The UK volleyball team and guests sit down for dinner at the Lexington Hilton for their end of the season banquet. (Ryan Suckow, UK Athletics)
After a second-straight trip to the Sweet 16, the Kentucky volleyball team held their annual season-ending volleyball banquet to celebrate the 2012 season.
The guest list was stronger than it had ever been as several fans, donors, season ticket holders, and family members were in attendance for the celebration as the team looked back on yet another successful season and said goodbye one last time to a highly-decorated senior class.
This highlight video was shown to commemorate the season and show off some of the top plays of the year and all of it's great moments at home.
Among the highlights of the evening was guest speaker and former Kentucky volleyball head coach Kathy DeBoer. During her time at UK, she led the Wildcats to their only appearance in the Elite 8, is the last coach to win an SEC Championship (1988), and led UK to their most successful season with a mark of 31-2 in the 1987 season.
Former UK head coach and AVCA president Kathy DeBoer speaks addresses the crowd as guest speaker. (Ryan Suckow, UK Athletics)
DeBoer spoke to the team about several subjects about what they need to do to help get themselves over the hump and advance deeper in the NCAA Tournament. Through her memories as a head coach at Kentucky, her message was loud and clear: Enjoy and celebrate success, don't fear failure, learn to deal with adversity, and use all of that to become a better team.
After DeBoer's entertaining and thought-provoking address, it was time for the the staff to talk about their team, class by class, and give some of their favorite accounts of the season. Head coach Craig Skinner had the privilege to talk about his well-decorated senior class that was coming off back-to-back Sweet 16s and NCAA Tournament appearances every season as a Wildcat.
UK head coach Craig Skinner talks to the crowd about the 2012 Senior Class. (Ryan Suckow, UK Athletics)
From there, the seniors were recognized by their teammates. The ladies shared some of their favorite memories of the seniors and gave their thanks for their leadership and friendship during their time together as teammates and friends.
Redshirt juniors Alexandra Morgan and Whitney Billings embrace senior Stephanie Klefot. (Ryan Suckow, UK Athletics)
And for the grand finale, each senior (Stephanie Klefot, Christine Hartmann, Ashley Frazier) took to the podium to give their final farewells. There were tears and laughs, stories and gratitude. It was a bittersweet end to the night as we know what all three seniors have given to the UK volleyball program, but it is certain as they leave UK, they will represent the team and the University in a professional and admirable way.
With the banquet in the rear-view mirror, UK is looking forward to applying the lessons learned from DeBoer at the banquet and their experiences from the 2012 season. They're already back in the gym preparing for the 2013 season with the anticipation of working their very hardest to make sure that 2013 is one of the best years in program history.
UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced a six-year contract extension Wednesday for head volleyball coach Craig Skinner on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Craig Skinner was the third head coaching hire made by Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. Skinner came in after former football head coach Rich Brooks and former women's basketball coach Mickie DeMoss. Hired in 2004, Skinner is not only still the head coach of the women's volleyball program at UK, but Barnhart announced Wednesday that Skinner would be staying around even longer with a six-year contract extension.
Skinner has essentially rebuilt the volleyball program at Kentucky, one that had struggled since the early 1990s, and has restored it to national prominence with three appearances in the Sweet 16 in the last four seasons. It's been the dedication of both Skinner and his staff as well Barnhart and his administration that has allowed the volleyball program to not only rebuild but to reach new heights in program history.
Wednesday's announcement signified the unified efforts and dedication to try and take the Kentucky volleyball program to the next level.
"We are doing some special things," said Skinner. "We have done some great things and we want to continually compete for championships each and every year. We want to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament each year and be nationally recognized as the landscape of volleyball changes with the conferences changing."
The goal is to win championships at this point. Skinner has come close multiple times to winning an SEC championship, but has fallen just short. Those efforts will continue at an even stronger pace with a renewed vote of confidence from the administration.
His extension has Skinner fired up about next season and beyond as he looks to the future of the Kentucky volleyball program.
"To me, it's unbelievably exciting because in our sport, it doesn't happen very often that you get a contract of this length," said Skinner. "If it's exciting to me, I need to parlay that into our recruits, our current players, and I'm excited to take the next step and get better and never see a day that we aren't trying to improve ourselves. That the people we are trying to recruit understand that this is a long-term deal and something that we don't want to be OK, we want to be great."
