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Volleyball: Kentucky displays new-look offense in Nebraska

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Kentucky freshman setter was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky freshman setter was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team traveled to Nebraska over the weekend, displaying a brand new look. It had nothing to do with attire or a change in strategy. It had everything to do with freshman Morgan Bergren and her debut as the Wildcats' setter.

Bergren's first action of the season came in a 3-0 rout of Duquesne in Kentucky's opening round  match of the Ameritas Players Challenge in Lincoln, Neb., over the weekend. She then earned her first start of her young career against the Oklahoma Sooners and followed that up with another start against the No. 1-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers on their home floor, considered arguably the best atmosphere the sport has to offer.

Both starts came with mixed results. Bergren played well enough for her team to win, but a change at the setter position is one of the toughest transitions to make for any volleyball team. The Cats lost 3-1 to Oklahoma in their second match, her first start, of the tournament in a game that they felt they could have played much better.

Start No. 2 for Bergren saw the team come together much better than they had in the previous match. Going up against the top team in the country, Bergren and her teammates competed with the Huskers every step of the way, taking one set, and fighting tooth and nail in the other three. In fact, if it weren't for self-inflicted wounds, UK may have shocked the world and pulled the upset with a freshman setter at the helm.

It was not to be, however, as UK fell to Nebraska, 3-1. While that's not usually something to hang your hat on, UK is one of the just two teams this season to take a set off of Nebraska all year. The other? UCLA, who at the time was ranked No. 1 in the country before the Huskers defeated them in five sets.

While it's a team game and each player has much to improve on as this season progresses, Bergren acclimated just fine and had her team in a position to win.

Her performance over the weekend, despite two losses, was enough to earn Bergren her first Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honor. For the weekend, Bergren averaged 11.1 assists, 2.3 digs and 1.2 blocks per set. She showed an all-around game that, if she pushes through the expected growing pains of a freshman setter, could make it very difficult to keep her off of the floor.

Bergren is the first Wildcat to earn the honor this season.

Her performance in the Nebraska match was an eye-opener, as many had inquired about the switch at the position after Thursday's match, but Bergren showed the she is more than capable of holding her own despite a lack of experience at the collegiate level.  

However, if the growing pains do manifest themselves, senior setter Christine Hartmann has the rapport and experience to pull this team through the conference schedule, as she's shown over her career. She's been through the gauntlet that is the SEC and has shown time and time again that she is capable of picking up the slack in a reserve role while rallying the troops to lead them to a Sweet-16 run last season.

Regardless of the setter, UK is in a great position of having two athletes that are well-equipped to help this team reach their goals this season. Bergren and Hartmann each possess unique qualities in their game that are crucial when it comes to winning matches, and it won't be surprising if each player has their fingerprints on this potent Kentucky offense down the stretch.

Last season, it was Hartmann that Skinner had turned to after a slow start to the season. Skinner has had plenty of experience with changes at the position. Last year's decision paid off as UK went to a second Sweet 16 in three seasons. Skinner also opted to go with a true freshman way back at the beginning of his tenure with Sarah Rumely. Rumely grew to become one of the best players in UK volleyball history, becoming 2006 Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year and in her junior campaign became the first Wildcat to win Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors.

The 2012 season and the 2006 season bear little resemblance, however. In 2006, Skinner was looking to start building the program it has become today. In 2012, expectations, both internally and externally, have risen.  Coming off of a Sweet 16 appearance, UK hoped to build on that run, take the momentum into the season, and hit the ground running.

Well, the Cats haven't gotten out of the starting blocks as well as they had hoped, and it appears Skinner felt a shakeup was necessary. Though Bergren has played well in her first action of the season only time will dictate the payoff. With the ever-dangerous Florida Gators waiting in the wings for Kentucky's 2012 SEC opener on Sunday, a total team effort will be necessary to get off on the right foot, including both setters.

AVCA Ranking

Kentucky continues to drop in the polls, falling out of the top-20 for the first time this season. They still slide in at No. 24 in the latest AVCA Divison I Poll. It's been a tough road for Kentucky in the early goings, as UK has went toe-to-toe with three different teams in the top-12 of the AVCA Poll (No. 1 Nebraska, No. 9 Oregon, No. 12 Louisville). They also have played against two other teams who receiving votes.

The road gets no easier as UK still has two dates apiece with No. 15 Florida and No. 17 Tennessee. Kentucky meets the No. 15-ranked Gators this Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum to start the SEC portion of their schedule.

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