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Volleyball has a different feel heading into 2012

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Senior setter Christine Hartmann will look to anchor UK's attack in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Senior setter Christine Hartmann will look to anchor UK's attack in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Craig Skinner has led the Kentucky volleyball program to seven consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, a feat matched by only 16 other Division I programs. The Wildcats have reached the Sweet 16 two out of the last three seasons. But things are different this year.

And maybe that's a good thing.

Kentucky started practice Wednesday afternoon, a two-a-day session, and the Cats hit the ground running.

"I definitely expect us to be a lot more organized than in years passed because we have six or seven upperclassmen who have been through a lot of drills and a lot of seasons, so you expect that to be at a high level," said Skinner. "I think execution-wise I would think this team is further along than most just because all of our ball control and ball handling is all back as well as our starting setter. So I think we're probably a little bit ahead of where we've been in the past."

But perhaps the biggest difference is the overall talent in Memorial Coliseum on a daily basis. Practice already looks to have mid-season intensity. Yes, a bit of the excitement is due to the players finally getting back to structured practice and the fast-approaching 2012 season, but the energy in the gym is palpable.

It hasn't always been that way. Senior setter Christine Hartmann is heading into her fifth season after a redshirt freshman year. She has seen a bit of a transformation, for the better, in the culture and attitude of the program.

"I think it's way more intense than it's been in the past years," said Hartmann. "And being here for the last four years, I think that's got a lot to say for the group that's here. Leading up to it, everyone was on the same page on how we wanted to be once we started practice, and it showed when we came in a lot in the summer just to play."

This summer was a blessing. All four incoming freshmen were able to enroll in classes and get a leg up in building team chemistry and familiarity with their new school and program. Early enrollment also allowed the rookies to train with their new teammates to be in shape once the preseason regimen began.

"First of all, in the summer workouts, they were probably some of the most in-shape freshmen that we have had," said Hartmann. "My class, I mean, none of us had ever lifted before, and we came into conditioning dying. They're already pretty fit and in shape so they're able to keep up with us more."

That goes a long way. Instead of the coaching staff needing to spend time introducing the newest additions to the team during the fall, the bonds and chemistry they created over the summer allows Skinner and his staff to focus more on the game rather than the well being of his team.

"We can get into some team stuff and six on six a little quicker than we have in the past," said Skinner. "Not only because of our returning players, but because of the freshmen we have here have been part of winning programs and played at an extremely high level in club. So they're used to the speed of the game a little bit more so than some of our recruiting classes."

Freshmen Sara Schwarzwalder is helping make sure that Skinner does not have to worry about the new comers at all. A talented member of the nation's 15th-ranked recruiting class, Schwarzwalder is already reaping the benefits of getting a head start in the summer.

"That was one of the best decisions I've ever made because I was able to start conditioning, start lifting, start hanging out with the team, growing chemistry," said Schwarzwalder. "It's just definitely made me stronger having come in. This is only our second day of practice but I feel so acquainted with everybody. I feel comfortable with everybody. And I already feel faster and stronger because of it."

It's evident already, just two days into practice. After watching bits and pieces of team drills, there is a noticeable difference on the court. There is more depth in this program than at any point in Skinner's tenure. He has three returning All-Americans, several All-Southeastern Conference players on his squad and a highly touted recruiting class. It's an impressive collection of talent that has Skinner and his team excited about the prospects of a season set to start on Aug. 24 vs. North Carolina.

Skinner has never shied away from using freshmen if they are the best option for the team. Sarah Rumely played as a freshman and developed into an SEC Player of the Year and All-American by the time she finished her UK career in 2009. Stephanie Klefot has been a staple in the Kentucky defense since her rookie year, and she's developed into a two-time defending SEC Libero of the Year. 

This freshmen group may provide something that Skinner has never had in his previous recruiting classes. He has capable, physical players who can make immediate impacts all over the court.

"They're physical. They're physical in a lot of different ways," said Skinner of his freshmen. "Obviously, physically capable of playing high above the net, but also very skilled. Because they played at high levels at high school and club, they've worked on a lot of fundamental skills that a lot of freshman haven't worked on a ton and that allows them to not think as much the first few practices and be able to react."

The talent on the floor at any given time will only help propel this team toward its goals. With each player on the floor battling to see the court this fall, a healthy competitive atmosphere will undoubtedly boost the level of play during the preseason. But the preseason not only gives the players chances to compete and prove themselves, but they are learning the game from the coaches and fellow teammates. 

"It definitely pushes me to compete better and to work hard and grow stronger in the weight room," said Schwarzwalder. "Having (Alexandra Morgan) and Kayla (Tronick) here and who have been here in previous years and having (Marshall transfer Desirre Wilkerson) who played previously in college, it's just great to learn from them slowly. Like I'm learning new things about blocking, I'm learning new things about hitting, and it's just great to have that resource around me at all times. We all push each other because we're all strong players."

The new cupboard full of talent, especially on the offensive end, tends to excite one particular position on the floor. That position would be the setter, and Hartmann can't wait to show the nation all of her new weapons.

Hartmann's teammates have each made strides in the off-season while the freshmen provide new looks that their opponents have yet to see. She has already started to realize just how versatile of a group she has at her disposal.

"As a setter, I know I have more hitters that are capable of different things than I've had in the past," said Hartmann. "I know with (Morgan) even that I can throw some ball out of system from anywhere in the middle position and she'll got a touch on it at least or she'll score on some crazy play. That's just one of the examples of just knowing how dynamic and how athletic we are that we can do things that we haven't been able to do in the past."

Skinner has had his teams knocking on the door to SEC Championships and Elite Eights throughout his tenure at Kentucky. They have fallen just shy. But the differences that are emerging from this year's team may make for a different ending.

A different culture, a different intensity, a different versatility and attitude in the program may, and likely will breed different results. 

That's a good thing.

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