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Volleyball All-America honorees a sign of respect for program

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Whitney Billings was named to the AVCA All-America second team. (Andy Jessop) Whitney Billings was named to the AVCA All-America second team. (Andy Jessop)
Last Friday signified the ending of another strong season for the Kentucky volleyball team when it lost to No. 1 Penn State in the Sweet 16. Obviously the result was an undesirable one as UK hoped to shock the volleyball world and take down the six-time NCAA champions. But it wasn't meant to be. That doesn't mean the season wasn't a success.

Actually, Kentucky may have earned more respect this season than in any of its previous seven seasons under head coach Craig Skinner.

A great deal of the season was a struggle for Kentucky, but it was by design. Non-conference matchups with Nebraska and Oregon, who faced each other in the Elite 8 with a Final Four bid on the line, as well as the annual rivalry match with Louisville added to the difficulty of the Southeastern Conference slate. But the Wildcats still managed to reach the 20-win plateau for the fifth time, the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time, and the NCAA Regionals for the third time in four seasons under Skinner.

It was a challenging season, one of the most challenging schedules UK had faced, yet it came out the other side a battle-tested team ready for the postseason.

Skinner has not only helped his team reach team success, but he's also helped some of his players earn national acclaim. Over the past four seasons 10 Wildcats have earned All-America honors. After the completion of the 2012 regular season, that number increased by three.

Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings, senior libero Stephanie Klefot, and senior setter Christine Hartmann were each named American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America selections Wednesday morning, making them the first trio to be named All-Americans in back-to-back seasons in Kentucky volleyball history and also the third time that three Wildcats were named All-Americans in the same season.

"It's definitely a special award for Kentucky volleyball and a special award for those individuals to feel good about," said Skinner. "They are great team players, they play for the program, and we're all very proud of them."

Billings proved herself one of the best right side hitters in the nation as one of the few versatile enough to play every rotation. She was named to the second team for the first time in her career, becoming the sixth Wildcat to earn second-team honors in school history. She put up career-high numbers with 365 kills to average 2.99 per set and 35 aces while averaging 2.75 digs per set, ranking second on the team.

Klefot earns honorable mention honors after earning second-team honors last season. Kentucky's libero for the last three seasons became the first player in SEC history to be named SEC Libero of the Year three times in a career. Hartmann joins Klefot as an honorable mention honoree after she averaged 10.83 assists per set and earned career-highs in aces (21), digs (226), and blocks (79) in her senior season.

In all, Kentucky has had 19 All-America selections in school history. Skinner has been at the helm for 13 of those including eight different players. Skinner has also had at least one All-America selection in each of the last six seasons.

Coincidentally, Kentucky has had great team success over that time span. Their team achievements, the 20-plus-win seasons, the multiple Sweet 16s have helped the program earn respect nationally, but it's also helped develop and promote some of their most important members.

"It's another sign of respect for the program and our team accomplishments," said Skinner. "I think without the success of the team, we may not get these recognitions. Individually, they are each very deserving and they each put a lot of time and energy into putting themselves into a position to be successful and it's paying off."

As Kentucky continues to advance deep into NCAA Tournaments, play the best teams the country has to offer and earn individual honors on a yearly basis, the respect for Kentucky will take care of itself. It has thus far.

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