Anni Thomasson had 13 kills and 12 digs in UK's season-opening win on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In practice leading up to the 2014 volleyball season, kills were hard to come by.
What Craig Skinner wondered was whether that had more to do with the strength of Kentucky's defense or the offense's need to improve.
After a season-opening win over Wichita State, the former seems more likely.
Facing a team that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago, the Wildcats were dominant on the attack in a decisive sweep of the Shockers.
"I'm very happy with the way we played in our first match," Skinner said. "Who knows what to expect. You know how you've been playing against your own team. Wichita State, even though they're a young team, they're always well coached and always very athletic."
It was a balanced effort that carried UK, with four Wildcats putting down at least six kills on the opening night of the Bluegrass Battle. Senior setter Morgan Bergren guided an offense that hit at a .372 clip with 31 assists as No. 19 Kentucky moved to 1-0 entering a Saturday doubleheader against Butler and Virginia Tech.
"I thought Morgan did a really nice job of finding the right people at the right time," Skinner said. "Everybody got involved in the offense. Wichita State had a hard time knowing who she was going to set."
Anni Thomasson was the most likely candidate to finish off points. The sophomore had 13 kills and just two errors in hitting .440.
"Anni's just a great volleyball player," Skinner said. "She figures out ways to score. When she can't pound it straight down, she's going to find a seam or a hole in the defense."
Not only does she find holes in the opposing defense, she also fills them in UK's. Thomasson added 12 digs in what figures to be the first of many double-doubles for her this season. Thomasson was one of UK's best players a season ago in receiving All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors, but she appears poised to be even better in 2014.
"No one outworks her," Skinner said. "She just is a grinder and wants to be really good and never takes a day off. When you're like that, it's hard not to improve."
The Newark, Ohio, native is an outside hitter, a position sometimes occupied by offensive specialists, but Thomasson is as much of a contributor on defense. That's a big reason why Skinner says this could be the best defensive team he's coached.
"There's not a position that's weak defensively," Skinner said. "Typically you'll have one, maybe two people that struggle defensively. I think we're going to make it tough for people to score, but we gotta do it every day."
That means practice too, where more intense offense-defense battles are surely in store.
To count down the days to the start of the 2014 season, the UK volleyball team and coaching staff talked about what Kentucky volleyball means to them as part of the Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball.
For head coach Craig Skinner, it's "a culture of great people that are striving to be the best." Junior Morgan Bergren added that playing for UK is about "being part of something bigger than yourself," while freshman Ashley Dusek said UK volleyball means "passion."
Comments from the student-athletes ranged from "family" and "commitment" to "determination and pride" and "the opportunity of a lifetime." Each answer was a different opinion of what makes UK volleyball a special program to be a part of and such a great place to play.
As the Wildcats prepared for the upcoming season, the daily feature, which coincided with updates on the team throughout preseason practice, gave the team a chance to reflect on what being a part of Kentucky volleyball and the UK community is all about. It was also an opportunity to look forward, as several student-athletes also talked about the opportunity to win a championship as they set their sights on the season.
An archive of "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason can be found here. Each day, a UK student-athlete was featured as part of the countdown, in correspondence with their uniform number in addition to the coaching staff.
The countdown also included updates, news and notes from UK's preseason practices. From preseason national rankings to the release of a feature film about the team's trip to China earlier this summer, it was an eventful month leading up to the 2014 season-opener.
As the Kentucky men's soccer team enters the 2014 season, one of its biggest unanswered questions is who will replace some of the team's departed scoring.
With the graduation of leading scorers Tyler Riggs and Brad Doliner, Kentucky must replace 64-percent of its goals from a year ago. One of the players tasked with picking up the scoring load is senior forward Justin Laird.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Laird is UK's leading returning scorer after pacing the team with six assists in his first season in Lexington.
The Wright State transfer played in 17 games and made seven starts, finishing with one goal on 22 shots, with his golden goal in overtime vs. Old Dominion in the C-USA Tournament Quarterfinals lifting UK to the semis.
Now entering his final season with the Wildcats, Laird will be counted on as a forward in UK head coach Johan Cedergren's attacking system, a role that requires a physical presence up top as a primary distributor.
