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Head volleyball coach Craig Skinner

In recent years, UK Athletics has made unprecedented strides in fielding a comprehensive athletic program. Twice in the past three years, the department has finished 29th in the final Director's Cup standings, a impressive mark, but not yet reaching the top-15 level Mitch Barnhart set as a goal as part of his 15 by 15 by 15 plan.

Historically, the fall sports season has put UK Athletics in a position of having to play catch-up in the winter and spring. Volleyball, men's soccer, women's soccer and cross country all complete the championship portions of their schedule in November or December. Each team has had its moments, but those moments have rarely coincided.

In 2012-13, it's been a different story.

UK is one of just six schools nationally to reach the NCAA Tournament in men's soccer, women's soccer and volleyball, joining Washington, UCLA, North Carolina, Marquette and Notre Dame. Moreover, UK is one of just three programs to host a first-round game in all three sports along with Washington and UCLA.

Volleyball has been a mainstay in the tournament, receiving bids in each of the last eight seasons, but the success of the two soccer teams is new. Women's soccer has now reached back-to-back NCAA Tournaments under Jon Lipsitz, including this season when the Wildcats won a game for the first time in school history. Meanwhile, Johan Cedergren's team was ahead of schedule in his first season, hosting a tournament game for the second time in school history.

The lone fall Olympic program at UK not to reach the team portion of the NCAA Championships was cross country, but individuals from both the men's and women's teams were represented in the individual portion. Cally Macumber and Chelsea Oswald each earned All-America recognition with top-40 finishes, while Luis Orta finished 114th, impressive for a runner participating in the race for the first time. All in all, the early returns in Edrick Floreal's first season leading UK track and field and cross country were very good.

Of course, the final piece of the fall puzzle is football, and UK recognizes just how important that program is to the department as a whole and, just as importantly, the Big Blue Nation. The 2012 season may not have gone as planned, but the coming weeks could lay the foundation for a bright future with a new coach set to be named soon.

Skinner had led Kentucky to eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Skinner had led Kentucky to eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Sunday afternoon brought forth a great surprise as the Kentucky volleyball team was selected to host the first and second Rounds of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. It was a joyous scene as the team and support staff gathered around head coach Craig Skinner's living room and kitchen to see where the Wildcats would be headed for their eighth straight NCAA Tournament.

ESPNU didn't make anyone in the Skinner household wait long as Kentucky showed up on the first bracket. It took a brief second for it to set in, but as the team realized not only was it in the in the field but they were staying home for the first two rounds, the girls let out their emotion and excitement in the form of echoing screams, cheering, dancing and hugging.

Less than 24 hours later, the good news continued to roll in with the announcement of the Southeastern Conference's weekly and seasonal awards with a great deal of blue in the mix.

"It feels good to be hosting the tournament," said Skinner. "It feels good we were recognized for playing a challenging schedule and earning enough respect to be seeded and be hosting. Any individual award, as long as I've been around the program, has been a reflection of the team's success."

Senior libero Stephanie Klefot, for the third straight season, was named SEC Libero of the Year and to the All-SEC Second Team. Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings was named to the All-SEC First Team. And freshman middle blocker Sara Schwarzwalder earned All-SEC Freshman Team honors.

Shortly thereafter, the weekly awards were announced, and yet again Stephanie Klefot was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. It is her fifth such honor of her career and the first for her this season.

It's been an impressive run for Klefot, who will leave Kentucky as the program's second-leading digger. Her 1,885 digs have her currently ranked fourth in SEC history.

But Klefot made history Monday morning when she was named SEC Libero of the Year, becoming the first player in conference history to ever win the award three straight seasons. That's an impressive personal achievement, but it's also a credit to the Kentucky volleyball program.

"We've always emphasized defense in this program," said Skinner. "She's spearheaded our defense over the last few years and made a huge impression on the teams we play. Teams specifically game plan not to serve to her and not to attack to her. I think she has earned that respect along with our team and how we play defense and we're very proud of that honor."

Though the awards and the honor of hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are great accomplishments for Skinner's players and his program, Skinner was one of the few who weren't surprised by any of it.

In fact, Skinner felt there was a good chance based on the fact that they simply deserved it.

