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Recognition rolling in for volleyball, Cats' focus on NCAA

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Skinner had led Kentucky to eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Skinner had led Kentucky to eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Sunday afternoon brought forth a great surprise as the Kentucky volleyball team was selected to host the first and second Rounds of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. It was a joyous scene as the team and support staff gathered around head coach Craig Skinner's living room and kitchen to see where the Wildcats would be headed for their eighth straight NCAA Tournament.

ESPNU didn't make anyone in the Skinner household wait long as Kentucky showed up on the first bracket. It took a brief second for it to set in, but as the team realized not only was it in the in the field but they were staying home for the first two rounds, the girls let out their emotion and excitement in the form of echoing screams, cheering, dancing and hugging.

Less than 24 hours later, the good news continued to roll in with the announcement of the Southeastern Conference's weekly and seasonal awards with a great deal of blue in the mix.

"It feels good to be hosting the tournament," said Skinner. "It feels good we were recognized for playing a challenging schedule and earning enough respect to be seeded and be hosting. Any individual award, as long as I've been around the program, has been a reflection of the team's success."

Senior libero Stephanie Klefot, for the third straight season, was named SEC Libero of the Year and to the All-SEC Second Team. Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings was named to the All-SEC First Team. And freshman middle blocker Sara Schwarzwalder earned All-SEC Freshman Team honors.

Shortly thereafter, the weekly awards were announced, and yet again Stephanie Klefot was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. It is her fifth such honor of her career and the first for her this season.

It's been an impressive run for Klefot, who will leave Kentucky as the program's second-leading digger. Her 1,885 digs have her currently ranked fourth in SEC history.

But Klefot made history Monday morning when she was named SEC Libero of the Year, becoming the first player in conference history to ever win the award three straight seasons. That's an impressive personal achievement, but it's also a credit to the Kentucky volleyball program.

"We've always emphasized defense in this program," said Skinner. "She's spearheaded our defense over the last few years and made a huge impression on the teams we play. Teams specifically game plan not to serve to her and not to attack to her. I think she has earned that respect along with our team and how we play defense and we're very proud of that honor."

Though the awards and the honor of hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are great accomplishments for Skinner's players and his program, Skinner was one of the few who weren't surprised by any of it.

In fact, Skinner felt there was a good chance based on the fact that they simply deserved it.

"We felt like there was a chance to host," said Skinner. "I think the reason why the committee selected us to host was because the number of opponents we played that are in the top 50 in the RPI and then also the number of teams we beat within the top 25 of the RPI gave us the opportunity to host over some of the other teams."

Skinner has built something at Kentucky that is becoming a program that doesn't just stumble into accomplishments. They don't get lucky. Kentucky is earning everything that the Cats get. They are earning more than just awards, but also respect on the national volleyball landscape over the eight seasons that Skinner has been at the helm.

"Of course it's a sign of respect of what we've accomplished as a team this year," said Skinner. "The combination of those things, the teams coming in here will recognize it's a great venue, it's a great event, and obviously in conjunction with the NCAA Tournament, it's a heck of an experience for a student-athlete."

Skinner hopes that experience for his team will be a long one as the Cats take their journey in the NCAA Tournament, but that journey can't start unless they focus on the task at hand this Friday against their first-round opponent in East Tennessee State.

"I can't wait. There's three seasons within each program," said Skinner. "The preseason, the conference season and the postseason. We're fortunate enough to continue to play in the postseason and have a chance to represent Kentucky the right way. We can't wait for first serve on Friday night."

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