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Volleyball taking on Skinner's challenge to pick up defense

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Alexandra Morgan won SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors after posting 17 blocks in wins over Auburn and Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alexandra Morgan won SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors after posting 17 blocks in wins over Auburn and Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ten days ago, the Kentucky volleyball team wrapped up nonconference play. After the Wildcats swept Morehead State, Craig Skinner was happy, telling reporters that his team had met its goal of an 8-3 record entering the Southeastern Conference regular season.

Skinner, however, was not content.

"I feel like our blocking still needs to get better," Skinner said on Sept. 23. "In the SEC it's going to be a little more physical and people hitting the ball pretty hard, so we gotta slow the ball down at the net."

Over the four days the Cats had to prepare for a two-game road swing at Auburn and Alabama, Skinner turned that feeling into something more substantial.

"We challenged them to one-on-one competition between you and the attacker and then we did some technical things throughout the week to work on it," Skinner said.

It wasn't that UK did anything drastically different in practice. The Cats just put more of a focus on blocking and accepted the challenge to be more physical at the net.

"It's kind of like you against the other girl on the other side of the net and either she's going to get a kill or you're going to block it," senior Alexandra Morgan said. "A lot of times getting a huge block is more important than getting a huge kill and more rewarding for both the blocker and the team."

All that work, well, it worked.

UK won six of seven sets in taking a pair of matches in Alabama largely on the strength of its defense, and more specifically its blocking. The Cats had 26 total team blocks in the two wins - the most they have had in back-to-back matches all season - and Skinner called UK "a completely different team" in that area.

Morgan - playing in her home state - had 17 blocks on her own en route to receiving SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

"I was excited," Morgan said of the award. "I kind of struggled with blocking earlier in the preseason, so I was glad to get a lot of blocks these last few games and glad I could help my team."

Morgan's effect, as well as that of the entire block, was felt much more than in just the numbers themselves. A good volleyball defense requires players at the net and back-line defenders work in concert, and the Cats continue to make strides.

"Everyone knows that we're not going to block every single ball," Morgan said. "So we set up our defense with diggers around the block so if the blockers don't get a block, all the diggers should be in position to dig the ball to the best of their abilities."

UK's diggers were on their game this past weekend, particularly in the Friday-night win over Auburn. The Cats had 60 digs against the Tigers, most ever for a three-set match during the Skinner era.

"If we just got touches our diggers were doing a great job of picking us up as well," Morgan said. "It was a complete team effort that did it, not just the solo blocking."

UK will be looking to replicate that this weekend as it opens its SEC home slate against Ole Miss on Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. The Cats have been hard at work trying to establish consistency with their defense, but took a break on Thursday evening to distribute an early dinner to fans at the Big Blue Madness campout.

"Kentucky fans are the best in the nation," Morgan said. "I know they're there for basketball and they want to see basketball players and they want to see the practice, but they love us out there. Anything Kentucky they love, so it's a lot of fun interacting with them."

The Cats are now hoping a number of those fans seeking tickets to Madness will make their way into Memorial to see a sport played with a slightly smaller ball. If they do, Skinner is convinced his team will have some new devoted followers.

"I think if they haven't seen a volleyball match, they'll walk out of here thinking, 'Wow, that was pretty cool,' " Skinner said. "I have no doubt in my mind that if they come out and see a high-level Division-I volleyball match on Friday night, that they'll have a whole different perception of what volleyball is."

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