Seniors Ashley Frazier and Stephanie Klefot each achieved career milestones in a 3-2 victory over Texas A&M. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's win over Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, was a significant day in program history. While the win itself, a 3-2 nail biter against a 10-2 Aggie team, was both crucial and impressive, two Wildcat accomplishments made the taste of victory even sweeter on Sunday.
Two seniors went into last weekend's matches at Louisiana State and Texas A&M with an opportunity to achieve personal milestones in their careers. Outside hitter Ashley Frazier was on the cusp of 1,000 career kills, while libero Stephanie Klefot was hunting down Brianne Sauer on the all-time Kentucky digs list.
Each senior put up big numbers in a losing effort at LSU on Friday night, inching them even closer to their marks. Their performances also put them right on schedule to clinch the records in the same match.
And as fate would have it, they did just that, this time in winning fashion.
As Kentucky stopped a four-match losing skid against the streaking Aggies, Frazier became the 15th player in University of Kentucky history to record 1,000 kills. On her way to a 16-kill performance against Texas A&M, Frazier reached the mark in the fourth set on her 10th kill of the match.
She's the first Wildcat to reach the 1,000-kill mark since Lauren Rapp in 2009.
Not to be outdone, Klefot put up her second consecutive match of 20-plus digs against the Aggie offense. After tying her career high with 29 digs against LSU on Friday night, Klefot tallied 20 more digs to lead the Kentucky defense.
The 49 digs over the weekend moved Klefot into sole possession of second place on the all-time digs list at the University of Kentucky with 1,641 and counting. Klefot passed her former teammate and fellow Louisville native Brianne Sauer who had 1,634 digs over her four-year career at UK. Not only did Klefot pass Sauer in the UK record books, but she also vaulted past Sauer into the SEC top-10 leader board. Klefot currently sits behind Jenni Casper (2,037 digs) on the all-time UK digs list.
In the Southeastern Conference record books, Klefot is just 18 digs shy of Arkansas's Krystal Osbourne, who racked up 1,659 digs from 1994-97, to reach ninth all-time.
While the two players player came to Kentucky in much different fashions, both have been instrumental in UK's success during their time wearing Blue and White. Klefot stepped right into the libero position after Sauer graduated and ran with it. Frazier came to Kentucky as a transfer from Alabama after spending two seasons with the Crimson Tide and has banged out 561 kills since becoming a Wildcat, filling a void at the outside hitter position. Sitting at 1,006 career kills, Frazier figures to continue to increase her gaudy numbers with still 17 matches remaining in the SEC.
For Kentucky to reach their goals this season, Kentucky will need both players to continue to pad those numbers and ascend ever higher up leader boards and into the record books. But no matter what happens this year, both Klefot and Frazier have already solidified themselves as significant figures in Kentucky volleyball lore for many years to come.
There are two ways you can go after a tough loss. You can revert as a team, feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for your teammates to pick up the slack.
Or you can take the challenge head on and learn from your mistakes.
The Kentucky volleyball team chose the latter Sunday afternoon in College Station, Texas, when they took on a scorching hot 10-1 Texas A&M team.
Kentucky was reeling a bit after a difficult stretch in the non-conference portion of their schedule heading into Southeastern Conference Play. The Cats played point for point with then No. 1 ranked Nebraska. But in their first Southeastern Conference match of the season, Kentucky suffered a sweep at the hands of the Florida Gators.
Facing a three-game losing streak, Kentucky was looking to get healthy against a struggling Louisiana State team who was winless through their first two SEC matches of the season in Baton Rouge, La.
The Tigers took the Wildcats to a decisive fifth set on their home court, and despite Kentucky's best efforts, it would be LSU's night to get into the SEC win column.
Kentucky was facing adversity as UK was suffering from their first four-game losing streak for the first time in the Craig Skinner era. After post-match staff meeting and a team meeting at the hotel in College Station Saturday evening, the Wildcats were looking to regroup and refocus going into their match with one of the hottest teams in the country.
"It was really important because I feel like people had been worried about making mistakes or losing their spot if they went out and didn't perform their best," said senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier about the team meeting. "That was really holding us back."
