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Volleyball: Kentucky's defensive tradition begins in rival territory

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Louisville natives Stephanie Klefot and Jackie Napper are key cogs in Kentucky's second line of defense. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Louisville natives Stephanie Klefot and Jackie Napper are key cogs in Kentucky's second line of defense. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There is a tradition that has developed in the Kentucky volleyball program over the last several years, especially since head coach Craig Skinner took charge back in December 2004. That tradition is winning. But that tradition has spawned from another tradition, also cultivated by Skinner in his recruiting and player development.

Since Skinner was put into place as the head volleyball coach at the University of Kentucky, his defensive leader, the libero, has often hailed from the state of Kentucky. They are no home town heroines, these liberos. In fact, for Skinner to find his dominant diggers, he has to go into enemy territory.

The one thing that all of Skinner's liberos have in common: they are all natives of Louisville, Ky.

Actually, they probably have a lot more in common than their residence. These specialized defenders have incredible range, make the toughest of plays, and start the offense with precision passing. These libero Louisvillians turned Lexingtonians are what make this team go, playing arguably the most important position on the court.

Kentucky senior libero Stephanie Klefot is now the fourth such Louisville recruit to join Skinner and carry on the tradition. It was another one of Skinner's previous recruits that helped lure Klefot here. A player that she had grown up watching all through high school.

"It definitely had an impact," said Klefot of the tradition. "BriAnne Sauer was a huge reason. I grew up with her so it was a huge help coming in with her and getting into the swing of things. She would keep me after practice to work on stuff and we had the same attitude of relentless pursuit and I think that really did help."

Klefot follows in the footsteps of Sauer as well as Alisa Pierce and Jenni Casper who came before her. But who will be the next to carry on that tradition? One candidate may be already on the Kentucky roster.

Jackie Napper,a close friend and former high school teammate of Klefot at Assumption High School in Louisville, Ky., followed Klefot and joined the Kentucky volleyball program last season. She's learning from her "mentor" as much as she can now, on and off the floor, in hopes of being the next great libero at UK.

With the reputation that Klefot has built at the libero position, it will be no easy task as her replacement.

"Once Klefot is gone I have large shoes to fill and I hope to step up and become a leader on this team and take our whole team to a place where we want to go," said Napper. "Last year we made the Sweet 16 and this year we expect more and hope to continue that legacy and keep building this program to keep going farther and farther."

The bond that they share is a special one, which may make the transition a bit easier once Klefot moves on. Klefot has been in Napper's ear from day one, making sure that Napper knows just how good she can be.

"She always is working very hard and can always count on her," said Napper of Klefot. "This past weekend I had a game where I was kind of off and I even told her once we left the gym that I appreciated having her there and knowing she had faith in me and knowing she knew I was going to pick it up."

The amount of success that Skinner has had in finding the Sauers, the Klefots, and the Nappers of the country is not serendipitous. Louisville has no magic well to dip into for great defenders. But Skinner continues to dip into the Louisville well because it's a talent-rich area where they breed a certain type of volleyball player: players that fit the mold of what he hopes to continue to build his program with.

"We look (in Louisville) for liberos first all the time," said Skinner. "We try and start watching and identifying those types of players when they are in middle school and try to determine who the up and comers are and go from there. There is usually a recruit in that position in each class."

Louisville is widely considered the best area in the state of Kentucky when it comes to amateur volleyball. It has perennial powerhouses at the high school level in Assumption, Mercy, and Sacred Heart. With that many talented teams in one area fighting for pride and honor, competition is bound to be at a high level. And on the club volleyball scene, the Kentucky-Indiana Volleyball Club, better known as KIVA, is every bit as responsible for molding these backline defenders.

"Any drill we were doing for KIVA and a competition and it we weren't just out there playing, we were competing every point, every ball," said Napper, a former club member. "I think had a lot to do with building us and making us who we are."

It starts earlier than high school for most of these back-row ballers. In fact, these players are learning how to play the game around the same time they are learning to read and write. In the city of Louisville, volleyball is just second nature.

"Volleyball has been a big priority in the high schools and clubs there for years and years," said Skinner. "They have great coaches and they start playing when they are six, seven, or eight  years old so they get really, really good at the fundamentals and they compete against each other a lot, go to camp together a lot and they play in club together a lot. They are just seasoned volleyball players and for whatever reason they have a lot of libero-sized volleyball players there and the coaches do a good job training them."

Wednesday night, the priority for Kentucky will be to get an important road victory in Louisville in Klefot and Napper's homecoming. The Wildcats travel west down I-64 to face the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center at 7:00 p.m. Louisville (2-1) will look for revenge against UK after Kentucky got the best of the rivalry last season in a 3-0 sweep. Meanwhile, Klefot looks to start a streak and rectify the result from the Wildcats' last trip to her hometown. It's a game for bragging rights in the state, but with the tradition of Louisville-born volleyball players prevalent on both sides of the rivalry, the intensity of this rivalry should be at an all-time high.

"I am so excited because it is in Louisville and last time we were there we lost," said Klefot. "We are playing against some of the girls I know and now Jackie knows all the new girls. My whole family and friends are coming so I know it's going to be an intense match."

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