Column: Kentucky volleyball still a top tier program despite slow start


Jack Weaver

Kentucky Wildcats setter Emma Grome (4) answers questions during a post game press conference after the Kentucky vs. Marquette volleyball match on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. Marquette won 3-2. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Drew Johnson, Staff Writer

Kentucky Volleyball finished out its non-conference schedule with a three-set loss to Nebraska on Sunday, finishing with a 5-4 record going into SEC play.

The start to the season is the worst the program has had since Craig Skinner became the head coach of Kentucky in 2005, leaving many fans worried about the future of the team.

Over the past five years the Wildcats had been nothing short of dominant, winning five consecutive SEC Championships, and a national championship in 2020.

Skinner also led the squad to 16 straight NCAA tournament appearances, accumulating 12 20-win seasons in his 14-year tenure in Lexington.

With several wins over top 25 programs already this season, few are wondering if Kentucky may be bad, but the slow start does spark debate as to whether or not the Cats may have fallen out of the top tier of collegiate volleyball that they’ve been in the last decade.

The Wildcats 5-4 record has them sitting at 15th in the nation according to the AVCA Coaches Poll, no longer holding the claim of highest ranked SEC team with the Florida Gators currently ranked at No. 12.

While it is easy to sound the alarms when looking at those figures, upon taking a deeper look at UK’s schedule, there are more reasons to be optimistic about the squad than fearful.

Something to keep in mind when looking into Kentucky’s 5-4 record is that three of four losses were against reigning NCAA Tournament final four teams, which includes both Wisconsin and Nebraska, the reigning NCAA Champions and NCAA Tournament runner-up.

So, while Kentucky is just one game above .500, it has had arguably the hardest non-conference schedule in the NCAA.

The third final four team UK competed against was in-state rival Louisville.

The Cats fought the Cardinals down to the final set, where they eventually lost 15-12, losing the overall match 3-2.

While a painful loss, especially against a bitter rival like Louisville, Kentucky fought until the very end and were just a few plays or errors away from squeaking out the victory over a reigning NCAA Tournament final four team, which is indicative of the level of play this squad is capable of.

Kentucky’s five wins aren’t anything to overlook either, sweeping Northern Iowa, Ohio and Indiana State, and defeating Southern California and Creighton, both of whom were ranked in the top 25 at the time of the matchups, sweeping the Trojans 3-0 and defeating the Blue Jays 3-1.

Even with the hard schedule, Kentucky still stands out statistically with sophomore setter Emma Grome currently being ranked fourth in the country in assists-per-set with 11.19, with the team as a whole sit ninth in the country in the statistic with 13.22.

The Cats are also fourth in the country in kills-per-set (14.56) and third in hitting percentage (.304).

Numbers like that should leave fans hopeful for the team when the schedule shifts from three national championship contenders in nine days to a normal, but still difficult, SEC slate.

Beyond just Grome’s nationally acclaimed statistics, other standouts such as Reagan Rutherford and Eleanor Beavin also provide both the offensive and defensive prowess to help propel the team through conference SEC play.

Rutherford currently stands as the team leader in both kills and points while Beavin leads the team in both digs and receptions, with the two being among the best in the conference at their roles.

With a national standout like Grome on the roster and plenty of other important pieces to back her up, there’s absolutely no reason to panic about UK volleyball this season.

The team should still be a favorite to roll through the SEC and to put itself in contention for a sixth straight SEC Championship.