"We felt like there was a chance to host," said Skinner. "I think the reason why the committee selected us to host was because the number of opponents we played that are in the top 50 in the RPI and then also the number of teams we beat within the top 25 of the RPI gave us the opportunity to host over some of the other teams."

Skinner has built something at Kentucky that is becoming a program that doesn't just stumble into accomplishments. They don't get lucky. Kentucky is earning everything that the Cats get. They are earning more than just awards, but also respect on the national volleyball landscape over the eight seasons that Skinner has been at the helm.

"Of course it's a sign of respect of what we've accomplished as a team this year," said Skinner. "The combination of those things, the teams coming in here will recognize it's a great venue, it's a great event, and obviously in conjunction with the NCAA Tournament, it's a heck of an experience for a student-athlete."

Skinner hopes that experience for his team will be a long one as the Cats take their journey in the NCAA Tournament, but that journey can't start unless they focus on the task at hand this Friday against their first-round opponent in East Tennessee State.

"I can't wait. There's three seasons within each program," said Skinner. "The preseason, the conference season and the postseason. We're fortunate enough to continue to play in the postseason and have a chance to represent Kentucky the right way. We can't wait for first serve on Friday night."

Kentucky Sports Report (week of Nov. 26)

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Football
- The Kentucky football team dropped its final game of the 2012 season on Saturday, falling 37-17 to border state rival Tennessee in Knoxville.
- Junior tailback Jonathan George led the team in rushing with 59 yards on eight carries, including a career-long 45-yard touchdown rush. George also had three receptions for 54 yards, while senior La'Rod King led the team in receiving with 10 receptions for 78 yards. Sophomore fullback D.J. Warren had his first career touchdown reception in the game.
- Defensively, sophomore linebacker Alvin "Bud" Dupree led the team with 10 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack. Junior linebacker Avery Williamson had seven tackles and a pass breakup in the game. Freshman defensive lineman Farrington Huguenin made his first career start in the game, blocking a PAT and recording two quarterback hurries.

Men's basketball
- The Kentucky men's basketball team charted a pair of victories over instate foe Morehead State and LIU Brooklyn this week at home in Rupp Arena to extend the nation's longest home winning streak to 55 games.
- The freshman trio of Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel led the way for the Cats. Goodwin had a career-high 28 points against Morehead State and then nearly had the second triple-double in school history against LIU with a team-high 22 points, and career-highs of nine points and nine rebounds.
- Poythress had two 20-point efforts to run his consecutive 20-point outings to four to become the first UK freshman to achieve the feat since Dwight Anderson in the 1978-79 season.
- Noel averaged 13.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, dished out nine assists, and had 11 blocks in two victories for the Wildcats.

Volleyball
- The Kentucky volleyball team concluded the regular season with a pair of sweeps on the road at Missouri and Auburn this week.
- Senior Whitney Billings led the way with more than four kills per set including notching her 16th double-double of the season with 12 kills and 12 digs at Auburn. Senior Stephanie Klefot had 28 digs and added nine assists in the two wins, while freshman Kayla Tronick had six or more kills in both wins.
- Kentucky finishes the season with 20 victories and has logged 20 or more wins in five of the last six seasons under Craig Skinner.
- UK has advanced to the NCAA Tournament for an unprecedented eighth-consecutive season making Skinner the only coach in school history to lead his team to the field of 64 in each of his seasons at the helm.
- UK is hosting the first and second round games of the NCAA Tournament at Memorial Colieseum on Friday and Saturday.

Women's basketball

- No. 9/8 Kentucky improved to 4-1 with commanding wins over Morehead State and USC Upstate last week. The Wildcats defeated the Eagles on Friday 73-37 and took a 100-34 win over the Spartans on Sunday.
- UK has extended its home winning streak to 24, the third-longest winning streak in school history, and its winning streak over nonconference opponents at home improved to 34.
- Four players scored in double figures vs. Morehead led by junior Samarie Walker, who was named the MVP of the second annual "Terry Hall Memorial Classic" after posting her fourth career double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
- Senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies followed with 11 points, while sophomores Azia Bishop and Bria Goss added 10 points each. Bishop and junior DeNesha Stallworth grabbed 10 rebounds apiece as UK outrebounded the Eagles 63-21. The 63 rebounds were just three shy of the school record.
- Against USC Upstate, Mathies led all scorers in the 100-34 rout of the Spartans by scoring a game-high 17 points. She climbed to No. 7 on UK's all-time scoring list with 1,508 career points and is No. 6 on the steals list with 264. Walker again had an impressive outing as she posted 13 points, four blocks, three steals, three rebounds and two assists in just 23 minutes of action.
- All 13 players scored at least two points as UK improved to 37-0 when scoring 100 points or more.

