The 2020-21 UK Volleyball team endured the longest season ever to deliver the school’s greatest season ever, finishing it off with the program’s first National Championship.
Coach Craig Skinner pointed out in his remarks at yesterday’s celebration (read about that here) that this group had been working incredibly hard “since August 4th.” There was such “determination, the resiliency, commitment, effort from the most unbelievable staff you’ve ever met.”
August 4th was a long time ago. Seven months and 20 days from the day they won the National Championship, to be exact. That’s an unusually long volleyball season.
In college, Volleyball is usually just a fall sport on a similar timeline as college football, with the regular season starting in late August and the NCAA Tournament taking place in late December.
This year’s Kentucky team still started practicing in early August even though their first game wouldn’t occur until mid-October. The ‘Cats played eight SEC matches in the fall, from October to November, then took a two-month break from playing games until the spring.
This spring, they played 16 more SEC games before packing up to spend two straight weeks in the Omaha bubble, where they won the National Title. All this to say: these girls have had a very long season, much longer than normal. Yet they remained focused on the final goal throughout and never let the attrition of an extraordinarily long season amid all the COVID protocols wear them down.
It speaks to the bond and commitment these girls have to each other, which every member of the team who got a chance to speak yesterday emphasized. There was immense strength not only in their volleyball talent but more so in their relationships with one another.
Don’t be mistaken, though: they’re gifted athletes, too.
Senior setter and team captain Madison Lilley finishes her career as the single most accomplished University of Kentucky athlete since Anthony Davis. Corey Price pointed out the fact that Lilley and Davis are the only athletes to win SEC Player of the Year, National Player of the Year, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and win the NCAA Tournament in the same season.
University of Kentucky athletes to be named SEC Player of the Year, National Player of the Year, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and win the NCAA Tournament in the same season:
– Anthony Davis, men’s basketball (2011-2012)
– Madison Lilley, volleyball (2020-2021)
— Corey Price (@coreyp08) April 25, 2021
It is not hyperbole to say she is one of the greatest athletes in the history of Kentucky Athletics and in the history of NCAA Volleyball. And she may still have the Olympics to look forward to.
She will graduate this spring and won’t be coming back to use her additional year of eligibility that’s been offered to senior athletes across the nation. With their legendary leader departing, amid other graduations, can Kentucky compete for a repeat title this upcoming fall?
Well, let’s look at who else may leave. Middle blocker Kendyl Paris, libero Gabby Curry and hitter Avery Skinner are also seniors. Paris didn’t get a whole lot of playing time this season and could seemingly return. But the big decisions will come from Skinner and Curry.
Having no inside knowledge, I’d assume Curry — a three-time SEC libero of the year and national champion — will likely depart with very little more left to accomplish. However, Skinner, an All-American, still probably didn’t have the individual season she’s actually capable of. I know, crazy, right?
She was injured for most of the fall and it never felt like she reached the same ceiling players like Lilley, Curry and Alli Stumler did in the back half of the year. Don’t be mistaken, she still had an incredible year, I’m saying that she could have an even better year if she chooses to come back, where it’d be hard to say the same for Curry.
Plus, Avery’s younger sister, Madi, was just a freshman this season and a return could mean getting to play another season with her younger sis. Who knows what she’ll do but if she returns, but Kentucky is looking at one of the best rosters in the nation once again if she does.
Even if she doesn’t, that roster is still top-flight. Highlighting the biggest returners is Alli Stumler, who was by far the best hitter of any team in the NCAA Tournament and finished 21st in the nation in kills per set despite playing with several other elite attackers. She’s also improved her all-around game and proved capable of playing all six spots effectively. She’ll be a Player of the Year candidate.
At the net, Kentucky also returns two top-30 girls in the nation in hitting percentage with Ahzani Tealer (10th) and Madi Skinner (30th). Tealer was just a sophomore and Skinner a freshman. Both have incredibly bright futures, and Madi will be one of the best outside hitters in the nation next season, I’ll guarantee you.
They also have freshman Reagan Rutherford who looks to be a bigger factor in year two. She didn’t play a whole lot in the spring, but when she got time in place of Avery last fall, she really impressed and should slide into a productive role seamlessly next season.
UK also returns all of its blockers that started games in 2020-21. Elise Goetzinger got the starting nod in the tournament, and she is just a freshman. Tealer was the other main blocker and she’ll obviously be back, as well as Bella Bell, who started several SEC games and is just a redshirt freshman.
In the back, Curry probably departs and a former middle school classmate of mine, Lauren Tharp, will likely take over as the libero after serving as a defensive specialist the past few years. Freshman defender Riah Walker could be another libero candidate. She really impressed me with some crazy digs throughout the year and looks to have the makings of a terrific defensive player for years to come.
They’ll also add Eleanor Beavin in the incoming recruiting class, a libero out of Louisville that’s a three-time KVCA Defensive Player of the Year.
After bringing in the no. 1 recruiting class last year, Coach Skinner is reloading bigtime again in 2021. Joining Beavin is the no. 32 player in the class, outside hitter Erin Lamb, and the 25th ranked girl, setter Emma Grome. Highlighting the class is the eighth-ranked player in the nation, middle blocker Jordyn Williams.
It’s too early to tell who will contribute and who won’t, but Grome comes in at a position of need as Lilley departs. The setter is in many ways the point guard or quarterback of a volleyball team, and no one has ever done it better than Lilley.
Beyond her amazing athleticism and ability to track and set balls fast and perfectly, she was also a vocal leader. Before every play, her mouth ran like an auctioneer, barking signals and calling out switches pre-serve, always in constant communication with her team. That part of her will be just as difficult to replace as her setting.
The only setter currently on the roster is junior Cameron Scheitzach, who hasn’t had a ton of experience for obvious reasons. Between her and Grome, UK will have to figure out Lilley’s replacement.
To me, that’s the only real hole on the upcoming team as of now. The hitters could very likely be even better next year and the drop-off in the back row won’t be large because of experienced and talented returners in Tharp and Walker, but the setter is a total mystery.
However, I have faith Coach Skinner will figure things out and have this group ready to compete for another title next year, and with the pressure of breaking through for that first one taken off.
Kentucky isn’t a one-year wonder; rather, they are a powerhouse that’s been building since the mid-2000s. This will not be Kentucky’s last time in the Final Four and I’m guessing yesterday won’t be the ‘Cats last national championship celebration.
It was a remarkably fun run in 2020-21 and I’m looking forward to more of the same in the future.