Kentucky's season is barely a week old, but the Wildcats found themselves in a familiar spot on Friday night.
Facing VCU, UK would need to win the fifth set to come out on top in its home opener. Just six days prior, the Cats fell in five to Illinois.
This time around, the Cats closed it out.
"We've been in this situation before and let it slip away," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "Inevitably, that's going to be in the back of your mind that we've been here before, how are we going to respond and we responded the right way."
After losing the first set and eventually falling behind 2-1 in the match, UK rallied to a 24-26, 25-15, 20-25, 25-19, 15-12 victory behind a team-best 14 kills by Lauren O'Conner and Whitney Billings' fourth double-double in as many matches. The Cats evened their record to 2-2 on the season in winning their second in a row, but it was never easy.
In fact, the visiting Rams (3-1) very well may have pulled off the upset if not for a two well-timed timeouts called by Skinner.
The first was in the fourth set, when UK trailed 17-15 and VCU needed just eight points to close it out. The Cats would respond by winning 10 of the next 12 points.
The second was in the fifth. This time, VCU led 8-5 and had all the momentum after winning three points in a row. UK would once again refuse to wilt out of the break, going on a 10-4 run to send the fans in Memorial Coliseum home happy.
"We challenged them a little bit," Skinner said. "You gotta step up and you gotta compete. It's about competing, and VCU has great competitors on that team. They weren't afraid of who we were or the environment or being on the road; they just competed and so we had to match that."
After dropping their first two matches of the season, the Cats have come to be defined by their resilience. They showed it in salvaging the final match of last weekend's Long Beach State Tournament on Sunday and it was once again on display Friday night.
UK was dominant in the second set to even the match at 1-1, but faltered in the third and to start the fourth. The Cats committed 11 third-set attack errors, then five more in the fourth as VCU built an 18-15 lead. Setter Morgan Bergren struggled to lead the attack and Shelby Workman, Lauren O'Conner and Sara Schwarzwalder combined for nine attack errors.
But as UK rallied, those four played key roles.
Bergren had eight of her match-high 36 assists on UK's final 23 points of the game to go with her seven kills.
"She made some really good decisions in the fifth game and maybe struggled with some decisions in the third and fourth, but in the fifth game she made the right choices and people put the ball away for her," Skinner said.
O'Conner, meanwhile, had three fifth-set kills.
"Lauren was huge tonight," Skinner said. "She struggled a little bit last weekend and we challenged her to step up because we need her and she's capable."
Workman and Schwarzwalder, both sophomores, accounted for four of UK's final eight points.
"It was good because they struggled a little bit in the middle of the match," Skinner said. "They came through at the end and, like I told them in the locker room, regardless of the situation, you've gotta keep grinding and grinding to win each point. Whether you've struggled before, this is the point we need to worry about. They did a good job of that."
Skinner will be looking for plenty more of that approach through the rest of the Kentucky Classic. After UK's match ended after 9 p.m. ET on Friday, the Cats will turn around and play two matches against Liberty and ETSU at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Senior Whitney Billings registered double-doubles in each of UK's three matches last weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Knowing the opposition Kentucky would be facing, Craig Skinner knew he was going to learn a lot about his team during the season's opening weekend.
He just didn't know how it would happen. With matches against one top-20 team and two more with strong cases to be ranked in three days, UK seemed as likely to sweep the weekend in Long Beach, Calif., as it was to lose three in a row.
It turned out UK was facing the possibility of the latter after dropping decisions to Florida State and Illinois on Friday and Saturday. But instead of wilting, the Wildcats showed their coach something.
"We didn't get the results that we wanted in the first two, but we improved every time we stepped on the floor and I was encouraged by that," Skinner said. "And also definitely encouraged by the fact that we lost two in a row and then came back and won so convincingly on Sunday. That was a pretty good sign of a mature, competitive team."
Just as encouraging was the way UK went about its business, even in defeat. In a 3-0 sweep against Florida State and a tough 3-2 loss to Illinois, Skinner saw a team that never wavered in its approach.
"One of the things that we've always stressed throughout the spring and then the preseason is that their demeanor is the same every point," Skinner said. "I felt that was the case this weekend regardless of whether we were up 2-1 or down in a set. They still had the same focus."
Carrying that focus into Sunday, UK played its best match of the weekend in taking down Long Beach State in three sets.
"I'm proud about the way we bounced back because we lost the first two," Whitney Billings said. "We did get better each match though, which is kind of unusual. We knew what we had to do; we were just putting it together."
As for her own game, Billings didn't need any time to get going. The senior outside hitter has had a decorated UK career - she was a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree in both 2011 and 2012 and a Second-Team All-American according to Cobra Magazine in 2012 - but she was at another level last weekend.
She tallied three double-doubles in as many matches, highlighted by a career-best 26-kill performance against Illinois. Even going back to her pre-college days, Billings can't remember having that many kills in one night.
"She singlehandedly put us in position to beat Illinois," Skinner said. "Unfortunately we didn't get it done in the fifth game, but she was pretty good."