Upcoming schedule

Wednesday, Nov. 28
Women's basketball hosts Miami (Ohio) - 11:00 a.m.

Thursday, Nov. 29

Swimming & Diving at Miami (Ohio)
Men's basketball at Notre Dame - 7:00 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 30
Volleyball hosts ETSU - 7:30 p.m.
Swimming & Diving at Miami (Ohio)

Saturday, Dec. 1

Men's basketball hosts Baylor - 12:30 p.m.
Swimming & Diving at Miami (Ohio)

Sunday, Dec. 2
Women's basketball at Louisville - 6:00 p.m.

The Kentucky volleyball team celebrates making the program's eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. (Alyx Ayer, UK Athletics) The Kentucky volleyball team celebrates making the program's eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. (Alyx Ayer, UK Athletics)
Selection Sunday is always one of the more exciting days in collegiate sports that have national championship tournaments. It's also stressful. In most cases, teams don't know where they will be heading, and sometimes they aren't even sure whether they will get invited to participate.

With a strong RPI heading into the final weekend of the regular season and picking up two wins on the road this week, Kentucky liked its chances of being selected to its eighth straight NCAA Tournament.

What the Wildcats weren't prepared for was their First and Second Round destination.

In a thrilling turn of events, based on the screams of the girls on the team upon learning the news, the Wildcats not only were selected to the field of 64, but they also earned the No. 16 seed and were chosen to host the first and second rounds of the 2012 NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum.

"I think we were shocked because no one was expecting to host this year, and relieved at the same time," said senior libero Stephanie Klefot. "It's great to play at home and have your crowd and support from them. I think we're ready."

Last season, Kentucky received an overwhelming amount of support from their fan base as its hosted a regional for the first time during head coach Craig Skinner's tenure. Memorial Coliseum was transformed into a volleyball haven for some of the best talent in the country as UK advanced through the first two rounds to face No. 1 seed Texas in the Sweet 16.

Though the Wildcats fell short of upsetting the tournament's top seed, it was a major step for the program advancing to their second Sweet 16 in three seasons.

"That was a big game for us," said junior right side hitter Whitney Billings. "Texas was pretty good and we played well against them. So we're going to remember what we did against Texas for this year."

This season, as Kentucky becomes one of 14 programs nationally to be selected to the NCAA Tournament eight seasons in a row, UK has its sights set on a similar run. Only this year, they are looking to break through to the round of eight and beyond.

"We were so close (to beating Texas) and we want to make it past the Sweet 16 and that's our goal," Klefot said.

Last year, the Wildcats never faced that type of competition before getting into the NCAA Tournament. This season, Skinner made sure that his team would have those types of experiences so that if that were in a similar situation again, they would have that experience to lean on in addition to last season's match against the Longhorns.

Kentucky had one of the toughest non-conference slates in the country this season, facing then No. 1 Nebraska, eventual No. 1 Oregon, and Louisville (ranked No. 4 in the final RPI). They Cats found themselves in almost every situation imaginable. After scheduling tough and having a successful run in the Southeastern Conference, UK worked itself up to No. 19 in the final RPI. That's likely the reason Kentucky will be staying at home this weekend to face East Tennessee State on Friday in its home gym.

"We felt like our schedule would prepare us for anything," said Skinner. "There's not a situation we haven't been in this year, and there's no question our schedule gave us those opportunities. We scheduled the right way.

"It was definitely a challenge for us, but I think ultimately we want to be prepared heading into this tournament and I think we've done that."

This weekend will mark the second straight year Kentucky as hosted a portion of the NCAA Tournament and fourth in the last five. The manner in which Skinner has built this program and the volleyball culture in the state of Kentucky is likely a contributing factor to why they are chosen to host with such regularity. After a strong showing of support from the fan base last season during the regional, UK will not only host the first and second rounds this season, but will once again have the privilege of hosting another regional in 2013.

Skinner and his team, however, are only worried about this year, specifically Friday night and first-round opponent East Tennessee State. And he's happy that his team fought to earn the respect to once again host three more matches of the NCAA Tournament.

 But even Skinner was excited and surprised by the opportunity.

"Literally every year I've been coaching you never really know exactly what you're going to get and this is no exception," said Skinner. "Of course our team is excited and we're looking forward to playing Friday night. We're certainly glad we earned enough respect to get seeded and have the opportunity to host."

With Eastern Tennessee State up first the Wildcats, Notre Dame and Ohio State will play in Friday's first match of the doubleheader at 5 p.m. Kentucky and ETSU will play in the night's second match, tentatively scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

Just like last year, Kentucky is hoping to draw the Big Blue Nation to Memorial Coliseum this weekend as they have the opportunity to display the game of volleyball on the greatest stage. For this team, a group that love playing on the big stage in front of a huge crowd, the homecourt advantage could go a long way into helping propel the Wildcats into another Sweet 16.

"We like playing in our gym," said Skinner. "We have great fans and a great environment for volleyball. We love the opportunity to play at home."


Live blog: Volleyball at Auburn

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Live blog: Volleyball at Missouri

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Video: Volleyball Senior Day intro

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Nov. 18 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 18:

Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan

Junior Alexandra Morgan was simply a game-changer in helping lead UK to a four-set victory over Georgia on Senior Day. Morgan posted a career-high 10 blocks which easily is also the highest mark of the season for any Wildcat. She is the first UK player to tally 10 or more rejections in a match since 2010 when Lauren Rapp had 10 blocks in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament. In addition to the 10 rejections she also had a team-high three aces and contributed four digs which is the second-highest total for the junior this season behind her career-high of five. She was one kill off a double-double effort with nine hammers on a blazing .400 hitting percentage. With the 10 blocks she now pushes her season average to above one with 1.02 blocks per frame.

Men's basketball: Nerlens Noel

Freshman Nerlens Noel had a coming out party in front of a national audience against No. 9 Duke. Noel had his first-career double-figure point effort with 16 points while adding a team-high eight rebounds. He notched a game-high four steals and added three blocks to his stat line. He added career-high numbers at the line with 6-of-8 free throws. Against Lafayette, he was the spark to the Wildcats' effort with countless hustle plays that resulted in four steals and four assists in helping UK top the century mark for the first time since the opening game of the 2011-12 season. Noel added 15 points, his second-straight double-figure effort, and again led UK in rebounds with seven. The four assists and four steals were both career high tallies. His 6-of-8 performance from the field highlighted UK's .645 shooting from the field as a team which was the highest clip under fourth-year head coach John Calipari and the best clip for any UK team since 2008.

Men's basketball: Alex Poythress

Freshman Alex Poythress exploded for back-to-back 20-point efforts in helping lead UK to a 1-1 week. Poythress had 20 points and added a team-high eight rebounds in a loss to No. 9 Duke. He then topped that performance with a 9-10 night from the field for a career-high 22 points. He added his first career block and first career steal in the victory. The .900 field goal percentage led the team which turned in a .645 percentage - the highest field goal clip under John Calipari. The .900 clip was the third best individual performance in the Calipari era. He also becomes the first freshman since Brandon Knight in Feb. 2011 to have consecutive 20-point efforts.

Volleyball: Kayla Tronick

Freshman Kayla Tronick provided a spark off the bench for the Wildcats in helping UK down Georgia on Senior Day. Tronick did not play in the opening set, but came out midway through the second frame and struck for seven kills on a match-high .417 hitting clip to become one of five UK players to tally five or more kills in the victory. The kills and hitting percentage both ranked the second-best of the senior for the year first-year player, outside of her only career start against Ole Miss earlier this season. Tronick also added a block and just her second-career assist.

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