Volleyball prepared for conference schedule


Photo by William Baldon

The leaves are changing, and the days are getting shorter. For the UK volleyball team, that means it’s time for conference play, and the team is using its beginning non-conference games to prepare itself for the Southeastern Conference.

UK finished the first portion of its schedule 6-4 in non-conference play, including winning two of three in the UK Invitational held Sept. 10-11. The Cats lost in five sets to No. 17 Florida State, then swept Virginia Commonwealth and beat Kansas State 3-1.

“What we try to do is play the best non-conference schedule we can, because the SEC is so strong,” UK assistant coach Lindsey Gray said. “Playing teams from different conferences gives you the ability to see different looks and the speed of the game. It’s important to see how we match up. The preseason this year was very tough, but I think the strong schedule helps to build the confidence of the team.”

The strong schedule also included opening the season with two games against top-10 opponents in Nebraska and Iowa State. The Cats lost both matches convincingly, managing to win a mere one set between the two matches. But with a team of youth and inexperience — UK has only two seniors — the early challenges allowed the Cats to improve.

“We need to revert back to this when we see these teams again in the postseason,” Gray said. “We’re not going to hang our heads because of a slow start. It’s all about where we are at the end of the season.”

A promising sign for UK’s future came in Saturday’s match against Kansas State when senior Blaire Hiler recorded her first career double-double. She paced the Cats to a five-set win with 16 kills and 14 digs, both career bests. Hiler’s improvement could indicate how much better UK can perform.

And despite the lineup heavy on youth, UK is talented. Freshman Whitney Billings was named the SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 3.28 kills per match in the Kentucky Invitational, including a 23-kill performance against Florida State.

UK has also experienced paces of pressurized matches, which could serve them well in conference play. Five of the 10 matches have gone to the maximum five sets, and UK has won three of those five matches. Playing in closely contested sets has helped prepare the Cats for the trials of an SEC schedule.

“We couldn’t ask for a better schedule to start our season,” head coach Craig Skinner said in a preseason interview in August. “It’s a good chance to see where we are. There’s no better measuring stick.”

The non-conference schedule was tough, but for this particular team it was exactly what was needed as the team continues to figure itself out. UK viewed the challenges as learning experiences, and while mistakes were made, it gives the Cats the opportunity to fix those mistakes in time for conference play.

“We learned a lot about ourselves here in the preseason,” Gray said. “We made a lot of great plays and some dumb ones. But we found out we can battle, and while it may not always be pretty we can always come out of any match with a win. The future is very bright for us.”