The contract extension serves multiple purposes. First and foremost, it keeps one of the most highly esteemed volleyball minds at Kentucky to continue to build his program. The extension serves as a sign of stability to allow recruits and their families to know that Skinner will be coaching the Wildcats for the foreseeable future. It also allows Skinner to continue to raise his family in the only place that his children have ever called home.
"Megan (Skinner's wife) and I came here to Lexington wanting to raise our kids and come to a great place and we are grateful to have the opportunity to do that," said Skinner.
But now it's time to get to work.
Skinner isn't complacent. He never has been. And he's looking for ways to get over the hump. Reaching the Sweet 16 was a great first step, but this program, in his eyes and the eyes of the administration, is about setting their sights on winning those championships at both the conference and national levels.
This extension, along with some additional perks of the contract, should theoretically, and at some point realistically, allow Kentucky to not just compete for, but win those championships. Primarily, Skinner hopes that the new contract will help him be able to tell parents of recruits, "Yes, I'm going to be here if your daughter comes to Kentucky." He also hopes that it will allow him to go after and land some of the top volleyball talent in the country to help get him where he wants his program to be. That's why Barnhart felt it was necessary to keep his man, the guy he hired and is now the longest tenured Kentucky coach to be hired under Barnhart, to remain a Wildcat.
"Have people pursued Craig?" asked Barnhart. "I have no idea what all those conversations look like but we're foolish to think he's not on a lot of people's radar screen. We want to prevent that from happening. We don't want to give him any reason to go out there and pursue that.
"We want him here at Kentucky. He's an important part of us."
And because of that dynamic, the relationship has flourished and grown deeper, not only professionally but also personally.
"You get in the trenches with people and you're in with them, it gets personal," said Barnhart. "When you're standing in the hallway outside the locker room when you lose in the NCAAs and you see how hard they poured themselves into this deal and what it means. I think that slips away from us sometimes."
Barnhart was there with Skinner after his most recent loss, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of No. 1 seed and eventual Final Four participant Penn State. It's more than just words. It's more than just money. Both of these men are deeply invested in the growth of this program at all levels.
The next step for Skinner is to figure out exactly how to do it. That itself is a daily process.
"I think we try and learn every day," said Skinner. "We try and learn, 'Did we do this correctly? Are we attacking this system the right way?' I think as you get longer into the process, you learn quicker what works and what doesn't work."
What always helps that process is a strong roster full of talent. Not just talented athletes, but athletically gifted volleyball players who go about their business the right way. As important as Skinner might be to the structure of the program, the players he is coaching are the ones out of the floor, winning or losing games.
Thus far in Skinner's career, he's brought in several top-25 recruiting classes nationally. While he's been able to coach those players up, develop their skills, and teach them how to win in, he now seeks difference makers that possess unteachable skill and ability.
That's how you get to the next level.
"We all become a lot better coaches when we have great players," said Skinner. "Recruiting is everything. You need difference makers to get through the regionals, you need difference makers to win championships and we're continually seeking those players."
Those difference makes will not only affect the outcome of games, but will make huge differences in whether or not this program can reach those new heights.
"Going to the next level is big jump and I want our current players, our future recruits, our incoming players to understand, we've done great things but if we're satisfied with that then I don't want you to be part of this program," said Skinner. "I want people to be part of this program to compete with (national champion) Texas, to compete with the best teams in our league, to compete with teams going to the Final Four and it takes a heavy investment from myself, our players and a joint relationship with our administration to make that next pitch."
Guy Ramsey took on the rigorous task last holiday season of dubbing Wildcats esteemed victors of the 2011 Scratchies. The Scratchies commemorate the best of the best of the fall semester, celebrating the many achievements and top events and performers so far in the athletic calendar. Guy has, with great regret and sorrow due to a stressful and hectic schedule, passed along the duties of handing out these illustrious Wildcats to me. After putting in countless hours of research and analysis, consulting with the Cat Scratches brain trust, and many sleepless nights, it is with great honor that I present to you the winners of 2012 Scratchies for the fall semester...
