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.
Craig Skinner stressed starting strong to the Kentucky volleyball team all week.
The Wildcats lost their regular-season finale to highly ranked Florida in five sets, largely due to a poor start, losing the first two sets before UK could even come up for air. Given the circumstances of the last outing, Skinner knew what to focus on in the practices leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
Yet coming off two straight losses -- albeit against the Southeastern Conference's top two teams -- few would have blamed UK for taking some time to hit its stride on Saturday given the losing streak, the pressure of hosting a first-round NCAA Tournament match and the 10-day layoff since its last match.
But Skinner's emphasis on maintaining focus from the first serve through the final kill of each set paid off in UK's straight-set win over Duquesne on Saturday evening.
While the Wildcats seemed to come out of the gates firing, so did the Dukes. In fact, Duquesne took the match's first multi-point lead at 10-8. Still Skinner was happy with his team's start to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
"I was actually really happy (with) how aggressive we came out in set one," Skinner said. "You never know how you're going to come out so I thought we did a nice job being aggressive. We made a couple of errors but that's fine.
"We want to be aggressive and you have to play like that in the tournament ... (Duquesne) came out with purpose to win the match and they did a nice job of forcing us to be a little bit more intelligent with some of the things we did. Our defense picked up. (Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan) did a really nice job of following the game plan and hitting smart shots."
Indeed Skinner was pleased with how UK weathered Duquesne's blistering start, and as the first set entered its latter stages UK hit its stride.
Trailing 14-15 at a media timeout, UK then won four straight points. While Duquesne threw in some runs of its own down the first-set stretch, UK never looked back in winning the opening period 25-23 and dominating the next two en route toward advancing to Sunday's second-round matchup with Michigan State (4 p.m. ET).
"There's a lot of adrenaline, a lot of things going through your mind when you start the NCAA Tournament and I'm very pleased with how we got after it," Skinner said. "You can't really prepare for what the other team is going to do and how they're going to respond to the situation and it was neck and neck all the way through point 15 and I felt like our demeanor was the exact same in the first set as it was at the very end of the last set. That's important, and obviously very important against a very good Michigan State team tomorrow night."
Billings was a big reason UK was able to pull away midway through the first stanza and stay ahead from there. The first-team All-SEC selection had four kills and four assists in the first set and finished with a match-high 18, just two away from her season high for a three-set affair.
It comes as little surprise that in her post-match comments Billings emphasized the team's aggressive start, as all the Wildcats were clearly keyed in on starting strong given Skinner's talking points all week.
"We just realized that we had to get it going," Billings said of UK's run midway into the first set. "At some point in the game we have to just push on the gas and just go. So, we just kept going for it, like I said. We gained momentum at the end."
The senior stepped up to start her final postseason campaign. Billings' coach took notice of her leadership by example.
"Whitney has been fantastic the last two weeks," Skinner said. "Her demeanor and her competitive fire have been impressive to see as a coach and whether she's playing fantastic, okay, or not okay, she's the same and that's what you want out of a senior leader. (She is) someone that is driven and so she's done an impressive job and you really have to focus a lot on her to stop her.
"We'll expect that. Physically, she's always had the ability. Mentally, she is on a different level right now."
Both teams enter Sunday with fresh legs
While playing matches in back-to-back days in the non-conference season is common for SEC teams, once conference play begins most teams shift to a schedule of Friday and Sunday outings.
Thus the NCAA Tournament sub-regional format of matches in back-to-back days provides a challenge teams have not seen in the past few months.
Still, both teams had a relatively short Saturday as each earned a straight-set win.
Skinner previews matchup of similar styles
After focusing on NCAA Tournament prep for the past 10 days -- with an extra day thrown in as the first-round matches were postponed from Friday to Saturday due to inclement weather in the Lexington Area -- Skinner could finally turn his attention to a team other than Duquesne following Saturday's win.
Looking ahead to Michigan State, Skinner revealed that the two teams do a lot of things in similar fashion.
"Two very physical teams," Skinner said. "Two teams that kill the ball at a high percentage. Two teams with experience playing against very good competition so it's going to be a great matchup and it's going to be important for us to come out aggressively like we did tonight.
