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Volleyball out to make best of surprise road trip for NCAA's

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Kentucky volleyball will travel to College Station, Texas for a first round match with Dayton in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky volleyball will travel to College Station, Texas for a first round match with Dayton in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
All season long, Craig Skinner and Kentucky volleyball had worked to position themselves for Selection Sunday. The Wildcats won 26 of 31 games en route to a second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference. The Cats finished the season ranked No. 13 in the RPI, boasting six wins over teams that would earn NCAA Tournament berths.

Based on that resume, UK made a strong case to be one of 16 national seeds that would host first and second round games. Instead, Skinner's bunch will be making a mid-week trip to College Station, Texas.

There may have been a flash of disappointment when he learned his team wouldn't get the chance to play in the comforts of Memorial Coliseum, but he ultimately is thankful just to be able to lead his team to a seventh-consecutive NCAA Tournament.

"You get chills watching the Selection Show when it first pops up and you see your name there," Skinner said. "Regardless of who we're playing or where, I'm excited for our players because they put a lot of time and energy in. There are only 64 teams still playing and I'm really excited we're one of them."

The Wildcats will face off against the Atlantic 10 champion Dayton Flyers (25-6) in the first round. The match will take place on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 5:30 p.m. ET with the winner advancing to meet the winner between No. 16 national seed Texas A&M (22-7) and Lipscomb (20-10) on Friday.

 "We're really excited to be in the tournament," Skinner said. "I think it's a wide open tournament this year and there are a lot of really good teams. I thought we'd be in and I'm happy about the year to this point. It's a new season and I'm looking forward to getting started down at A&M."

If UK and Texas A&M each advance, it will be a preview of future SEC matches as the Aggies make the move to a new conference this offseason. Texas A&M, as well as fellow NCAA Tournament team Missouri, will be joining a league with three teams to reach the 2011 tournament, while bubble teams like Arkansas and LSU were left out.

"I'm disappointed for the SEC," Skinner said. "I thought both Tennessee (No. 14 national seed) and us had a good enough season, played enough quality opponents and had enough good wins to be seeded if not seeded higher, but that's part of the tournament."

Having played a 20-match schedule in the conference, the Cats believe the three teams to earn berths will prove the strength of the SEC.

"I'm really surprised," junior libero Stephanie Klefot said. "They kind of overlooked the SEC a lot and I think we should have done better and what we got wasn't fair, but what happens happens. We all have to go out and play for ourselves and show the SEC is better than what everyone thinks."

UK may have been rebuffed in its bid to host first and second round games, but the Cats are looking at the positive side of going on the road to open the tournament.

"We would like to be at home but it might give us a little more motivation and attitude going into it," Klefot said. "We might not be as relaxed so it may be a good thing."

UK owns a 7-4 record on the road this season and Skinner believes those 11 matches will be crucial to preparing for Thursday and Friday.

"When you go on the road in the tournament, it's us against everybody," Skinner said. "You have to do a good job preparing on the road during the season to help get ready for something like this in the tournament."

Also helping the Cats is the fact that they've essentially been playing in tournament mode for more than a month. Following a loss to Mississippi State on Oct. 14, UK knew it would likely have to win out to keep pace with first-place Tennessee in the race for the SEC title. The Wildcats responded by winning nine consecutive matches, including four that lasted a full five sets.

"A lot of teams could just coast through and they knew they were going to win," Klefot said. "For us, we had to compete every day. I think that helps a lot because if we get into a situation where we're down 2-0, we're not going to look at the third game and think we're in trouble. We know that we can come back from that."

They would lose a hotly-contested regular season finale against Tennessee on Wednesday, narrowly missing out on a share of the SEC championship. Even though only a few days have passed since the disappointment of the defeat, Skinner has already seen that his team is raring to hit the road for the NCAA's.

"If (Sunday's) practice is any indication, I think we're going to be ready," Skinner said. "I think we came with a lot of spirit, energy and competitiveness. We've talked about it being a three-season year with preseason, in-conference and now the post-season and it's time to get it going. I think our team, both the upperclassmen and the freshmen, are chomping at the bit to get going."

Six Wildcats earn All-SEC honors

For the second season in a row, Klefot was named SEC Libero of the Year and she is joined by five of her teammates on the list of all-conference honorees. Joining her as First Team All-SEC members are sophomore right side hitter Whitney Billings and junior setter Christine Hartmann. Junior outside hitter Ashley Frazier was named to the Second Team, while outside hitter Lauren O'Conner earned All-Freshman honors. Last but most certainly not least, senior outside middle blocker Ann Armes was named Co-Scholar Athlete of the Year.

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