MVW (Most Valuable Wildcat) Cally Macumber (Cross Country) - The 2012 cross country season was one of the best in Kentucky history as junior Cally Macumber helped welcome new head coach Edrick Floreal with an individual SEC Championship. Macumber won the SEC Championship on Oct. 26, she earned SEC-best times in both the 5,000- and 6,000-meter events, won SEC Athlete of the Week twice, and was named 2012 SEC Cross Country Runner of the Year. She became the first Wildcat to win the women's SEC Title since 1989.
The Dream Team (team of the semester) Volleyball - For the second time in as many seasons and the third in four years under head coach Craig Skinner, the Kentucky volleyball team advanced to the Sweet 16. Kentucky earned the No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, giving the Cats the opportunity to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats defeated East Tennessee State to move on and face Ohio State. Kentucky won convincingly over the Buckeyes, 3-1, after dropping the first set.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they would be matched up with the No. 1 seed in Penn State in the West Lafayette, Ind., Regional. The six-time NCAA Champions fought off the Wildcats as UK made runs in the first two sets and ended another successful Kentucky season. The Cats finished the year with another 20-win season with a final record of 22-11. They faced one of the toughest schedules in the country, beat Tennessee twice, and had three Wildcats named All-Americans including second-team selection Whitney Billings and honorable mentions Stephanie Klefot and Christine Hartmann.
The Adolph Rupp Award (coach of the semester) Jon Lipsitz (women's soccer) and Johan Cedergren (men's soccer) - The Kentucky soccer programs each reached new heights in the respective programs this season, and much of the credit goes to those running those teams. Women's soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz guided his team to the first NCAA Tournament win in program history with a victory over UT Martin in the first round. Kentucky racked up big wins against Louisville and Florida and finished 14-7-1 to cap off one of the best seasons in program history.
Johan Cedergren's first season at the helm of the men's program got off to a rocky start, but it didn't take long before he rallied the troops. The Cats dropped their first three matches of the season before getting in the win column against Saint Joseph's. The Wildcats' next win came in a huge upset over rival Louisville, which sparked a four-game win streak. After a tie against Memphis and losses to Indiana and Southern Methodist, Kentucky went on another four-game win streak to put itself in prime position to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. Not only did Kentucky make the NCAA Tournament field, but the Cats were selected to host the first round for just the second time in program history. Kentucky fell to No. 19 Xavier in the first round, but UK finished with a 10-9-2 record and Cedergren looks to have his program on the rise.
The Butler-VCU Award (surprise team of the semester) Men's soccer - When UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hired Johan Cedergren to become the new head coach of the men's soccer program, most expected Cedergren to eventually right the ship and get the team headed in the right direction. But no one could have expected the run they would go on after starting the season 1-4-0. There was a gloomy outlook on the beginning of the season as Cedergren looked to install his style on his veteran squad. But the Wildcats got a broke out and broke through with an upset win on the road over rival Louisville. After the 1-4-0 start, Kentucky went on to post a 9-5-2 mark over its last 16 games, building a strong enough resume not only to make the NCAA Tournament, but also host the first round for the second time in program history.
One Shining Moment (best moment)
Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart introduces his newest hire in head football coach Mark Stoops in his first press conference. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Stoops Press Conference (football) - Kentucky football got a shot in the arm with the hiring of Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops as the new head coach at the University of Kentucky. It was a hire that reignited passion in the Kentucky football program as Stoops brings with him an impressive resume backed up by a pedigree of successful collegiate football coaches.
After an exhaustive coaching search, Barnhart found his man and officially named Stoops the next head football coach on Nov. 27. And for the first time as the new head coach, he was introduced to the media, donors, Kentucky Athletics staff and some fans for the very first time during an elaborate celebration/press conference on Dec. 2. Stoops and his family got to see firsthand what the Big Blue Nation is all about as he was first greeted by fans waiting outside of the Nutter Field House in the rain. As he entered, he was met by Kentucky cheerleaders and the sound of the Kentucky fight song on his way to the podium to meet Barnhart and UK President Eli Capilouto.
The hiring and the event sparked the Kentucky fan base and now has the state buzzing about football in the thick of the college basketball season.
