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Volleyball: UK hopes to use Louisville loss as learning opportunity

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Wednesday night's four-set loss to Louisville was a tough pill to swallow for the Kentucky volleyball team. Carrying a lofty No. 10 national ranking, UK strolled into the KFC Yum! Center and immediately took the first set from the Louisville Cardinals to grab an early 1-0 edge in the match.

It was all Cardinals from there.

Last year, when U of L came to Lexington, UK sent the Cards home with a 3-0 loss in rather convincing fashion. After four matches, I'm convinced the Wildcats are talented enough to be the No. 10 team in the country, if not better, but they can't be satisfied with any number next to their name.

Head coach Craig Skinner talks day after day, match after match, about how useless and unimportant rankings are. If it were up to him, he'd never let his players see the rankings. Now, he hopes a disappointing loss to a talented and fired up Louisville team can be a learning opportunity for his team.

There was a lot to take away from last night's match. Louisville served much tougher, more aggressively than Kentucky did. Louisville was in system far too often while UK found themselves in unfavorable scoring positions throughout the evening. The Cats made several questionable decisions when it came to playing balls that were going to go out of bounds, or sets went to hitters with several blockers. But it all starts with passing.

Kentucky has to pass better, and it will. The Cats have several experienced players in the back row that are capable of performing at the highest level. They haven't yet, but they have a track record that says that they can.

One factor, and perhaps the biggest factor, was the road atmosphere that they went up against Wednesday night in the River City. Louisville packed the joint with 5,007 fans, some who made the drive from Lexington. By design, Skinner has set up a non-conference schedule that has his team playing against top competition is some of the most hostile of environments. That started with the Louisville match and will continue over the next two weekends.

Over that period, Kentucky will travel to the Mecca of college volleyball, otherwise known as the University of Nebraska, which owns the No. 1 ranking. One of the most loyal and devoted volleyball followings congregates there each home match and fills NU Arena with a capacity of 4,030 fans.

This weekend, however, will be a test in and of itself. The Wildcats travel to Ohio to face the Bobcats, Oregon and Western Carolina. It will be an opportunity for Skinner and his team to correct some of the mistakes they've made early on and worry about playing for the name on front of their jerseys instead of their ranking in the polls.

It wasn't a complete beat down last night. The third set was ugly, but UK had a great opportunity to take the second set and hold a commanding 2-0 lead heading into the break. But the Cats let their foot off the gas. In the fourth set, I witnessed some of the most competitive volleyball I have ever seen. Rally after rally, neither team would be denied until Louisville finally capitalized on one of multiple match points.

The bus ride home was somber. The team was clearly upset. They knew that they had to make corrections and that the number 10 was not going to mean a thing unless they went into the gym and proved it to the world and to themselves. They haven't earned anything yet, but they still can.

If the Wildcats can sustain the competitiveness they showed near the end of the fourth set Wednesday night throughout an entire match, they will be a forced to be reckoned with. For Skinner, he hopes that force emerges this Friday in Ohio, and as soon as possible.

After a loss, Skinner wants to be back on the floor as soon as possible to get the taste of defeat from his and his team's mouths. Any loss to Louisville always tastes worse. That's why this weekend will be vital.

The Ohio Tournament field will test the Cats once more, just as the Kentucky Classic field did a weekend ago. Though one day of practice between matches is less than desirable, the opportunity to be back on the court after their first loss of the season should provide plenty of fuel to add to Kentucky's fire to propel the Wildcats through the weekend.

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