Volleyball looks to defend SEC East title


at {Memorial Hall} on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010. Photo by William Baldon

The wait is almost over. The anticipation that has been building in the UK locker room since the end of last season will soon be replaced by intensity, focus, and desire. The lights are brighter, the stage is bigger.

Conference play is indeed here. UK opens its Southeastern Conference schedule this weekend with home matches against Florida on Friday, Sept. 17 and South Carolina on Sunday, Sept. 19.

“I think our team is really excited to get into conference,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “We know all the teams pretty well, and some teams have a lot of new faces. We have tried to improve each day and each week preparing for the SEC.”

Last season, the Cats posted an impressive 17-3 record in the SEC, including wins in each of their first nine SEC matches, on the way to winning the SEC East division title. This year the Cats will need to come out strong again in SEC play after a rocky 6-4 start to their season. Having already lost as many games in three weeks as they lost all of last season, Skinner knows as conference play begins, it is important for the Cats to come out strong and assert themselves early in the SEC.

“You have to focus on one match at a time,” Skinner said. “There’s no other way to go about it. That’s what we did last year and we got off to a great start. The only thing we can focus on now is Florida.”

The Cats’ success in the SEC this season will hinge largely on the leadership of upperclassmen Blaire Hiler, Becky Pavan and Lauren Rapp, and on the excellent play of freshman Whitney Billings. Billings has been an emotional presence on and off the court all season long, and leads the team in kills with 3.20 per frame. She was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday after averaging 3.28 kills per set in the UK Invitational tournament.

As her first conference games approach, Billings is ready for the stiff competition and fierce rivalries that are a part of SEC play.

“I expect huge competition and a lot of intensity, I’m not expecting anything less,” Billings said. “It’s certainly going to be harder than our nonconference schedule was.”

The Cats will not have it easy as they progress through their conference schedule.     Widely considered the best conference in the nation, the SEC currently has four teams in the NCAA’s top 25 in Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana State and UK.

Florida, a staple of dominance in the SEC for over a decade now, is currently ranked third in the nation, and was one of only two SEC teams to defeat the Cats last season. The other was Tennessee, who are ranked 18th in the nation this year. Both the Gators and the Volunteers pose threats to the Cats as they attempt to repeat as SEC Eastern Division champions.

In the Western Division, the team to beat is the LSU Tigers, the defending conference champions. The Tigers are currently ranked 19th in the nation, but were unable to defeat the Cats in both of the team’s meetings a year ago.

Outside of South Carolina, who the Cats will see this Sunday, every team in the SEC posted a winning record in nonconference play, a testament to how tough the conference is from top to bottom.

“I think it makes for a pretty exciting year and one of the most competitive years in SEC volleyball in a long time,” Skinner said.

“I’m excited to come in and show everyone how it’s done,” Billings added. “I’m ready to show everyone who is the best in the SEC.”