The "Band is Out On the Field" Award (best game/match) Volleyball comes back from 2-0 deficit at Tennessee - Kentucky was looking for its first season sweep of Tennessee since 1995. The Wildcats earned their first three-set sweep over the Volunteers since that same 1995 season in their first meeting of 2012. Knoxville, Tenn., had not been kind to the Wildcats in recent history, and it looked as if history would repeat itself once more. After the first two sets of the match, the Wildcats faced a 2-0 deficit at the break and it was all but certain that UK would split matches with UT.
The Wildcats came out angry and hammered the Vols, 25-14, in the third set. They then held off UT in set four, forcing the decisive fifth set with a 25-22 victory. Riding all of the momentum of the match, stealing it directly from the clutch of Tennessee's hands, Kentucky handled the Volunteers with a 15-5 in a set where UT never threatened. And for the first time in 17 years, Kentucky returned to Lexington with two wins over the neighbors to the south.
The Doug Flutie Hail Mary Award (best play)
Hubly's golden goal in 93rd minute earns first-ever NCAA Tournament victory - Kentucky and UT Martin were locked in a scoreless battle heading to overtime. The Wildcats had earned the right to host the first round as they sought the first NCAA Tournament win in program history. In the 93rd minute of the game, freshman Kelli Hubly came from the right wing, took a one-on-one opportunity, beat the defender and knocked her shot in past the diving UT Martin goalkeeper for the game winner.
Honorable mention: Janee Thompson's three, Azia Bishop's block clinch comeback win at Louisville for UK Hoops
All-Wildcat Team (the Scratchies equivalent of the All-America Team) Cally Macumber (XC)- SEC Cross Country Runner of the Year, SEC Champion Whitney Billings (volleyball) - Second-Team All-American Avery Williamson (football) - Second in SEC in tackles with 135 while adding three sacks Larry Warford (football) - Three-year starter at offensive guard named All-American by AP Stephanie Klefot (volleyball) - SEC Libero of the Year for conference record third consecutive season Arin Gilliland (women's soccer) - First-Team All-SEC Matt Lodge (men's soccer) - First-Team All-C-USA Steven Perinovic (men's soccer) - First-Team All-C-USA Greg Ferrucci (diving) - Two-time SEC Diver of the Week so far in 2012 Henri Junghanel (rifle) - Tied a program best shooting a 597 in the air rifle event
All-Calipari Team (all-freshman team) Courtney Raetzman (women's soccer) - Freshman All-SEC scoring four goals with 12 total points Kelli Hubly (women's soccer) - Scored six goals, including a game winner in the NCAA Tournament Sara Schwarzwalder (volleyball) - Freshman All-SEC tallying 149 kills (1.51 k/set) in 30 starts Landon Foster (football) - Named to the first team Freshman All-America by Scout.com as well as earning All-SEC Freshman accolades Archie Goodwin (men's basketball) -Averaging team-highs in points (15.8) and assists (4.4) through 10 games Nerlens Noel (men's basketball) - Putting up impressive numbers across the board, averaging 10.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.8 spg, 3.9 bpg through his first 10 games Rebecca Hamperian (diving) - Named SEC Female Freshman of the Week (Nov. 6)
All-Up-and-Comers(non-freshmen on the rise) Kyle Wiltjer (men's basketball) -First double-double with 23 points, 12 rebounds vs. Lipscomb (averaging 11.7 points on the season) Zan Morgan (volleyball) - Started for the first time as junior in 2012 averaging 2.3 kills/set and 1.1 blocks/set Samarie Walker (women's basketball) - Has started all 10 games this season averaging 9.0 points and 7.6 rebounds Charles Pettys (men's soccer) - Scored six goals in his junior campaign in 18 games this season Liz Breed (women's golf) - The junior shot a 2-under-par (70) helping UK to a 6-under-par score, a record low round in program history, at the Alamo Invitational in San Antonio, Texas Will Bishop (men's golf) - The sophomore won the Cabo Collegiate shooting 2-under-par for the event to pick up his first collegiate victory
He said what? (quote of the semester) - "We've been sitting in the office for three years going, '2012, 2012, 2012. And that doesn't mean we didn't think it could happen before. We almost did it last year, but it was our dream that we knew it was going to happen this year. We knew." - Jon Lipsitz after women's soccer won the first NCAA Tournament game in program history.
The Dougie Award Coach Mitchell dances to MC Hammer at Big Blue Madness
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)
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)
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."