cats try to navigate through the toughest schedule in Skinner's tenure. But that's going to happen anytime you have to replace pieces as valuable as Rumely and Co.

The true mark of a program is how it moves forward and how it copes with those losses. Judging by preseason rankings, confidence and next class of Kentucky stars, nothing has changed with the UK volleyball team.

Winning the SEC championship is still a priority.

"That's where we are and that's what we want to accomplish," Skinner said. "If we're able to compete and beat the best in our conference, that puts us as one of the best teams in the country. We're doing great things now, but the exciting thing about this team is we're going to get better and better each week and each day that we compete this year. By the end of the year we should be really good."

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