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Trip to No. 2 Florida another opportunity for UK volleyball

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Craig Skinner and the Wildcats will travel to face No. 2 Florida on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Craig Skinner and the Wildcats will travel to face No. 2 Florida on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Opportunity is a word that comes up frequently with the Kentucky volleyball team.

Every practice is an opportunity to improve. Every weight-lifting session is an opportunity to get stronger. Every match is an opportunity for the Wildcats to test themselves.

Craig Skinner built UK's schedule with that in mind.

"Lipscomb was an opportunity to play in front of a hostile crowd and environment," Skinner said. "Minnesota was an opportunity to play against a top-five team from the Big Ten."

So far this season, UK has taken advantage of those opportunities more often than not. The Cats are 12-3 (4-0 Southeastern Conference), including wins in both those matches mentioned by Skinner. Now, they will face a challenge that combines a road crowd with a top-ranked opponent as UK travels to face No. 2 Florida (15-1, 4-0 SEC) on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET on SportsSouth).

"Florida's the perennial power in the SEC," Skinner said. "It's an opportunity for us to go toe to toe with them and see what we're all made of."

The Gators will surely give the Cats everything they can handle. Florida has won 10 straight matches, losing just one set in the process.

"They're very athletic at every position and physical," Skinner said. "I think they have a couple seniors that have a big desire to be successful. Their middles and right-sides, statistically, are off the charts."

The seniors are setter Taylor Brauneis - who ranks 10th in the nation at 11.62 assists per set - and middle blocker Chloe Mann. Mann also falls into the latter group, averaging 3.46 kills per set while hitting an astounding .527 to rank second nationally. Mann spearheads a Florida attack that also ranks second nationally with a hitting percentage of .349.

A few weeks ago, facing such an offense would have been much more troubling to Skinner. Since then, UK's defense has taken a step forward. The Cats have 41.5 blocks in their four SEC wins, holding opponents to a combined hitting percentage of just .137.

"We're physical in the front row and so we have to force their attackers to make choices," Skinner said. "They can't just have the freedom to do whatever they want. So our block is a big factor in that and channeling their attacks in certain directions and forcing a couple players to beat us and not allowing all five players to go for big numbers."

Skinner is concerned about that because of Florida's remarkable balance. Five different Gators are averaging at least 2.31 kills per set.

"You have to do some specific things with your block," Skinner said. "You have to serve tough to get them out of system so they can't set everybody. If every rotation they can set any one of the hitters they need to or want to, that'll be very difficult for us. But if force their setter to have to set one or two people as opposed to three or four, then we have a good shot."

If things go as planned, Skinner expects a close battle, which could end up favoring Kentucky. The Cats have already played four five-set matches, winning each of their last three, while Florida has played into the fourth set just three times and never gone the distance.

"Being in those kinds of situations helps you," Skinner said. "Our leadership for our seniors and captains, they're very even-keeled and the same all the time. So whether it's the first set or fifth set, I don't worry at all about how we're going to approach it.

"I think it's going to come down to: Can we score points when we need to? Can we finish? Can we force Florida to be a little bit uncomfortable out there? It's a tall task, but something that we're going to have to do to be successful."

Should UK come away with the win, it will be a signature road victory on an already-impressive resume. The Cats will get a boost in the polls and the RPI and grab a leg up on the Gators in what is shaping up to be a tight race at the top of the conference.

But no matter what, there will still be another road match to be played at South Carolina on Sunday. There will still be a month and a half left in the regular season. There will still be plenty of opportunities ahead.

"There are 18 matches in conference," Skinner said. "This is the fifth match and there are a lot of them left. We can't put all of our eggs in one basket. We're going to prepare hard and be ready for Florida and Saturday, win or lose, it's time to focus on South Carolina."

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