The University of Kentucky volleyball team has been confronted with several challenges over the last year, continuing into this season. The Wildcats' biggest challenge within the past year that they've faced was a No. 1 ranked Texas Longhorn team that came into Memorial Coliseum for the Sweet 16 and barely got by a hungry, fearless Kentucky bunch that came to play no matter the opponent.
A similar challenge, or opportunity, awaits them this weekend when they compete in the Ameritas Players Challenge in Lincoln, Neb., home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Wildcats will face Duquesne, Oklahoma and tournament host Nebraska over the next three days to try and improve their game before the Southeastern Conference portion of their schedule begins next weekend.
The host Huskers will go into the weekend carrying a No. national 1 ranking. They're a perennial national powerhouse in the sport, and Kentucky head coach Skinner knows all about it.
Before coming to Kentucky eight-plus years ago, Skinner was the top assistant under John Cook at Nebraska, helping lead them to a national championship in 2000. Though Skinner has taken his Kentucky team back to Nebraska for a spring match as well as Omaha to play the Huskers in pre-conference tournament in 2010, Skinner has not been back to Lincoln in the regular season since he left for Kentucky in 2004.
The opportunity to go back and see some old friends and faces is something that Skinner looks forward to, but he's more excited about the chance for his team to play in a great environment that Nebraska affords for every home match.
"Nebraska has a great crowd and they'll have great crowds for all of the matches, not just the ones Nebraska's in," said Skinner. "For any athlete, especially female athletes, at this level to be able to play in front of that many people, to me, is motivating, and I think our players look forward to the challenge."
Though Kentucky sits at 5-2 on the season, they've lost two of their last four matches. Carrying a lofty top-10 ranking into Ohio, Oregon supplanted UK in a 3-0 sweep in Athens, Ohio. With the No. 1 team in Nebraska waiting for Kentucky in the final match of the weekend, Skinner doesn't think his team will be looking ahead to their date with the Huskers.
"I think our team is pretty focused right now," said Skinner. I think they know we need to take it day-by-day and get better each day. We've had a couple solid days of practice this week to work on some things. I'm not too concerned that we're going to overlook our first two opponents."
Those opponents, Duquesne and Oklahoma, are no slouches by any means.
Duquesne, out of the Atlanta 10 conference, is off to a hot start at 8-1 on the year. Oklahoma has been warming up as well, recently taking down SEC member Arkansas in four sets to get out to a 6-2 record on the young season.
In the past, these have been the exact types of situations that UK welcomes. The Cats typically relish the underdog role as well as playing in the spotlight. This weekend will provide no shortage in either of those departments.
Nebraska, despite a perfect 12-0 record and a No. 1 ranking, won't be looked at as invincible when the Cats and Huskers tangle Saturday night.
"I think our team feels like if we play at a high enough level, we can compete with anyone," said Skinner. "We've set up our schedule to compete and get us ready for the SEC. The Nebraska Tournament will be no exception. Our players are excited about it, and we've got to bring our 'A' game."
Skinner would agree that his team has not reached that level yet. Nor would he say the Cats have reached their full potential. That's why they've been back hard at work in the gym trying to get better every day, readying themselves for the opportunities they have in front of them in Nebraska. If this short week of practice is any indication, Kentucky will be looking to redeem itself after a rough week on the road.
"I've seen a motivated team the last two days in practice," said Skinner. "I like that. I think that started with our seniors and they were motivated to get back to practice... and I was encouraged by the progress we made."