"It has been difficult for me, especially since I am the type of player that just likes to run and not really body up guys," Laird said about adapting to the system. "I like to be facing goal, not getting the ball with my back to it, but it has been a change for me. At the same time, with the changes of the coaching staff, I have a lot more clarity of what needs to be done and I feel like I have been adapting to that role real well. I think they get more pleased with me in that role, day-by-day."
A star at Hartford Union High School in Hartford, Wisconsin, Laird began his collegiate career at Wright State.
During his debut season at Wright State, Laird totaled team-highs in points (15) and goals (seven), earning a spot on the Horizon League Newcomer Team.
"I learned that D1 soccer is going to be a lot of work," Laird said about lessons learned at Wright State. "It is going to be a complete grind. Coming to Lexington it really just shows me how blessed we are to have the things that we have and have the coaching staff that we have. It just helped my momentum going forward and helped me learn about what soccer can do for a campus, and we have big things in store here."
After earning a starting spot at forward in UK's first exhibition tune-up of the year at Northern Kentucky, Laird came off the bench to play the final 45 minutes in UK's final exhibition against Georgia State. Upon entering vs. GSU, Laird's impact was immediately felt, as UK picked up the offensive intensity and attacking mindset.
"I feel way more comfortable around campus," Laird said. "I need to be more of a leader out there. I hope that I am a guy that players can look to with questions, on and off the field. I feel like I have a good relationship with this campus right now."
One benefit to Laird and UK's offensive attack in the preseason has been the daily battles with UK's stout defensive unit. With junior Callum Irving, "one of the top three goalkeepers in the country," according to Cedergren, and three starters returning on the back four, UK's defense will be a strength in 2014.
"It is hard," Laird said about facing the UK defense in training. "It is the best four that I have ever played against. In practice it is really hard to get goals on them. Their formation is set and skill wise they are almost unbeatable. It is definitely a struggle when you have to face them up in practice."
Laird has learned a lot over his time at Kentucky and has been struck by the commitment from the UK support staff in building a first-class operation.
"It all starts with the department," Laird said. "UK facilities and everything we have, we are super spoiled and super blessed. I learned that this is a place with big goals and we have the facilities to reflect and reach those goals. We can go big places with this team."
The Wildcats will open their 2014 season against Laird's former squad, Wright State, on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then return home for its first game at the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday, hosting Belmont at 5 p.m.
"Goals for the team are to get to a final four this year. We are going to have to have a lot of leadership and a lot of people step up. But at the same time, it is possible. Individually, my goal is to have 10 or more goals."
The 2014 season is 24 hours away. At 6:30 p.m. ET, Kentucky will kick off the new season against Wichita State in Memorial Coliseum.
For a complete preview, Bluegrass Battle schedule, match notes, TV and live results information and more, check out UKathletics.com: Volleyball Hosts Bluegrass Battle to Open Season. The preview also includes video from Tuesday's media day and a feature on Cat Scratches, written by UK's Guy Ramsey.
About 24 hours away from the beginning of UKVB 2014. Can't wait to see our fans back in their spots at Memorial Coliseum...let's go! #one
For an archive of "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 @KentuckyVBand on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.
It was Kentucky's habit a season ago to hold one final full practice on Thursday of game week before a lighter practice on Friday.
Mark Stoops is flipping the script in his second season.
"We're actually changing things up this year," Stoops said. "We're going very light and minimal on Thursdays. We're going to go fast on Fridays. It's a little different changeup."
The thinking is that the new schedule will allow the Wildcats to be at their best on game day. By the time Saturday rolled around a season ago, players had gone 48 hours without going full speed. By moving the recovery day earlier in the week and a more intense practice later, Stoops anticipates the Cats will be primed to play fast against UT Martin this weekend.
Though the move is a departure, it's not unprecedented. Stoops cited Oregon as one of a handful of college teams to make the change.
"There's plenty of other schools who have done this and so we did a little study in the offseason and looked at it and it's just another part of the plan to play faster," Stoops said.
With the nervous energy around the Nutter Training Center these days with the season opener so close at hand, players aren't likely to mind the chance to fly around on Friday.
"Just anxious to get going," Stoops said. "I think the players are anxious. Just seems like the summer went extremely fast, but this week seems a little bit slow. We're ready to get out there and tee it up and get playing."
Patrick Towles will make his college starting debut in UK's season opener on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last Monday, Mark Stoops summoned Patrick Towles into his office.
