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One of the most pleasant athletes I have had the pleasure of dealing with over the course of the season while covering the Kentucky volleyball beat is senior Ashley Frazier. In October, Frazier was named one of 10 national finalists in NCAA volleyball and the first in program history for the Senior CLASS Award.
CLASS is an acronym for "Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School". And if there is a better word to describe Frazier than "class," I've yet to hear one.
A relentless competitor on the court, Frazier takes the same mentality off the court in her everyday life. She's a model student-athlete who is currently enrolled in the MBA program at UK after finishing her Management and Marketing degree following her redshirt junior season.
Frazier knows that, while her passion is volleyball and there may be professional opportunities in the sport after her senior season, the sport is only temporary.
"School has always been a really big focus for me because while I love playing volleyball, I'm not going to be able to do it forever," said Frazier. "So making the most of this opportunity and getting an education and doing well in it was very important to me."
She has certainly made the most of her opportunities. Frazier transferred to Kentucky after two seasons of playing for Alabama. After sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, Frazier helped fill a major void at the outside hitter position last season and she's continued to be a major contributor as the current kills leader for the Wildcats with 285 putaways on the season.
She's had multiple 20-kill matches this season, most recently in a 3-1 win over Ole Miss. After the match, Frazier downplayed her performance, as she usually does, and focused solely on her team. After tying her career-high in kills, above all things she was more concerned with the fact that she and her teammates had just added another win to their total.
And when asked about her nomination for the Senior CLASS Award, Frazier was quick to deflect the praise away from herself and give it to those who have helped her continue to reach new heights, both on and off the hardwood.
"It's just a huge honor and speaks to all the work we've put in over the last four years," said Frazier. "Obviously I couldn't have done any of it without everyone who has supported be along the way like my teammates, my coaches, everybody in the academic center, just pushing me to do better all the time."
As her senior season winds down, Frazier looks to be getting stronger as her supporting cast continues to push her to improve on a daily basis. Her performance has been crucial for Kentucky as the Wildcats hit the stretch run heading into the postseason.
"She has really done a lot for us physically on the court," said Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner. "In the last few weeks, she's really come into her own in terms of having a presence and having a spirit about her that is pretty important to our program."
Frazier isn't the type of leader to get the team fired up, nor is she going to be very vocal on the court. She is much more of the leader-by-example type, and her nomination for the Senior CLASS Award explains exactly why.
For her teammates, they see how she carries herself not only on the court on game day and in practice, but they also witness her success in the classroom and her service in the community.
"She's a marketing major and I'm also a marketing major," said junior defensive specialist Jessi Greenberg. "So she's setting a really good example for not only me, but everyone else on the team that you can be an elite athlete and be an awesome student too."
It takes a special person to be able to continue to practice healthy habits as a student-athlete, whether it is in the classroom, on the court or in the community. Frazier excels in all three aspects.
"She's always one of those people that since she's been here she's been a pretty consistent person," said fellow senior Christine Hartmann. "She's always been who she is, just a great person and part of that is being part of the community and stuff with the team and doing well in school. Those are all things that have always been important to her."
Frazier, Hartmann and senior libero Stephanie Klefot each have their own ways to help lead this team. Klefot is the energetic one, bringing enthusiasm on the court and getting her teammates fired up. Hartmann tends to be in charge of picking up the slack and letting her teammates know when to step it up. And Frazier leads by example.
But that doesn't mean when she talks that people don't listen. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Perceived as a quiet leader, when Frazier has something to say to her team, they know it's important.
Due to the experiences she's gone through, the way she handles herself on and off the court, and how she respects her teammates, she's earned the utmost respect from her peers. When she has something to say, it's often meaningful and impactful.
To freshman middle blocker Sara Schwarzwalder, that type of leadership is invaluable.
"She's a great leader on and off the court," said Schwarzwalder. "Obviously she gets good grades. She's a hard worker on and off the court. She's a role model. She's great. I love her."
While Hartmann is more likely to challenge her teammates and isn't afraid to get after them when they need it, Frazier is a more calm, detail-oriented speaker when she needs to get her point across.
"She doesn't just say stuff to fill space," said Schwazwalder. "She says stuff that's meaningful and she has thought about and witnessed on the court.
"She's great to hear her past experiences or just to talk about 'This spot's open.' She doesn't do it in a way that's in your face but in a way that's calm and collected."
Now the team is collecting wins while Frazier is collecting votes. Since Frazier has been so giving of herself to the University of Kentucky, her team and the community, the Big Blue Nation is now returning the favor as the campaign for Frazier to win the Senior CLASS Award. Her teammates tweet about voting for her daily, encouraging their followers to do the same.
So far all the efforts are working as just recently Frazier moved into first place in the online voting, which counts for a third of the final vote.
The support has been overwhelming for Frazier and nothing says "class" more than a gracious individual. And as you can guess, Frazier is exactly that.
