Kentucky looks to another hot start against the Razorbacks on Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky is in the midst of playing its best volleyball of the season. The Wildcats have won six of their last seven matches including four wins in straight sets. That one loss, a five-set heartbreaker on the road at No. 11 Florida, came after UK took the first two sets from the Gators.
The common denominator in all seven of those matches is that Kentucky has won the first set. And in five of those matches, Kentucky has won the first two sets. While getting off to fast starts hasn't been a perfect recipe for winning during this stretch, it's been close to it.
With dangerous teams like Arkansas coming into Lexington, Ky., Friday for a 7 p.m. match and Louisiana State at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, the Wildcats will likely need to continue to be the aggressors.
Interestingly enough, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner and his players aren't exactly aware of just how important their fast starts have been to their recent success. Maybe that's because their focus on the match and a point-by-point mentality has set them up to play that way.
"Lately, we're not saying let's play well the whole time, but let's stay focused the whole time," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "So I think it's just a different amount of pressure when it comes to focus or playing well the whole time."
A fast start can put a lot of pressure on the other side of the net. It can also serve as a way to grab momentum early in the match.
"We've typically gotten off to fast starts and done pretty well," said Skinner. "It's certainly not the end all as we've seen a few times across the country. You just have to be really good in the third set that you have to win, and that's really the most important part."
While Skinner believes that a fast start is important, he puts a larger emphasis on sustaining concentration throughout the match. Kentucky fell victim to that lack of concentration just two weekends ago.
Of UK's last six wins, Kentucky had found ways to seal the deal and terminate their opponent. In its lone loss, it looked as if UK would return the favor that Florida had dealt them early in the season. In Kentucky's first Southeastern Conference match, Florida came into Lexington and left with a three-set sweep over the Cats. Kentucky conversely went into Gainesville, Fla., and put up the early 2-0 lead on the Gators. But it wasn't how Kentucky started, but rather how they finished that determined the match.
"(Florida) made a couple of adjustments and I guess we didn't really respond," said senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier. "I feel like we maybe got a little too comfortable with our lead and we didn't have the same focus we had in game one and game two."
From that point on, it appears the Kentucky has gotten the message. The Wildcats have since swept Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
But even against Mississippi State it took some time for Kentucky regain that focus.
"Against Mississippi State we had little periods in there where we gave up some points, but it was a team we were able to do that and still come back," said Hartmann. "We had to learn by Sunday that Texas A&M was not isn't going to be a team where we can do that, and we definitely learned from that mistake within that weekend."
And apparently that's been the message, as Frazier echoed those sentiments of her setter.
"I think we learned a lot," said Frazier, "Because when we went to the locker room against Texas A&M, our focus between games two and three was to make sure we got it done and don't let up on our focus because we know it can happen."
Another factor, and perhaps the most important factor, is that Kentucky is just a better team. After facing arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the country, experiencing failure and success both losing and winning close matches, the Wildcats have seen just about everything this year.
Because of those wide-range of experiences over the course of the season up until this point, it appears UK is starting to hit its stride and find itself as a team. With how good the Wildcats have been playing, it's no surprise that this team is getting off to great starts.
"We've definitely improved from the beginning of the season until now," said Skinner. "We have the capability of playing at an extremely high level. Typically you're going to see results from how you practice and the things you work on in practice. When we have started well, you've seen us execute at a pretty high level."
Christine Hartmann was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday. (UK Athletics, Britney McIntosh)
Resilience is one of the most desirable qualities in any athlete. The ability to shake off some bad luck or a poor performance is not one that's easily acquired. Being able to get off the mat after taking a hard shot to the gut demands heart, courage and character. And being able to earn something back that had once been lost is perhaps one of the fulfilling accomplishments an athlete can achieve.
Kentucky senior setter Christine Hartmann was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday for the second time in her career. But looking back on the season leading up to that award, it's a testament to her that she's been able to battle her way back to the top.
Hartmann came into the 2012 season knowing that she would be the starting setter come Aug. 24 against North Carolina in the season opener. She believed that she had earned that right based on her previous three seasons and last season's trip to the Sweet 16.
