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Volleyball: Skinner looking for breakthrough season in 2012

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Craig Skinner is entering his eighth season at the helm of UK volleyball. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Craig Skinner is entering his eighth season at the helm of UK volleyball. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Expectations are high for the Kentucky volleyball team this season. The Wildcats nearly knocked off top-seeded Texas in the Sweet 16 in Memorial Coliseum last year. Two years prior, they were narrowly edged out by Florida State for a chance to play in the national semifinals.

It hasn't always been that way at UK, but ever since head coach Craig Skinner took over in December of 2004, expectations increase each season when autumn draws near.

"Anyone else's expectations from outside the program are probably going to be less than our own expectations," said Skinner. "There are always high expectations and I think our team embraces that and wants those because when there are high expectations, it pushes you to work harder."

And this team does work hard. In fact, this team might work harder than any group that Skinner has had since his time at Kentucky. Whether it's gathering for pick-up games in between volleyball camp sessions after working the camp and squeezing in classes, or putting in quality time in the weight room, this team looks and acts hungry.

"I'm not satisfied as a coach," said Skinner, "And I know our players aren't satisfied. From how they're training this summer and how they're getting into the gym more than they ever have, I really have a sense that they are pretty motivated this season."

After tasting success once more in the NCAA Tournament and having Texas on the ropes in the Sweet 16, these Cats know they have the capabilities to meet and exceed the expectations they have for themselves and what others have for them. 

The internal push from within this experienced and talented group of returning players will be key to meeting their goals. Junior All-American honorable mention Whitney Billings and All-SEC Freshman team selection sophomore Lauren O'Connor return to the front line this season, but Skinner says it all starts with his seniors, a decorated bunch led by Stephanie Klefot, Christine Hartmann and Ashley Frazier. The senior leadership could be the key to one of Kentucky's best seasons in program history.

"I think a lot of coaches would say you have to have good leaders to be successful," said Skinner. "The most successful teams I've ever been a part of, whether it's conference champions or national champions, the motivation and drive came from within the team. If that starts with your seniors, then you're way ahead of the game. I really have a lot of respect for the seniors that we have this year. If we didn't show up to practice one day, I have a pretty good idea that they would get a lot out of those two hours even if we weren't there."

Leadership has been something that Skinner has searched for in past seasons, but with fiery personalities like Klefot and Hartmann on the floor and the work ethic and production from Frazier, Kentucky ought to be set in the leadership department. 

Those leaders that Kentucky possesses are allowed to lead due to the trust that they've gained over the last few years amongst their teammates. They have developed as strong a team chemistry as any coach could ask for. When the going gets tough, the Cats get going, and these Wildcats don't back down from any challenge. 

"Any coach you ask, chemistry is a big deal, and we're no different," said Skinner. "We've had great chemistry the last few years. It seems like we have great chemistry now. You really find out how good that chemistry is when you're under pressure and you have challenges, so the closer you are when you get to that point is certainly a big difference in getting beyond the challenges in a successful way."

But as any college program sees turnover in their team on a year-to-year basis, Skinner has been able to reload on a yearly basis. This season, they lose two starters in Becky Pavan and Ann Armes as well as a key contributor off the bench in Gretchen Giesler. 

As the Kentucky volleyball brand grows, Skinner has been able to figure out just what type of team he wants. The job is never over, as he hopes to one day make Kentucky not only an SEC power, but an elite program on the national landscape. 

He has taken the right steps to make those things happen over his seven full seasons as head coach.

Skinner has molded his program into one that emphasizes character, academics, work ethic and winning. Those characteristics are evident in each one of his players.

The challenge is to seek out and bring those types of players into the program while maintaining a winning atmosphere. With more success comes the ability to cast a wider net to be able to pick and choose the type of players he likes. 

This season, Skinner has hauled in the nation's 15th-ranked recruiting class with some players that are capable to contribute right away and bring more talent into his stable. They also fit the Skinner bill.

"The group we have this year has been successful in most levels that they've played in," said Skinner. "So they're conditioned to be in places and programs that challenge to be the best in whatever they're in; the league, the conference, the country, whatever it may be, so they're used to what we're trying to accomplish. I think that's a major benefit for our program, and they're certainly not afraid of anything."

Skinner knows that it's important to have good people in his program, but it is paramount to have good players. Over the years, he has been able to do that more effectively each season to where he has his program on the precipice of its first conference championship in 24 years. 

This year would be an ideal opportunity to just do that, despite new additions to the conference and a tough non-conference schedule. Though the SEC title is a goal they shoot for every season, it is not the ultimate goal. This year, the ultimate goal lies west down I-64 with the Final Four being held in Lousiville, Ky. A conference championship would go a long way in setting the Cats up for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and eventually to the KFC Yum! Center. And the added benefits of an appearance in Louisville could be immense.

"We certainly want to be there," said Skinner. "There are a lot of things that have to happen to get to that point. We have to have a great year to put us in a good position to have a run in the NCAA Tournament. I think if we are able to put ourselves to be in the Final Four, I think that would be a huge boost for volleyball in this state. Not only from an athlete perspective, but in this fan base. I think there's no reason why we shouldn't have that as a goal, and the next step is improving every day."

That's Skinner's mantra: Improve every day. If not, players and coaches are wasting their time. All the while, he is calculating and lying out detailed plans to help him reach he and his team's goals for this season. After a long string of volleyball camps ended last week, he and his staff have focused their energy into the preseason.

"We are trying to figure out how to get the most out of 12 practices before we play North Carolina," said Skinner. "Obviously the reps in the gym are mandatory, but team building things and trying to prepare for when challenges and obstacles that might occur, they always do, it's on your radar so that it's not such a surprise when they do."

With Skinner's preparation and his players' motivation and mentality, the Wildcats will not be surprised if they have a break-through season to reach their lofty goals. In fact, they would be more surprised if they didn't.

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