Billings' effort was borne partially out of necessity, as freshman Anni Thomasson and sophomores Shelby Workman and Kayla Tronick work to secure the left side of the UK attack that Ashley Frazier occupied a season ago.
"We have new people on the left side this year and I just feel like I need to step up and do what I need to do," Billings said.
In her final season, Billings says she's ready to carry a heavy load, and her current kills-per-set average of 4.45 suggests she may continue to do just that. Skinner, however, sees the kind of balance that has come to define UK volleyball in recent years developing as the season wears on.
"She's someone that's capable of doing that," Skinner said. "Is it something we want to do all the time? No, I'd like to have more balance in the offense and get more kills in other places. But it's nice to know that we can count on her to come up big for us when we need her because there are going to be a lot of matches where we're going to ask a lot of her."
Another match or two like that could be forthcoming this weekend as UK opens its home schedule with the Kentucky Classic on Friday and Saturday. The Cats will play an athletic VCU squad at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, then a pair of matches against Liberty and East Tennessee State on Saturday at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
"It'll be important that we have the same focus each and every point throughout the weekend because mentally we have to stay engaged, stay in tune," Skinner said. "These teams are all potential NCAA Tournament teams and they're athletic. If we're not ready to go and not focused on each point, these teams are all capable of stringing together great sets and beating anyone this weekend."
But with limited time between matches, there's only so much that can be done to prepare. That's why UK has kept its focus internal this week.
"The first match, we can put a lot of energy into VCU," Skinner said. "After that, we definitely have to rely on what we're good at. We'll have some things that we'll try and focus on with each of the next two opponents, but it'll be definitely more important taking care of our side of the net."
At 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday, coaches and student-athletes from four UK fall sports teams - volleyball, cross country, women's soccer and men's soccer - will preview their upcoming seasons at fall sports media day. Here's the schedule:
1:00 p.m. - Volleyball head coach Craig Skinner and student-athletes Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan 1:15 p.m. - Cross country head coach Edrick Floreal and student-athletes Cally Macumber and Matt Hillenbrand 1:30 p.m. - Women's Soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz and student-athlete Kayla King 1:45 p.m. - Men's Soccer head coach Johan Cedergren and student-athletes Tyler Riggs and Jack Van Arsdale
Alexandra Morgan competed for the USA Development Team in China in June (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics).
Rarely does a student-athlete have the opportunity to represent her country and travel overseas to compete against some of the top talent in the world. In June, Rising senior Alexandra Morgan of the UK volleyball team got to do just that.
Thanks to Bring It Promotions, a program that helps create a connection between the United States and other countries across the globe through the game of volleyball, Morgan was chosen for the BIP/USA Development Program, a team of 12 players that would travel to China to play "top professional teams in and around Shanghai and Beijing," according to bringitusa.com.
This would not be Morgan's first trip overseas for the sport of volleyball, however. Morgan took a foreign trip with her UK teammates in the summer of 2009 to Europe for two weeks. But despite that, little could prepare her for the experience in China.
Morgan was gracious enough to journal during her time in China to share with the Big Blue Nation. Here is Morgan's experience in her own words:
Monday - June 17
Today was mostly traveling. We got out and explored some in Shanghai. I was surprised by how desperate they were to get you to buy their items. A lady followed one of my teammates down the street and waited for her for 15 minutes while she looked in another store. She yelled at her, "You give me money!!!"
The food was as expected: very different. I've eaten mostly rice and bread. A lot of things are vinegar-based. A lot of things sound familiar but aren't even close to what we have in the U.S., like pancakes. We arrived in Huaian City and are staying at the Huaian State Government House. We've gotten a lot of pictures. It's very hot and it not uncommon to see men with their shirts off and their pants undone.
Tuesday - June 18
Today we explored Huaian City. It seems like a poorer city. We walked around looking for supermarkets for water and snack bars. Some odd customs: the babies wear clothes with slits in the front and back instead of diapers.
We had practice in an un-air-conditioned gym and it as terrible. For dinner, we had a banquet with some members of the Chinese Government. They like to drink and they really wanted us to dance... So we did! We did "The Wobble" and the "Cha-Cha Slide" and they loved it! They served a table full of food and turtle was one of the dishes. Also, the eel was pretty good.
Team USA with members of the Chinese government.
Wednesday - June 19
Today I tried pig tongue. It wasn't too bad. We went to Wal-Mart, which was similar to Wal-Mart in the U.S., but they didn't have as much. The scores of the games we played tonight: 21-25, 20-25, 13-25. We played OK, except for the third set.
Morgan with Team USA in Huaian City.
Thursday - June 20
Today we went sightseeing. We saw a famous lake as well as a famous garden (Qingyan Garden). We traveled with the same government members that we ate with Tuesday night. We had a police escort everywhere and soldiers to keep us safe. Everyone was very excited to see us and they wanted a lot of pictures with us.
Friday - June 21
Today wasn't very eventful. We woke up, ate, had serve and pass, ate, played, then ate again. We did go to a mall (accidentally) because the cab/cart driver couldn't understand where we wanted to go. We ate at Pizza Hut, which is a very nice sit-down restaurant in China! We almost got kidnapped on the way back, though (Taken 3)!!!
