Kentucky has four homegrown players from within the state, but one player in particular could not be more excited about the opportunity to be part of the first UK volleyball team to play in the arena. After all, growing up in Taylor Mill, Ky., in Northern Kentucky and being born and raised into family full of Blue bloods, how could she not be?
"I was so excited to find out that we were going to play at Rupp Arena," said sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner. "I never thought that I would play there and it means so much to me, being from Kentucky, to get the privilege to be a part of the first volleyball team to play in Rupp."
Kentucky over the past few years has played in some large arenas and unique environments. The Wildcats have traveled to Omaha, Neb., and played at the CenturyLink Center, which currently holds the national attendance record for an NCAA volleyball match (17,340). They've also played at the University of Nebraska in front of one of the greatest fan bases in all of the sport. They played at the KFC Yum! Center earlier this season in front of a raucous crowd for the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. And they annually play at Florida and Tennessee, which both play their home matches in their basketball arenas.
But perhaps none of those opportunities could prepare them for what lies ahead Friday night.
Rupp Arena will be the largest venue that the Wildcats will have ever competed in and it holds upwards of 24,000 fans. With a full house expected at Rupp on Friday night, it's very possible that UK could break the national attendance record that has stood since the Final Four in 2008.
The Wildcats are hoping to give the casual fan an opportunity not only to see their team, but to grow the sport and the program.
"It's great we're getting the opportunity to play in front of a new audience," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "A lot of fans last year came to our match against Texas as their first time seeing a match and many said they really enjoyed it. So any time you can get new fans to see you is great to get a bigger fan base."
But while the novelty of the event will certainly be an energizer for the Kentucky volleyball program, they are still in the midst of their Southeastern Conference schedule. Friday's match against Mississippi State counts the same as all the rest of the matches, despite the circumstances.
A loss to the Bulldogs (4-12, 0-7 SEC) Friday night would not only be a blow to what the Cats are trying to accomplish by performing at Big Blue Madness, but it would also be a tough loss to take as they try to make a strong run through the SEC. But as they found out last season when they traveled to MSU, when you play in Madness-type environment, anything can happen.
When Kentucky played in Starkville, Miss., last season against the Bulldogs, the match was played at their "Maroon Madness." With the crowd's support and an energized home team, UK fell at the hands of the Bulldogs despite the records and reputations.
With those memories fresh in their minds, they know that even with the opportunity to play in an exciting new environment, their focus first and foremost needs to be on defeating Mississippi State.
"One of my personal main focuses this year has to been to treat every team the same," said Hartmann. "No one else is wearing a Kentucky jersey and that's reason enough to want to win. Yes, we need to bring energy and get excited, but we can't give in to the hype too much and lose focus of what we came to do."
But at the end of the day, the event as a whole will in fact be an incredible opportunity for Skinner's program. Not every volleyball team has the opportunity to play at a "Madness" event, and certainly no other program in America can boast Kentucky fans and Rupp Arena as the venue, even if it is only for one night.
"Kentucky fans don't mess around," said O'Conner. "They are always supportive and they will bring a lot of excitement and support to our match. We have had a lot of support in previous games at Memorial (Coliseum), but this will be a whole new level."