Understandably, the Kentucky volleyball team hasn't been its sharpest on the court so far during a cultural exchange trip to China.
On Monday, the Wildcats took a big step in the right direction.
Before a lengthy afternoon of traveling, UK took on the Jiangsu Junior Team on Monday morning. Led by Kayla Tronick and Emily Franklin, the Cats found the form that has established them among the nation's elite in Craig Skinner's tenure as head coach.
"I thought my performance was good but not great," Emily Franklin wrote. "There are things I need to improve on and that will take time while adjusting to the different style of play. Overall, I felt like I did give it to my team!"
UK is adjusting to a new pregame ritual while in China that features meditation, as well as the lighter balls used there.
After the match and lunch, it was off to Baoding, a smaller city of about two million people, via bullet train and bus. In transit for the better part of the afternoon, the Cats didn't have time for much more than a short walk around a bright downtown area and dinner.
The team did, however, take time to write their thoughts about their time in China so far for a blog dedicated to their trip. Here are a few thoughts from the student-athletes themselves:
So far this China trip for me has been interesting in a good way. I have learned so much and a lot of the questions I had about China I have been able to answer myself just by observing the cities and the people around me. The sightseeing has been incredible. There is so much more in our world that we do not know about and I am enjoying the opportunity we have right now to experience it. Besides the food (which is not horrible, just different) my time in China has been a blast.
I have been surprised by the differences in our lifestyles compared to those living here. Not necessarily the lifestyles but the differences in the environment, the food, everything really. I was shocked by the way people drive idiotically through the streets and the food has been a huge challenge for me because I have not been able to eat much at all. I really enjoyed visiting the temple, but I would also like to visit other places that are interesting but not necessarily dealing with their religion.
China has been interesting so far. I am really enjoying seeing the city and the culture. I am disappointed in the food and wish that it were more appealing to me. However, I really am having a good time learning and observing the Chinese way of life and seeing the things that we were taught in class firsthand. So far I have had a great time bargaining for souvenirs and trying the exotic foods! I would like to learn more about the history of the temples that we visit. I wish there was more English at the temple so that I could understand more of what I am seeing.
The itinerary for the Kentucky volleyball team's trip to China said "all day free" on Sunday, but the Wildcats hardly sat around.
It began with practice at a training center in Nanjing before a lunch the team very much enjoyed. After four days of trying authentic Chinese food, the Cats ate at a Western-style restaurant. Burgers, fries, pasta cheesecake and coffee never tasted so good.
Well fed, the team then went to a museum in Nanjing for an educational tour. In the first picture at the bottom of the post, you can see the jade suits put together gold thread in which some members of the upper class were buried.
For dinner, it was back to authentic Chinese cuisine. The Cats ate with the heads of the training center where they are staying in Nanjing and exchanged gifts. The final second photo below shows Craig Skinner giving a UK volleyball t-shirt to one of the Cats' hosts.
Monday is set to be another busy day for UK. The Cats will play a match in the morning before traveling by train from Nanjing to Beijing and then by bus to Baoding. Check back in on Monday for an update on UKVBtoChina.com.
Internet issues persist, keeping the Cats from posting any thoughts of their own, but continue to check in on UKVBtoChina.com to stay updated. A big day of sightseeing is ahead of Sunday, so we hope to have plenty of good stuff to share.
It was another busy day in China for the Kentucky volleyball team, as the Wildcats moved to a hotel in downtown Shanghai during a packed day of activities.
Friday began with 90 minutes of study on campus at Shanghai University followed by lunch. It was then off to Shanghai Training Center to play with the Shanghai Juniors, the team the Cats beat in their first match on Thursday. Afterward, the Cats took a riverbank tour of Shanghai and saw the Chenghuang Temple, as well as the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Spotty Internet kept the Cats from posting any thoughts about the day, but they did manage to sneak a few posts out on Twitter and Instagram.