"I don't think Michigan State is a team that's going to give you a whole lot. You're going to have to earn your points, whether you're siding out or with your blocking defense after you serve. So, high-level match right here in the Coliseum and I know our kids can't wait to play again. It seems like we've been preparing for the first round for about six days but hopefully weather will let us play tomorrow."
In the life of college volleyball players, it doesn't get much busier than early December.
Like normal students, they have the end of the fall semester and approaching final exams to think about. Unlike normal students, their seasons are on the line.
For No. 15 Kentucky, the NCAA Tournament begins on Saturday against Duquense. With a week and a half since their last match, the Wildcats attacked their time off by honing their focus.
"We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now," senior Alexandra Morgan said.
Those distractions come in many different forms.
"It's us-or-them time of year," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "There are so many things going with school, finals coming up, a lot of people wanting to come to matches that haven't been there yet, all kinds of social life and whatever it may be."
Skinner is asking his team to tune those things out for the next couple weeks.
"For us to eliminate those things so we can focus on getting our schoolwork done and then focusing on volleyball is very important and I'm glad Zan has taken that to heart," Craig Skinner said. "And I think all our team is just based on what our concentration level's been like at practice. I think they're very serious about performing well and they like competing with each other. That's a big part of it."
When he addressed the media on Wednesday, Skinner reported his team had had three strong days of practice in preparation for what he initially thought would be a Friday match. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas and inclement weather moved this weekend's matches back a day.
For a less experienced team, that delay might be a problem. The Cats, though, are well-accustomed to playing in win-or-go-home situations.
"You just can't create the atmosphere, a little extra pressure being in the NCAA Tournament," Skinner said. "It's us or them moving on after each match."
Skinner is counting on that past experience, but knows it offers know guarantees.
"Does that translate into wins and losses? I'm not sure about that," Skinner said. "At least there's a sense of comfort. I've done this before. I have an understanding of what's at stake and how hard I need to play for my team."
Cementing that understanding for the Cats were the three matches they played to close out the regular season. Facing Texas A&M, Missouri and Florida, UK took on three tournament teams, two of which earned top-five overall seeds. The Cats beat A&M, but dropped back-to-back matches to No. 4 Missouri and No. 5 Florida to close the season.
The kind of competition UK went up against in those matches will be an asset as the Cats move on to what's next.
"It's a heightened level of concentration," Skinner said. "You have to be engaged for every single point because against good teams it's going to be back and forth a lot. You're not going to get runs of points. You're not going to score three, four, five points at a time very easily unless teams make mistakes."
The Florida match, in particular, offered plenty of teaching moments.
UK was blitzed in the first set, losing 25-11, revealing the importance of a strong start. To that end, Skinner changed around practice.
"We did a time drill (Tuesday) where all of a sudden they're on the clock and they have to perform within five minutes and execute," Skinner said. "We weren't very good at it to begin with, but then understood and got better as practice went on. So doing some things in practice where they're on the clock and have to perform within a certain amount of time I think was beneficial to us."
If not for that slow start against Florida, UK very likely would have upended the highly ranked Gators. The Cats narrowly lost set two before winning in three and four to force a decisive fifth.
"The way we played in sets two, three and four against a top team in the country, that's the level we need to perform at," Skinner said.
Duquense (20-9) doesn't boast the same lofty ranking as Florida, but Skinner still wants to see that kind of volleyball against the Dukes at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"They're team made up of kids that have come from a lot of good club programs, so they're experienced and they have three attackers very capable of putting the ball away," Skinner said. "We have to be very prepared in each particular rotation and understand which attacker is the one that's getting the most balls."
Whoever is across the net and whatever round the Cats are playing in this NCAA Tournament, Skinner expects to see an aggressive team.
"We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here," Skinner said. "We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
Alexandra Morgan will lead UK into an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Duquense on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team has gotten used to being in this position.
As they gathered on Sunday night to watch the Selection Show together, the Wildcats had advanced to eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments. In two of the previous three years, they earned the right to host the first and second rounds.
That doesn't make accomplishing both feats yet again any less rewarding.
"Our kids played really hard this year and we had a great schedule. We had a lot of good wins throughout the year," Skinner said. "To be in a position to be on your home court the first and second rounds, to host the first and second round, is a great feeling."
UK (21-8) was tabbed the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning the Cats will once again play their first- and second-round matches in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum. Alexandra Morgan remembers well playing NCAA matches at home in previous years and the advantage it provides.
"It's so much fun," said Morgan, who was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team on Monday. "Our fans are always amazing at our games, but I felt like the in the tournament they were louder, there were more people there just because it is the national tournament and our season's ending."
Kentucky will open its postseason run on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET against Duquense (20-9). The Dukes won the Atlantic 10 for the first time this season and enter the tournament having won 13 of their last 14 matches.
"You've just gotta think about the first round, and Duquesne is that team," Skinner said. "They won their league and had a great season."
By the time the Cats take the floor later this week, they will have waited nine days since their last match. UK took days off on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving and returned to the practice floor for two solid days of work over the weekend.
"We've been working really hard in our past two practices," Morgan said. "We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now."
With the fall semester coming to a close, the Cats will have to balance preparing for finals with volleyball. They aren't particularly worried.
"I don't think that's going to be tough for us," Morgan said. "This is a really strong team, we're a competitive team and we're really good at focusing on volleyball and that's going to get us pretty far, I think."
UK enters the tournament having lost two straight, but that's somewhat misleading considering the level of competition faced in those matches. The defeats came against Missouri and Florida, teams seeded fourth and fifth overall in the NCAA Tournament. Add in a win over Texas A&M, another tournament team, in the third-to-last match and you have an end-of-season stretch that figures to have the Cats ready for what's next.
"You can't ask for a better schedule to end the year to prepare you for the NCAA Tournament and our next match," Skinner said. "I'm very excited about how it ended in terms of who we played."
The final result didn't end up being what UK wanted, but the fight the Cats showed in a five-set defeat against Florida is certainly encouraging. The Gators were dominant in the first set and came back in the second to steal a 2-0 lead, but Kentucky didn't fold. Quite the opposite in fact, as UK won the third and fourth before falling in five.
"It's very good to know that, if we start out poorly, that we can finish a lot stronger," Morgan said. "The Florida game was very disappointing, but seeing how hard we fought in the second and third game and the other games just gives me a lot of hope."
Skinner hopes to take even more than hope away from the loss. First, it's a lesson in the importance of starting fast against top competition. Second, it's a lesson in how good the Cats can be when they're clicking.
"We took from sets two, three, four how Kentucky volleyball plays at its highest level," Skinner said. "If we play like that, we can match up with anybody. But it's a matter of doing that and we have to figure it out this week in practice and get the ball rolling on Friday night and hopefully give us a chance to take the next step forward in the tournament."
The next step forward is the second round -- where UK would face the winner of Michigan State and Ohio. After that, Kentucky is looking at an opportunity stay home again for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Lexington was tabbed as a regional host three seasons ago and the Cats have been thinking about playing in that regional ever since.
"We were really excited about that and that's one of our goals we set out in the beginning of the season," Morgan said. "We want to be playing in that regional and we have all plans to be playing in that."
Skinner is all about preparing one match at a time, but he also doesn't mind if his players glean a little extra motivation from the prospect of playing in the regional.
"Of course we aren't going to look past Duquense and that matchup, but sure there's motivation to get there," Skinner said. "You would think that every team that has the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is motivated to advance. We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here. We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
All-session tickets for the first and second round go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. ET and can be purchased at the UK Ticket Office, online at UKathletics.com/tickets or by calling the ticket office at (800) 928-2287 or (859) 257-1818. All-session tickets are $12 for reserved seats at Memorial Coliseum. Adult general admission tickets (13+) are $10, while seniors (65+) and UK students can purchase all-session tickets for $6 and youth (ages 3-12) general admission tickets cost $4. Single-session tickets, which are $8 for reserved seats and $7 for adult general admission seats and $5 for seniors/UK students and $4 for youth, go on sale Friday at 9 a.m.