Everything started off as planned. Kentucky swept its opponents on the opening weekend of the season to win the Kentucky Classic, and UK was riding high on a three-match win streak. But losses to Louisville and Oregon thereafter had the Wildcats wavering.
The following weekend in Nebraska, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner made the decision to shake up the lineup and give his talented freshman setter Morgan Bergren the reigns in favor of Hartmann, a senior.
"It's never easy (to bench) someone that's been a starter for us a couple of years," said Skinner. "(Hartmann)'s been an all-conference player. But as a staff, we're always going to make the best decisions for us to be successful on the court as a team."
And, at least initially, it looked like the move was a slam dunk.
Freshmen are often oblivious to how big moments can be, especially when their first start comes in Lincoln, Neb., home to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers just happened to be the No. 1 team at the time of their matchup with the Wildcats. And it just happened to be Bergren's first start of her collegiate career.
With a freshman setter, the Wildcats took the No. 1 team in the country to four sets, and arguably should have won the match. For Bergren's efforts, she was named SEC Freshman of the Week.
Meanwhile, Hartmann was soul searching. With such high expectations coming into the season with dreams of leaving her imprint on the Kentucky volleyball program, Hartmann was left watching from the sidelines.
"Once I was benched and we were losing while I was sitting out, that was the hardest thing," said Hartmann. "I sat in Craig's office and told him that I felt helpless and felt like I couldn't do anything."
But this was hardly a new situation for the senior. Time after time throughout her career, she's battled for the starting position. And as it should be, she was never handed the starter tag. It would have to be earned.
The last two seasons saw Hartmann battle for playing time with Elizabeth Koberstein at the setter position. Each year, when the Wildcats went to the NCAA Tournament, it was Hartmann taking the floor for Kentucky. The end result was Koberstein transferring to Marquette and Hartmann looking like the indisputable heart of the team.
One glance at Hartmann, you can see why she's had to battle for her position. She doesn't quite pass the eye test for a high-major collegiate setter. Hartmann is listed at a very gracious 5-foot-11, but Skinner will tell you she's closer to 5-foot-10. Meanwhile, her teammate and competition in Bergren is every bit of 6-foot-1, a much more desirable size for the position.
Hartmann did not take the demotion easily. It was particularly hard for her given that it was her senior season. But thanks to the encouragement of her fellow seniors, Hartmann realized her responsibilities to her team were far from finished.
"Initially, it was hard to handle," said Hartmann. "Ashley Frazier and I are good friends, so I talked to her quite a bit so she could help push me through it and work harder in practice. I started talking more to Stephanie Klefot too, and she told me I was still a part of this team and to continue to work hard.
"So, it definitely helped having teammates that, even though they were on the other side of the net during practice, they were still going to push me as hard as they can."
So Hartmann pushed back.
From that point on, Hartmann made a decision that she would do all that she could to make her teammates better, even if it meant that she wasn't playing with the starters. A new dedication, an extra edge to prove herself to her teammate and coaches and a bit of humble pie transformed Hartmann into a better player.
Skinner took notice of his reinvigorated senior.
"There was a time where I was talking to Craig and he told me that I was having the best week of practice I've ever had even though I wasn't on the starting side," said Hartmann. "The way I was competing was what I needed to do, and so I told myself that that's what I was going to do every single day."
But where Hartmann may lack in certain physical attributes, she supplements her deficiencies with a plethora of intangibles: experience, leadership, heart, determination, hustle, communication, chemistry, and if her latest SEC Player of the Week award serves as validation, she's been resilient once more.
As a result, not only is Hartmann having more personal success, but more importantly, the Wildcats are back to their winning ways.
A five-set win at Texas A&M nearly a month ago helped Kentucky break a four-match losing streak. It could easily be argued as the turning point of their season. It also happened to be the first time Hartmann was reinserted into the UK starting lineup.
"When I came back as a starter against Texas A&M, we ended up winning in five sets, getting that feeling back and winning that match was great for us," said Hartmann. "It was the hump that we needed to get over at that point in the season. So it's been great to come back, and since then it's been pretty positive for us."
