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SEC Volleyball Kickoff - Musings on our Wildcats and why the SEC needs to change its approach

SEC Volleyball competition kicks off Wednesday night, as the Cats head down to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. Let's take a second to discuss our team, what to watch for, and chat with our SEC brethren at Mizzou about the state of volleyball in the nation's preeminent sports conference.

It's VOLLEYBALL time in the Bluegrass!
It's VOLLEYBALL time in the Bluegrass!

Your Kentucky Wildcats are currently ranked #14 in the country! The Cats are taking their 10-2 record on the road, fresh from a 3-1 win over Xavier Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum. Victories thus far this season include wins over Louisville (always fun), VCU and Virginia Tech. Their 2 losses have been to #9 Southern Cal and #12 North Carolina.

Players to watch at Kentucky include senior libero Jackie Napper, who just clinched back to back honors as the SEC Defensive Player of the week. (Note: if you're new to the game, and are wondering what the heck a "libero" is click here. For even more info click here.) Others to watch include senior hitter Lauren O'Conner, junior hitter (and current kills leader) Shelby Workman and sophomore hitter Anni Thomasson.

Best of all - you can WATCH all this action Wednesday night at 9 EDT on ESPNU. And YES, we're going to have a game thread! FOR VOLLEYBALL! These Wildcats need and deserve that level of support.

With all this great news, you may be wondering why the headline says "Why the SEC needs to change its approach"? I'm so glad you asked.

As of this week's AVCA coaches' poll, the SEC has exactly three ranked teams: Florida at #10, Kentucky at #14 and TAMU at #22. The PAC 12 has 7 ranked teams including #1 Stanford.  The B1G has 6 ranked teams including #3 Penn State. Coincidentally, the PAC 12 and the B1G also claim 23 of the 33 National titles in Women's Volleyball, with the PAC 12 at 14 titles and the B1G at 9.

An SEC team has never won the national title in volleyball.

Let me repeat that: the storied SEC, who has delivered NCAA championships in every single sport where 3 or more schools participate, has NEVER won a championship in volleyball.

It's time to end this streak. How can the SEC, the most dominant athletic conference in the country, get behind our sisters on the court and help them win a title?

To find out more, I reached out to our SEC family at Mizzou, one of the historically best programs in our fair conference. Mizzou is the reigning SEC regular season champion, and prior to joining the BDCITL (Best Darned Conference In The Land) faced very stiff competition in the Big XII. (The Big XII has 5 national titles. Just in case you were wondering.) Chris L. Turner, the resident Volleyball expert at RockMNation kindly shared his expertise in helping us to learn more about Mizzou volleyball and how the SEC can end this shameful dominance by lesser conferences.

The Tigers are coming off a 35-1 season, with a perfect 18-0 record in SEC play. You lost 2 players off the 2013 squad due to graduation. So far this season you're 9-5. Any thoughts on what has changed with your squad?

Chris: I think the lack of leadership at the setter position has really hurt the Tigers a lot this season. All-American Molly Kreklow dictated the offense so effectively in 2013, guiding the Tigers to 29 of 34 matches where they hit .300 or better. She served up a nation-best 1,480 assists (12.65 per set) in 2013, finding fellow All-American Lisa Henning on the majority of those assists. Henning tallied a team-leading 499 kills on .330 hitting, finishing her MU career as the the all-time leader in kills and total points. Now with both graduated, there were questions circulating how the offense would replace the production from Henning and Kreklow in 2014. Two potential candidates stepped in to fill the void left by Kreklow: Loxley Keala, a sophomore who is converting back to her High School position of Setter, and freshman Ali Kreklow, daughter of Coach Wayne Kreklow. Rather than choosing one to guide the attack this year, both have alternated time at Setter this season. They've combined for 614 assists through the first 14 matches, averaging a combined 10.77 APS, but neither has been able to guide the offense into a consistent rhythm this season. The Tigers have hit above .300 as a team just twice this year, with numerous attack errors plaguing the offense. There are still big weapons with Carly Kan and Whitney Little, but the offense needs to find some rhythm before they are too deep into conference play.

Sr. Whitney Little has just reset the Mizzou record for all time blocks leader. What can you tell us about Whitney? Any other players we need to be aware of?

Chris: Whitney has been the anchor at the net for Missouri, her play this year has been nothing short of fantastic at Middle Blocker, recording 135 kills on a team leading .437 clip. She's getting it done defensively as well, recording 60 total blocks this year to reset the all-time blocks record, as you said. Along with Whitney, you always have to keep an eye on Carly Kan. As a true freshman, Kan was second on team behind Henning in kills and hitting percentage. She was of course looked at to fill the spot left by Henning, and so far she has played the part well, racking up 202 kills through the first 14 matches this year. However, her one problem this year that has not only hindered her offensive output, but the team's as well, has been attack errors. Through the first 14 matches, Kan has accumulated 81 attack errors this year. She only has 82 all of last season. So while the kill production is definitely there in the Tigers attack, mistakes have kept Mizzou from winning those early non-conference matches.

Playing in the Big XII meant facing powerhouse Texas on a regular basis. How do you think that impacted the Mizzou program? What if anything do you think has changed since joining the SEC?

Chris: In the two years (I'm a sophomore at MU) I've been exposed to Mizzou volleyball in the SEC, I haven't had the chance to experience MU volleyball when they played in the Big XII. I'm think both conferences share a lot of similarities in how it shakes out on an annual basis. There is always the perennial powerhouses (Texas/Nebraska, or now in MU's case, Florida/Kentucky), and now Mizzou has to keep pace with those two to have success this year. Last year, the atmosphere had an "SEC" feel to it, fans packed Hearnes Center every match and were loud and proud. This year, we may still have that atmosphere for big matches like UF and UK, but if Missouri can't have consistent success inside the SEC, it may be harder to maintain that atmosphere.

I don't know about you, but I'm kinda sick of watching the B1G and PAC 12 win the title. What do you think it will take for the SEC to start bringing home that trophy?

Chris: It starts with recruiting. According to, the B1G/Pac 12 had 9 of the top 10 recruiting classes for 2014. The only team from the SEC on that list was, of course, Florida. I don't expect any SEC Teams to go 5-sets with Penn State after one good recruiting class, but pulling in several good classes in a row could be a step in the right direction for the SEC as a whole.

Looking over the schedules, I don't think SOS is an issue, and yet all three programs went down in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament last year. Do you see the conference taking a collective approach at scheduling, similarly to how they approached men's basketball?

Chris: I think an approach similar to basketball could improve the resumes of teams who are hoping for a tournament berth in the fall. Although, I'm not saying Mizzou should go out and schedule Penn State or USC. Taking on anyone from that conference could be a great way to prepare for big conference games down the road. Travel out to Michigan, or Utah for a weekend tournament, rather than scheduling the Mississippi Valley State's or Portland's of the world. It could help with SOS, and will give the team and fans a better idea of what the team is capable of down the road.

Any other insights you can share with us about SEC volleyball?

Chris: From an outward glance, the SEC is stacked with talent this year and may have several teams jostling for power at the top of the conference. I expect Florida and Kentucky to be #'s 1 and 2 in the conference this year, while Missouri will most likely dip somewhere in the middle of the pack around 6th or 7th place.

I'd like to give my sincere thanks to Chris for his great contributions to this article, and his coverage of VolleyZou over at RockMNation! Kentucky faces Mizzou on November 9th in Lexington.