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Volleyball bracing for emotions of U of L rivalry

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Jackie Napper leads UK into a match with Louisville -- her hometown school -- after winning Kentucky Classic MVP honors this weekend. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jackie Napper leads UK into a match with Louisville -- her hometown school -- after winning Kentucky Classic MVP honors this weekend. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Craig Skinner has coached in his share of rivalry matchups.

He's patrolled the sidelines as Kentucky has battled for Southeastern Conference supremacy with the likes of Tennessee and Florida. He has been there as UK resumed its annual series with Louisville in 2009.

Based on that experience, Skinner has come to grips with the fact that there's only so much he can control when it comes to his team's psyche in those kinds of matches.

"I guess I've probably given up trying to temper emotions because I don't know if it's possible in a rivalry match," Skinner said.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, UK (4-2) will host U of L (2-3) for the fifth time since the rivalry's return. Winners of four straight matches - including a perfect weekend en route to a Kentucky Classic title last weekend - the No. 19 Wildcats look to earn bragging rights in Memorial Coliseum. The all-time series between the two schools is knotted at 25-25, with both schools winning twice since 2009.

Before the first serve, Skinner won't try to play the just-another-match card with his team.

"It's obviously going to be emotional and exciting," Skinner said. "The thing I usually tell the team is I don't know where your first five swings are going to go because there's going to be adrenaline, but let's settle down after that and play some good volleyball."

In recent years, the volleyball played between Kentucky and Louisville has only gotten better.

UK, of course, has reached eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Skinner's guidance and continues to take steps forward as a program each season. U of L, meanwhile, has made the postseason each of the last three years, including in 2012 when the Cardinals won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles.

The rebirth of the rivalry has coincided with unprecedented growth of the sport in the Bluegrass. More and more youngsters are playing volleyball in the state, feeding talent to programs like UK, U of L, Western Kentucky and Morehead State and fueling interest.

"The amount of people participating in volleyball here is phenomenal," Skinner said. "The amount across the state, obviously, is good and obviously the college programs are doing well, so it's one of the premier rivalries in our sport across the country. And I think (Tuesday) night will be no different."

A year ago, a record crowd of 5,007 packed the KFC Yum! Center for U of L's four-set win over Kentucky. Thousands turned out as UK hosted back-to-back matches vs. Louisville in 2010-11. The home team has won all four matches between the two teams since 2009.

"The crowds have always been phenomenal," Skinner said. "I think last year in Louisville there was over 5,000 people. Our place was a big crowd two years ago and three years ago and I expect the same."

Louisville native Jackie Napper will play the match in search of her second in three years over her hometown school. She played against U of L each of the last two seasons, but will take on a different role this time around. She is now UK's libero, succeeding  fellow Louisville native Stephanie Klefot.

Napper's presence has been vital during UK's ongoing winning streak, but Skinner is now looking for even more from the junior.

"Jackie's a very confident player," Skinner said. "She's very competitive. She serve-receives as well as anybody in the country and she's a great leader. Her whole team has a lot of respect for her and I think opponents do too. Jackie knows this: She needs to dig a few more balls. But serve-receive, she's as good as anyone we've had in that position."

Louisville - having lost a number of key contributors - is a different team this year, but UK's ability to serve-receive remains important. More important, however, is the simple fact that UK-U of L is a volleyball rivalry once again.

"It's good we've played this rivalry again since '09 and it's great for the sport," Skinner said. "Really glad we're playing it and there's really good volleyball all over this part of the country, so it's good to have this type of match in our house. It'll be another exciting match tomorrow night. Louisville's very athletic and our players will definitely be ready to go."

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