And she's right. Kentucky has taken off since her return. Since the Texas A&M match, UK is 6-1 including a sweep of Tennessee with the lone loss coming at Florida, a match Hartmann believes the Cats should have won after jumping out to a two-set lead.
The success of this team isn't all due to Hartmann, but she's certainly accounted for a large part of Kentucky's current cohesion. For Hartmann to be able to do her job to the best of her ability, she needs the assistance of her teammates, particularly the passers, to put the ball in good positions along the net to set up her attackers.
With the team apparently clicking on all cylinders, it sets up the perfect situation for Hartmann to be at the peak of her game as Kentucky hits its stride in the middle of the SEC schedule. With the naming of Hartmann as the SEC Player of the Week, it appears that a lot more people are taking notice just how good this Kentucky team is.
"We've only won a few awards this year," said Hartmann. "I don't know how many we had last year, but last year it seemed like we had more. So to be able to get in there and get that for our team again and have another person on our team receive that means a lot to us."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Oct. 14:
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Sophomore Arin Gilliland scored the game-winning goal Sunday in a 1-0 win on the road at Georgia while also collecting the assist on the game-winning goal to Kelli Hubly in a 1-0 win at Tennessee as UK completed the weekend sweep. The Lexinton, Ky., native now leads Kentucky with 15 points on the season, striking for five goals and five assists. The game-winning goal by Gilliand was her second on the season.
Volleyball: Christine Hartmann
Senior Christine Hartmann directed the UK offense to a pair of sweeps of SEC Western Division foes including handing Texas A&M just its second loss of the season in league action. Against the Aggies, Hartmann led the Blue and White to a .351 hitting percentage which is the highest percentage yielded by Texas A&M this season. The Aggies lead the league in opponent hitting percentage allowing .143 for the season and .159 against league foes - and that's following yesterday's match. The previous best hitting clip allowed by A&M was a .229 clip, also to Kentucky. Hartmann dished out 39 assists and led UK to 14 or more kills in all three sets including 18 in the second set and 17 in the set-clinching win. UK hit above .400 for a stanza twice in the match. Furthermore, the 39 assists for a three-set match is a season-best for the senior. Hartmann's defensive prowess guided the Wildcats to a win over visiting Mississippi State. Hartmann had a squad-best eight digs and as well as a team-high three blocks to lead the way against the Bulldogs.
Rifle: Emily Holsopple
Junior Emily Holsopple led Kentucky in air rifle during the first match of the year, posting a 592 Saturday in Lincoln, Neb. To go along with her 592 in air rifle, Holsopple posted a 587 in smallbore to record an aggregate score of 1179. Holsopple's 592 came from steady shooting throughout and was just above her 2011-12 air rifle season average of 591.9.
Women's soccer: Kelli Hubly
Freshman Kelli Hubly added to her team lead, scoring her fifth goal of the season in Knoxville, Tenn., as UK charted a 1-0 win over Tennessee. The tally was the game's only goal, and was struck in the 70th minute. The game-winner was Hubly's second of the season and now stands second on the team with 12 points.
Rifle: Henri Junghänel
Senior Henri Junghänel opened the 2012-13 campaign with a bang, shooting a 590 in smallbore against Nebraska. Junghänel's 590 marks the highest smallbore score for a Wildcat since Ethan Settlemires shot a 590 in the 2011 NCAA Championships and goes down as a personal best. Junghänel led the team with a total aggregate score of 1181, after shooting a 591 in air rifle. Junghänel's performance helped the preseason No. 2 Wildcats knock off No. 4 Nebraska, moving the Wildcats to 1-0 with the conference win.
Women's soccer: Kayla King
Junior Kayla King had her best weekend in the Blue and White, recording back-to-back, 90-minute shutouts on the road at Tennessee and Georgia. The Louisville, Ky., native had a career high 10 saves on Sunday in Athens and kept a clean sheet vs. Tennessee on Friday night as the Wildcats picked up a crucial six points. King fended off 36 shots over the two games and dropped her GAA to 0.81 on the season. The back-to-back shutouts was a career first for King, as she had recorded one prior in her career entering the weekend.
