Following a stretch of three consecutive road games, the Kentucky volleyball team returns home for a pair of key matches in Memorial Coliseum against SEC East foes South Carolina and No. 13 Florida.
The road trip that just wrapped up began inauspiciously, as UK fell to Mississippi State in front of a record crowd. With only a few days to prepare for matches at Georgia and Auburn, head coach Craig Skinner was concerned about the confidence of his team, especially when the Cats lost their opening set against the Bulldogs.
"I thought that was going to be a major challenge for us," Skinner said. "Losing to Mississippi State after beating Tennessee, I didn't know what the confidence level would be. Georgia beat us in the first game so I really thought that was a moment we had to step up."
Stepping up is exactly what they did. Behind a school record 20.5 blocks, UK won the final three sets to clinch a victory over Georgia, then outlasted Auburn in a five-set thriller. Leading the way was setter Christine Hartmann, who earned SEC Player of the Week honors for her performances. Hartmann tallied 54 assists in the win over Auburn, distributing 13 or more kills to four teammates.
That balance has been a hallmark of the offense all season and Hartmann deserves a lot of the credit for that. Skinner was happy she earned Player of the Week honors, but he didn't think it was the first time she was deserving.
"I think it's a little bit overdue," Skinner said. "She's done a really nice job this year of making sure we have several attackers getting numerous kills. She's done a spectacular job running our offense."
Hartmann actually started the season on the bench, but was inserted in the lineup in August and the Cats haven't looked back.
"You can see her confidence rise," Skinner said. "When someone has success and the team has success, you see the hitters believing in her and wanting Christine to set them the ball, it makes a big difference. She's not just evolving in her setting, but also in her defense. She's making a lot of plays defensively and blocking balls. If you get that out of your setter, you get a complete player."
Hartmann's emergence on defense has coincided with the team's best run of the season on that end.
"I think defensively we're playing as well as we have all year and I think that's going to be important for us," Skinner said. "As you get towards the end of the season and you're able to slow down what other opponents like to do with their offense, it gives you an advantage."
With the end of the regular season on the horizon and a big weekend of matches coming up, UK will need every advantage it can get. The No. 24 Cats are the thick of a tightly bunched race atop the conference and this weekend affords them an opportunity to make a statement and potentially a leap in the standings. UK currently sits at 10-2 in SEC play with eight matches to go, a game behind Tennessee and a half-game behind the Gators.
UK will play South Carolina (11-10, 2-9 SEC) at 7 p.m. on Friday at the same time the Lady Vols and Gators are doing battle in Knoxville, Tenn. On Sunday, the roles reverse and Florida will visit UK at 1:30 p.m. while Tennessee hosts South Carolina. At the end of it all, the Cats could find themselves anywhere from alone atop the standings in first place to three games back of first, looking up at both Tennessee and Florida.
Interestingly, UK has already faced both South Carolina and Florida this season on the road, defeating the Gamecocks and falling to the Gators. What that means is the Cats will be familiar with their opponents and their opponents familiar with them.
"There are no secrets anymore," Skinner said. "Everyone knows what we want to do and we know what South Carolina and Florida want to do so you have to bring your 'A' game. Execution is a big factor as you get to the second half of the SEC."