After briefly letting Towles hang out to dry, the second-year head coach told the Fort Thomas, Ky., native he had won Kentucky's long-running quarterback battle.
Considering Towles had spent most of his football-playing life working toward the moment, the celebration that followed was more short-lived than you might expect.
"Obviously I got the nod, I'm excited about that," Towles said. "It's what I've always wanted, but that's over with now. I've gotta worry about playing Tennessee Martin on Saturday."
Once he was named the starter, Towles went from competition to preparation for UK's season opener at noon ET on Saturday. The transition has been relatively seamless, mostly because Towles hasn't really changed his approach. In the huddle, he's the same guy.
Of course there's some extra adrenaline flowing, but he's still managing to stay on an even keel.
"It's hard, but I'm excited," Towles said. "You know that you have to get prepared for the game and you can't be all excited and your mind going everywhere and 25 different places during practice or else you're not going to get anything productive done."
Adopting that mentality, Towles following the lead of his head coach.
"I think just try to stay as normal as possible," Mark Stoops said. "He doesn't need to put any more undue pressure on himself. The whole team needs to play well. I expect that he will be a little bit antsy, I'm sure, like you said. But he's just got to calm down and stay within himself and operate the offense."
Though Towles will certainly have the most eyes on him come Saturday, he really isn't much different than most of his teammates. The Wildcats a team full of players who must fill roles for the team to succeed, regardless whether they're the Southeastern Conference's active sack leader like Bud Dupree or a true freshman like Blake Bone, Stanley "Boom" Williams or Matt Elam.
"We've improved," Stoops said. "Our football team has worked hard. We'll see where we're at. I know we're going to play better. It will be good to see these young guys get out there and play, see how we've improved, see the veterans, guys like Bud and (Za'Darius Smith), see them come out and see how much they've improved."
For the first time since 2007, a home crowd will be able to see UK's offseason improvement firsthand. With eight true freshmen, six redshirt freshmen and three first-year junior-college transfers on the two-deep depth chart, Stoops knows UK can't afford to squander the opportunity to get off to a quick start.
"I know our fans are ready to go," Stoops said. "We need to do our part. I know we'll have great support. We need to go out there and start fast and play good football, play with great energy, play with great discipline, make it exciting for the fans."
Neal Brown is thinking the same thing.
After implementing his version of the Air Raid last season through fits and starts, the second-year offensive coordinator says the Cats are already ahead of where they were a season ago in terms of tempo. UK is far from a finished product, but Brown believes fans will see his group has made significant strides.
"I want to make sure that we're not playing so fast that we're hurting ourselves, you know?" Brown said. "But we're in a position now, going into our second fall, that we're able to play really fast when we need to. And there's going to be some times in this game where we'll play at a really quick pace -- faster than we ever executed last year."
UK's offense will contend with a UT Martin defense led by All-American linebacker Tony Bell. Bell led the Ohio Valley Conference with 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for less.
"They have a great defensive player, No. 40, the linebacker, an exceptional player," Stoops said. "He's a really good football player. He can play anywhere in the country. Really like the way he plays. Like I said, I think they're a well-coached team. They're very multiple on both sides of the ball, can do a lot of things."
With an offseason for UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson to make changes, Stoops knows better than to try to predict what he'll see from the Skyhawks on Saturday. It's a good thing, then, that his primary objective for Saturday is all about his own team.
"We've got to go play well and be consistent," Stoops said. "We're not good enough to make simple mistakes and shoot ourselves in the foot, turn the ball over, things like that obviously. We want to be very consistent. We want to pick up our tempo offensively and continue to grow and move the ball like we want to move the ball.
"Defensively, again, be more consistent. We need to get more turnovers. We certainly need to get more interceptions."
As a freshman, Kentucky utilized Kaelon Fox in just about every position on the field except goalkeeper.
Now, entering his sophomore season, UK head coach Johan Cedergren is hoping that a firm positional role for Fox will help the standout from Louisville's St. Xavier High School.
A 6-foot-2, 155-pounder, Fox is firmly entrenched as a center back, alongside 6-foot-3 sophomore Jordan Wilson. The duo helps the Wildcats boast the potential for a dynamic defensive squad, with outside back Charlie Reymann also in his second year as an everyday starter.
As a freshman, Fox started eight games and played in 19 of UK's 20 games, totaling two goals and one assist, firing 29 shots. He saw starts on the backline, in the midfield and as an attacking player.