Men's soccer: Matt Lodge
Senior midfielder Matt Lodge connected on his first career penalty kick goal as the game-winning tally in leading UK to a 2-1 comeback win at No. 25 UAB on Saturday ... Lodge finished the penalty after freshman forward Caleb Richardson forced the attempt by drawing a foul on a run in the box ... The win for UK was its first over UAB since the 2008 season and marked UK's first comeback win of the year ... A native of Rossington, England, Lodge has six goals in 2012 and owns 23 in his sparkling four-year career ... He ranks tied for fourth in UK career history in goals and sixth in points (61) ... With his eighth career game-winning goal - and his second in 2012 - Lodge ranks tied fourth in program history ... In the win at UAB, Lodge fired a club-best three shots and now has a school-record 177 in his career.
Men's golf: Chase Parker
Chase Parker recorded his best finish of the year thus far, finishing in a tie for sixth individually at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational, Oct. 8-9. The Augusta, Ga., native fired a 3-over-par, 75 in round one before concluding the 36-hole stroke-play tournament with a 2-over-par, 74 in the second round. Parker was 5-over for the event and helped lead the Wildcats to a fourth place finish against a competitive 11-team field.
Volleyball: Sara Schwarzwalder
Freshman Sara Schwarzwalder returned to the lineup this week and provided a spark for the Wildcats en route to a 2-0 weekend. Schwarzwalder was magnificent in helping lead UK past Texas A&M for the second time this season. The freshman logged seven kills on a .667 hitting percentage. Both the kill total as well as the hitting percentage are career-bests for the Ohio native within SEC play. She also pitched in with a career-high two digs in the victory. Her three blocks against Mississippi State ranked as a team-best in leading UK to a win over the Bulldogs in Rupp Arena.
Men's soccer: Jack Van Arsdale
Junior goalkeeper Jack Van Arsdale saved five shots in a stellar performance to lead UK to a win at No. 25 UAB on Saturday night ... Van Arsdale charted five saves, including several leaping, diving and fully extended efforts to thwart scoring chances for the physical Blazers ... On the year Van Arsdale has a 1.39 goals-against average in 11 games and 970 minutes, saving 32 shots with two shutouts ... The native of Richmond, Va., has now shined in UK's two wins over top-25 foes on the road in 2012, also posting a six-save performance in a 1-0 win at No. 18 Louisville on Sept. 14 ... Van Arsdale has now started eight consecutive games in goal for UK, sporting a 1.34 goals-against average in those games, with UK owning a 5-2-1 record.
Football - The Kentucky football team fell over the weekend to Arkansas 49-7 in Fayetteville. The game was suspended because of lightning twice. The second delay was with 5:08 remaining in the third quarter and Arkansas leading 49-7. The game would not resume. - In the third quarter, freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 61-yard play to La'Rod King. King now has 1,569 receiving yards in his career, moving past Anthony White for seventh place on the UK career receiving yardage list. He also has 17 receiving TDs in his career, tying Steve Meilinger for fifth place on the UK career list. - Kentucky is fielding one of the nation's youngest teams, playing 14 true freshmen and 26 total (true and redshirt) frosh, one of the nation's top-five teams in each category. True freshman cornerback Cody Quinn led UK in tackles with a career-best seven.
Volleyball - The Kentucky volleyball team enjoyed a 2-0 week against SEC Western Division foes racking up a pair of sweeps over Mississippi State and Texas A&M. UK captured the win over the Bulldogs in Rupp Arena in front of a Craig Skinner era record crowd of 5,162 fans. - Kentucky then turned around and earned an impressive sweep of the Western Division leading Texas A&M Aggies. Senior setter Christine Hartmann directed the offense to the tune of 49 kills on a blazing .351 hitting percentage. The .351 clip is the highest hitting percentage surrendered by the Aggies this season who currently lead the league in opponent hitting percentage. - Freshman Sara Schwarzwalder led the offensive effort against the Aggies with seven kills on .667 hitting, which both rank as career-highs within conference action.