"It's really awesome," said Frazier of being first in the fan vote. "I'm super thankful for all of the support I'm getting. Everybody at home and everybody in the UK community just backing me, I'm really appreciative of that kind of support."
As of Friday morning, Frazier held a slim lead in voting for the Senior CLASS Award. Fans can vote once a day at this link.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 4:
Volleyball: Ashley Frazier
Senior Ashley Frazier enjoyed another incredible offensive week in helping guide UK to an SEC-long five-match winning streak with wins over Ole Miss and South Carolina this week. Frazier had a career-day against the Rebels with a career-high tying 20 kills along with a career-high eight digs. She has posted 10 or more kills in four-straight matches with three of those four tallying 15 or more hammers. Against South Carolina she efficiently knocked down 10 kills on a .368 hitting clip en route to a UK sweep. This week, Frazier averaged a team-high 4.29 kills per set on an impressive .362 clip. Frazier is the first player in league competition to register 20 or more kills in a four set match without taking at least 50 attempts. She converted 20 kills on just 39 swings.
Volleyball: Stephanie Klefot
Senior Stephanie Klefot has continued to anchor the Wildcats' defensive prowess in helping guide the team to a season-long five-match winning streak. Klefot paced the back line defensive effort with 4.14 digs per set on the weekend, leading the team in digs in both matches. She's now logged 10 or more digs in 90 career matches. With 29 scoops, she became just the fourth player in SEC history to accumulate more than 1,800 career digs upping her four-year total to 1,807 this week. Furthermore, she was perfect in serve-receive attempts this week in 28 attempts. Her passing sparked the Blue and White to chart a .372 hitting percentage for the week in two wins.
Volleyball: Sara Schwarzwalder
Freshman Sara Schwarzwalder has begun to emerge as a viable offensive threat for the Wildcat attack. The freshman logged 2.00 kills per set on a team-high .500 hitting percentage en route to helping UK to a pair of wins this week over Ole Miss and South Carolina. Schwarzwalder had seven kills on an SEC career-high .667 hitting percentage in the three-set sweep of South Carolina. Against the Rebels, Schwarzwalder posted seven kills on .385 hitting and added a pair of blocks. During UK's win-streak she's provided an offensive element from the middle of the floor that has helped aide UK's other attackers get one-on-one matchups on the outside.
The Kentucky offense spearheaded by senior setter Christine Hartmann was virtually unstoppable as Hartmann dished out 38 assists leading her hitters to a .471 hitting percentage on the day. Sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner led the way for Kentucky with 12 kills, but she was one of five Wildcat attackers to record at least seven kills in the match.
"Offensively we've been pretty efficient and hitting the right shots at the right time," said Skinner. "Hartmann's doing a nice job of getting people one-on-one swings, so I'm pretty happy with that."
After tying their season-high for consecutive wins this season on Friday with their fourth in a row over Ole Miss, the Wildcats picked up their fifth in a row Sunday and it appears UK is playing some of its best volleyball of the season.
"At the beginning of the season we always said we want to peak at the end, which is good we are doing it now," said O'Conner. "I just think we have to keep focusing and working on it to keep going the rest of the season."
Kentucky came out of the gates and stunned the Gamecocks almost immediately. The Cats laid down a quick 25-14 first set score that saw senior Ashley Frazier continue her hot streak after putting away 20 kills on Friday. She racked up three of her 10 kills in the match on her first three swings of the first set. It set the tone for a big day for the Wildcat hitters who took off from there.
As Hartmann continued to find all of her hitters Sunday, South Carolina had no answers defensively as UK dictated each set. Whether it was Whitney Billings smashing a ball down the line from the right side, one of the outside hitters, or Sara Schwarzwalder picking apart the opposing middle blockers, most of Kentucky's shots were falling on the other side of the net.
When the Wildcats are evenly distributing and terminating at a high rate, they are very difficult to game plan against.
"If we're able to get everyone involved, it's very difficult typically for teams to prepare," said Skinner. "It's something we work on every day. When you see it on the floor and under the lights during matches, it builds confidence."
The confidence has been building as UK continues to string together wins over the last five matches. Kentucky continues to revisit what Skinner has been preaching lately. His players are responding and "the way we play," a theme that Skinner is harping on daily to his team, is catching on while also leading the team to success on the weekends.
"I think we're all so focused," said O'Conner. "We're focusing on starting off well. Like coach has been saying 'the way we play,' and that's definitely very important for how we play the rest of the season.
"No matter how we play, we just have to focus on that."
While Skinner praised his team's offense, he knows there is improvement to be found in other phases of the game. A UK team that has had a lot of success in being physical at the net struggled today to stop the South Carolina outside hitters. Kentucky is going to have to improve defensively if it hopes to reach the peak the team is striving for once postseason rolls around.
"I haven't seen us stop improving, but defensively we still have to get better," said Skinner. "We've got to do a better job of defending outside hitters.