Saturday - June 22
Today we traveled from Shanghai to Beijing. We had a quick practice and American food for lunch! The banquet was tonight. There was great food. We are now staying at the Aloft Hotel in Beijing. It is very nice and has many more people that speak English here! Our first game here is tomorrow night.
Some Chinese delicacies Morgan experienced.
Sunday - June 23
Today we went to the pool. The cold water felt GREAT!
Monday - June 24
Today was our last game. We lost in three like we did every other game. We all went to this dance club called Vix. There was no one there when we got there, but they loved us and soon after, it was PACKED!!! We hung out with the PAC-12 girls too.
Wednesday - June 26
Today we woke up early to go to the Great Wall. There were about 1,000 steps we had to go up, then we walked awhile through the wall. It was very pretty and I signed a wall in one of the towers. We rode toboggans down the wall which was very fun. After the wall, we went to The Forbidden City. It was very big, pretty and old. The guide told us a lot of cool facts. Last, we visited Tiananmen Square which was very cool also. We ate dinner at some restaurant that was famous for their roasted duck. It was very good!
Morgan strikes a pose in front of a building in the Forbidden City.
Volleyball setter Morgan Bergren has continued to ride horses during her year as she prepares for her sophomore season at UK.
Entering her sophomore year, volleyball setter Morgan Bergren feels more at home in Lexington than the average student-athlete.
Growing up just two miles from her father's farm, the Muncie, Ind., native began riding horses with her mother before she could even walk. Inspired by both her mother and father, who are still active in the horse industry, Bergren discovered her love for horses at a very young age.
Bergren's parents both grew up surrounded by horses and met for the first time at a horse show, so it's no surprise that Morgan took an early liking to the horse world.
"My mom showed at nationals when I was 3 months old, and there's pictures of me when I'm just a baby sitting in front of her on the saddle," Bergren said.
Bergren's "showing" career began at age 9 when her father got her started in halter, but she immediately decided that she was looking for something a little more fast-paced. Bergren describes halter as being similar to a dog show.
"They judge you on your trot, you walk one way and reverse, and they judge you on their walk," Bergren said. "Then you come to the center of the ring and stand them up and they judge their head, body, feet, legs, etc."
But despite her feelings about the event, Bergren continued to compete, and even took second place at regionals when she was 10.
One year later Bergren followed in the footsteps of her mother and began her riding career by competing in hunter. In hunter competitions, the rider actually sits on the horse and guides it through a series of tasks, including trotting, cantering, hand galloping, and walking.
Although the Bergren household is decorated with trophies and ribbons from successful competitions, there was adversity along the way.
"When I was 5, my first big experience on a horse was on our stallion named Razz. He was beautiful, but he was crazy," said Bergren. "He hated plastic, but my grandpa decided I should wear a plastic helmet for safety and I got bucked off and almost broke my middle finger."
Luckily, Bergren wasn't too traumatized by the incident, and like any true equestrian, she hopped right back on.
Another challenge came when Bergren started getting more involved in her club volleyball career.
"When I was younger we would go to three or four small shows and three regionals every year," said Bergren. "I didn't have to stop riding horses because of volleyball, but I only went to one regional and a few small shows during the year."
As Bergren continued to have success in volleyball - including leading her club team to an AAU National Championship in 2011 - she started getting attention from some elite programs.
"We came to Lexington every year, and I loved the horse park, but I never even saw the school," she said. "But when Kentucky started recruiting me, I thought it was pretty cool that it was so close. My parents really liked it here too."
Despite her demanding schedule as a student-athlete, Bergren still finds time to stay involved with her horses and take advantage of living in a city known as the "Horse Capital of the World."
"My mom and I went to a show this year and I got two first places and two second places," she said.
Not surprisingly, Bergren "for sure" wants to continue riding and showing horses after she graduates from college.
"My dad knows horses so I'll have him pick me out a good horse to ride and show," said Bergren. "I love it."
Living in Lexington has allowed Bergren to watch her father compete in some big horse competitions, including an Egyptian event at the Kentucky Horse Park this June. At the same event, she also got to watch the hunter jumper competition, which is one of her many future aspirations.
"I've always wanted to go to Youth Nationals, and someday I really want to learn how to jump," Bergren said.
Because she grew up around mostly Arabian horses, Bergren didn't witness her first horse race until she went to Keeneland last year. Even though she enjoyed watching the race, Bergren doesn't foresee jockeying in her future.
"I have to ride our half Arabian, Junior, because I'm so tall, and my feet almost drag on the ground," she said.
However, there have been discussions about bringing the rest of the volleyball team out to Muncie to ride horses on the Bergren farm.
"I think it would be hilarious to see Lauren (O'Conner) on him," said Bergren.
Although you may not see the 6-foot-5 O'Conner on a horse anytime soon, Bergren will undoubtedly continue to pursue her passion for horses as much as possible during her time at UK.