Maybe expectations were too high. Maybe the pressure of a top-15 ranking was too much too handle. Maybe this team missed last year's seniors more than they realized. But there was definitely something amiss from this talented Kentucky squad.
But Sunday was a new day, an opportunity for Kentucky to right the ship and prove to everyone, including themselves, that there was still plenty to play for.
Kentucky took the challenge and at no point looked like the team who lost to LSU just two days prior.
A big reason for Kentucky's misfortune this season was their inability to get out of the gate faster in matches. Slow starts have hampered Kentucky in several of their losses so far this year, and even have shown up in some of their victories. There was no evidence of that on Sunday as UK jumped on Texas A&M right away to grab the first set.
It wasn't pretty, as Kentucky hit .059 for the first set, but UK held the Aggies to a .000 hitting percentage with some great defense. But the first set victory in the hostile, loud environment that was Reed Arena helped Kentucky get out to the quick start that they were looking for.
"It's a great environment," said Skinner. "Texas A&M does a great job at what they do for sporting events. I told our players before the match to embrace it, and they did. They came out and won game one and I don't think it was a factor after that point."
While the crowd wasn't a factor for Kentucky, Whitney Billings was.
Billings went out and had her best match of the season, and it all started in that first set. She used two service aces, three kills and five digs to lead Kentucky in each category. And that was just the beginning of what would be a huge day for the junior right side hitter.
After the early blow, Texas A&M stood right in there with the Cats and levied a counter attack. Texas A&M was led by Tori Mellinger and Alisia Kastmo who had four and five kills in the second set for the Aggies, but it was no easy task. Kentucky could have very well taken a 2-0 lead into the locker room, taking a 24-23 lead late in the second set, but the Aggies rallied for three consecutive scores to give them the 26-24 second set victory to even the match at one point a piece.
Kentucky could have folded right then and there, but a new attitude was apparent on this day.
"We just went out and played loose and free," Billings said. "We weren't thinking about anything except for the moment right now and what we were going to do right now."
With some help from Frazier and outside hitter Lauren O'Conner, Billings and co. went to work on the Aggies yet again, erupting for 10 consecutive points in the third set, including two service aces by Billings, upping her total for the match to five. Kentucky ran away with the third set to the tune of a 25-18 score heading into the fourth.
The Aggies showed once again just why they were 10-1 and answered once again in the fourth. It was an incredible offensive display by both sides. Kentucky tallied an impressive 16 kills in the set, hitting .424, including Frazier's 1,000th career kill, an impressive achievement. But Frazier was quick to give credit to those who helped her reach this milestone.
"It says I have really good teammates," said Frazier. "I couldn't have gotten there if the passes weren't they way that they are. We have great passers on our team and a great setter who puts it where I need it every time."
But Texas A&M's offensive attack was much more lethal. Though UK was impressive defensively for most of the match, the Aggies could not be stopped in the fourth as they went off for 22 kills and a .514 hitting percentage.
It looked as if the Aggies may have regained the momentum as they nabbed the fourth set, 25-20, to take the match to five.
Yet again, Kentucky was faced with a difficult challenge of fending off the Aggies and a raucous Reed Arena.
Kentucky and Texas A&M exchanged blow after blow, point for point, until UK grabbed a 14-11 lead late in the fifth set. With match point on the line, the Cats and Aggies played out a long rally until freshman middle blocker Sarah Schwarzwalder eventually capped things off with a kill to finish off the Aggies.
The road doesn't get much easier from here. Kentucky (7-6, 1-2 SEC) has a quick turnaround and another challenge in front of them when they host rival Tennessee (9-4, 2-2 SEC) this Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPNU. The real challenge will be whether or not Kentucky can build on their success for the upcoming schedule that lies ahead.
"We have to remember how this felt and how we did so when we play Tennessee, we can look back to this match and do some of the same things," said Billings.
The University of Kentucky volleyball team has a chance to make history the UK athletics department announced Monday evening. For the first time in program history, the volleyball team will play a regular season match on the floor of Rupp Arena on Oct. 12.
If that date sounds familiar, it's because Big Blue Madness happens to be that night as well.
