Facing Florida, Cats vie for share of conference lead

For the UK volleyball team, no goal is higher than becoming Southeastern Conference champions.

But for the past three years, the major bump in the road has been No. 6 Florida, which has won the past three SEC titles. In order to reach their goal this year, the Cats want to be the team that knocks off the Gators — and they have their chance tomorrow night at Florida.

“We hope to be the ones to cause them to stumble,” said senior middle blocker and captain Nicole Britenriker. “They are a big roadblock to our goal. This is a big game for the standings.”

At 5-1 in the SEC, the Cats are breathing down Florida’s neck for first place in the conference. A win on Friday would put the two teams in a tie, with UK owning the tiebreaker. But that’s easier said than done, as UK has not beaten Florida since 1990. The Cats’ streak of 29 consecutive losses against Florida has some UK players looking forward to tomorrow’s match.

“I’ve never beaten Florida since I’ve been here,” junior libero Alisa Pierce said. “So playing them is always in the back of your mind.”

This year may be UK’s best chance to knock off Florida from its SEC throne. The Cats have the best blocking team in the conference, two All-SEC players and a freshman middle blocker who has already won three SEC Freshman of the Week honors.

UK and Florida are the top two teams in almost every category in the SEC: hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, assists, kills and blocks. Numerous players on both teams rank in the top 10 in individual statistics. With very little edge in the numbers, UK knows it will have to play even better than usual.

“We have to show up with heart,” Pierce said. “The skill level is there. We have to fight to win and force them to make mistakes.”

Not only does the team have to play with heart, it knows it has to play a near-flawless match as well.

“We have to play consistently at the top level of our game,” Britenriker said. “Have good communication and play ball the whole time.”

Head coach Craig Skinner said the Cats would have to have an elevated level of play in order to compete.

“We need to play a great match,” Skinner said, “and execute our offense at a high level.”

While UK’s goal is to win the SEC, the team said that looking ahead to this game wasn’t even a possibility.

“Every match is a big match,” Skinner said. “Florida is just the top dog right now. But we don’t circle any match.”

Britenriker pointed to the home loss to Alabama as finishing any chance to look ahead.

“Florida is always in the back of our minds,” Britenriker said. “But since that first loss to Alabama, we’ve really focused one match at a time.”

Still, the Cats are looking forward to what would follow from ending their losing streak.

“It could leave us second or raise attention to our team,” Pierce said. “People say we haven’t proved anything. We beat Florida and it says a lot.”