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Pursuing big goals, volleyball taking day-to-day approach

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Whitney Billings led Kentucky with 365 kills during her junior season in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Whitney Billings led Kentucky with 365 kills during her junior season in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In less than four months, Kentucky will be one of four schools to host an NCAA Volleyball Regional.

The event - like growing attendance numbers and summer camps that have quadrupled in size - is proof of the program's progress under head coach Craig Skinner. The event - like UK's eight straight NCAA Tournament berths and three Sweet 16 trips in four years - is proof of UK's emergence on the national volleyball scene.

"It's certainly a sign of respect," Skinner said. "The NCAA sees our venue and our program has the ability to host an event like that."

When Skinner looks at the big picture, those are all major positives. Skinner, however, isn't in that mode right now. His team - ranked No. 17 in the preseason - is in the midst of preparations for the 2013 season and just days away from stepping onto the court in Memorial Coliseum for its annual Blue-White Scrimmage on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET.

That makes the December regional an objective, not an achievement.

"There's obviously no guarantee that we're in that regional and so we have a long way to go before we can say that we're a part of it," Skinner said. "But obviously that's the goal here."

That goal may be in the back of Skinner and the Wildcats' minds, but you wouldn't know that from watching the team in training.

"I haven't really heard any mention other than what we we're going to do today in practice and how we're going to get better today," Skinner said. "I think that's a sign of a mature team."

Skinner relies on seniors Whitney Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre' Wilkerson and captains Jackie Napper and Morgan Bergren to set that tone. The group has been talented from the start, but leadership hasn't come naturally for all of them, particularly Billings, UK's two-time All-America right side hitter.

"I'm not the biggest talker on the court, but I feel like I can lead my team in action," Billings said. "I can show them what to do and how to pick the team up or just go after it in the games."

Morgan, a middle blocker, has taken time to develop as a leader as well. She appeared in just 16 matches before a breakout junior season, but has become more comfortable setting an example for her teammates.

"I know when we split into position drills in practice, the younger middles like to look up to me and kind of mirror what I do," Morgan said. "I always take note of that and try to work that much harder to be sure that they're all successful and that we're all successful together."

Considering the seniors who departed following another Sweet 16 trip in 2012, UK will certainly need Billings and Morgan's presence. The Cats lost second-leading hitter Ashley Frazier, setter Christine Hartmann and all-time digs leader Stephanie Klefot to graduation, meaning a great deal of production will have to be replaced. To do that, Skinner isn't asking his players to be anything more than the players they already are.

"Jackie Napper right now is our libero; I can't say, 'Be Stephanie Klefot,' " Skinner said. "She needs to be Jackie Napper and she's very good at what she does. Morgan Bergren is a different kind of setter than Christine Hartmann and she does things better than Christine. Christine may have done things better than her in certain areas. But overall, what I see is people don't even really think about that. They're just trying to make themselves really good."

Even with players stepping into new roles, Skinner sees plenty of reason for optimism as UK prepares for yet another top-level schedule in and out of the Southeastern Conference.

"What I know about this team is I think we have a very high IQ of the game, understanding how to play, when to do things, what spots of the floor to be," Skinner said. "I think we have some nasty competitors in this group that want no part of the opposite side of successful."

Those "nasty competitors" have gained an additional edge this fall following the installation of a new Taraflex playing surface. UK is one of just four schools nationally to play on the floor, which is also used in Olympic competition.

"I think the first time our team walked out there for practice it felt pretty big-time," Skinner said. "You felt like you were in a special environment, that something great was going to happen when we played on that surface. Because of the look that it gives you, the feel of landing and performing on it, it's an elite-level performing floor."

UK will start the season away from that new floor with three matches in three days from Aug. 30-Sept. 1 against Florida State, Illinois and tournament host Long Beach State. The Seminoles are ranked No. 18 and both Illinois and Long Beach State are receiving votes in the preseason poll, but Skinner believes his team has everything it needs to compete at a high level immediately.

"It's a very physical team at the net," Skinner said. "All positions I think we can be athletic, physical. I think this team hits the ball extremely hard at almost every position. I think team defense and serving has always been a theme of this program and that starts with our serving then our blocking. Our floor defense has always been good."

If Skinner sounds like he has a clear view of what he wants his team to be good at, that's no accident. In fact, it hints at one of his guiding philosophies as a coach.

"I'm a big believer in you want to train and make your strengths exceptional," Skinner said. "It's easier to do that than make a weakness good. So we're going to spend a lot of time on our strengths to see if we can make those some of the best in the country."

Putting that approach into practice, UK has made a habit of contending for SEC titles and playing deep into the NCAA Tournament in recent years. Billings has been around for much of that success, but she believes something even more special could be in store - maybe even a couple games in Memorial on December 13-14.

"It's a possibility for this team to be the best team since I've been here," Billings said. "We have the talent and everything. We just have to put everything that we need together."

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