The process started a couple of months back when volleyball head coach Craig Skinner, who has been trying to make this event happen for the last few years, ran into men's basketball head coach John Calipari and approached him with his idea. Cal was all for it, and it materialized from there.
The match will be the opening act to an evening full of "Madness," as if the event wasn't already chock-full enough with Blue and White already. Now, the event grows even bigger and has allowed another sport and Kentucky team to share the big stage.
And by big stage, I mean potentially the grandest stage to ever host an NCAA volleyball match. That's right. The current record for attendance ever to watch a volleyball match is 17,430, which occurred Dec. 18, 2008 during the NCAA semifinals at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. Rupp Arena seats 23,000.
You do the math.
Last season, UK was tripped up by Mississippi State midseason down in Starkville, Miss. That, too, happened to be during Mississippi State's version of Big Blue Madness, known down there as "Maroon Madness." The match broke the single-match record for Mississippi State with 4,535 Bulldog fans in attendance.
As fate, and the schedule, would have it, Mississippi State is due into Lexington on Oct. 12, this year's date of Big Blue Madness. Almost exactly one year later, Kentucky has the chance to return the favor while hosting potentially five times the amount Mississippi State had during its madness celebration.
A record crowd of 23,000, or anything near it, would not only break the national attendance record, it would shatter the program record of 9,475 which took place Oct. 29, 1993 in Memorial Coliseum against Louisiana State. That event also took place at what was then called "Midnight Madness."
As fans begin to lineup around UK volleyball's current home at Memorial Coliseum this week in the traditional campout for Big Blue Madness tickets, Skinner hopes his program can continue to build their own tradition while riding the coattails of the national champs. A win at Rupp Arena over the Bulldogs could go a long way in making this one-time event an annual occurrence if all goes as planned.
With what normally marks the official start of basketball season in the Bluegrass, the volleyball team now has an opportunity to make its own mark on a basketball-hungry fan base. The significance of this event could make waves for the Kentucky volleyball program for years to come as prospective athletes look to be a part of such a special match that only the Big Blue Nation could pull off.
The match will kick off an extravagant evening of Big Blue events starting at 5 p.m. at Rupp Arena. Only fans with tickets to Big Blue Madness will be permitted to the volleyball match. Those with volleyball season tickets purchased prior to Sept. 13 can RSVP to the UK Ticket Office by Sept. 25 for replacement tickets. For more information on tickets and the event, visit UKAthletics.com.
Football - Junior tailback Jonathan George had a career game, scoring three touchdowns - two rushing, one receiving - in Kentucky's 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky on Saturday. George finished the game with 13 rushes for 51 yards, adding a career-high six catches for a career-best 54 yards. The junior was the first player to score two rushing touchdowns and a receiving score in the same game since Randall Cobb in 2010 vs. Auburn. - Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith three for 300-plus yards for the second-consecutive game, becoming the first player to accomplish that feat since Mike Hartline in 2010. - Defensively, Collins Ukwu, Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Avery Williamson, Taylor Wyndham, Mister Cobble and Martavius Neloms all had career-high tackles. Williamson led the way with 14 stops. Volleyball - The Kentucky volleyball team opened SEC action with a home contest against No. 13 Florida. The Wildcats suffered a 3-0 loss to the Gators in front of more than 1,800 fans at Memorial Coliseum. - Senior libero Stephanie Klefot had a season-high 18 digs in a three-set match. - Junior Alexandra Morgan matched a career high with 10 kills to lead the offensive effort for the Blue and White. - Kentucky will now hit the road for its first two-match conference set with dates at LSU on Friday and Texas A&M on Sunday.
Women's soccer - Kentucky upset No. 13 Florida Friday night 2-1 in a game that featured a PK from each team before freshman Courtney Raetzman scored her first-career goal in the 47th minute to notch the game winner. The win over the Gators was the Wildcats' first since the 2006 SEC Championship game. - UK ended Mississippi State's undefeated season Sunday, collecting three goals from three different players in a 3-0 win. The win marked the third-consecutive win over MSU for the Wildcats. - Sophomore Arin Gilliland scored a goal in each game this weekend, charting the equalizer in Friday night's upset on a PK in the 30th minute, and also scored in the 50th minute vs. Mississippi State on a rebound. - Junior Kayla King recorded her first-career shutout Sunday afternoon in a 3-0 win over MSU. In addition, King was in the cage for the entire 90 minutes, collecting the win Friday over No. 13 Florida as the Louisville native recorded six saves.
