Madison Lilley ended her career at Kentucky as the most accomplished volleyball player in the history of the school and is one of its greatest athletes, period. Today, we’ll look at how to possibly replace her (spoiler: you can’t).
In Kentucky Athletics history, only two athletes have won National Player of the Year, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and won a National Championship in the same season: Anthony Davis and Madison Lilley.
I just wanted to make it clear before I lay out the plans to replace her moving forward that she is completely irreplaceable. Her achievements will probably not be matched by another UK athlete (of any sport) in a very, very long time, if ever.
As a player at the setter position, Lilley executed at the highest level. Whenever the ball floated towards her, you knew you could count on a perfect pass, or on occasion, a precisely placed kill to surprise the opponent.
I think people need to understand how crazy athletic she was, too. Lilley is an extraordinary leaper, incredibly fast, has terrific hand-eye coordination and the ability to track and set balls while maximizing her athletic traits. She was truly remarkable to watch.
All this and she was great when she played in the back row too. I remember the last game of the regular season: two straight rockets off an Alabama hitter came her way and she perfectly dug both, leading to Kentucky points. Plus, she was the team’s deadliest server too, leading in aces per serve. She was an all-around superstar.
But she was also a leader. Between points, she never shut up, in a good way. She was always talking pre-serve, acting as Craig Skinner’s mouthpiece on the court, directing her teammates.
Even from afar with no knowledge of what she was saying to her teammates, it was clear from the first game last fall that she was the leader, the girl who everyone listened to. That leadership quality, as much as her ability to set perfect passes, will be missed.
Replacing an Anthony Davis type of talent is hard enough, but at the setter position in volleyball, it’s much tougher than the other positions. As we discussed with Gabby Curry and Avery Skinner, several other players on the roster shined in their specific positions, but most teams play just one setter.
There was never a reason to take Lilley out except during blowouts so there is such little tape and in-game reps to judge the future of a position that was dominated by Lilley for so long.
This spring, the only other setter on the roster was a 5-foot-9 junior named Cameron Scheitzach. She only got spot playing time in big blowouts in the regular season and when she was in, the drop off from Lilley was noticeable. That isn’t a slight, since replicating Lilley is impossible.
The other possible setting option is an incoming top-25 freshman, Emma Grome. Check out her high school accomplishments, via UK Athletics:
- PrepVolleyball ranks her as the No. 25 player in the country
- 2020 Under Armour First Team All-American
- Career assists record holder at St. Ursula Academy
- First Team All-Conference in 2018, 2019 and 2020
- All-Ohio First Team in 2020
She may have all the makings of another future star setter, but she’ll be a freshman in a role that’s a lot more complicated than most of the other positions.
The setter position often gets compared to the quarterback or point guard, and that’s exactly what it is. The setter has to touch the ball on every possession and run the offense, which means balancing the right distribution between all the hitters while sprinting around the court trying to get good sets up.
If I was picking who might start at setter next season, I’d lean with the more talented Grome, although Craig Skinner going with an upperclassman wouldn’t be a shock.
It’s going to be tough to judge whether this team can repeat as champions until we know what the ceiling is at setter. Whatever it is, it’ll be a lot lower than with Lilley. Just physically, Madison Lilleys do not exist. They probably don’t as people, either. She is effusively praised for her personality by the team and obviously her leadership, all while being the best player in the country.
This post is less of a ‘How Do They Replace Her’ and more of a ‘Well, We Can’t’ with a few options for the position going forward.
Hope you come/came out to see her at KSBar today and listened to her interview on the radio show. We’re saying goodbye to one of the greats.
Congrats on an amazing Kentucky career and whatever comes next!