Women's soccer - Junior Kayla King recorded back-to-back shutouts for the first time in her career, dropping her season GAA to a miniscule .833. The Louisville, Ky., native had a career high 10 saves on Sunday in Athens and kept a clean sheet vs. Tennessee on Friday night as the Wildcats picked up a crucial six points. King fended off 36 shots over the two games - Arin Gilliland scored the game-winning goal vs. Georgia, scoring her fifth goal of the season, adding to her team lead of 15 points on the season. In addition, the Lexington, Ky., native tallied the assist in the game-winning goal to Kelli Hubly in the win over Tennessee.
Men's soccer - The Kentucky men's soccer team continued its rugged schedule to open the 2012 season, traveling to face No. 25 UAB on Saturday and posting a 2-1 comeback win with a pair of second-half tallies. - Kentucky faced off with its seventh ranked opponent of the 2012 season in facing UAB, with the Wildcats falling behind 1-0 early and rallying with goals from senior midfielders Charley Pettys and Matt Lodge for the comeback win. Lodge's goal marked the 23rd of his career, ranking fourth-best in UK history. - The Wildcats have been paced by a dynamic offensive unit in 2012 that has netted 23 goals in the first 13 games, averaging 1.77 goals per game and 12.2 shots a contest. Defensively, UK has a 1.51 goals-against average and owns an 85-69 advantage in corners.
Rifle - The Kentucky rifle team started off its season with a 4666 - 4643 victory over No. 4 Nebraska. - Senior Henri Junghanel led Kentucky in smallbore, posting a 591. Junghanel also shot a 591 in air rifle. - Junior Emily Holsopple shot a team-best 591 in air rifle after shooting a 587 in smallbore. Women's golf - Kentucky finished tied for 12th in the Tar Heel Invitational that was filled with 13 top-50 teams. - Junior Liz Breed was the high finisher for the Wildcats, finishing tied for 32nd at 9-over-par. Men's golf - The UK men's golf team placed fourth at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational this week, finishing just four strokes off from first. - The Wildcats also competed in the Bearcat Invitational this week as head coach Brian Craig sent Harrison Greenberry, Joseph Barr, Seth Blann and Matthew Anderson to compete in the event as individuals.
Cross country - The Kentucky women's cross country team produced a 12th-place performance at NCAA Pre-Nationals on Saturday in Louisville. - Macumber raced across the challenging E.P. "Tom" Sawyer Park 6,000 meter course in 20:09.00 to notch her fourth top-10 finish in as many meets this season. - Oswald earned a time of 20:32.70 to finish in 23rd ensuring UK was the only unranked team at the nationally competitive meet with multiple top-25 performers. - The Wildcat men finished in 25th-place overall.
Upcoming schedule Monday, Oct. 15 Men's golf at Querencia Cabo Collegiate (San Jose del Cabo, Mexico)
Tuesday, Oct. 16 Men's golf at Querencia Cabo Collegiate (San Jose del Cabo, Mexico)
Wednesday, Oct. 17 Men's soccer at Marshall - 7:00 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18 Women's tennis at ITA Regionals (Lafayette, Ind.) Men's tennis at USTA/ITA Regional Indoor (Memphis, Tenn.) Friday, Oct. 19 Women's soccer hosts South Carolina - 6:30 p.m. Volleyball hosts Arkansas - 7:00 p.m. Women's tennis at ITA Regionals (Lafayette, Ind.) Men's tennis at USTA/ITA Regional Indoor (Memphis, Tenn.) Rifle at Murray State Swimming and diving hosts Tennessee and Indiana - 2:00 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 20 Women's tennis at ITA Regionals (Lafayette, Ind.) Men's tennis at USTA/ITA Regional Indoor (Memphis, Tenn.) Football hosts Georgia - 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 21 Volleyball hosts LSU- 1:30 p.m. Rifle hosts Army Women's tennis at ITA Regionals (Lafayette, Ind.) Men's tennis at USTA/ITA Regional Indoor (Memphis, Tenn.) Women's soccer hosts Auburn - 2:30 p.m. Men's soccer hosts Florida International - 5:00 p.m.
Christine Hartmann helped lead Kentucky to a sweep over Texas A&M with 39 assists. (UK Athletics, Britney McIntosh)
Texas A&M had made quite an impressive start to its inaugural Southeastern Conference season. The Aggies had won seven of their first eight matches in the SEC, led the Western division by two games, and held the second-best record in the conference.
