Historic volleyball run driven by confidence and trust


UK poses for a photo after the University of Kentucky vs. Texas NCAA women’s volleyball championship game on Saturday, April 24, 2021, at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska. UK won 3-1. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

From the beginning, Alli Stumler knew her team would win the national championship. Not could, or should – would.

“I think the moment we stepped in Omaha and off the plane, it was, ‘we’re gonna win this thing,’ and there was never a doubt that any team was better than us, that could play harder than us, have more grit, determination, we just knew that we had it,”  Stumler, an outsider hitter and junior, said.

On Saturday morning, before Kentucky took the court in CHI Health Center to play for the title, Stumler asked head coach Craig Skinner if he was ready to ‘win a natty.’ He said ‘oh yeah.’

That kind of confidence – cool, but not cocky; shared as a matter of fact, but not arrogantly – defined Kentucky’s approach to the NCAA Tournament. Had UK lost the title, all that talk would have soured in the aftermath. But they won, just as they set out to do, by beating no. 4 Texas in the title game on April 24.

“We wanted to be legendary,” libero Gabby Curry said at a celebration back in Lexington on Sunday. This national title cements that status, as it represents several program and conference firsts.

On the way to the top, the team kept their composure by knowing their worth and trusting their teammates to get them through.

“Every one of our players could care less if they had a great match or not last night, they were all about how we were going to do on the next point,” Skinner said after the match-up against Western Kentucky.

Believing that they belonged in the tournament also helped the team maintain a competitive mindset. Along with their talent and athleticism, many of the team’s older players had played in high profile tournament matches before, giving them an edge in what can be a high pressure environment.

“It’s just awesome and so rewarding to know, especially in the year like this, that we’re in this moment of the Final Four and we’re competing and we deserve to be here,” Stumler said, adding that the players were coming for revenge after last year.

Skinner mentioned over and over that the team relied on the whole roster, one through 15, to get this far. The team’s depth allowed for a high level of competition in practice that honed their match play. In press conferences throughout the NCAA Tournament, the volleyball players heaped praise on each other.

“Gabby is one of the most fierce competitors that I know, and being able to see the fire in her eyes in the fight and drive this tournament especially has been so cool just because I’ve played with her it was seems like every level at this point,” setter Madison Lilley said of the team’s libero, Gabby Curry.

Madi Skinner, a freshman, was able to watch her older sister Avery Skinner dominate in the early matches, which made the tournament experience even more special.

“I’m her biggest fan. I want her to succeed in every aspect of life so just seeing her go off on the court was so exciting and it made me so proud, and it was just really exciting to kind of have her shine in that moment,” Madi Skinner said.

Beyond the stats and scores, volleyball players said the work ethic and attitude is what drives the team to such great heights.

“They’re not focused on themselves or focused on how they’re playing, but just how can we make the program better,” Stumler said of her teammates. “And you can’t teach that, it’s just whether you have it or you don’t, so they’re pretty fiery fun bunch to be around and super fun.”

Head coach Craig Skinner also pointed to the team’s inspiration being a connection between the players.

“It’s not about volleyball, it’s about people, and I think that’s really important for us to make sure we understand and recruiting because if you don’t have good people on this year like this – good luck…we wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t have the type of people to make the chemistry,” Skinner said.

Chemistry and veteran leadership helped the team keep their cool under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament.

“When your senior setter steps on the court and serves an ace the first point of the match, it sends a pretty strong message to their teammates,” Skinner said following the regional round against Western Kentucky University.

That senior setter is Madison Lilley, who has been on the track to a national championship with Kentucky since attending her first camp with Skinner in the seventh grade.

“If you want to call it manifestation, you can call it that, if you want to call it drive and not taking no for an answer, that’s what I like to call it,” Lilley said. “But just the grind, the hours, the work ethic, the vision and the motivation to just get where we are right now is something that should not be overlooked.”

Some of that drive and vision is to do more than just take home the trophy – throughout the tournament, the team also spoke on raising the profile of women’s volleyball.

“To get people to jump on the Kentucky volleyball bandwagon, I mean, that’s hard work, and no one will ever be able to tell this group any differently and this is exactly what Kentucky volleyball stands for,” Lilley said.

Skinner in particular was vocal about how volleyball, even as one of the most popular sports among young girls, is not given the same attention or time on national networks as other sports.

