Young Cats make big strides to start season

Column by J.D. Williams

In the world of sports some things should never be mixed together, and just the thought of combining a dash of this and a pinch of that will lead to a sure meltdown in the clubhouse.

Youth and inexperience together are two ingredients that leave coaches cringing before games, nervously awaiting what will be unveiled. Hoping his or her team received the message and definitely feeling the heat from what once was a quiet kitchen but now feels like a furnace.

However, it’s no sweat for volleyball coach Craig Skinner, who can confidently throw his freshman into the heart of the fire without even blinking.

In just his third season as head coach at UK, Skinner has fewer seniors on this team (2) then his first two teams that both appeared in the NCAA Tournament, and more freshmen (6) this year then any prior.

He said he hasn’t really paid much attention to the thought of having a younger team this year because the Cats have “a very mature group that works really hard and is selfless.”

With an obvious swing in experience Skinner isn’t nervous about continuing through this season, and it shows in the wins column for UK.

The Cats’ 7-1 mark on the season puts them on pace for the best start under Skinner.

A sweep at the Georgia Tech Classic in Atlanta with a victory tonight against Arizona (4-2), and wins tomorrow against Western Carolina (3-3) and Georgia Tech (2-1) will put the Cats at 10-1, which would be UK’s best start since 1993.

It’s a tall order for the Cats, but 6-foot-3 freshman Lauren Rapp is up for the challenge.

The middle blocker from Indianapolis is tied for third on the team in offensive kills with 62 and is a reason why UK is in position to make noise early this year.

After arriving at UK she had to make the transition from playing back row in high school, to being a defensive stopper on the front row and taking some of the responsibility of hammering down kills for the Cats. Her high level of play and Skinner’s confidence in her is something she didn’t anticipate coming in as a freshman.

“I wasn’t really sure,” Rapp said. “I worked hard coming in and was hoping. You never know.”

But Skinner knew early on.

“We have 13 players, and the players performing at the highest level are going to be in there,” he said.

“There are 13 athletes with numbers on their jersey and they’re all wearing Kentucky blue,” Skinner said. “Whether they’re seniors or freshman, whatever it is, if they’re making a difference out there, they’re going to be on the court.”

Rapp fits into that category.

She has started every game for the Cats this year and joined junior Queen Nzenwa and senior Nicole Britenriker to make a powerful front row.

Britenriker, who is the Cat’s team captain for the second straight year, said it’s easy to lead with the group she has on the team because “they all want to be led.”

The feeling is mutual from wall to wall in the Cats’ locker room and Britenriker feels the same as Skinner when looking over the team and the contribution of the freshmen.

“We have some young players on the team and they really haven’t showed it,” Britenriker said. “It’s hard to tell that they are freshman.”

But there are elements to the team chemistry that still need time to jell.

Although the team is winning games, Britenriker said they are still learning to play together and all her teammates are accepting their role.

Because freshmen are put on a large unfamiliar stage when making the transition from high school to college, some may lack confidence. That’s when the team rallies behind them and encourages the younger players when “they’re not having their best day.”

The support from the smaller veteran group is what keeps the young team going, pushing for a third NCAA berth.

Asst. sports editor J.D. Williams is a journalism senior. His columns will run on Fridays. Email jwilliams@