Some internet issues here in our hotel today.The blog may not get updates until tomorrow. Great day at the Pearl Tower #UKVBtoChina
The Kentucky volleyball team spent its first full day in China on Thursday and the Wildcats have already been exposed to a brand-new world.
After a much-needed night of rest, the team met in the morning to ride a bus to a Buddhist temple in Shanghai. Touring the grounds for two-and-a-half hours, the Cats learned about the traditions of Buddhism and took plenty of pictures along the way.
They then returned to their hotel near Shanghai University for lunch. The culinary adventures continued.
Continuing the educational portion of the trip, the team spent three hours studying at Shanghai University before dinner and the first volleyball match of the trip against Shangai Juniors. The Cats got the win in a performance that pleased head coach Craig Skinner.
Good to get off to a solid start in our 1st match beating Shanghai Jrs. #UKVBtoChina
After almost 18 hours of travel, the Kentucky volleyball team landed in China on Wednesday.
The Wildcats arrived in Shanghai around 2 p.m. local time (2 a.m. ET) and took a 90-minute bus ride to their hotel at Shanghai University. They then settled in their rooms, ate dinner at their hotel and took in some of the sights around the world's most populous city.
Still adjusting to the time change, the team was surely in need of some sleep before a busy Thursday when the Cats will study at Shanghai University and train at the school's gym. But before bedtime, they took to social media to update their followers on their first hours in China (and their culinary adventures).
A special two weeks are ahead for the Kentucky volleyball team.
Before sunrise on Monday morning, UK student-athletes and coaches began the first leg of a journey to China for a cultural exchange trip. After a long day of travel, the Wildcats will arrive in Shanghai around 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
From there, the team has a packed schedule, combining learning, competition and sightseeing.
The Cats will study at Shanghai University, learning about Chinese culture and sharing some of their own as well. They will also play six matches over the course of two weeks against some of the top volleyball teams in the world. And when they aren't in the classroom or on the court, the Cats will be taking in some of China's most famous landmarks, from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square.
Traveling with the team is UK's Andrew Maske, an art history professor who specializes in the arts of Asia. Professor Maske spent time with the team for the week leading up to the trip, teaching the team some basics about Chinese philosophy. The team also practiced tai chi and brush calligraphy to prepare to head to the Far East.
Throughout the trip, the Cats will be chronicling their experience through a series of blogs. We will be sharing them here -- as well as other social-media, photo and video content -- on Cat Scratches. We've also created a special URL -- UKVBtoChina.com -- so you can find all of the entries in one place.
To get it started, here are some tweets from right before the team departed and the week of preparation for the trip.
Programming for the SEC Network continues to take shape.
Exactly three months before the new network launches on Aug. 14, the league announced television schedules for SEC volleyball and women's soccer. In the SEC Network's first season, the SEC - and by extension, UK - will enjoy unmatched national exposure.
In total 80 games - 50 volleyball, 30 women's soccer - will air on either the SEC Network or ESPNU.
"These schedules reflect the breadth of exposure that our student-athletes will receive in the SEC's Olympic sports on the SEC Network," said Commissioner Mike Slive. "It's indicative of the full array of sports and unprecedented number of televised events SEC fans will enjoy throughout the athletic year."
UK's volleyball and women's soccer teams will be featured prominently. Craig Skinner's Wildcats will make at least eight national television appearances. Here's their complete SEC Network/ESPNU schedule.
Wed, Sept. 24 9 p.m. KENTUCKY at LSU (ESPNU) Sun, Oct. 5 6 p.m. TEXAS A&M at KENTUCKY Sun, Oct. 12 Noon AUBURN at KENTUCKY Sun, Oct. 26 Noon KENTUCKY at TEXAS A&M Wed, Oct. 29 8 p.m. TENNESSEE at KENTUCKY (ESPNU) Sun, Nov. 9 Noon MISSOURI at KENTUCKY Sun, Nov. 16 Noon FLORIDA at KENTUCKY Sun, Nov. 23 2 p.m. KENTUCKY at MISSISSIPPI STATE
Jon Lipsitz's Cats, meanwhile, will appear three times on the SEC Network or ESPNU.