“I truly believe we can generate revenue and and I just hope our fans buy into this program. I hope fans buy into Texas this program. I hope fans buy into every program that we play against because it’s the sport is about ready to combust in the stratosphere,” Skinner said.

The Big Blue Nation bought in, with fans tuning in to the national tournament, some for the first time. The love and support made the experience ‘surreal,’ players said, as their phones went crazy with notifications.

“It’s such a blessing to be in that position, it can be seen as annoying or whatever, but I just see it as a huge blessing and it’s awesome, just to have such an awesome fan base and people behind us who are just pumped for us and rooting us on from back home,” Stumler said.

Though fans and the country might have only caught on to the volleyball team’s wave at the end of the tournament, the championship is what the players were aiming for all along.

“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.

Day one was a long, long time ago. Because of COVID-19, the volleyball season was split into fall and spring halves. But the two combined were more than double the usual play, which was physically and mentally tough. But the long season also helped the team improve upon their play from the fall.

“I think it prepared us for moments like this…the relationships and the trust and being able to work through certain things, I don’t think we would have been able to do if we would have started this in January,” Lilley said.

“To have kind of two separate seasons, gave us the time to reflect and see where we were and evaluate and find new things,” Skinner said, particularly incorporating the new players into the line-up.

Kentucky was dominant all season, losing only to Florida in a back-to-back match. Losing to Florida added fuel to the fire and how hard the team fought that night showed Stumler they could handle being behind.

“We can take leaps and bounds to overcome the lead and then end up with a win, so that that moment definitely built confidence for us and I think just gave us, you know, the momentum to know that we can overcome it,” Stumler said.

They would call upon that confidence in the tournament, bouncing back from a dropped set against Washington and a dropped set against Texas on their way to no. 1.

“I knew we had a chance. Did I think we’d never go – to only lose two sets the NCAA tournament, no I didn’t, I didn’t predict that,” Skinner said.

Only losing two sets in the tournament is just one of the statistics that stand out for Kentucky volleyball. By claiming the title, they become the first team in program history to be national championships as well as the first team from the SEC to win the volleyball title.

Kentucky is only the eleventh school to win the volleyball title. At the school level, 2020 – 2021 is the first year that two teams have won national championships in the same year, as rifle won their title in March. And, the volleyball win means that the SEC has now won a championship in all sports sponsored by the conference.

“Not to be cocky or arrogant but more so just, we have pure confidence and the skill and athleticism, the IQ of the game, that this team can do it and if there’s a team in program history that’s going to do it, this year,” Stumler said.

One of the team’s guiding ideas is that each player should be themselves, so that Alli Stumler is the best Alli she can be, and Avery Skinner the best Avery she can be, and Gabby Curry the best Gabby she can be.

“When everyone is just their best self and giving to the team, that’s when great things happen and legacies are left behind and history’s made, and that’s definitely what this team has done over the past few weeks,” Stumler said.

Even in the title match, Kentucky stayed true to themselves – dancing on the sidelines as they have done all season in Memorial Coliseum. That kind of tradition made the competition fun.

Outside of the team’s assurance in their prowess, their love for each other and their drive, they still remembered to enjoy the ride.

“To be currently living a dream and for me and our family to live a dream like this is, you know, you can’t – there’s no monetary value or material thing you can put on that. It’s fulfillment, when you set out to accomplish something and you’re living it,” Skinner said.

Being able to live out their dreams is even more sweet in light of the uncertainty over whether there even be a season at all because of COVID-19. The possibility of losing the season was hard to come to terms with.

“Finally getting the news that we’re going to do this and we’re going to play this fall and they’re going to come back and play this spring and NCAA announcing that we’re gonna have a championship…all of those moments were so pivotal for us because it allowed us to really put our eyes on what we were going after,” Lilley said.

“Understanding how hard it’s been, and so at the end of the day we’re gonna look back and just smile, you know, I think all of us woke up smiling. How can you not, you know, feel good about where we are right now?” Skinner said before the Washington match.

At a welcome back party on Sunday night, Skinner said there was no way winning the championship was harder than the year and season.

“No one’s ever gonna be able to take this away,” Skinner said. 

The dream that Skinner had when he first came to Kentucky is now reality. Even with their eyes on the prize and the prize in hand, the actual achievement of their goal still feels unbelievable.

“It just doesn’t feel real yet that we just, we’re the number one team in the country right now, you know?” Stumler said. “We’re the national champions.”