Dominant Volleyball Cats earn first Final Four appearance

(2) Kentucky defeats (7) Purdue in straight sets to earn a trip to the Final Four.

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OMAHA, NE (UK Athletics) Since Craig Skinner arrived in Lexington as the head coach of the Kentucky volleyball program, the Cats have made a steady climb in the world of college volleyball. UK had made it as far as the Elite Eight in 2017 and seemed to be continually knocking on the door of making a first trip to the Final Four.

On Monday night in Omaha, the Cats knocked that door down, sweeping Purdue 25-23, 25-20, 25-16 to make it to the national semifinals for the first time in school history. And they did it in dominant fashion.

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Kentucky fell behind early and continued to try to claw their way out of the early hole. Trailing 17-12, the Cats went on a 9-1 run, including seven points in a row, to turn the deficit into a lead. Purdue would come back to lead 22-21 but the Cats finished off the game with a kill from senior Avery Skinner to take a 1-0 lead.

The second set was also tight from the very beginning with neither team able to pull away. But near the end of the second stanza, Kentucky went on a 7-1 run to close it out and take a commanding 2-0 lead.

The momentum from that run continued early in the third game, as Kentucky jumped out to a 10-1 lead before cruising to a 25-16 win.

Skinner was pleased with his team’s effort, and the result, on Monday.

“Just super proud of our team, getting this done and the first-ever Final Four for Kentucky is an amazing accomplishment for our program,” Skinner said. “So many players came before that are supporting us. That was for all of the former players and Kentucky Wildcats out there that have been behind us for years.”

Even after falling behind, Skinner was confident in his team’s ability.

“Our team was unrelenting,” Skinner said. “We got down in a hole in the first set but I don’t think you could tell what the score was on their face. They just continued to battle.”

A phrase that kept coming up in the post-match press conference was how Kentucky continues to impose its will on its opponents, something that happened again on Monday.

“That’s a big phrase we say all the time,” said junior Alli Stumler. “Before this match, we kept saying impose our will. We’re not here just by chance. We’ve worked hard for a year now. We’ve earned it. It’s not by luck or by chance that we’re here. Definitely imposing our will every chance we can.”

Part of imposing that will on opponents has to do with defense, something that Skinner was pleased with for a second straight match.

“Our defense just continues to get better,” Skinner said. “To hold a team like Purdue to the hitting percentage we did tonight (.130) is a great accomplishment for our defense.”

A key part of that defensive effort on this night was senior libero Gabby Curry, who had 16 digs in the three games. Skinner knows how important Curry’s play is to the Cats.

“She’s just in control. She is always composed and people play well around her because of that presence,” Skinner said. “She had a lot of digs and anticipated really well. She just continues to have a confident, composed demeanor about her and that’s why she’s so relaxed and able to make plays in a high-level match like this.”

Stumler was all over the court on Monday as well. She had a match-high 16 kills to go with 10 digs. Skinner was impressed with Stumler’s play.

“She was huge. She was unstoppable for two sets,” Skinner said. “She continues to make great plays. She plays the whole game. She was definitely a difference maker tonight.”

Senior setter Madison Lilley loves having Stumler on her side of the net.

“It doesn’t take much to realize how reliable, consistent, level-headed Alli is,” Lilley said. “She’s kind of our glue. To have somebody on the court like that is huge. There’s not enough words to describe what her all-around game does for us. There’s nothing she can’t do. It’s so much fun to play next to Alli. She’s a really rare player and we’re really happy to have her on our team.”

It all added up to a win and a goal accomplished for the team.

“It’s certainly been a dream,” Skinner said. “Being able to compete in the Final Four as a player, being able to coach in the Final Four in the past. I just want our players to feel what that’s like and to understand the reward of the effort you put in to get to this point. The amount of effort this team has put in is unbelievable. To cap it off going to a Final Four and a chance to go win a national championship is huge. We always wanted to have a dream to get to that point to be mentioned in the same sentence as other teams that have been in the Final Four and have won national championships in the past.”

It’s been a long season and Skinner is thrilled that his team has seen all of its hard work pay off.

“You can’t recreate what it feels like to compete at this level and get to the pinnacle of your sport,” Skinner said. “It’s a feeling that you have to earn. We talked about it in the recruiting process with them that was the goal. That was the mission and they were going to come in and help us do that. It wasn’t easy but they continue to come back. Their competitiveness and their demeanor every single day was the same for four years and will be for the next five days. Very proud of them. They’ve delivered.”

Lilley and her classmates came to Kentucky with a goal in mind. They are now one step closer.

“It seems like a long time coming. I remember being recruited and saying I want to win, I want to compete for a national championship, I’m coming to Kentucky and we’re going to make history,” Lilley said. “Gabby and I, the seniors and our whole entire team, this is what we’ve been training for. Finally being here is super surreal. We’re going to enjoy it for tonight but we’re hungry for Thursday and we’re excited for what’s to come. We’re here to make history.”

And the team is also so happy for Skinner and his staff, who work so hard to make them better every day.

“It’s so special to play for a coach like Craig. All of our coaches, Carly (Cramer), Anders (Nelson) and Craig,” Stumler said. “They’re all awesome people and they care so much about the sport. Just in our area, in Lexington, the sport has grown so much and that’s because of Craig. He recruits awesome girls who want to be there and want to do their job and that’s what makes Kentucky so special. I’m so pumped that we could do this for him. He puts in a lot of time. He has a family, three kids and a wife at home. He sacrifices so much just to be with us.”

The sacrifices made by the coaches and the team this season are paying off as Kentucky had earned its first trip to the NCAA Volleyball Final Four.

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Bryan Kennedy hails from the Bluegrass State. He was born and raised in Owensboro, KY where he graduated from Apollo High School in 2006. Bryan graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in Spanish in 2010. He also received his master's degree in Sports Media and Branding from Western Kentucky University. While at UK, Bryan was the general manager of the on-campus TV station. He also did sports reporting, anchoring, producing and even the weather for UK Student News Network. While working for UKSNN, he also had the pleasure of covering Coach John Calipari's first press conference when he was introduced as the new head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats; easily one of his favorite moments as a young sports reporter. Before coming to ABC 36, Bryan was a morning anchor and reporter at WXXV News 25, our sister station in Gulfport, MS. He anchored more than four hours of news every day, including morning shows on NBC and Fox. While down south, Bryan had the opportunity to cover the Sugar Bowl, New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans. After spending a little more than two years at WXXV, Bryan is extremely excited to return home. In his spare time, Bryan enjoys playing sports, especially rugby. He also enjoys crossfitting and watching sports (obviously). He's extremely excited to cover Central Kentucky. Feel free to say hello and send story ideas toBKennedy@wtvq.com