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Volleyball using fast starts to rack up wins

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Kentucky looks to another hot start against the Razorbacks on Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky looks to another hot start against the Razorbacks on Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky is in the midst of playing its best volleyball of the season. The Wildcats have won six of their last seven matches including four wins in straight sets. That one loss, a five-set heartbreaker on the road at No. 11 Florida, came after UK took the first two sets from the Gators.

The common denominator in all seven of those matches is that Kentucky has won the first set. And in five of those matches, Kentucky has won the first two sets.  While getting off to fast starts hasn't been a perfect recipe for winning during this stretch, it's been close to it.

With dangerous teams like Arkansas coming into Lexington, Ky., Friday for a 7 p.m. match and Louisiana State at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, the Wildcats will likely need to continue to be the aggressors.

Interestingly enough, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner and his players aren't exactly aware of just how important their fast starts have been to their recent success. Maybe that's because their focus on the match and a point-by-point mentality has set them up to play that way.

"Lately, we're not saying let's play well the whole time, but let's stay focused the whole time," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "So I think it's just a different amount of pressure when it comes to focus or playing well the whole time."

A fast start can put a lot of pressure on the other side of the net. It can also serve as a way to grab momentum early in the match.

"We've typically gotten off to fast starts and done pretty well," said Skinner. "It's certainly not the end all as we've seen a few times across the country. You just have to be really good in the third set that you have to win, and that's really the most important part."

While Skinner believes that a fast start is important, he puts a larger emphasis on sustaining concentration throughout the match. Kentucky fell victim to that lack of concentration just two weekends ago.

Of UK's last six wins, Kentucky had found ways to seal the deal and terminate their opponent. In its lone loss, it looked as if UK would return the favor that Florida had dealt them early in the season. In Kentucky's first Southeastern Conference match, Florida came into Lexington and left with a three-set sweep over the Cats. Kentucky conversely went into Gainesville, Fla., and put up the early 2-0 lead on the Gators. But it wasn't how Kentucky started, but rather how they finished that determined the match.

"(Florida) made a couple of adjustments and I guess we didn't really respond," said senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier. "I feel like we maybe got a little too comfortable with our lead and we didn't have the same focus we had in game one and game two."

From that point on, it appears the Kentucky has gotten the message. The Wildcats have since swept Mississippi State and Texas A&M.

But even against Mississippi State it took some time for Kentucky regain that focus.

"Against Mississippi State we had little periods in there where we gave up some points, but it was a team we were able to do that and still come back," said Hartmann. "We had to learn by Sunday that Texas A&M was not isn't going to be a team where we can do that, and we definitely learned from that mistake within that weekend."

And apparently that's been the message, as Frazier echoed those sentiments of her setter.

"I think we learned a lot," said Frazier, "Because when we went to the locker room against Texas A&M, our focus between games two and three was to make sure we got it done and don't let up on our focus because we know it can happen."

Another factor, and perhaps the most important factor, is that Kentucky is just a better team. After facing arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the country, experiencing failure and success both losing and winning close matches, the Wildcats have seen just about everything this year.

Because of those wide-range of experiences over the course of the season up until this point, it appears UK is starting to hit its stride and find itself as a team. With how good the Wildcats have been playing, it's no surprise that this team is getting off to great starts.

"We've definitely improved from the beginning of the season until now," said Skinner. "We have the capability of playing at an extremely high level. Typically you're going to see results from how you practice and the things you work on in practice. When we have started well, you've seen us execute at a pretty high level."

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