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Strong schedule, late surge extend UK volleyball's NCAA Tournament streak

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for NCAAenhancedlogo.jpgAt first glance, a 17-13 record would seem to indicate the Kentucky volleyball team would miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Craig Skinner's six-year tenure.

On second look, a 17-13 mark may paint Skinner's best coaching job at UK yet.

Despite losing three centerpieces from last year's team, former All-Southeastern Conference setter Sarah Rumely, libero BriAnne Sauer and outside hitter Sarah Mendoza, the Kentucky volleyball team has made the NCAA Tournament for a school-record sixth straight season.

UK will play Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., on Friday. Should the Cats win, they would play the winner of the Middle Tennessee State-Louisville match on Saturday.

But at 17-13 and without the pieces that helped build UK's current NCAA Tournament streak, how did the Cats do it?

A strong schedule and late surge are likely the two biggest factors.

Despite a youth-laden squad (Kentucky did return key pieces in Lauren Rapp, Blaire Hiler, Becky Pavan and Stephanie Klefot), Skinner put together his toughest schedule at UK. The Cats faced the likes of Nebraska (No. 2 overall seed), Iowa State, Florida State, Ohio State, Louisville and Cincinnati. All five are NCAA Tournament teams, and all that was in addition to Kentucky's rigorous Southeastern Conference schedule, which included No. 1 overall seed Florida.

Overall, UK faced 11 teams in this year's NCAA Tournament field and seven squads in the RPI top 25, boosting Kentucky's final RPI standing to 46th.

Although the Cats struggled early against the nation's toughest competition, Skinner said the early tests would pay off. He pointed to the potential of the young players and predicted that his team would be playing its best at the end of the year.

Well, Skinner was exactly right. Down the stretch, Kentucky played its best volleyball of the season. After losing four out of five matches midway through the year, UK went on to win nine of its final 13, including a key win over 13th overall seed LSU.

Skinner said that if his team could find a way to make the NCAA Tournament, it would have as good of a chance as any team.

With the inclusion into the NCAA Tournament, that 17-13 slate just got wiped clean.

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