Men's soccer - The Kentucky men's soccer team continued its stiff schedule to open up the non-conference season, traveling to No. 18 Louisville and springing a thrilling 1-0 win on Friday in front of 5,583 fans at an electric Cardinal Park. - Kentucky faced its fourth ranked foe in the first six games of 2012 on Friday night in an intense, rivalry atmosphere in the Derby City. The Wildcats struck for a free-kick goal on the boot of senior midfielder Matt Lodge in the 38th minute and used a heroic defensive effort from goalkeeper Jack Van Arsdale, defenders Steven Perinovic, Jacob Speed, Dylan Asher and Jacob Kemper, with midfielder Cameron Wilder also starring in the winning effort. - The win for UK was its first at Louisville since 2004 and snapped a three-game winning streak in the series for the Cardinals, the 2010 NCAA College Cup runner-up. - Lodge continued to move up the record books with his goal on Friday night, giving him 20 goals, 15 assists and 55 points in his career, ranking sixth in UK history in goals and points.
Men's golf - The UK men's golf team opened up their 2012-13 year with a fifth place finish at the Wolf Run Invitational this past weekend. - Stephen Powers and Will Bishop finished in the top-20, posting scores of 5-over-par and 7-over-par, respectively. Women's golf - The women's golf team kicked off their 2012 fall schedule with a victory at the Old Waverly Bulldog Invitational, winning the tournament by two strokes with a score of 14-over. - Ashleigh Albrecht led the Wildcats with a 1-over-par, sixth place finish. - Freshman Cylia Damerau also recorded a top-10 finish, placing ninth with a score of 4-over. Damerau was huge down the stretch for the Cats, shooting 3-under the final two rounds.
Coaches Corner is a brand new feature for UKAthletics.com where we go one-on-one with members of Kentucky's coaching staff. I, Ryan Suckow, will be your host and hope to ask the questions you'd like to have answered about our varsity teams here at the University of Kentucky. Make sure to check in frequently for the latest editions of Coaches Corner, which you can always find right here on Cat Scratches.
Junior middle blocker leads the SEC with 47 blocks. (Berry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After Kentucky's impressive run in the 2011 NCAA Tournament in which the Wildcats battled tooth and nail with the No. 1 team in the nation in the Sweet 16, UK not only lost the match, but lost three important pieces. The end of the 2011 season marked the end of the careers for three middle blockers on the UK roster, including two starters in Becky Pavan and Ann Armes. Add to that, a former starter in Gretchen Giesler, and the cupboard was left fairly bare for 2012.
One holdover at the position, however, was Alexandra Morgan, better known as "Zan" to her teammates and family members. Morgan, a redshirt junior coming into this season, had played in only four matches in 2011 after seeing action in 12 matches her freshman year. But with the mass exodus, Morgan was the lone middle blocker on the roster with any experience going into this season.
Whether or not she was ready to play, she was going to be pressed into action. There just weren't many other options. Kentucky had Kayla Tronick, a redshirt freshman, returning, and two newcomers in freshman Sara Schwarzwalder and Desirre Wilkerson coming into the fold.
As spring workouts came and went, the summer open gyms passed on, and the promise of a fresh start in the preseason came to fruition, Morgan not only took advantage of her opportunity, she took it and ran.
"I think she realized in January that she had a really good opportunity to make an impact for us," said Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner. "I think she's taken that to heart and worked."
Morgan was a coveted piece of Skinner's recruiting class in 2009. She was a dynamic athlete who played volleyball and basketball while competing in track and field with gobs of raw talent. With a few middle blockers already on the roster, Skinner decided to redshirt Morgan as well as fellow freshman Whitney Billings to allow them to develop themselves as athletes and volleyball players.
In 2010, their redshirt freshman seasons, each were thrust into action. Billings, an outside attacker, got her feet wet and proved to be a valuable piece on a team in need of offense. Morgan, however, saw her time dwindle as the speed of the game proved to be too much for her too soon.
