The 2012 Kentucky volleyball season started off with a bang Friday night. In UK's first match of the Kentucky Classic, UK got through two tough sets, then handled North Carolina in the third to claim match No. 1 with a 3-0 sweep.
Kentucky clearly looked like the superior team athletically on the floor, but North Carolina, a team receiving votes in the coaches' poll, showed that it was no pushover. North Carolina used a multitude of different shots, taking advantage of a sluggish UK defense early. But not to be phased by UNC's craftsmanship; UK kept its poise and fought back with each Tar Heel run through the first two sets.
"Very happy with that win," said Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner. "Obviously with the first match of the season you don't know what to expect. Our concentration at the end of game's one and two I think were the difference in that match and us being able to perform when the match is close is a good sign early."
Early on, it was the Lauren O'Conner show for UK. The sophomore outside hitter came up with several huge shots in the first two sets in clutch situations to extend runs or pull UK back into the set. She looked virtually unstoppable. O'Conner finished set one with six kills on 11 attempts, hitting .545 to lead Kentucky to a tight 25-23 set one victory.
Set two was just as tight, but a couple of new faces to the starting lineup made the biggest contributions at the middle position.
Junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan had a flawless second set, banging out five kills on eight attempts, hitting .625 for the set. Morgan had not seen much playing time at all in her career, but throughout the summer and preseason, she has become a revelation of sorts for a team in desperate need at the middle position.
"(Morgan) is really good in tight situations and she performs under pressure and we saw that tonight," said Skinner. "She is very dynamic off of one foot and probably one of the best slide-attackers overall that we have had in the program. She is a very physical and dynamic blocker and her numbers were very good tonight and the good thing is she will only continue to get better."
But you need two middles to play the game, and freshman Sara Schwarzwalder fit the bill. Skinner said he's really liked what he's seen out of the rookie so far in preseason, but an injury late in camp had held her out of several practices and limited her in the Blue/White scrimmage. Missing so much time as a freshman, Skinner wasn't quite sure what he was going to get out of her, but he had enough faith to stick her in the lineup to get her feet wet.
She pulled through big time. Rarely did she look like a freshman out on the court in front of a raucous opening night crowd at Memorial Coliseum. She was vocal and took control when she needed to, and when the opportunities came, she made the most of them. She kicked in four kills of her own on her way to a .667 hitting percentage for the set as UK took set two over UNC in another close one, 25-22.
Schwarzwalder wasn't the only freshman seeing action Friday night, however. Shelby Workman came off the bench and was dynamic in the back row as Skinner opted for offense over defense. While Workman was potent from behind the stripe, she more than held her own passing and defending. She finished with just one kill, but recorded five digs on the night.
The performance from the youngsters has Skinner encouraged about what they can bring to the table.
"They are both very physical and skilled players and they certainly didn't play like they were freshman tonight and that is a huge advantage for us," said Skinner. "Sara (Schwarzwalder) driving hard in the middle and getting up and getting a couple of blocks and Shelby (Workman) the way she passed and swung out of the back row that is a weapon we didn't have last year. (We definitely) benefit from it and I am proud the way they stepped in their first match."
Kentucky blew it open in set three, getting out to an early 9-3 lead. After pushing it to 14-6, Kentucky cruised comfortably to a 25-14 victory in the third set to take the match in straight sets. It marked the first time since 2007 that UK opened up the season with a 3-0 sweep.
It was an impressive performance by Kentucky who had a big crowd behind their backs. A crowd of 1,621 showed up on opening night at Memorial Coliseum to root on the Big Blue, one of the largest attendance numbers for an opening game in Skinner's tenure.
The fan support is something that Skinner, who wins his opener for the seventh time in his eight years at UK, believes his team feeds on when the going gets tough. He's hoping for a similar showing Saturday night.
"Great crowd, great energy and very knowledgeable and that is a sign of our program continuing to get better," said Skinner. "You see a lot of people you have never seen before in the stands, it's a huge advantage for us and I hope they come back tomorrow."
Kentucky (1-0) will have a double header tomorrow in the final day of the Kentucky Classic. They will face Lipscomb in the morning session, scheduled for 11 a.m. at Memorial Coliseum. In the night cap, Kentucky will host Long Beach State who beat Lipscomb in the early match on Friday, at 8 p.m., potentially looking for the Kentucky Classic title.