Kentucky volleyball eager to compete for first national title


Kentucky volleyball players warm up ahead of the NCAA Championship game against no. 4 Texas at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska on April 24, 2021. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

After two weeks in the bubble in Omaha, Kentucky volleyball takes the court at 8:00 p.m. EST to seek its first national title.

But the championship game has been the goal for Kentucky’s players all along, since the beginning of the season nearly nine months and through a COVID-adjusted schedule that split the season into a fall and spring half.

“We’ve been training for this since August so it’s been a long time coming, so we’re just really excited to be here excited to get the ball rolling, just working on adapting as long as we can,” said setter Madison Lilley in a press conference. “I think that’s the name of the game right now and I think that we’re the best team in the nation at it.”

Through nine days and four rounds of the NCAA tournament, Kentucky has maintained a cool confidence. In spots of trouble like a midnight game in the Sweet Sixteen and a dropped set in the Final Four, the team kept composure by focusing on just the next point.

“We really emphasized at the beginning that you know, we had to stay focused and impose our will not just once but over and over again, from whistle to whistle,” head coach Craig Skinner said after Kentucky’s regional win over Western Kentucky University.

Imposing their will helped Kentucky build their leads over WKU and Purdue, becoming more and more dominant with each set.

“Our goal is definitely the championship, winning at all, but we have to focus you know each step. Each game is a stepping stone to get there, so we take it day by day and last night was a big stepping stone up,” said outside hitter Alli Stumler after the Elite Eight match against Purdue.

The national title has been a goal for the team all year long, according to Lilley.

“This is everything that I planned to do, this is why I came here, why I chose Kentucky,” Lilley said.

“We’ve been telling ourselves, when we get to the Final Four, when we get to the championship match so it’s something we’ve been talking about from day one. And so it just reads confidence and we each have confidence in each other, which just allows us to do our job and just to play our heart out,” Madi Skinner said.

If Kentucky wins, it will be their first national championship. Only ten teams have taken home the national title. Skinner won while on the coaching staff at Nebraska and came to the Kentucky program in part because he felt it was a place he could build a program that could compete for that national title.

“They have a program that’s won multiple national championships, and a couple actually. Men’s basketball, and rifle, and that’s not a small thing when people understand what it takes to win a national championship. It’s addicting. You want to be around those type of people because they make you better, so you know it’s definitely going to be a special day and can’t wait to get out there,” Skinner said.

At Kentucky’s advantage in chasing the national title is their veteran leadership, including Lilley, the SEC player of the year. Lilley has a long working relationship with libero Gabby Curry.

Kentucky’s chemistry has been a big factor in their success this year, and something Skinner says helps all players contribute.

“There’s no question in my mind that we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for our roster, and I’m talking one through 15. Everybody has made an impact in our team this year on results this year, whether that was stats in the box score after the match or preparation prior to the match,” Skinner said.

Being able to rely on multiple players is a change from last year, when Kentucky relied on Leah Edmond and Alli Stumler to get kills. Skinner said the versatility means that if someone is having an off night any other player can step in.

“Just leaning into each other and knowing that like we’re each going to take care of our responsibility, and that’s just going to get us through the match, that was definitely the biggest thing for us during those timeouts,” Madi Skinner said after the Washington match, Kentucky’s first test of the tournament.

Avery Skinner and Alli Stumler have each had big nights in the tournament so far. Despite the big spotlight and pressure of the national championship, the players are eager to compete in the title game.

“This whole trip, it was a business trip, and we’re here to take home the trophy at the end of it and, you know, the end is in sight,” Stumler said.