Billings continued to play throughout the season and into 2011. She's asserted herself as one of the best talents on the team, capable of playing all around on the floor. Morgan was left trying to find her niche, cheering on her team and watching her best friends find success on the floor while she watched from the sidelines.
"It was very hard to watch her," said Billings of her good friend Morgan. "We're talking about us playing and getting ready for games, and she wasn't playing. But she took it very well, though. She didn't separate herself from us."
This year, while Morgan has tried to fit in, she's been a standout at the middle blocker position. And her teammates couldn't be happier.
"It's been fun to watch Zan, from not playing for the first few years to stepping on the court for the first time and showing her talents. And she's been doing pretty well," Billings said.
If by "pretty well" Billings means a .343 hitting percentage and 47 total blocks, then yes, that's playing pretty well. Morgan's .343 hitting percentage is good for 12th overall in the conference, but the 47 blocks and 1.27 blocks per set put her first in the Southeastern Conference. She even earned honors as the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for her huge performance in Athens, Ohio in the Baymont Invitational Tournament.
Those numbers and accolades can be attributed to Morgan's new commitment to putting in the extra time and effort necessary to become an elite performer in the SEC. But she hasn't done it on her own. She made sure to hang on every word from her coaches during her development.
"I've been trying to come in extra as much as I can; just taking everything the coaches tell me and breaking it down," said Morgan. "Trying to improve at the small stuff so that it will eventually all just come together and the big stuff will start happening."
Morgan's relentless pursuit of perfecting her techniques have put her over the top when it comes to being ready to play in the SEC, but it's been her freakish athletic ability that got her to Kentucky in the first place. Now, her entire game is coming together beautifully.
The time of her development was impeccable.
"She knew we needed her, and we told her that," said Skinner. "She's taken advantage of that opportunity. I think she also knows that there's a lot more for her to do and I don't think she's going to stop working to improve."
But there were times were both Skinner and Morgan wondered if those abilities and potential would ever manifest themselves on the court.
"It was kind of discouraging working hard every day in practice and then not getting to show it on the court," said Morgan. "I know that my urgency probably wasn't as all there as it should have been the last couple of years."
Skinner was waiting for things to click for Morgan as well. The potential for something special was evident every day in practice. She had unbelievable ability to attack off of one foot, and her natural ability to block raised the coaches' eye brows, but the consistency and the overall skill necessary to play the position was still behind where it need to be.
"We've had several heart-to-hearts with Zan, wondering if she would ever reach her potential," said Skinner. "A year ago, she made the decision that she wanted to make an impact in this program. That's not an easy thing because physical talent is one thing, but working every day to make your talent into something that helps on the court is a different thing. I think she's done that."
Morgan's presence on the floor this season gives UK a versatility that it hasn't had in many years. The combination of her strengths compliment the team's overall philosophies and her ability on both offense and defense make her a player that opposing coaches have to account for.
She's mastered the slide attack, and Morgan has become a physical presence at the net, altering the shots of any attacker who makes the unwise decision to challenge her.
"She can play really high above the net off one foot and really high above the net blocking," said Skinner. "She's someone that opponents have to game plan for."
Morgan hasn't just improved her game, but her presence within her own lineup has made the team itself a more formidable unit. Her attitude and unselfishness has made each one of her teammates better.
"I think she's someone that is a giver and wants to make her teammates better around her," said Skinner. "She's playing for the people next to her. I don't think she's someone who players for herself. She's playing for the people around her and the jersey on her back. She plays with that type of mentality and the intensity to make her teammates better."
Even though Morgan is enjoying the most success she's experienced so far in her career, she knows that there's still a lot to learn. As her game progresses, she is still often surprising herself. She's helped fill a huge void and held up her end of the bargain, but for her, the job is far from finished and there's still plenty of room to grow.
"I'm not as good in the front as I am off of one foot, so sometimes I'll go up and get a kill off of an (middle attack), and I'm like 'Whoa,'" Morgan said. "I surprise myself, so that's always exciting and a lot of fun. So I'm trying to get better because there's always room for improvement."