Continuing with our series on how to replace some of the key pieces on the National Champion UK Volleyball team, today we’re taking a look at senior libero Gabby Curry.
Along with Madison Lilley, Curry was one of Kentucky’s most important players both as a libero and as a captain. Where Lilley was the vocal leader at the net, Curry was the leader in the back.
The senior setter swept all of the major accolades, but Curry herself was no stranger to hardware. She was a three-time SEC Libero of the Year and led Kentucky in digs each of the last three years. She was an absolutely vital piece of this program during her time in Lexington.
Replacing her talent and consistency won’t be easy, but Craig Skinner still has some crazy talented girls ready to step right in.
Nobody on next year’s Kentucky team will have played with a libero other than Curry. She’s worn the off-colored shirt since every underclassman arrived. So even if the player to take her spot is just as good, there will still be an adjustment period.
I would expect junior defensive specialist Lauren Tharp to take Curry’s spot as the libero. Tharp is listed as a libero on the Kentucky roster, but spent her first three years behind Curry and was the other primary back-row player next to her over the past two seasons.
In the fall, she’ll likely be starting as the libero, which comes with an increase in playing time due to the libero’s extended substitution privileges.
(For those interested: in every set of a volleyball match, teams have a limited number of substitutions they are allowed to make. But subs involving the libero don’t count, so generally, she’ll be subbed in and out more often.)
Tharp was fourth on the team in digs last season, and the only returner ahead of her was Alli Stumler, an outside hitter. (Just goes to further prove what a freakishly gifted all-around volleyball player Stumler is.) She finished with 148 digs on the year while Curry had 303.
With an expanded role, she’ll be closer to Curry’s number next season, but the hardest part to replace might be her setting from the back row. Obviously, Madison Lilley was nearly perfect as a setter, but on possessions that didn’t get to Lilley on the second hit, it was often Curry who would run in and bump set a nicely placed ball for UK’s attackers to slam home.
She was second on the team last season with 88 assists and no one else had more than 17. She was especially good in the NCAA Tournament with her bump sets, and actually set up Stumler for the game-winning hit in the National Title game.
If Tharp can improve in a big way in that aspect, she’ll be as good a Curry replacement as you’ll find.
But who replaces her as the other back-row specialist? This one is easy. Freshman Riah Walker didn’t always get a ton of playing time, but when she did, her talent was obvious. She had a couple of digs last year that I’m not even sure Curry could have made. If we’re judging based on flashes, she gives every indication of a future defensive ace.
With assumingly a starting role this fall, she’s definitely going to be one of the most improved players on the team, and it may be simply because she got more playing time to show off her skill in the back.
Elsewhere, there’s rising junior Maddie Berezowitz who often seemed to be the life of the bench despite not playing a whole lot. She got spot minutes but it looks like she’ll be the third back-row player in the rotation if need be.
The only other libero/back-row type of player projected on next year’s roster is Mercy graduate Eleanor Beavin — and who knows, she could be competing to play right away. Just look at this list of accolades, via UK Athletics:
- Three-time KVCA Defensive Player of the Year
- Three-time First Team All-State, and two-time All-Tournament Team member
- MaxPreps Best Volleyball Player in Kentucky; candidate for player of the year
- She has been state runner-up four times
Pretty accomplished for an 18-year-old who just graduated high school.
With her and the returning duo of Tharp and Walker, I think Craig Skinner will be just fine in the back. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Gabby Curry had a remarkable career and is probably the best and most accomplished libero in the history of the program.
She will be missed.