Whitney Billings will lead the Cats for her final season

Junior outside hitter Whitney Billings hits the ball during the first set of UK Women's Volleyball vs. Long Beach State at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, August 25, 2012. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff

Junior outside hitter Whitney Billings hits the ball during the first set of UK Women’s Volleyball vs. Long Beach State at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, August 25, 2012. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff

By Kyle Arensdorf

sports@kykernel.com

With a new six-year contract extension and the No. 24 recruiting class in the nation, UK volleyball head coach Craig Skinner will strive for continued success as his team gets set to begin the 2013 season.

The 2012 season ended for the Cats in the Round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament as the team fell to No. 1 Penn State 3-0 (25-18, 25-21, 25-12).

The Cats began their tournament campaign with a 3-0 sweep of East Tennessee State before upsetting No. 14 Ohio State to reach the Round of 16 for the second straight year and the third time in four years.

Two-time All-American Whitney Billings will start her final season at UK as a fifth-year senior. Billings was a tournament standout in 2012, garnering eight kills and nine digs in their three-game run.

“I do feel a little pressure (to lead the team), knowing that my teammates are looking up to me and they’re going to expect me to do big things in big situations,” Billings said.

She will begin the season shy of the 1,000 mark in both kills (622) and digs (595).

If Billings reaches that milestone in both categories, she will be the first UK player to achieve such a feat.

Fifth-year senior Alexandra Morgan will aid Billings with her defensive prowess.

A season ago, Morgan was awarded with SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice and recorded 10 blocks in a game against Georgia.

Morgan led the Cats in blocks with 1.07 blocks per set and 132 blocks overall.

UK’s 24th-ranked recruiting class is comprised of Emily Franklin, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker; Anni Thomasson, a 6-foot outside hitter; and Sharay Barnes, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker and outside hitter.

Franklin is listed as the No. 47 overall player in the class by PrepVolleyball. Thomasson and Barnes are two-time, all-state players in Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively.

“They’re going to be very good for us, whether it’s this year or throughout their careers, they’re all very athletic and skilled at what they do,” Skinner said.

Billings was pleased with the freshmen’s efforts and is excited to see what they have to offer the team.

“They’ve really caught on just in these past three weeks without ever playing at a college level, and I know (Thomasson) is going to do a lot of things for us this year,” Billings said.

The Cats begin the season ranked No. 17 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, four spots lower than their position in 2012 when they were ranked No. 13.

UK will begin its 2013 season when the team squares off against Florida State at 8 p.m. on Friday in Long Beach, Calif., in the opening round of the Long Beach State Tournament.

The NCAA Tournament begins on Dec. 6-7 with the Round of 64 and Round of 32. Memorial Coliseum will host the Regionals of the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 13-14.