"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" is a tried and true refrain in the world of athletics. University of Kentucky volleyball player Stephanie Klefot isn't known for her failures. She's proud of what she's accomplished and what she has contributed to the program over the last three years. She has accrued success and several accolades during her three previous seasons at UK, but it was a previous failed endeavor away from UK volleyball that had Klefot looking for redemption.
After her sophomore season, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner urged Klefot to try out for the U.S. Women's National A2 Volleyball Program in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the U.S. Volleyball National Training Center.
After the tryout, Klefot didn't get the news she was hoping for.
"Last year I went out there and I was really timid," said Klefot. "I wasn't my normal self, like loud and everything. Therefore, I wasn't really playing as well as I could."
A year later and a second consecutive Southeastern Conference Libero of the Year award under her belt, Klefot was ready to give it another go after a disappointing showing in Colorado last year.
"Craig came up to me and asked if I wanted to try out again, because I had previously tried out last year," said Klefot. "I really wanted to because I was disappointed with my results, not making it last year. So I went. It was basically serve receiving the entire time and they evaluated everything we did."
The training was rigorous and exhausting. Morning workouts started at 8 a.m. and two-a-day practices consumed a good portion of the daily routine. When they weren't playing, they were nourishing their bodies with the same type of foods and nutrients that Team USA does while training during the year at the Colorado Springs facility. When practice was over, players were expected to stay in the dorms to rest for the next day of practice.
Needless to say, it was no Rocky Mountain sight-seeing adventure.
After several hours of training and evaluation, it was pay dirt time. Would Klefot have made amends for her performance last time around? Or would she come up just short of her goal of playing with and against the best of the best?
A record 207 athletes tried out for the A2 team, and of the 48 players selected, Klefot was one of them. The hard work paid off and Klefot had redeemed herself, becoming the second University of Kentucky volleyball player to be selected to the A2 program (Ashley Frazier, 2011). Even though she was specifically instructed not to tell anyone, she couldn't keep the good news to herself.
"I called my parents first even though they said not to tell anyone," said Klefot. "I was really excited and I was proud of myself."
And so was her coach. Though he's not so sure that Klefot shouldn't have been chosen the first time around, he was very proud of her determination to come back this year and make the squad.
"This is the second time that she's been out there," said Skinner. "And being the best libero that there is in (the SEC) the last couple of years, it automatically puts her in a category of a select few in the country. I'm not sure that it was evaluated correctly the first time out just because she's so athletic and has so much ability. I think this time around, people took notice and she had another year of experience under her belt, so I'm sure she was more confident this time. But she's a difference maker in her position."
Even though Klefot had accomplished her goal of making the team, actually participating in the event was another story. Normally confident in her game, a new experience with new teammates on a national stage gave Klefot a bit of anxiety. It was to the point where she was hoping she would get sick the night before she was supposed to leave for Columbus, Ohio, the site of the A2 competition, so that she wouldn't have to go.
In fact, she didn't even know if she even belonged on that stage.
"I was actually more nervous about it really," said Klefot. "I didn't know if I was expecting myself to make it or not because there were a bunch of other good liberos that were going to be there. So, when the time came to actually go there and play, I told my mom that I kind of hoped I had mono because I didn't want to go out there because I was so nervous."
Fortunately for everyone involved, a clean bill of health arrived and Klefot made her way to Columbus to compete with the A2 team. Once she hit the floor, the jitters were gone and she "had a blast." Her team only lost two games throughout pool and bracket play, and her performance on the court made a strong impression on the USA Staff.
Skinner also made the trip up to see his libero compete and represent his program. He came away impressed with what he saw from his senior captain, but what he heard from the higher-ups was even more encouraging.
"All of the coaches that I spoke to that were working with the USA group said that she was a big-time difference maker among the liberos," said Skinner.
Not only will the experience help Klefot in her senior campaign as she tries to capture her first SEC title, she will be able to help share what she's learned with her teammates in hopes of getting her team to the next level.
"I was definitely playing with some of the top people at the college level," said Klefot, "So just trying to push out team to be as consistent as they were all the time. Playing hard, hitting the ball hard, playing defense and being ready. Just competing every second."
While Klefot has shifted her focus to the 2012 season, which begins Friday, Aug. 24 against North Carolina in the Kentucky Classic, a volleyball career after Kentucky is never a distant thought.
"I hope so, if I'm able to do that," said Klefot of playing for Team USA one day. "Hopefully my senior year will be good and I can get my name out there and continue to play."
Her resume speaks for itself. If she puts together another great season as UK's libero, that could only help her chances.
While results, stats, and awards are important, Skinner believes it will be Klefot's intangibles that help her get to the next level.
"I don't think there's any question that she should have that opportunity (to play for Team USA)," Skinner said. "She has the ability. A lot of people have the athletic ability and capability, and when you get to that level it's competitiveness, determination and wanting to improve every day, and she has every one of those qualities."
Those qualities are exactly why Klefot was able to reach her goal this summer. They are why she has excelled in her first three seasons as a Wildcat. And they will be the reason why Skinner and everyone else associated with the Kentucky volleyball will continue to be proud.
"It means a lot," said Skinner of Klefot competing with the A2 team. "It says a lot about our recruiting. It says a lot about our program and where we are. It's always good to represent the USA, and I know I can speak on behalf of Steph, when you throw the USA jersey on, it makes you pretty proud."