"We can't just keep letting outside hitters get kill after kill. Against good teams we need to prepare for, we have to do a good job at that."
Kentucky was effective at getting South Carolina out of system on Sunday. The Cats served tough with seven aces, but there's still room for improvement down the stretch.
"We've had some good matches where we've done that," said Skinner. "We do a good job of getting teams out of system and we have to do a better job of scoring when we do get them out of system. We do at times, but it's not consistent enough."
If the Cats want to extend their season-high win streak they will have to do it by winning on the road. After getting two big wins last weekend as the visiting team, UK will travel to Alabama and Arkansas this upcoming weekend. If Kentucky regains its defense to combine it with its offensive potency, the Wildcats should be streaking and peaking their way into the NCAA Tournament.
Lauren O'Conner - Outside hitter
Friday night was no different.
Though Kentucky had gone down to Oxford, Miss., and handled the Rebels rather swiftly with a 3-0 sweep, Ole Miss was out for revenge and gave UK all it could handle. It took a late rally near the end of set three to swing the momentum back in Kentucky's favor.
At the outset, it looked like Kentucky would have its way with the Rebels once more. The Cats used a balanced attack led by middle blocker Alexandra Morgan, who could not be stopped. The junior tallied four kills and hit .800 for the set while picking up three blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner kicked in three kills as UK cruised to a 25-20 victory.
Then Ole Miss got mad and Kentucky went flat.
The tables turned quickly on the Wildcats as Kentucky trailed for most of the second set. Kentucky kept it close, eventually taking a 17-16 lead in the frame, but the Ole Miss momentum was too much for the Cats. Ole Miss would go on a 9-2 run to end the second set and tie things up.
Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner talked last weekend about a certain way his team had been playing the past few matches leading up to Friday's match with the Rebels. Thanks to some tough serving and scrappy play, Ole Miss was successful in keeping UK out of sync.
"I think Mississippi took us out (of our rhythm) by the way the pressured us with the serve," said Skinner. "Those were rockets. But I thought we got back to it sets in three and four and I was really proud of the way we kept our composure."
Composure would be the key the rest of the way as the third set would prove pivotal for both teams, setting the tone for the outcome of the match.
After Ole Miss had evened things up, Kentucky knew it was time to buckle down or else things could slip away quickly.
"We didn't have the intensity and we weren't competing," said senior setter Christine Hartmann who finished with 54 assists on the night. "We needed to pick it up or that match was going to be taken away from us easily."
Ole Miss, riding the momentum of the second-set victory, looked to be the aggressor early on as the Rebels took a quick 4-1 lead. Slowly but surely, the Wildcats were claw their way back. Kentucky used a stuff block and an overpass kill from senior Ashley Frazier to tie things up at six, and it looked as if it was now UK who had the upper hand.
What they had was an unfair advantage in Frazier who put her team on her back and carried it the rest of the way. After compiling just four kills through the first two sets of the match, Hartmann used 16 of her assists on her senior teammate as Frazier pounded 16 kills over the last two frames, including nine in that important third set.
But Frazier was unaware of the total after the match. In fact she was more happy with the way Kentucky battled in that third set to fend off a scrappy Ole Miss squad who seemingly wouldn't back down to the Wildcats.
"They were playing really well and giving it right back to us," said Frazier. "Those games that we had to scrap to win in the past helped us out in this game because we know we can respond when teams come at us like that."
Ole Miss kept coming and even had an opportunity to get back ahead in the third set with the score tied at 20. But the Cats would make the most out of their opportunities to outscore the Rebels 5-2 down the stretch and take a momentum-shifting third-set victory.
"There were a few opportunities that Ole Miss had to extend leads to three or four points," said Skinner. "We were very composed and I think the players were a little more composed than I was. They did a nice job and we have to expect everyone's best shot the rest of the way."
The third set victory took the wind out of Mississippi's sails and Kentucky had its way with the Rebels in the fourth. Actually, Frazier had her way with the Rebels defense, kicking in another seven kills to help her tie her career-high. After having to scratch and claw through the first three sets, UK pounded away.
As crucial as Frazier was to the outcome, several other Wildcats had their hand in the victory. Whitney Billings, Morgan, and O'Conner also finished with double-digit kill totals to go along with Frazier's 20.
As Kentucky finished off their fourth set by a final of 25-16, the Wildcats picked up their fourth win of the year, tying their season-high win streak and putting them one win away from recording their eighth-straight season of at least 17 wins.
Kentucky will look to extend that streak to five matches on Sunday when it hosts the South Carolina Gamecocks for a 1:30 p.m. tilt at Memorial Coliseum.
Outside hitter Ashley Frazier
Coach Skinner joins us for our fifth installment of Coaches Corner. Kentucky faces Ole Miss on Friday at 7 p.m. and South Carolina on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum.