2009 Kentucky Volleyball Preview

Aug. 24, 2009

Head coach Craig Skinner has continued to produce winners and his squad of Wildcats has done something no other team in school history has managed to accomplish under one coach. Skinner's teams have appeared in four consecutive NCAA Tournaments – and are vying to become the first in school history to make five-straight national tournament runs.

All of the pieces are in place for continued success as the Wildcats return 11 letterwinners to a 26-6 squad from a year ago. Among those returners are five starters and the starting libero.

The 2008 season had a number of accomplishments as the Wildcats charted a 12-match winning streak, posted a 17-3 record in Memorial Coliseum and also had a record five players earn All-Conference honors. It was the second consecutive season the team posted back-to-back 20 win seasons.

With goals still left to achieve, the Blue and White dedicated itself to a committed effort in the spring. UK put together a dominating effort during spring practice, running through an eight-match schedule unscathed. Among the opponents faced in spring action were four NCAA Tournament participants.

“This team possesses an abundance of competitive experience,” Skinner said. “They have an uncanny work ethic as a united group and I think they really enjoy each other. This team has a passion for the game of volleyball and thoroughly enjoys putting on the Kentucky uniform.”

Experience for Skinner's team is not only the number of rotations and points the players have seen, but the experience of accomplishments and a tough schedule. Each of those elements is important as UK assembles another potent team aimed at continued success.

Kentucky has ascended to one of the nation's top programs, so the element of surprise no longer exists. The 10 other SEC teams and the nation know and expect the Blue and White to have a successful squad each and every season. The SEC schedule continues to get tough every season, and Skinner believes it is an element that should excite his team.

“The more you win the more expectations you have,” Skinner said. “This team embraces those challenges and expectations. Our goals are lofty, and that will never change. I think it's exciting for other teams to look forward to playing Kentucky. That is a sign of respect for our program and our players.”

The Senior Class

Kentucky is led by a group of three seniors who have laid the foundation for UK volleyball since their arrival in 2006.

“This group of seniors is the type of players who you want leading your program,” Skinner said. “They have all been successful, and the experience they have is invaluable. Our staff is very confident and comfortable that this senior group will help us have another great year.”

Returning All-American and SEC Player of the Year Sarah Rumely is one of the unquestioned leaders of the Wildcat program. UK's prodigious offensive attack will continue to run through her, a starter from the moment she stepped foot on the UK court. In her stellar junior campaign, she became just the third player in school history to chart over 4,000 assists for her career. With a season left to play, she is within striking distance of attaining the career assist mark. Rumely is a phenomenal player around the net as well, contributing both offensively with crafty kills and also defensively with her fearless ability to go to the net and block. In 2008 she set career highs with 103 blocks for the season and a 0.87 block per set average.

As a junior, BriAnne Sauer emerged as another vocal leader from her libero position. After splitting time in the spot as a sophomore, Sauer had a breakout season in 2008 as she held the slot exclusively. Sauer produced a career-best 497 dig season to become just the ninth player in school history to tally over 1,000 digs for her career. She also manufactured the second-most assists on the team, dishing out 118 on the season. After a full-year as the starting libero, consistency will be her driving contributing factor. Last season she charted 28 matches with 10 or more scoops and paced the squad in that category in 27 of the team's matches.

Brooke Bartek suffered an injury in the spring of 2008 and her junior season never really got going in the way she had hoped. Now, with a full spring of conditioning and training, Bartek is primed for a strong senior season. A powerful outside hitter, Bartek averaged 2.51 kills per frame in her sophomore campaign which ranked third on the team. However, despite only appearing in 11 matches in 2008, Bartek's accuracy improved. She hit a career-best .230 while laying down 26 kills on 61 attempts.

The Junior Class

The Wildcats' continued climb up the national ladder is in direct correlation with the junior class. As freshmen, they were rated the eighth-best recruiting class in the country, and they have not disappointed the Wildcat nation.

“This junior class is very confident and ready to take on the role of upperclassmen,” Skinner said. “Their comfort level has increased from workouts to practice, to training, to the accountability and responsibility of being a student-athlete, it has really become second-nature to them. When you reach that point as a player, you can really start focusing on what it takes to be successful on the court. I think this group is just really ready to take off.”

Right-side hitter Lauren Rapp is a two-time All-Conference player and attained All-Region honors as a sophomore in 2008. Rapp has reliably been an all-around performer for the Blue and White. For her career, she has averaged more than 2.5 kills per set and a block per frame. She laid down a career-best 338 kills in 2008 while also posting a career-high 210 digs. Also impressive from the service line, Rapp has charted 73 aces in her two-year career.

Sarah Mendoza ascended as UK's top offensive threat in her first season as a full-time starter a year ago. Mendoza led the team and ranked among the conference's best with 385 kills for a 3.26 kill per set average. She also placed second on the squad with 318 digs from her outside hitter slot, a position she played through the full rotation. Twice last season she was tabbed the SEC Offensive Player of the Week en route to earning All-SEC second-team honors.

Another outside hitter, Blaire Hiler, was among the starting lineup for much of the latter half of the season. In the biggest upset in school history, Hiler was an integral part in helping UK knock off Florida for the first time in 38 tries. Hiler registered a season-high 11 kills and a career-best six digs in that win. For her career, Hiler averages over 1.60 kills per frame. The Wildcats though, will look to her match against Florida for signs of what is to come in her junior year.

Rounding out the junior class is defensive specialist Laura Stokowski. Stokowski was the team's rotating defensive player and she excelled in the role constantly coming up with big-time plays throughout the season. She set career-high marks with 226 digs for a 1.97 per-set average. She also recorded 11 aces and 26 assists on the season. UK will look for continued improvement and production from Stokowski in the back row in her junior campaign.

The Sophomore Class

After competing in collegiate volleyball for a season, the sophomore class has endured an entire season which includes offseason workouts and spring training. As they learned the ropes of what it takes to win on the Division-I leve, their competitive drive has not let up.

“As a group, this class is an exceptionally competitive group of players,” Skinner said. “They have all impacted our program positively from both their presence in matches and their drive on the practice court. They are a very physical group and a lot of our success is attributed to the competitive environment they create on our team.”

Middle blocker Becky Pavan had an exceptional season for the Wildcats as a true freshman. Pavan led the team and the SEC in blocking as she tallied 140 on the season, good for an average of 1.20 per set. She was a unanimous selection to the All-SEC Freshman team and twice was honored as the Freshman of the Week. Pavan really began to shine as the season progressed, notching season-high marks in kills (14) against Florida and blocks (10) against Tennessee.

Ann Armes was a spark to UK's offense to begin the season as she started 11 matches as a redshirt freshman. Armes totaled 10 or more kills on three occasions, while also coming through with a huge defensive match against St. John's. The outside hitter led the team with 12 digs against the Red Storm, showing her versatility as an all-around player.

Also a middle blocker, Gretchen Giesler saw action in 10 matches in her first season. Giesler contributed nicely to a dominating middle-blocker rotation. Giesler had a season-best four kills in quality action against Western Carolina. She also showed a knack for big-time serving with a pair of aces to cap the match at Arkansas.

The Freshman Class

Kentucky has a four-player freshman class in 2009. The class was rated as the top freshman class in the SEC earlier this year, helping add to Kentucky's impressive lineup.

“This freshman group is as athletic as we've had,” Skinner said. “They are very dynamic athletes, and I am very excited about what this group will bring to our program. This group can take our program to different levels as they expand on their careers here at Kentucky.”

Redshirt freshman Christine Hartmann leads the group for 2009. Hartmann is a premier setter from Illinois who has benefited greatly from a collegiate season. As a high school player she was a four-year starter and named the Most Valuable Player in her final three seasons. She was rated among the nation's top 35 players by PrepVolleyball.com in 2008 and racked up a number of awards as a high school player.

Whitney Billings is an All-American high school player from Alabama. As a high school player she earned six letters and was a national player of the year candidate twice. An outside hitter, she was named to the All-State team and the Metro Player of the Year in her senior season.

Adding depth to the back row will be Kentucky native Stephanie Klefot. Klefot brings instant success as she has been a winner on every level. A three-time AAU national champion and a high school state champion with Louisville's Assumption High School, she understands success and what it takes for a team to put together a special season.

Alexandra Morgan, a club teammate of Billings, rounds out the freshman class. Morgan, an extraordinary athlete, will also compete as a high jumper for the UK track and field team. She is a middle blocker who was a dynamic high school player, leaving her career with season records in kills (542) and blocks (130), as well as the all-time career records in the same categories.

All 14 players on the 2009 Kentucky volleyball team will be integral members of a team driven to achieve success. This season is no different for Skinner and the Wildcats, as they expect to win and be among the mix in contention for an SEC title and a fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance.