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2 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Craig Skinner

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SKINNER_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. The final feature is head coach Craig Skinner:

"Kentucky volleyball is a culture of great people that are striving to be the best.  Our staff and players over the years have created an environment of achievement and success.  We collectively work daily to be elite and become better than yesterday.  Each year, athletes join us who are willing to embrace that concept."

Head coach Craig Skinner enters his 10th season at the helm. With 202 career victories in Lexington, Skinner sits just eight wins shy of becoming the program's all-time winningest coach. He has led the Wildcats to a school-record nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a feat only 12 other schools in the nation have achieved. He has directed UK to three Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2009 and was named the 2011 AVCA All-South Region Coach of the Year. Kentucky has won 17 or more matches in each of Skinner's nine seasons, including 20 or more victories in six of the last seven campaigns.

Preseason Team Update: August 27, 2014
Today is the first day of class, and the Wildcats have their last day off of the 2014 preseason. The team will be back in the gym tomorrow, preparing for Friday's season-opener vs. Wichita State.

Cat Scratches, the Official Blog of UK Athletics, has a feature on the team. By Guy Ramsey, the article looks back on the team's trip to China earlier in the summer and how that has helped the team during preseason practice.

Yesterday was media day UK volleyball. Head coach Craig Skinner, seniors Jackie Napper and Lauren O'Conner and junior Morgan Bergren met with the media to preview the upcoming season. Video from the event can be viewed here.


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.



Craig Skinner was visiting with his assistants earlier this week about Kentucky's run of practices leading up to the 2014 season.

There have been up and downs, to be sure, but the coaching staff could find little to complain about in the effort department.

"The coaches kind of said that we really haven't had a day where the concentration and intent to perform wasn't there, and that's fairly unusual because you go so hard for so long and a short period of time that you're bound to have some days where it's not really focused and energetic," Skinner said. "But that hasn't been the case."

If you ask Skinner or the Wildcats themselves, that has a lot to do with a cultural exchange trip to China the team took in May. For two weeks, UK toured the Far East on a journey that combined high-level volleyball, education about the nation they visited and plenty of team bonding.

"It went really well. We played professional teams over there which was even more experience," senior outside hitter Lauren O'Conner said. "It's great that we were able to get experience with the team that we had without the seniors (from the 2013 season) to get even more practice with us and to build the chemistry on the court playing together with a new lineup. So I think it helped out a lot both physically and mentally."

That's especially true on defense.

Given the experience and talent of the opponents they faced in China, the Wildcats learned quickly no points would be given to them. That resulted in some losses, including a 3-0 defeat in their final match with each set being decided after a deuce point, but also a new mentality in practice this August.

"We've talked about how this could be the best defensive team we've had here at Kentucky," Skinner said. "I think part of it is talent, but I think also that it is because all but three of the girls (true freshmen Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek and Darian Mack) saw firsthand how hard it was to win a rally over there and that you have to work for it."

The Cats won't go up against any teams as veteran as the ones they saw in China, but UK won't get much of a reprieve to start the season or really at any point during the 2014 season. In hosting two tournaments in Memorial Coliseum to start the season, the Cats will go up against three teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament, including Wichita State in Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET season opener and Elite Eight participant USC next week.

UK will have to do it without Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan, two players honored as All-Americans last season who have since graduated.

"We've had to adapt a little bit, to change our style a little bit and I think our players understand and appreciate that challenge and are certainly embracing it and we're finding new ways," Skinner said. "Now it's just putting all of it to the test when we finally play against outside competition to see if those things have worked."

Even without Billings and Morgan, it's not as if UK is devoid of experience.

The Cats return five of seven starters from last year's team, which reached the tournament for a record ninth season in a row. Leading the way will be O'Conner, senior libero Jackie Napper and setter Morgan Bergren.

"We have a core group of people on the court that are working together," Napper said. "Morgan's a junior, but she's really stepped up to be a leader, as well as other underclassmen and upperclassmen. So together, we all try to figure out what works best with this team, ways to lead others, and ways to bring others on board."

UK's roster features a mix of veterans and players who will look to contribute for the first time, with seven seniors or juniors and five freshmen. Skinner doesn't downplay the importance of experience, but he also doesn't believe it's the most important thing once the ball is served.

"I think in our case, probably the most important thing in all of our athletes is that they're talented and motivated," Skinner said. "So whether they've been here for four years or just beginning, we feel very good about the group of people that we have and now it's about getting on the court Friday and seeing what it's all about for us this year."

3 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Sharay Barnes

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BARNES_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 redshirt freshman Sharay Barnes:

"Kentucky volleyball is all about improving yourself as a person as well as a player. By being in this program, my teammates and coaches have helped me gain confidence in my play."

A redshirt freshman from Swarthmore, Pa., Sharay Barnes did not compete in her first season at Kentucky. A four-year letterwinner for Strath Haven High School, Barnes was a two-time All-State selection and was named Player of the Year as a senior. The middle blocker/outside hitter also competed for Synergy Volleyball Club and was named one of the top seniors by PrepVolleyball.com.

Preseason Team Update: August 26, 2014
Today was media day for several of UK's fall sports, including the volleyball team. Head coach Craig Skinner, seniors Jackie Napper and Lauren O'Conner and junior Morgan Bergren met with the media to preview the upcoming season. Video from the event can be viewed here.


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.


Video: Volleyball media day press conference

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4 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Anni Thomasson

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THOMASSON_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 sophomore Anni Thomasson:

"Kentucky volleyball means that we get the opportunity to play in one of the most talented and competitive conferences in the country. We push ourselves and our teammates to reach our potential and compete for an SEC and national championship."

Sophomore Anni Thomasson had a season to remember in 2013. An All-SEC Freshman Team honoree, Thomasson also was named the SEC Player of the Week and the SEC Freshman of the Week during her freshman campaign. The outside hitter cemented herself in the UK record books with a 30-kill, 22-dig showing in a 3-2 win over LSU to become the first freshman in team history and just the second in UK history to reach the 30-kill, 20-dig plateau. In her first season, Thomasson was second on the team with 242 kills for a 2.24 kills per set rate and third on the team with 251 digs and 19 service aces. A Newark, Ohio, native, Thomasson notched 12 kills in the Wildcats' NCAA Tournament win over Duquesne.

Preseason Team Update: August 25, 2014
Four days before the season-opener, the team enters match week preparation today. Classes officially start Wednesday, the two-a-day practices are over and the focus now shifts to this weekend's opponents, Wichita State, Butler and Virginia Tech.

Yesterday, UK held its annual Blue/White Scrimmage in Memorial Coliseum. A great crowd was on hand to see the 2014 Wildcats in an informal scrimmage a week before the season begins.


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.


5 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Ashley Dusek

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DUSEK_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 freshman Ashley Dusek:

"Passion is what UK volleyball means to me. It doesn't matter whether it is on the court, in the classroom or being involved in the community. We set goals and have high standards for ourselves and each other. Coming from a small town in Texas to a team with a huge heart in Kentucky, I know we will do great things. We compete at the highest level against some of the best teams in the country and we have one goal in mind, winning an NCAA championship. Go Cats!"

A freshman from East Bernard, Texas, Ashley Dusek competed for East Bernard High School and was also a member of the Houston Skyline Juniors Volleyball Club before coming to Lexington. The defensive specialist was named a PrepVolleyball All-America selection, one of the site's Top 250 Senior Aces and one of just 13 liberos to rank among the top 150 players. Dusek was named her high school's Most Valuable Player three times in her four-year career and is a four-time Academic All-District Team honoree and a National Honor Society member.

Preseason Team Update: August 24, 2014
Today, the Wildcats host their annual Blue/White Scrimmage in Memorial Coliseum at 5 p.m. ET. Admission is free, and doors to the Coliseum will open at 4 p.m.

