The No. 7 Kentucky Volleyball team just finished up its regular season the same way they have in the previous four seasons: as the SEC Champions. That’s right, five straight crowns for Craig Skinner and co.
The ‘Cats only needed to beat 20th ranked Florida in one of their two matches this weekend to secure the SEC crown. They went ahead and smashed the Gators in both games. Identical 3-0 sweeps left no doubt as to who the top dogs are in the conference.
This year’s SEC Champions may not be quite as talented or deep or as experienced as the legends who wound up cutting down the nets in Omaha last Spring. But they enter the postseason once again with a chance to make the program’s second-ever Final Four. And who’s to say they can’t repeat as winners?
After all, they were WELL-represented when the SEC announced its end-of-season awards on Sunday afternoon. Alli Stumler was tabbed the 2021 SEC Player of the Year. Setter Emma Grome was named the SEC Freshman of the Year while freshman Eleanor Beavin earned SEC Libero of the Year. Additionally, Stumler and Grome were joined by sophomore outside hitter Madi Skinner and junior middle blocker Azhani Tealer as four of the 18 players on the All-SEC Team. Grome and Beavin were also named to the All-SEC Freshman Team.
Kentucky is playing their best volleyball of the season at the moment. There were road bumps early on in the season, with losses to Louisville, Wisconsin and Creighton — all ranked teams — as Kentucky tussled with how to replace former senior stars Madison Lilley and Gabby Curry.
But freshmen Emma Grome and Eleanor Beavin have stepped in. The duo developed admirably as the setter and libero, respectively, while Alli Stumler overcame her slow start and is back to playing like an All-American once again.
Fellow attackers Madi Skinner and Reagan Rutherford have taken leaps forward as sophomores. Skinner looks the part of UK’s next superstar hitter. And defensively, with Beavin along with defensive specialists Lauren Tharp and Riah Walker, Kentucky is playing like the great defensive unit Craig Skinner believed they could be before the season.
Frankly, Kentucky is one of the best teams in the country. They’re hitting their stride in late November. They’ll almost certainly be a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament field that’s announced later Sunday night. And they’ve beaten the last five ranked teams they’ve played by a combined score of 15 sets to three.
We don’t like to mention it but Louisville is the only undefeated team in the nation and the title favorite. But Kentucky is one of only three teams to take them to five sets this season. Plus, UK is much improved since their last matchup.
If the Cards are the gold standard this year, then the ‘Cats are right there with them. They have as good a chance as anyone else to take home the title.
Tonight at 8:30 p.m., the 2021 ‘Cats will learn their NCAA Tournament seed and bracket. We’ll have you covered on KSR later as Kentucky begins their title defense.