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13 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Kayla Tronick

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TRONICK_TWITTER-FACEBOOK.jpgLeading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. Next up is junior Kayla Tronick: 

"Kentucky  Volleyball is family, since I'm from Minnesota and don't get to see my family very often. I have relied on my teammates and the coaching staff the past couple years, they are a sense of security. Everyone that is part of UK volleyball is always looking out for each other.  Another thing I would have to say about Kentucky Volleyball is the determination to win.  When we lift, run and practice there is no doubt in our minds that we can win."

Kayla Tronick played in 14 matches in 2013 with five starts as a sophomore. The outside hitter/middle blocker notched 19 blocks for a 0.54 blocks per set rate that ranked fifth on the team to go along with 41 kills last season. In UK's NCAA Tournament win vs. Duquesne, the Hutchinson, Minn., native hit a season-best .500 with five kills, one dig and one block. In her first start of the season, in a win over South Carolina, Tronick tallied a season-high nine kills on 3.53 hitting with three blocks.

Preseason Team Update: August 16, 2014
After a day off yesterday, the Wildcats are back at it today with two practices. Saturday's two practices mark the beginning of the second week of preseason practice, and 13 days until the season-opener in Memorial Coliseum.

For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVB and on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.

Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 12 rebounds in UK's win over the Dominican Republic on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 12 rebounds in UK's win over the Dominican Republic on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - This was supposed to the best competition Kentucky would face in the Bahamas, a step up in talent and the stiffest test yet for the loaded Wildcats. After all, it was the Dominican Republic national team, ranked No. 26 in the FIBA world rankings (though those rankings are with NBA veteran Al Horford and current Wildcat Karl-Anthony Towns).

But just like the first two opponents UK played in its previous three games on the Big Blue Bahamas tour, Kentucky took the Dominicans' best shot early in the first half Friday and then ran away with things in the second half.

Platoon after platoon, player after player, wave after wave, the Cats just wore out the professionals and broke them down.

When it was all said and done, despite an entertaining and back-and-forth first 15 minutes and a late comeback attempt, UK wiped another opponent off the floor Friday at the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas.  

Former UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who was on the other end of Friday's 83-71 Kentucky win as the Dominican Republic national team head coach, was impressed at how far along his former team is.

"They've kept it going from how we ended (last) year," Antigua said. "Obviously the chemistry, the knowing one another, knowing the expectation from the coaches, all those things early on in a season ... they already have. They're on step five instead of step one or two, which is what we had to (start with) the past few years."

For the fourth game in the Bahamas, UK combated professional experience with an overwhelming amount of talent, depth, dunks and Alex Poythress.

The junior forward continued his best string as a college player with arguably his best game yet. In just 20 minutes of action, he posted a game-high-tying 20 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block.

On a team that's shined from top to bottom, he's shined the brightest.

"That is the reason I came back: I want to prove I'm still one of the best," Poythress said. "I'm just trying to show the world."

Poythress wasted little time in making an impact Friday, scoring six points in the opening five minutes as the Cats took a 14-9 lead. His bucket at the 8:50 mark ignited a 7-0 UK run, but the Dominicans, as expected with a talent-loaded roster that features a much-improved Eloy Vargas, NBA veteran Francisco Garcia, Edgar Sosa and Jack Michael Martinez, hung around early.

When Sosa cut UK's lead to 34-30 on a steal and a layup with 6:20 left in the first half, it appeared everyone was in for the first close game of the week. But Poythress stepped up again.

The catalyst of a 13-6 run at the end of the half, Poythress threw down a dunk and followed it with a 3-pointer to give the Cats a little halftime separation.

"What's different is just his whole mindset," teammate Dakari Johnson said of Poythress. "He's more in attack mode. Whenever he gets it he's looking to attack more and also he's just playing to his strength. He's just increasing on that."

Dakari Johnson was in attack mode as well on Friday.

The Dominicans elected not to double team the 255-pound big man to start the game, and they paid for it dearly. Though he's leaner this season, Johnson still threw his weight around Friday, scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds by the first media timeout.

"I felt like Dakari set the tone," said assistant coach Kenny Payne, who served as UK's head coach for the second time in three games as John Calipari evaluated from the stands. "I thought he did a good job in the post. I thought he played well down there. He's tough to deal with, and if you're not going to trap him, I mean, he's really hard to deal with."

Johnson slowed down as the game wore on, but he still ended up with 10 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double of the trip. He looks slimmer, more athletic and poised to have a big sophomore campaign.

"It's just been great," Johnson said of the trip so far. "Just the balance and the overall team, everybody contributing and everybody doing their job and playing their roles, it's been really fun for all of us."

Johnson said he's been motivated to step his game up by the superb play of freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. With those two, Marcus Lee and the eventual additions of Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, UK looks to have the most formidable front line in college basketball.

"We've got so many different, legitimate players that it's very difficult to find out, who are you going to take away?" Payne said.

It was Lee's turn to contribute to start the second half.

The dunking specialist started the half with two straight slams, one of which he caught on a lob, cocked back with his right hand and then flushed in the basket with authority. He finished the game with eight points, all on dunks, and his last 10 field goals over the last two games have all been slams.

