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Unsuspecting Wildcats selected to host NCAA first, second rounds

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The Kentucky volleyball team celebrates making the program's eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. (Alyx Ayer, UK Athletics) The Kentucky volleyball team celebrates making the program's eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. (Alyx Ayer, UK Athletics)
Selection Sunday is always one of the more exciting days in collegiate sports that have national championship tournaments. It's also stressful. In most cases, teams don't know where they will be heading, and sometimes they aren't even sure whether they will get invited to participate.

With a strong RPI heading into the final weekend of the regular season and picking up two wins on the road this week, Kentucky liked its chances of being selected to its eighth straight NCAA Tournament.

What the Wildcats weren't prepared for was their First and Second Round destination.

In a thrilling turn of events, based on the screams of the girls on the team upon learning the news, the Wildcats not only were selected to the field of 64, but they also earned the No. 16 seed and were chosen to host the first and second rounds of the 2012 NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum.

"I think we were shocked because no one was expecting to host this year, and relieved at the same time," said senior libero Stephanie Klefot. "It's great to play at home and have your crowd and support from them. I think we're ready."

Last season, Kentucky received an overwhelming amount of support from their fan base as its hosted a regional for the first time during head coach Craig Skinner's tenure. Memorial Coliseum was transformed into a volleyball haven for some of the best talent in the country as UK advanced through the first two rounds to face No. 1 seed Texas in the Sweet 16.

Though the Wildcats fell short of upsetting the tournament's top seed, it was a major step for the program advancing to their second Sweet 16 in three seasons.

"That was a big game for us," said junior right side hitter Whitney Billings. "Texas was pretty good and we played well against them. So we're going to remember what we did against Texas for this year."

This season, as Kentucky becomes one of 14 programs nationally to be selected to the NCAA Tournament eight seasons in a row, UK has its sights set on a similar run. Only this year, they are looking to break through to the round of eight and beyond.

"We were so close (to beating Texas) and we want to make it past the Sweet 16 and that's our goal," Klefot said.

Last year, the Wildcats never faced that type of competition before getting into the NCAA Tournament. This season, Skinner made sure that his team would have those types of experiences so that if that were in a similar situation again, they would have that experience to lean on in addition to last season's match against the Longhorns.

Kentucky had one of the toughest non-conference slates in the country this season, facing then No. 1 Nebraska, eventual No. 1 Oregon, and Louisville (ranked No. 4 in the final RPI). They Cats found themselves in almost every situation imaginable. After scheduling tough and having a successful run in the Southeastern Conference, UK worked itself up to No. 19 in the final RPI. That's likely the reason Kentucky will be staying at home this weekend to face East Tennessee State on Friday in its home gym.

"We felt like our schedule would prepare us for anything," said Skinner. "There's not a situation we haven't been in this year, and there's no question our schedule gave us those opportunities. We scheduled the right way.

"It was definitely a challenge for us, but I think ultimately we want to be prepared heading into this tournament and I think we've done that."

This weekend will mark the second straight year Kentucky as hosted a portion of the NCAA Tournament and fourth in the last five. The manner in which Skinner has built this program and the volleyball culture in the state of Kentucky is likely a contributing factor to why they are chosen to host with such regularity. After a strong showing of support from the fan base last season during the regional, UK will not only host the first and second rounds this season, but will once again have the privilege of hosting another regional in 2013.

Skinner and his team, however, are only worried about this year, specifically Friday night and first-round opponent East Tennessee State. And he's happy that his team fought to earn the respect to once again host three more matches of the NCAA Tournament.

 But even Skinner was excited and surprised by the opportunity.

"Literally every year I've been coaching you never really know exactly what you're going to get and this is no exception," said Skinner. "Of course our team is excited and we're looking forward to playing Friday night. We're certainly glad we earned enough respect to get seeded and have the opportunity to host."

With Eastern Tennessee State up first the Wildcats, Notre Dame and Ohio State will play in Friday's first match of the doubleheader at 5 p.m. Kentucky and ETSU will play in the night's second match, tentatively scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

Just like last year, Kentucky is hoping to draw the Big Blue Nation to Memorial Coliseum this weekend as they have the opportunity to display the game of volleyball on the greatest stage. For this team, a group that love playing on the big stage in front of a huge crowd, the homecourt advantage could go a long way into helping propel the Wildcats into another Sweet 16.

"We like playing in our gym," said Skinner. "We have great fans and a great environment for volleyball. We love the opportunity to play at home."

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