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Volleyball bringing 'fire' to NCAA Tournament trip

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Craig Skinner and the Kentucky Wildcats begin play in the NCAA Tournament against Dayton on Thursday. (Britney, McIntosh, UK Athletics) Craig Skinner and the Kentucky Wildcats begin play in the NCAA Tournament against Dayton on Thursday. (Britney, McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Following a loss to Tennessee in the regular season finale last Wednesday, an emotional letdown seemed all but inevitable for Kentucky volleyball. The narrow four-set defeat left the Wildcats a win shy of their goal of winning the SEC regular season title.

There's no question the Cats were disappointed, but they didn't have the luxury of dwelling on that feeling. UK opens play in the NCAA Tournament this week and, if anything, Craig Skinner's bunch has ratcheted up the intensity.

"You can see a little fire in their eyes," Skinner said. "It's because now you play for tomorrow. This team is a close group, they want to be around each other, whether we're travelling or at home they want to play hard for each other. They're fired up to compete."

The Wildcats' tournament run begins at 5:30 ET Thursday against Atlantic 10 champion Dayton (25-6) in College Station, Texas. The Flyers are set to play in their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament and have won first round matches each of the past two seasons.

"Dayton has had a lot of success this year, winning their conference championship," Skinner said. "They're an annual tournament team, so they've been through the battles before and it will be a tough match."

Dayton's attack is spearheaded by 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter Rachel Krabacher, who is averaging a team-high 4.53 kills per set. Sophomore middle blocker Megan Campbell is second on the team with 2.93 kills per set and is hitting at an astounding clip of .416. As a team, Dayton is outhitting its opponents .287-.139 on the season and has successfully avoided mistakes all season.

"We play some teams in our league that are similar," Skinner said. "It's about transitioning and one of our themes all year long has been being able to transition for points. (Dayton) is a team you definitely need to beat, they're not going to beat themselves a whole lot."

In evaluating the Flyers, Skinner sees a team similar to his own, but also one he believes the Cats have the tools to beat.

"Some of the strengths we have, I feel, can neutralize Dayton," Skinner said. "They do a lot of things similar to us, in the way they block and defend."

The coaches set to roam the sideline for the two teams also have a great deal in common. Both Skinner and Dayton head coach Kelly Sheffield are natives of Muncie, Ind., and graduates of Ball State University. Thursday also won't be the first time the two have competed against one another, as Skinner and Sheffield faced off on middle school baseball fields in the early 1980's. Skinner remembers Sheffield from those days as a preeminent trash talker and expects some friendly back-and-forth before the match.

"He's good friend of mine and a great coach," Skinner said. "I haven't talked to him much the last couple days so he must be buried in stats and video."

Skinner is certainly going through the same rigorous preparation as his counterpart, but he wants his players to be balanced as Thursday approaches.

"We don't want to spend every waking moment thinking about the match," Skinner said. "They still have school to be thinking about as finals are coming up and they have families and things like that. So, when the time is appropriate to spend energy on Dayton that's what we'll be doing and we'll be intense in what we're doing."

Throughout the 2011 season, Skinner has marveled at his team's ability to stay loose while also bringing the "fire" needed to compete at a high level. He has come to recognize that the Cats come closest to reaching their potential with that attitude and the last thing he wants is for them to change now.

"I want them to be who they are, that's what they do best," Skinner said. "They're a great group, they're a lot of fun. You have to be loose and relaxed and compete at the same time."

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