Yesterday, the team spent the evening volunteering with Special Olympics Kentucky at the "Big Brown Truck Pull." It was a great night, and the Wildcats got to meet and spend time with Team Kentucky, which represented the Commonwealth at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games.


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.


6 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Morgan Bergren

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BERGREN_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 Morgan Bergren 

"Kentucky volleyball means being part of something bigger than yourself. It is about coming together as one unit to work towards achieving all of our goals. It is about holding each other accountable day in and day out so we are performing at a championship level each and every day."

Morgan Bergren was named to the Preseason All-SEC Team as she enters her junior season after starting all 31 matches as UK's setter in 2013. The Muncie, Ind., native led the Wildcats with 1,215 assists, was second on the team with 24 service aces and had 192 kills, 130 digs and 77 blocks last season. A two-time All-SEC Academic Team honoree, Bergren tallied 40 assists 13 times in 2013, highlighted by a career-high 66 assists to go along with 11 digs in Kentucky's five-set win over LSU.

Preseason Team Update: August 23, 2014
After a day off yesterday, the Wildcats are back in the gym today. UK will practice twice today, marking the final two-practice day of the 2014 season.

Tomorrow, Kentucky holds its annual Blue/White Scrimmage in Memorial Coliseum at 5 p.m. ET. Admission is free, and doors to the Coliseum will open at 4 p.m.

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.


7 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Kaz Brown

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BROWN_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 freshman Kaz Brown 

"Kentucky volleyball is a dream come true for me. I'm surrounded by coaches who are pushing me to reach my full potential and teammates who are just as competitive as I am. Everyday we're working in the classroom, weight room and on the court towards SEC and NCAA championships."

Kaz Brown enters her first season with the Wildcats after a memorable high school career at Cedar Falls High School. The Waterloo, Iowa, native owns the school record for kills, kills per set, kill efficiency, blocks and blocks per set. Brown was a four-time All-Metro and All-Conference honoree and led Class 5A in blocks and blocks per set en route to earning a spot on Iowa's Senior All-Star Classic. A middle blocker, Brown helped her club team, the Six Pack Volleyball Club, to a USAC national title in 2012 and was named MVP of the All-Tournament team.

Preseason Team Update: August 22, 2014
A week before the 2014 season begins, the Wildcats have their last day off of the preseason today. The team will be back on the practice court Saturday before they host their annual Blue/White Scrimmage Sunday at 5 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.

On their day off, the Wildcats spent part of the afternoon helping their fellow University of Kentucky students move in to the dorms across campus.


Tonight, the 2014-15 UK Athletics season officially gets underway in Seattle, when the women's soccer team faces Washington. Good luck to head coach Jon Lipsitz and the Wildcats!


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.


8 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Darian Mack

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MACK_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 freshman Darian Mack: 

"Kentucky volleyball is the opportunity to establish lifelong bonds with my coaches and teammates. Being on a team means that somebody always has your back and you're able to rely on each other. With UK volleyball, you have the opportunity to become SEC champions and receive a quality education."

Freshman Darian Mack comes to Kentucky from Raleigh, N.C. The outside hitter was the captain of her high school team and led Wakefield High School to a North Carolina High School 4A State Championship while earning MVP honors. A two-time all-conference selection, she also competed for Triangle Volleyball Club, where she helped the team reach Nationals in 2012. Mack was also named to the AVB Honor Roll and the National Achievers Society and won the Triple A Award, recognizing athletics, academics and attitude.

Preseason Team Update: August 21, 2014
Yesterday, the feature film documenting UK's two-week trip to China was unveiled on UKathletics.com. The 20-minute film was produced by UK's Sports Video department, and takes fans on the cultural, educational and competitive journey with the team. The video can be found on UKathletics.com or below.

Yesterday after practice, the team celebrated the release of the feature film with a Chinese dinner. Stories were shared as the team looked back one last time to a memorable two weeks.

Additionally, the team's trip was featured on the SEC Network, which has been archived on SECsports.com.




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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