If it weren't for Kentucky, they'd be an undefeated 8-0 in the conference.
Kentucky, however, appears to have the Aggies' number. The Wildcats traveled to College Station, Texas, for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament last season, and defeated Texas A&M for the right to go to the Sweet 16. In the Wildcats' first return visit to College Station this season to face the Aggies for the first time in SEC play, it was Kentucky who came out victorious once more in a five-set thriller.
With the Aggies traveling to Lexington for the first time as members of the SEC, they would be looking for revenge against the team who had beaten them in their last two matchups and accounted for their lone blemish in conference play.
However, it was Kentucky who showed up and looked angry seemingly having its way with the Aggies for most of the afternoon in UK's annual "Dig Pink Match."
In their earlier matchup, both teams were rough around the edges and made several errors throughout the match. In the first set on Sunday, all the mistakes were coming from the Texas A&M side of the net while UK was nearly flawless. A first set score of 25-11 certainly reflected that. Kentucky forced nine Aggie errors including five-and-a-half blocks. The Wildcat presence at the net was nearly impenetrable for most of the set.
On the flip side, UK attacked at an impeccable .419 clip making only one attacking error compared to 14 kills. It was a truly dominant statement for Kentucky to open the match.
"It was at one point we were up 8-2 and we were like, 'That's it, we're going to keep this up,' because in our last match we were up 8-2 and let teams come back," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "So we just made sure we learned from our past mistakes and weren't going to let that happen."
Junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan and sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner each led the way with four kills and three blocks each.
Texas A&M regrouped quickly in the second set, as the Aggies knew they could ill-afford to go down 2-0 on the road to the Wildcats. The Aggies tightened up the screws while Kentucky was far from sharp in the second set. Kentucky looked far more pedestrian than they had in the first set, while it appeared that A&M was back to the form that had taken them to a 7-1 record in the conference.
Each team swapped scores for nearly the entire set. Texas A&M grabbed an early 6-4 lead. Then Kentucky would storm back to go up by two. It went that way for most of the set between the two teams for the duration. Kentucky grabbed momentum late as junior right side hitter Whitney Billings started to get going. She broke a tie at 16 with a thunderous kill off an Aggie defender, one of her four in the set, and it looked like Kentucky had gained some momentum.
The Aggies continued to battle to the wire, but Hartmann all but sealed the deal for the Cats in the second set with a dump into the center of the Texas A&M defense to give UK set point at 24-22. Texas A&M tried to stall Kentucky with a timeout, but on the ensuing play, the Aggies sent their attack long and Kentucky jumped out to a familiar 2-0 score in the match. Despite the early dominance in set one, UK knew that Texas A&M wouldn't lay down in the second set.
"We knew that that's what they were capable of," said Hartmann who dished out 39 assists. "They're a good team and that wasn't their best and we knew they could come back."
It was the fourth time in the last four matches that Kentucky had taken a 2-0 lead into the locker room at the break. They finished off matches against Ole Miss and Mississippi State in two of the four, but they were unable to finish the job against Florida last weekend on the road as UK was in the midst of an upset bid. The Cats had the opportunity to finish off the Gators in three sets last Sunday, and on this Sunday, the same opportunity presented itself.
However, this time, Kentucky would finish what it started.
As Hartmann continued to guide an incredibly balanced offensive attack, Kentucky held on to a comfortable lead for most of the third set and at no point did UK seemed threatened by the Aggies. O'Conner led the way for the Cats in the third set with six kills to give her a team-high 12 for the match. Billings added four to give her 11 kills on the day to go with 14 digs to give her the seventh double-double of the season.
The Wildcats went on to finish the set with a 25-19 victory and give Kentucky its third sweep in its last four matches and four out of the last six.
Kentucky (12-7, 6-3 SEC) is now responsible for both blemishes on the SEC schedule for Texas A&M (15-3, 7-2 SEC) this season. Though Skinner wouldn't say that Kentucky has the Aggies' number, he does believe that their win over Texas A&M back on Sept. 23 may have been the turning point of the season for his Cats. He now hopes that momentum they've built helps them going forward as they prepare for another tough weekend ahead in SEC play.
