The Kentucky women’s volleyball team is getting set to kick off their 2016 season on August 26 with their opening match against Washington State at the Purdue Mortar Board Premier Tournament in West Lafayette, Ind.
The Wildcats are coming off a 21-10 season and are led by Craig Skinner who is entering his 12th season as head coach, having led Kentucky to an impressive 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances.
Prior to Skinner’s arrival at Kentucky, the volleyball program wasn’t exactly in the best shape. They hadn’t made the tournament since 1993 and hadn’t had a winning season in five years.
Skinner spoke about the initial task of creating a winning culture within his program and building the Wildcats into a consistent winner and said, “A lot of the focus had to do with controlling the ball, which in any sport is vital to consistent success.”
Skinner spoke of the importance of having a great setter and libero as the key to his formula for success on the court and said, “We made sure to recruit the libero and setter position very hard and made sure we got the right people.”
On the court, Kentucky is led by 2015 SEC Libero of the Year Ashley Dusek. The junior from East Bernard, TX started every match for the Wildcats, playing in all 112 sets on the season. Dusek led the SEC with 566 digs and broke a 22 year-old UK record with 40 digs against Auburn.
Up front, Kentucky is led by ALL-SEC middle blocker Kaz Brown, the 6-4 junior from Waterloo, IA finished the season ranked No. 3 in the country in blocks per set (1.61) and also started every game for UK and is expected to be a dominant force once again this season.
Alongside 6-4 junior Emily Franklin, Skinner says the duo of Franklin and Brown “may be the best middle blocking tandem in the country.”
Skinner praised both Brown and Dusek and says the two ladies are “very eager, very confident and very driven. They both wear their emotions on their sleeves and our fans just love coming to watch them play.”
Skinner has high hopes for his squad this season and calls his team “one of the deepest we’ve had.” Aside from Brown and Dusek, Skinner expects major contributions from players all throughout his roster and pointed to junior Darian Mack, who led the team in kills (363) and points (408) last season to continue her form, as well as senior Anni Thomasson, who Skinner says is “very important to everything we do. She makes us play at a very different level when she’s on the floor.”
6-2 freshman Leah Edmond is a local product from Lexington and was a Top 10 recruit in the country and will be counted on to make an early impact to the Wildcats rotation.
After 11 straight seasons of playing in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats are looking to achieve that next level of success for the program and Skinner spoke of the pressure and expectations that come along with being in the shadow of Kentucky’s rich basketball history.
He said, “One of the reasons I wanted to come to Kentucky was because they had a program that excelled at that level and because that meant that the community, the university and the administration knew what it takes to do that.”
With a relatively young team in place (Thomasson is the only senior), Kentucky should be expected to once again challenge for an SEC title and could be in the conversation for the national championship in Columbus, OH come December.
Skinner said, “We’re certainly trying to raise the expectation level of the program. Every sport in the league (SEC) has won a national championship, except volleyball.”