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Whitney Billings was named to the AVCA All-America second team. (Andy Jessop) Whitney Billings was named to the AVCA All-America second team. (Andy Jessop)
Last Friday signified the ending of another strong season for the Kentucky volleyball team when it lost to No. 1 Penn State in the Sweet 16. Obviously the result was an undesirable one as UK hoped to shock the volleyball world and take down the six-time NCAA champions. But it wasn't meant to be. That doesn't mean the season wasn't a success.

Actually, Kentucky may have earned more respect this season than in any of its previous seven seasons under head coach Craig Skinner.

A great deal of the season was a struggle for Kentucky, but it was by design. Non-conference matchups with Nebraska and Oregon, who faced each other in the Elite 8 with a Final Four bid on the line, as well as the annual rivalry match with Louisville added to the difficulty of the Southeastern Conference slate. But the Wildcats still managed to reach the 20-win plateau for the fifth time, the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time, and the NCAA Regionals for the third time in four seasons under Skinner.

It was a challenging season, one of the most challenging schedules UK had faced, yet it came out the other side a battle-tested team ready for the postseason.

Skinner has not only helped his team reach team success, but he's also helped some of his players earn national acclaim. Over the past four seasons 10 Wildcats have earned All-America honors. After the completion of the 2012 regular season, that number increased by three.

Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings, senior libero Stephanie Klefot, and senior setter Christine Hartmann were each named American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America selections Wednesday morning, making them the first trio to be named All-Americans in back-to-back seasons in Kentucky volleyball history and also the third time that three Wildcats were named All-Americans in the same season.

"It's definitely a special award for Kentucky volleyball and a special award for those individuals to feel good about," said Skinner. "They are great team players, they play for the program, and we're all very proud of them."

Billings proved herself one of the best right side hitters in the nation as one of the few versatile enough to play every rotation. She was named to the second team for the first time in her career, becoming the sixth Wildcat to earn second-team honors in school history. She put up career-high numbers with 365 kills to average 2.99 per set and 35 aces while averaging 2.75 digs per set, ranking second on the team.

Klefot earns honorable mention honors after earning second-team honors last season. Kentucky's libero for the last three seasons became the first player in SEC history to be named SEC Libero of the Year three times in a career. Hartmann joins Klefot as an honorable mention honoree after she averaged 10.83 assists per set and earned career-highs in aces (21), digs (226), and blocks (79) in her senior season.

In all, Kentucky has had 19 All-America selections in school history. Skinner has been at the helm for 13 of those including eight different players. Skinner has also had at least one All-America selection in each of the last six seasons.

Coincidentally, Kentucky has had great team success over that time span. Their team achievements, the 20-plus-win seasons, the multiple Sweet 16s have helped the program earn respect nationally, but it's also helped develop and promote some of their most important members.

"It's another sign of respect for the program and our team accomplishments," said Skinner. "I think without the success of the team, we may not get these recognitions. Individually, they are each very deserving and they each put a lot of time and energy into putting themselves into a position to be successful and it's paying off."

As Kentucky continues to advance deep into NCAA Tournaments, play the best teams the country has to offer and earn individual honors on a yearly basis, the respect for Kentucky will take care of itself. It has thus far.

A strong Kentucky effort fell short Friday night against Penn State in the Sweet 16. (Andy Jessop) A strong Kentucky effort fell short Friday night against Penn State in the Sweet 16. (Andy Jessop)
It wasn't what the Wildcats hoped for, but Kentucky's loss to Penn State in the Sweet 16 Friday night will not go to waste.

Kentucky went into its Friday night Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Penn State with a thoroughly constructed game plan. After all, it was going to take perfect preparation to knock off the top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

At times, it looked like Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner and his team had figured out the Penn State Nittany Lions.

But unfortunately, at other times, Penn State had figured out Kentucky as well. Penn State did the better job of following through and executing the game plan.

The No. 16 Wildcats' season came to an end after a 3-0 sweep at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., Friday night.

"Hats off to Penn State," said Skinner after the match. "They were awfully good tonight. They played a lot better tonight than I feel like they had in the last couple of weeks."

Kentucky felt very confident in its plan of attack to upset Penn State. In sets one and two, the Cats really looked as if they had a chance of threatening the traditional powerhouse. They served tough and brought physicality to the net with their blocking. But in each set, Kentucky often was its own worst enemy.

