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Volleyball: Morgan putting it all together in 2012

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Junior middle blocker leads the SEC with 47 blocks. (Berry Westerman, UK Athletics) Junior middle blocker leads the SEC with 47 blocks. (Berry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After Kentucky's impressive run in the 2011 NCAA Tournament in which the Wildcats battled tooth and nail with the No. 1 team in the nation in the Sweet 16, UK not only lost the match, but lost three important pieces. The end of the 2011 season marked the end of the careers for three middle blockers on the UK roster, including two starters in Becky Pavan and Ann Armes. Add to that, a former starter in Gretchen Giesler, and the cupboard was left fairly bare for 2012.

One holdover at the position, however, was Alexandra Morgan, better known as "Zan" to her teammates and family members. Morgan, a redshirt junior coming into this season, had played in only four matches in 2011 after seeing action in 12 matches her freshman year. But with the mass exodus, Morgan was the lone middle blocker on the roster with any experience going into this season.

Whether or not she was ready to play, she was going to be pressed into action. There just weren't many other options. Kentucky had Kayla Tronick, a redshirt freshman, returning, and two newcomers in freshman Sara Schwarzwalder and Desirre Wilkerson coming into the fold.

As spring workouts came and went, the summer open gyms passed on, and the promise of a fresh start in the preseason came to fruition, Morgan not only took advantage of her opportunity, she took it and ran.

"I think she realized in January that she had a really good opportunity to make an impact for us," said Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner. "I think she's taken that to heart and worked."

Morgan was a coveted piece of Skinner's recruiting class in 2009. She was a dynamic athlete who played volleyball and basketball while competing in track and field with gobs of raw talent. With a few middle blockers already on the roster, Skinner decided to redshirt Morgan as well as fellow freshman Whitney Billings to allow them to develop themselves as athletes and volleyball players.

In 2010, their redshirt freshman seasons, each were thrust into action. Billings, an outside attacker, got her feet wet and proved to be a valuable piece on a team in need of offense. Morgan, however, saw her time dwindle as the speed of the game proved to be too much for her too soon.

Billings continued to play throughout the season and into 2011. She's asserted herself as one of the best talents on the team, capable of playing all around on the floor. Morgan was left trying to find her niche, cheering on her team and watching her best friends find success on the floor while she watched from the sidelines.

"It was very hard to watch her," said Billings of her good friend Morgan. "We're talking about us playing and getting ready for games, and she wasn't playing. But she took it very well, though. She didn't separate herself from us."

This year, while Morgan has tried to fit in, she's been a standout at the middle blocker position. And her teammates couldn't be happier.

"It's been fun to watch Zan, from not playing for the first few years to stepping on the court for the first time and showing her talents. And she's been doing pretty well," Billings said.

If by "pretty well" Billings means a .343 hitting percentage and 47 total blocks, then yes, that's playing pretty well. Morgan's .343 hitting percentage is good for 12th overall in the conference, but the 47 blocks and 1.27 blocks per set put her first in the Southeastern Conference. She even earned honors as the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for her huge performance in Athens, Ohio in the Baymont Invitational Tournament.

Those numbers and accolades can be attributed to Morgan's new commitment to putting in the extra time and effort necessary to become an elite performer in the SEC. But she hasn't done it on her own. She made sure to hang on every word from her coaches during her development.

"I've been trying to come in extra as much as I can; just taking everything the coaches tell me and breaking it down," said Morgan. "Trying to improve at the small stuff so that it will eventually all just come together and the big stuff will start happening."

Morgan's relentless pursuit of perfecting her techniques have put her over the top when it comes to being ready to play in the SEC, but it's been her freakish athletic ability that got her to Kentucky in the first place. Now, her entire game is coming together beautifully.

The time of her development was impeccable.

"She knew we needed her, and we told her that," said Skinner. "She's taken advantage of that opportunity. I think she also knows that there's a lot more for her to do and I don't think she's going to stop working to improve."

But there were times were both Skinner and Morgan wondered if those abilities and potential would ever manifest themselves on the court.

"It was kind of discouraging working hard every day in practice and then not getting to show it on the court," said Morgan. "I know that my urgency probably wasn't as all there as it should have been the last couple of years."

Skinner was waiting for things to click for Morgan as well. The potential for something special was evident every day in practice. She had unbelievable ability to attack off of one foot, and her natural ability to block raised the coaches' eye brows, but the consistency and the overall skill necessary to play the position was still behind where it need to be.

"We've had several heart-to-hearts with Zan, wondering if she would ever reach her potential," said Skinner. "A year ago, she made the decision that she wanted to make an impact in this program. That's not an easy thing because physical talent is one thing, but working every day to make your talent into something that helps on the court is a different thing. I think she's done that."

Morgan's presence on the floor this season gives UK a versatility that it hasn't had in many years. The combination of her strengths compliment the team's overall philosophies and her ability on both offense and defense make her a player that opposing coaches have to account for.

She's mastered the slide attack, and Morgan has become a physical presence at the net, altering the shots of any attacker who makes the unwise decision to challenge her.

"She can play really high above the net off one foot and really high above the net blocking," said Skinner. "She's someone that opponents have to game plan for."

Morgan hasn't just improved her game, but her presence within her own lineup has made the team itself a more formidable unit. Her attitude and unselfishness has made each one of her teammates better.

"I think she's someone that is a giver and wants to make her teammates better around her," said Skinner. "She's playing for the people next to her. I don't think she's someone who players for herself. She's playing for the people around her and the jersey on her back. She plays with that type of mentality and the intensity to make her teammates better."

Even though Morgan is enjoying the most success she's experienced so far in her career, she knows that there's still a lot to learn. As her game progresses, she is still often surprising herself. She's helped fill a huge void and held up her end of the bargain, but for her, the job is far from finished and there's still plenty of room to grow.

"I'm not as good in the front as I am off of one foot, so sometimes I'll go up and get a kill off of an (middle attack), and I'm like 'Whoa,'" Morgan said. "I surprise myself, so that's always exciting and a lot of fun. So I'm trying to get better because there's always room for improvement."

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