"I learned that college soccer is a difficult game," Fox said. "Coming in as a true defender and having to play forward, midfield and some defense last year, it gave me more knowledge how certain players move on and off the ball, how forwards move on and off the ball. It gave me more of an insight into how to properly defend those attacking players. It developed me more as a center back."
Fox netted his first career goal at Xavier, before adding a tally in UK's win over Florida Atlantic. He also added an assist vs. IPFW and had at least four shots in four games, including a six-shot effort vs. South Carolina.
After spending the spring playing on the backline with Wilson and Reymann, the three have formed a solid chemistry. With UK sophomore Alex Bumpus suffering a season-ending injury in the offseason, it means that the backline will feature a new face at the outside back position opposite Reymann.
"It is really good to have chemistry between your backline, because if you don't things can break down and that is not what you want from your back four and your keeper. Jordan, Charlie and I, the chemistry between us on and off the field is great. It just comes down to having each other's back on the field. When Jordan or Charlie steps up in the attack, we have the ability to cover for them. If someone gets beat off the ball, having their back there. I know Jordan and Charlie have my back. It is a great comfort feeling knowing we are there for each other."
With the backline supported by three veteran starters and a goalkeeper that Cedergren considers "one of the three best goalkeepers in the country" in Callum Irving, Kentucky will be anchored by its defending unit.
"Johan tells us that defense wins championships," Fox said. "That is a true statement. Having chemistry on the backline is great. Jordan, Charlie and I played the whole spring together on the backline which helped us with the chemistry. The defense that we have this year can be really great. We just have to keep building on it game after game."
While his defense will be a strength on the 2014 roster, Cedergren is going to count on Fox and Wilson to provide some scoring threats on set pieces with their size, physicality and athleticism.
"It is going to be pretty important," Fox said about the backline coming up on set pieces. "Johan wants our center backs to get four or five set-piece goals. We need to get our goals-per game up a little bit."
Kentucky opens its 2014 season Friday at 7 p.m. at Wright State. The Wildcats will debut the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday with a twinbill with the women's soccer program, with UK taking on Belmont at 5 p.m.
If the Wildcats are nervous as the final days pass before Kentucky's season opener against UT Martin, it isn't showing in practice.
It was another day of productive work for UK on Wednesday.
"We had a good practice today," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were into it, focused, getting better fundamentally and ready to play."
Ready to play and mostly healthy. Outside of wide receivers Jeff Badet (eye) and Alexander Montgomery (recovery from knee surgery), UK is expected to be at full strength at noon ET on Saturday.
"We're right where we thought we'd be," Eliot said. "Everybody's ready to go. Everybody's geared up and ready for the game and we won't miss a beat."
That includes star senior Bud Dupree, who made it through fall camp even though he was prevented from doing his favorite thing: hitting the quarterback.
"It's horrible having the quarterbacks in red jerseys and having to stop on a play, stop before you can get to them and stopping on offensive linemen sometimes," Dupree said. "Sometimes you want to go through the linemen and just hit them but you know you can't."
The Southeastern Conference's active sack leader only has to wait three more days before getting a shot at an opposing quarterback, and he'll do it both standing and with his hand in the dirt. Dupree will play defensive end opposite Za'Darius Smith in UK's 4-3 set and linebacker when the Cats go 3-4.
"The 3-4 is great for showing athleticism and keeping as many good guys on the field as you can, as well as having big edge setters too," Dupree said.
In the starting 3-4 look, UK will play with tackles Melvin Lewis and Mike Douglas and Smith along the line. Dupree and sophomore Jason Hatcher will play outside linebacker. Hatcher hasn't gotten the attention of some of his teammates in camp with Dupree and Smith returning, but the coaches know they have to find ways to get him on the field.
"He's had a great camp," Eliot said. "Jason's gotten better every day. There's always a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 and we've seen it with him. He's a better athlete. He's a better player. He understands the game better. And we're very pleased with his progress."
Josh Forrest and another player will complete the front seven in the 3-4 at the two inside linebacker spots. As for who will start with Forrest, a decision has not been made between junior-college transfer Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson. Henderson, a junior, has experience on his side, but Flannigan is competing.
"He's right where I expected him to be," Eliot said. "He has transitioned well. He's picking up the defense. He's physically right where he needs to be. He's right on track."