Unforced errors were costly, especially when Penn State was giving UK plenty of opportunities to take hold of the match. The mistakes undid the good works their game plan provided, and Penn State was able to reel off long runs. In the end, Kentucky's inability to stop the bleeding late in sets one and two made the comeback efforts too little, too late.

"Each point is such a momentum builder in a match like this that you need to capitalize in each phase of your game," said Skinner. "It can't be just attacking or ball control, it needs to be all phases. When you get the chance to transition for a point and extend the lead to three points, you've got to do it because Penn State is capable of running three or four points in a row and tying the match up pretty quickly."

Coming out of the locker room, the Wildcats weren't the same team they had shown to be after draining sets one and two. Penn State made quick work of Kentucky and advanced to the Elite Eight.

Kentucky would be going home and their season would be over. Friday night's loss would signal the end for three very giving and decorated seniors in Ashley Frazier, Stephanie Klefot and Christine Hartmann. But it also marked the beginning of looking forward to next season.

Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings will be one of the starters who will be back on next year's team. After playing in consecutive Sweet 16s, she knows that this can be a good learning experience when it comes to preparation for next season.

"Well the people that are coming back next year just need to remember how this feels," said Billings.

Though a loss was far from the desired outcome, the experience gained will serve as motivation going into next fall.

"You have to know how it feels, and I think our team did know how it felt," said Skinner. "If we're able to turn a couple more points in sets one and two and steal a game, then it's a completely different mindset for us. Penn State understands that we're for real to make this a match. The younger players have seen it, been around it, felt it, and now it's motivation for the winter."

Despite the disappointment of losing in another Sweet 16 for consecutive seasons, getting there twice and for the third time in four seasons is quite the accomplishment on its own. And both Klefot and Frazier are a big reason for the recent success of Skinner's developing program.

"I'm so happy I could be a part of the Wildcats and playing for Craig," said Klefot. "I'm going to miss (my team). This season, we didn't start off our best, and to make it to the Sweet 16, I don't think anyone thought we were going to make the tournament. I'm beyond proud of my team."

Frazier, a two-year player after transferring from Alabama after her sophomore season, knows that she made the right decision after seasons like this.

"When I transferred here, I came here because this was a winning program," said Frazier. "I mean, that's what I got when I came here. My two years I was eligible, we went to the Sweet 16 both years, so I'm really happy with that. Obviously I would have liked to have gone farther, but it was a good two years."

Now, Skinner and his staff will take some time to shake off the agony of defeat. But it won't be long before begin planning on how to continue to take this product to the next level. It's a process that all starts in the offseason, and most of the heavy lifting has to be done before the team ever even makes the NCAA Tournament field.

"We need to continue to develop the program and recruit great players," said Skinner. "We have a great class coming in. Providing the belief that this program is going to a Final Four and competing for a championship.  We have several players now that have been in the Sweet 16 and understand what it's like, understand what it takes, and we can't just start thinking about that when it's tournament time."

Skinner hopes that Kentucky can start off stronger at the beginning of the season to help them be able to get a higher seed so that when the Cats face the Penn States of the world, it's in the Final Four instead of the Sweet 16.

"We need to think about that when it's week one of the season and playing good teams and putting ourselves in position to win those matches so that we get a better seed," said Skinner. "Working all season long to try and get yourself into a position when you're a top-five seed, a top-eight seed, so you can maybe give yourself a better chance to go beyond where you're at."

Kentucky looks to break through to the Elite Eight with a win over No. 1 Penn State Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky looks to break through to the Elite Eight with a win over No. 1 Penn State Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
If you didn't know any better, it would almost seem that Kentucky has been preparing for this Friday's Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Penn State since, well, they faced the No. 1 seed Texas in last season's Sweet 16.

Did Kentucky know it would be paired up in this year's bracket with the No. 1 seed for the second season in a row? No. But the Wildcats had the wherewithal to look ahead thinking that there might be a chance they could have success in the NCAA Tournament and eventually meet some of its top teams.

They loaded up in the non-conference portion of their schedule with a murderers row-like roster of competition. Kentucky faced tournament teams like Louisville, Nebraska and Oregon. Both Nebraska and Oregon are still alive in the Sweet 16 this season.

Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner would tell you that his team is battle-tested and that there isn't a situation this season that it hasn't been in. Playing the top team in the country on a neutral court is a new one, however, this season for the Wildcats. That just may play into their hands, knowing that they've faced top-ranked Nebraska on its home floor and coming dangerously close to upsetting the Cornhuskers on the road.

What Kentucky has been playing for is the experience and knowledge on how to handle tough situations like the one it will be in Friday night against Penn State at Mackey Arena on the campus of Purdue. The mixed results and the battles with some of the fiercest competition on the country will give Kentucky its best chance to upset the Nittany Lions.

"When you get to this point it is all about executing," said Skinner. "We've done our best all year to prepare us for these moments."

The players know what type of opportunity they had last season in the Sweet 16 to make a statement, and they believe they let one get away. Last year's team, however, didn't face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country either.

While this year's matches will give UK a lot to draw on when it comes to different parts of Friday's match, the biggest influence could be that very Texas match that happened 363 days ago.

"The big thing about the situation that we're going into is it's one that we've already been in before playing Texas as first seed last year," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "We've been here before; we know how to handle it."

And the situation is not one that these players are even thinking about backing down from. They are ready to show the country what they are made of and that they can play with the best of the best.  For them, Friday night can't get here fast enough.

"When you're in the office on Monday and your players are saying, 'Can Friday just get here?' they're amped about the chance to get out and compete again," said Skinner. "I think that's really it. It's not necessarily who, what, where, it's just the chance to get out and compete again."

That attitude is the same approach the Cats have taken from the beginning of this year's tournament, if not even further back into the regular season.

Kentucky knows that in order to compete with any team that it has to take care of what it does and focus on the way it plays. Now is not the time to start changing things up, but rather continue to try and perfect the things that they already do well.

"It's a normal game day and nothing changes," said junior right side Whitney Billings. "It's Penn State and we know they are good, but we are going to keep doing the same thing that we've been doing which is focusing on the opponent."

It's the same message that Skinner has been preaching to his whole team, and based on their words, they've heard it loud and clear. Kentucky has built its identity, and now it's going to see if it's good enough to take down the Nittany Lions Friday night.

"We have to do what we do," said Skinner. "We can't really change who we are, how we go about things. We have a system. We have things we do well."

What Kentucky has done well in the tournament is serve tough and play great defense. Penn State is a team capable of blowing any team out of the gym with the type of athletes and physicality that it brings to the table. While it's easy to scout an offense, as Penn State has likely done extensively this week, it's almost impossible to game plan for a poised defensive team.

That's exactly what Kentucky has to offer on Friday night.

"I've always thought as a coach, whether this is who I've worked for or whatever it is, you can't prepare for a great defense," said Skinner. "You can prepare for a great offense, but a great defense is hard to prepare for. It's something we take a lot of pride in and work on every day."

Kentucky boasts the Southeastern Conference Libero of the Year in senior libero Stephanie Klefot. They also have the SEC's third-best blocking team, averaging 2.53 blocks per set, highlighted by junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan who ranks sixth in the SEC with 1.08 blocks per set.

The Wildcats will also need to continue to serve tough to keep Penn State out of rhythm on offense. It's been a strong suit of theirs all season, as they averaged 1.47 aces per set. But in the tournament, they've turned up the pressure even more so. Against East Tennessee State, UK used five aces and tough serving attack to earn the 3-0 sweep. On Saturday, the Cats doubled that number with 10 aces against Ohio State to send themselves to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Penn State.

With the match looming, the focus and energy will be at an all-time high this season for the Wildcats. It needs to be. It should be. Skinner knows what kind of opportunity lies ahead of he and his team, and he expects everyone to be up for the challenge when first serve flies at 5 p.m.

"They're excited, their adrenaline is pumping and we've been ready to play since Monday," said Skinner. "There's no question that they will be excited and that there will be some nerves. If there aren't nerves then I think there is something a little abnormal there.  

"We seem to rise to the occasions and rise to opportunity, and I expect nothing else."  

Video: Volleyball leaves Lexington for Sweet 16

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Video: UK Rewind weekend recap (Dec. 3)

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