Thu, Oct. 2 7 p.m. KENTUCKY at MISSOURI Sun, Oct. 5 Noon KENTUCKY at TEXAS A&M (ESPNU) Sun, Oct. 19 4 p.m. FLORIDA at KENTUCKY
In addition, the first round, quarterfinals and semifinals of the SEC Soccer Tournament will air on the SEC Network.
All this is yet another reason to visit GetSECNetwork.com and demand the SEC Network if your cable/satellite provider has not yet signed on to carry it. So far, only AT&T U-Verse, DISH, Google Fiber and National Rural Telecommunications cooperative (NRTC) have agreed to carry the SEC Network.
Coming to grips with the fact that Kentucky's season had just ended, Craig Skinner wasn't thinking about himself. He knows he'll have more chances to lead his program to where he believes it will go.
That's why his mind was on those players whose road ends here.
"The hardest part for me is when you have a group of seniors that deserves to keep playing," Skinner said. "The effort that's put in and how hard these guys work, it's tough to swallow when you don't come out on the winning end of a match like this."
Making its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under Skinner, UK lost to Michigan State in the second round on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. In a competitive match from start to finish, the No. 15-seeded Wildcats dropped the first and came back to win the second before falling in four sets.
"You have to give Michigan State credit because they killed the ball at an extremely high rate in sets three and four and that was the difference," Skinner said.
For a brief moment, it appeared the Spartans might run away with a sweep. The Cats were down 15-12 in the second already behind 1-0 on the match when a likely suspect -- and one of the players for whom Skinner felt so bad -- emerged.
Senior Whitney Billings, as she has done so often throughout her decorated career, stepped up. Executing the game plan to perfection, Billings served UK to a 7-0 run and an eventual second-set win.
"I think we got them out of system with the short serve and so we kept going with it," said Billings, who had 18 kills, 13 digs, two assists, two blocks and an ace in her final game in a UK uniform.
Though certainly disappointed in the ultimate result, Skinner couldn't find a bit of fault in the way UK competed on Sunday.
"The effort was there the entire match," Skinner said. "They competed hard and you can't ask for more than that. You just hope that you execute better so you can score the points."
That's particularly true for the senior class of Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre' Wilkerson.
"They've been committed since day one, but you really saw a sense of pride and urgency for the program in the last half of this season," Skinner said. "Nothing's ever given to you and at this point in the game it really starts to hit home that it's not given to you so you gotta go for it. All these guys went for it."
Joining them were the Wildcat underclassmen, who found themselves playing for their veteran teammates as much as themselves in the final moments.
"I just didn't want it to be the last game for the seniors," said Jackie Napper, who had 21 digs. "They have fought hard since they've been here. Whitney and Zan for five years, Dez for two and Jessi for four. I didn't want it to be their last game."
The loss will not erase all the quartet's accomplishment and certainly not Billings'. The Helena, Ala., native leaves UK as one of three three-time first-team All-Southeastern Conference honorees in school history and the only player in the 25-point scoring era with 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs.
"When I first got here, I didn't really know where my spot was going to be in Kentucky volleyball," Billings said. "But as the years went on, I kind of found my spot on the team as a leader and stuff. It's where I am now."
With the loss still so fresh in her mind, Billings will surely have clearer thoughts about her UK legacy in the coming weeks and months. Nonetheless, she's happy with what she's done.
"I felt like I have my team everything I could when I needed to," Billings said. "And I know they looked up to me. I know there were some times that I didn't come up for them, but most of the times I did."
Returning plenty of talent among the 11 players who will be back next season and adding two highly regarded signees, the future is bright for UK.
"From here, the returners have to figure out a way to get better and go beyond this point," Skinner said.
When the Cats do go the next level, they won't do it without the departing seniors, not completely.
"A piece of them will always be here with us," Skinner said.