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Skinner has team playing the Kentucky 'way'

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Craig Skinner and the Wildcats are coming off two five-set victories on the road. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Craig Skinner and the Wildcats are coming off two five-set victories on the road. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)

If you follow Kentucky volleyball head coach Craig Skinner on Twitter (@UKCoachSkinner), you have likely seen his recent tweets after victories over Tennessee and Georgia this past weekend.

If you're not following Skinner on Twitter, why don't you go ahead and do that now?

Twitter plugs aside, in each of his post-match tweets, Skinner made references to a theme that appears to be emerging from within the team. In both messages, the head coach hash-tagged the phrase, "#theWAYweplay."

Skinner shared this tweet with his more than 500 followers on Friday night after the win in Knoxville:

"Thanks for all the texts/tweets. Great comeback tonight vs UT. Proud of this team's heart. #theWAYweplay."

And then he thumbed this one out on Sunday afternoon:

"Another hard fought win on the road at UGA. Tough league! Love it! #theWAYweplay."

The "WAY" that his team played this past weekend allowed UK to come away with two five-set victories on the road, including an improbable comeback against the Lady Volunteers after trailing 2-0 at the break. And it looks like the Wildcats are starting to settle in for the final stretch.

But what is "#theWAYweplay"? What "WAY" is he referring to? It's an unselfish approach to the game that ultimately leads to greatness.

"I think it refers to a lot of intangibles," said Skinner. "A lot of things that don't show up in the stat sheet. Our presence, our composure, who's going to dictate how the match goes? Is it going to be us or is it going to be the opponent? (It's) How we go about things; the way we go about our business."

What do his players think when he talks about the "WAY"?

"When he says that, I just think that Kentucky volleyball is all about competitive playing all the time no matter what's going on, just playing until the whistle blows," said freshman middle blocker Sara Schwarzwalder.

Business is good for Skinner, at least for the time being, but there have certainly been some bumps and bruises along the way. With some inexperience entering the starting lineup at the beginning of the season and a brutal non-conference schedule lurking ahead, the Cats struggled to find their way early on.

Though Kentucky was given a preseason ranking of No. 13, the Wildcats couldn't live up to the lofty expectations to start the season. Skinner's team appeared to have the talent, but the inexperience reared its head as powerhouses like Nebraska and Oregon exploited UK's weaknesses.

As Skinner's squad entered conference season, an identity was nowhere to be found. With the lineup changing and confidence waning, Skinner decided to revisit an old approach. Talent and physical skills were not going to be enough to get them through the Southeastern Conference. They'd have to change the way they played.

"It started at the beginning of the conference season that we can't just rely on our physical talents and abilities," said Skinner. "There's got to be a way that we go about things, a way that we compete that can help give us an advantage against our opponent."

While it appears to be working well now, it didn't quite start off that way. A sweep at the hands of Florida at home followed by a loss to LSU on the road, UK was still searching for the "WAY."

It took a gritty performance on the road against Texas A&M after a four-match losing streak to get Kentucky back on track. And that "WAY" was just beginning to manifest itself.  

Kentucky then went on to notch a season-high four-match win streak.

What the team began to realize was that - no matter the opponent on the other side of the net - none of that mattered if the Catsa didn't worry about themselves. Taking care of business on their side of the net became much more important than what the opponent was doing.

"It's not about who's on the other side," said junior defensive specialist Jessi Greenberg. "As long as we play our game, Kentucky volleyball, then it doesn't matter who's on the other side. We'll know that we can beat anyone when we're at our best."

Though Kentucky fell to Tennessee in the first two sets last Friday, it wasn't because UK had lost its way. Skinner was actually pleased with how well his team was playing. The breaks just weren't falling their way. Yet.

"We played that way the whole match against Tennessee," said Skinner. "We had chances to win games one and two. They made plays at the end of the set and we didn't."

At the break, Skinner went into the locker room with a message. He wasn't mad, but he made sure to let the Cats know just to continue to play their game and eventually good things would happen.

"I wasn't disappointed in the way we were playing the game because I thought we were playing the game the way it was supposed to be played," said Skinner. "After (the break), it started to fall our way. So I just reminded our team at the break to just keep playing the way they were playing and good things can happen."

Kentucky went on to battle through the next two sets to get victories before deflating Thompson Bowling Arena with a 15-5 fifth set blowout to bring home the victory.

But whether Kentucky is playing Tennessee and Nebraska or Ole Miss and South Carolina as the Cats will this weekend, the they are no longer worried about the caliber of the team or the colors they are wearing across the net. No matter the opponent, the team is focused on playing their game, their way.

The Kentucky way.

"We could be playing Penn State or be playing a (Division-II) school even," said Schwarzwalder. "You've got to just keep playing hard on your side no matter what. You can't go down to the competition and you just have to keep playing at your high level. That's what Kentucky is about: high-level volleyball."

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