The Skinner effect: A Blueprint For Excellence WRITTEN BY: DEB MOORE; EDITED BY: STEVE SOMMER

In November of 2004 the Kentucky volleyball program had just completed a 12-18 season, missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the 11th consecutive time.

A program once considered a powerhouse was not even among the top half of the Southeastern Conference and had put together just two winning seasons since 1993. With newly-minted athletics director Mitch Barnhart clutching the reins, mediocrity would no longer be acceptable under his watch, - for any of the state’s flagship school’s 22 squads.

Change for Kentucky volleyball was on the way.

“(Mr. Barnhart) told us who our new head coach and assistant were going to be,” former Wildcat middle blocker Amy Kaplan (Johnson) recalled. “I remember because I Googled them, and right off of the bat I was nervous because of all of the success he had come from. I thought, ‘What is he going to think of us?’”

He was Craig Skinner.

On Dec. 17, 2004, Barnhart made it official. Nebraska’s top assistant coach had agreed to his first head coaching position and was tasked with leading a once tradition-rich program back to national prominence.

THE GROUNDWORK

“I don’t remember the first meeting at all,” Kaplan said. “I just remember the overall vibe, and it wasn’t what I expected. He was so respectful to us and respectful of what we had done. Immediately, without even knowing us, he told us he believed in us.”

Belief. Having confidence in someone. It seems so simple, yet it became the most powerful tool for Skinner in those early stages of changing the culture of the program.

Eight players from the 12-18 season returned to the roster. With little time to recruit, Skinner managed to bring in four fresh faces to add to the competition.

Kaplan, a senior, had played in 84 career matches, averaging 2.04 kills per set, and was coming off a season in which she attacked with a team-best .304 hitting clip. A late-bloomer, she had never played club volleyball. At 5-foot-9, she was considered “small” for her middle blocker position.

“When he came in he told me, ‘Amy, I’m going to make you an all-conference middle,’ ” she recounted with a laugh. “And I told him, ‘You’re pretty funny, Craig.’ ”

Spoiler alert: He was right. Kaplan would become a second-team All-SEC player to cap off her senior season.

At the time, Kaplan just didn’t have the same confidence in herself that her new coach did. For whatever reason – perhaps the culture and the environment – there just wasn’t a sense of belief.

See, this group of players had a locker room where the showers wouldn’t turn on sometimes. They practiced in Alumni Gym, where there were dead spots and nails popping through the floor.

This team was used to finding the final regular-season match of the season on their poster schedules to determine when the season would be over. The NCAA Tournament? That was reserved for teams like Skinner’s Nebraska, Penn State and the Southeastern Conference’s Florida Gators. The team hadn’t been successful, so why would they believe they could be successful?

Skinner knew instantly that before this team could move forward on the court, it would take a mental shift to begin the transition.

When the team arrived for fall camp, each player had a notebook that contained the training schedule, names and numbers to remember, and other pertinent information.

There was a section in the book that during the first team meeting of fall camp, he asked each one of his players to respond to questions he had left for them:

In the future, what do you want to tell your children/family about the 2005 Kentucky volleyball team?

Amy Kaplan, 2005

With Kaplan's entry, and others of similar nature, Skinner empowered the team to set the standard for the season – to be the team that changed the program. Skinner began piecing together his squad and, as Kaplan remembers, “We didn’t necessarily work harder when Craig came in – we had always worked hard – but, we definitely worked smarter.”

Through his belief in the players on his roster and ability to utilize their abilities for the betterment of the team, wins slowly became the norm. But, it was one match in particular that changed the season entirely.

Alabama.

The Crimson Tide weren’t considered a nationally prominent program, but it had won each of the previous 13 meetings between the squads when they came to Memorial Coliseum in late September.

UK prevailed by a 3-1 score to earn a victory over an opponent all members of the 2005 team had never beaten. Kaplan led the way with 16 kills – including the match-winner.

“We got back into the locker room and Craig looked over at me and I was crying,” Kaplan remembers. “He looked at me like, ‘What the hell is your problem? We just won.’ And I think I said, ‘About damn time.’ ”

The mental shift had indeed swayed.

“Those monumental wins, wins we were never able to experience in the past … the same thing went for those five-set matches that we’d always lose in the past. He managed to get something out of us that we had never experienced before,” Kaplan said. “It was the way he treated us in his day-to-day. He was always respectful of us, and he continued to set the bar high. He didn’t ever lower his expectations.”