"His energy is what is important for us," Payne said. "We need his energy. He's an energetic player. That's his personality and that's what he brings to the table."

Lee's back-to-back dunks sparked a 9-0 run to start the second half, all but putting the game out of reach for the Dominicans.

"The first five minutes of the second half, which they've done in every one of their other games, they get that separation," Antigua said. "Then you're swimming upstream after that."

The Dominicans fought upstream in the second half and nearly made a game out of it with an 8-0 run. They got as close as 12 several times with time remaining and then 10 in the final few seconds, but they could never get it back to single digits.

"We did not dictate the pace of the game defensively and they outrebounded us," Payne said. "They only had two bigs, so that says a lot right there. We've been outrebounding teams by 20-plus. ... Some of this could have been attributed to the two days off. They were maybe a bit rusty, but at the end of the day we got the W. They played OK, not great."

And yet, UK won by double digits, beating another professional team - its best competition yet - by double digits. That has to say something.

"I think it says a lot when you're playing grown men opposed to other college kids," Payne said. "The fact that that team was full of NBA players and European players says a lot."

Assistant coach Kenny Payne

Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress


When Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown came off the field to meet with the media following Friday's practice, there was little hiding his frustration with his unit's performance when faced with adversity.

"Broke my sunglasses; you can tell it probably wasn't that good of a day," Brown said.

Broken sunglasses were a minor issue for Brown, who has been neck deep in constructing the Kentucky offense in his second season under coach Mark Stoops.

"It was an okay practice," Brown said. "We had some give-and-take. We did pretty well in the scrimmage on Wednesday. Defense got after us a little bit in the team portion of it today. We worked some situations. You know, we're reaching that point in camp where guys are getting tired. We've got a lot of young guys. They've got to get mentally stronger. (I'm) happy where we're at. We're still excited; we just got to handle adversity better."

Among the challenges facing Brown in preseason camp is identifying skill players who could make an immediate impact at Commonwealth Stadium, starting with the season lidlifter on Aug. 30 vs. UT Martin at 12 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

Among those skill-position priorities is identifying a starting quarterback amongst the four QBs competing for the job, freshmen Drew Barker and Reese Phillips, sophomore Patrick Towles and junior Maxwell Smith.

While that storyline has dominated much of the chatter during preseason camp, Brown is also focused squarely on finding reliable targets for his future starting quarterback.

While several receivers have stood out at this stage of camp, Brown singled out true freshmen Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and Charles Walker as newcomers that could develop into potential immediate impact weapons.

"When we were initially recruiting (Blake Bone), I thought he was going to be a redshirt guy, but he came here and put on like 20 pounds in the summer and he's made a bunch of plays in live situation," Brown said. "So he's really showed he's capable of playing. And Charles Walker; I knew when he made the decision that he was going to come here that he was going to be a good player. He was not going to be a typical walk-on. I knew he was going to be a really good player, but I think he's going to be a guy who's going to play for us this year."

While identifying some skill players to move the chains and change the scoreboard is a priority, another focus of Brown's at this stage of camp is improving the tempo of his unit.

"Early in the week when the practices were open we had some officials, so we had three really good days -- Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday -- of really working with what the actual tempo is going to be in a game," Brown said. "Wednesday was the best we've had since I've been here. We fell back a little bit today, didn't probably try to push it as much. But Wednesday was the best tempo in a game or a scrimmage atmosphere that we've had since I've been here."

Part of the tempo that Brown wants can be aided by vocal leadership and true accountability from his standouts on offense.

"It's getting better," Brown said. "Defense has got a little more leadership than we do just because they're a little bit older group. You know, Jordan Swindle fills that void. Braylon Heard does that in a different, different way, different type of correction, but he does that."

ANDERS_TWITTER-FACEBOOK2.jpgLeading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. Next up is second-year assistant coach Anders Nelson: 

"Kentucky Volleyball to me is a program that provides endless support and encouragement while constantly challenging you to be your best.  We're a family.  Those involved are expected to reach their potential as a complete individual.  I'm thankful every day for the opportunity to work with these people and coach these athletes."
Anders Nelson begins his second season as an assistant coach at Kentucky. Last season, Nelsen helped guide the Wildcats' defense to an SEC-best 2.88 blocks per set in league competition. Three players ranked in the top 15 in the SEC for individual blocking, with two in the top five. A Saint Croix, Falls, Wis., native, Nelson also served as a volunteer assistant with the Wildcats during the 2011 season. He is a 2011 graduate of Ball State University and helped lead the Munciana Volleyball Club for two seasons, including to the 2011 AAU 18 Open National Championship with a 66-2 record.

Preseason Team Update: August 15, 2014
Yesterday was a busy day for the Wildcats, with an appearance on the SEC Network's inaugural show, photo day and a big announcement from the SEC Network. Be sure to check out Thursday's team update and feature on senior Jackie Napper here.

Today, two weeks until the season-opener, the Wildcats have their first day off since the preseason began on Saturday. They'll return to the court tomorrow for two practices. Across campus, move-in is this weekend for all students living in the dorms. The team helped the freshmen move in this morning before volunteering at Cardinal Hill this afternoon.

For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVB and on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.

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