"It was a start of a succession of good matches," said Skinner. "If that was the turning point, it certainly turned our confidence level and how we were playing the game. It's continued for a few weeks now and we've got an important weekend next weekend with Arkansas and LSU and we've got to get back into the gym and get better on Tuesday."
The match had been set in stone for Oct. 12. Mississippi State was scheduled to come into Lexington to play the Kentucky volleyball team for one of several scheduled matches at Memorial Coliseum.
Until it wasn't.
Chasing a dream of his, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner began talking to some of the UK Athletics administration about possibly changing the venue of the Mississippi State match.
Why? Because that date coincidentally was scheduled for the same night as Big Blue Madness.
Since becoming head coach at the University of Kentucky eight years ago, Skinner had hoped to play a match at Rupp Arena in front of a big crowd. After exchanging some ideas with men's basketball coach John Calipari, the dream became much more of a reality. With some help from Calipari and support from the administration, Skinner's dream was starting to look more like a reality.
After figuring out the logistics of playing a volleyball match at Rupp Arena, Skinner and the volleyball team were given the green light to be the opening act for Big Blue Madness before the women's and men's activities got underway.
Last season, Kentucky was given a similar opportunity on the road, also at Mississippi State, to play at their Maroon Madness. After UK fell to the Bulldogs last year, it was time for Kentucky to treat Mississippi State to a similar opportunity.
Come Friday night at 5 p.m., it was actually happening. Kentucky had the chance to play in front of 5,261 fans that arrived early to Big Blue Madness to check out the Skinner-led Wildcats which broke the attendance record for the Skinner era.
Though Kentucky originally hoped to possibly break the national attendance record for an NCAA volleyball match, Skinner was just hoping to expose people to a new sport.
"I had no idea what to expect," said Skinner. "I doubted we'd get the national attendance record a few hours before the madness. I think what I wanted to see out of it was to get some people exposed to a high level sport that our athletes compete at and give them a chance to see it and hopefully come back and see us at Memorial Coliseum."
Speaking of Memorial Coliseum, Rupp Arena it is not. Other than their spaciousness, they bare little in resemblance or atmosphere. For one, Rupp Arena, capacity wise, is nearly three times the size. Memorial Coliseum, known for its warm temperatures and sticky air, provides a much different climate than what Kentucky and Mississippi State experienced Friday night.
"I think the air conditioning currents (in Rupp Arena) were up a little bit," said Skinner. "The ball was floating a little more than usual serving and passing-wise. I think for both teams it was very difficult to serve and receive and both teams served pretty tough too. It cost us some points, but overall it was a great experience for us."
Kentucky seemed to handle the conditions much better than Mississippi State, as the Cats sailed past the Bulldogs with relative ease winning in straight sets (25-18, 25-18, 25-18). Alexandra Morgan and Ashley Frazier led the way for Kentucky offensively with eight kills apiece.
For Morgan and her teammates, the opportunity to play in Rupp Arena was something that they had looked forward to ever since they got the news.
"If anything I think we were excited and kind of forgot what we were here for," said Morgan. "We were really excited to come here, it hadn't been done before. We had been talking about it for awhile."
Kentucky started off well in each set, but took longer to put the Bulldogs away than it had hoped. Part of that may have been due to the new atmosphere. And though it was considered a home game for the Cats, in a lot of ways it felt like a road game with the brand new conditions.
"It was a great experience," said Morgan. "In a way it was kind of like playing at an away gym because we weren't used to the lighting, the crowd and everything. But, it being our fans and seeing all of the blue and all of our students, it just felt like we were at home."
Though Kentucky fell way short of the national attendance record they hoped to achieve, the 5,261 fans was far and away the highest number ever recorded during the Skinner era.
But no matter the attendance and no matter the venue, Kentucky was going to come out and play as hard as they could for whatever fans happened to show up Friday night. But they were certainly appreciative of those that did.
"If we had one fan out there, we would play as hard as we could for that one fan, so we tried to do the best we could," said Morgan. "We appreciate everyone that came out because I know they're all mostly basketball fans, and we really appreciate that they came out early."