There are countless college athletes whose careers end rather quietly with a senior day ceremony before one final home game with little on the line, their teams out of contention for conference titles and tournament appearances.
Kentucky volleyball players Ann Armes, Becky Pavan and Gretchen Giesler won't be going out that way.
Instead, Armes, Pavan and Giesler head into their final two home matches in the thick of the Southeastern Conference title race and playing for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm happy for good people that they get this opportunity to be in a competitive conference and towards the top of it," head coach Craig Skinner said. "That's a big tribute to them. They're very talented individuals and players but they're also all about the group and all about the team concept."
Just a game back of first place Tennessee with three regular season matches left, UK will play host to Louisiana State and Arkansas this weekend. If the Wildcats win on Friday against LSU and on Senior Day on Sunday against Arkansas, it will turn Wednesday's match against the Lady Volunteers into a winner take all battle for the SEC championship, assuming Tennessee wins its two weekend matches.
Capping of their careers with a conference title would be fitting for the winningest group in school history. Armes, Pavan and Giesler have won 96 of 125 matches during their careers, giving them the highest winning percentage (.768) in school history.
"Three seniors that are approaching 100 wins in their career and, if not mistaken, that's the highest winning percentage of any senior group at UK," Skinner said. "That's a tribute to people that are very talented but also very unselfish and really care about the program as a whole."
Above all else, it's the unselfishness of the three that defines them. Armes, Pavan or Giesler could easily be the featured player in another program, but have instead chosen to work to be a part of something greater than themselves.
"The one thing I think these three individuals is they've all been in the top 10 of some statistical category in the SEC at some point or another," Skinner said. "They've all sacrificed playing time; they've all been in several different roles."
Their willingness to sacrifice is also what makes coaching such a joy for Skinner.
"To me, that's what makes it easy to get up every day and come to practice," Skinner said. "I can't wait to show up at the gym and that's a compliment to their leadership and the culture they've created over the last few years."
These three seniors have helped build the foundation of the Kentucky program by concerning themselves with the team first.
"When you have players around them that come in as freshmen and see them go through that, it's a very powerful thing," Skinner said. "We're going to miss them immensely."
Fortunately, the Cats won't have to cope with life without them for a little while longer. The experience Armes, Pavan and Giesler have gained in reaching three consecutive NCAA Tournaments will come in handy, because the atmosphere in Memorial Coliseum is going to feel like anything but another two regular season matches.
"It's almost like an NCAA Tournament weekend where you have two great teams playing against each other and a lot on the line," Skinner said. "We're not going to approach it any differently than we have all year. I think our team is very good at focusing on our next opponent. They all understand the situation, Arkansas understands the situation, LSU understands the situation and it's about going out and performing and trusting each other and trusting yourself."
Arkansas and LSU currently sit atop the standings in the SEC Western Division and both are looking to pick up a resume win in their quests to reach the NCAA Tournament. A victory over the Wildcats, who are ranked No. 16 in the nation and No. 13 in the RPI, would certainly qualify.
"I think it's an exciting weekend to celebrate them and I'm looking forward to hopefully playing well on their last weekend," Skinner said.
Skinner puts pride on the line with unique wager
Kentucky volleyball's Facebook page currently has 1,357 fans. If the page reaches 3,000 by the end of the season, Skinner has (begrudgingly) agreed to show off his dance moves. If he does end up losing the bet, he knows just where he'll go for advice.
"Someone says I said if we get 3,000 followers on Facebook I would dance," Skinner said, "but if we do I'm definitely going to talk to Coach (Matthew) Mitchell about some personal consultation on my dance moves."
It all started earlier this month when the volleyball staff did a video Tip of the Week for the American Volleyball Coaches Association. At the end of it, the staff did a spot on version of Michael Jackson's dance from "Thriller." The biggest question that came out of it though was, "Where's Coach Skinner?"
"At the end of it, it was right around Halloween, they did the Thriller dance and we got a lot of feedback," Skinner said. "One of the biggest feedbacks was, 'Where's Coach Skinner in that dance?'"
At this point, Skinner has no idea what dance he would do if it comes to that, which probably makes the team want to reach 3,000 that much more.
"Is there any dance where you just stand and go around in a circle?" Skinner said. "I don't know. I'll have to come up with something creative. Maybe I'll get my son Eli to show me some moves. He's a better dancer than I am."
In the end, Skinner knows sacrificing a lit bit of his pride would be nothing compared to what his three seniors and the rest of his team has given throughout the season.
"Not only the seniors, this team has given a lot," Skinner said. "I feel like I would probably have to do something. Whether it's publishable or able to be put on video, we'll determine that later."
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