Entering the final match of the regular season, the Wildcats had rung up a 17-11 overall record and were very much in the conversation for a postseason berth. The team, however, suffered an uncharacteristic loss to Cincinnati at home the day before the NCAA Selection Show, putting serious doubt into the minds of the team for a spot in the field of 64 for the NCAA Tournament.

“We really thought we had let it slip away,” Kaplan said.

The team shuffled in to a watch party, devastated at the thought their dreams had been dashed. For as droopy as the frowns were at the start of the show, the smiles were even wider when the team saw the white letters on the television screen that read: Kentucky.

They had done it. A 12-18 squad had turned it around and were one of the 64 best teams in the country – in just one season.

“That was just an incredible moment,” Kaplan recalled.

It served as a monumental glimpse into the future in which all of their hard work had paid off. The volleyball community respected their efforts and performances serving as a mirror to the respect Skinner had paid the squad from day one. He believed in their talents and had guided them to their ultimate goal.

Quite simply, Kentucky was back.

“I just remember Craig never would count us out,” Kaplan said. “He always thought we were going to win every single match and that made us believe we could too.”

Kaplan and the 2005 team had done exactly what they had set out to do entering the season.

“Being the first class to make the NCAA tournament and to be Craig’s first class is just something special,” Kaplan said. “He saved us.”

It was only the beginning.

BUILDING FROM THE GROUND UP

Believe it or not, there are no blueprints for how to build a program. Every coach does it a little differently and at their own pace. But, in college athletics, in order to be successful on the court, recruiting is paramount.

Craig Skinner knew it started with ball control. He had to find diamonds in the rough to fill his libero and setting positions. Of course, in collegiate volleyball, most players have committed to a program by the time they are a junior in high school.

A raw player from New Palestine, Indiana, took notice when Kentucky hired Skinner in 2004. A highly-regarded teammate of hers, who was already committed to Purdue, encouraged her to check out the Wildcats all because of Skinner.

“I ended up reaching out to him and invited him to watch me play in a tournament up in Chicago and the crazy thing was, he actually came,” two-time All-America setter Sarah Rumely remembered. “Being in the coaching world now and knowing how hard it is when you get general emails, to get up and go see a kid play, that was huge.”

Rumely was not a member of the fab-50 list of top talent. She wasn’t a “Senior Ace.” She was a girl whose closet was full of Crimson and Cream Indiana Hoosiers gear and one who had never considered looking at Kentucky’s program.

But, when Skinner showed up on her court at that tournament in Chicago – after being recommended as a coach her club teammate would play for – her interest was piqued.

Skinner was also riveted. Here was a player within driving distance of his campus who possessed three qualities he desired in his setter: athleticism, leadership, and an ability to set the middle.

Kentucky invited this raw talent to campus, and she happily obliged.

“Talking to Craig and hearing his vision for the program was something I really wanted to be a part of,” Rumely said. “I wanted to be his first recruiting class that was able to do something special. I decided that I wanted to play for Craig because I knew he would care about me as a person and a player. I decided that I wanted to be a part of the group that carried out that vision. I didn’t want to go to an already established program, I wanted to be a part of the change.”

So, whether it was inconsiderate or not to the other programs who were anticipating her visit, her mind was already made up. And Skinner had secured the anchor he so desperately was in search for.

Rumely would go on to control Skinner’s offense for the next four years becoming the most decorated player in program history. She was tabbed the 2006 SEC Freshman of the Year, before becoming a three-year All-SEC selection. In 2008, she was named the program’s first SEC Player of the Year and would cap off her career with back-to-back All-America selections, including becoming UK’s first second-team pick since Jane Belanger in 1993 when she earned the honor in 2009.

How exactly did this raw talent, a player not so highly recruited out of high school become the cornerstone of Skinner’s revival of the Kentucky program?

“He believed in me so much that I wanted to play hard for him. When you have people who believe in you, you’ll do anything – you’ll run through a wall for them,” Rumely said. “When I stepped foot on campus my first day I just wanted to live up to what he expected of me. He knew that I could be great. The fact that he cared about me off the court makes it easier when you step on the court because you know that you’re in it together.”

With Rumely quarterbacking the offense, players like Queen Nzenwa and Nicole Britenriker earned All-SEC accolades en route to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Skinner’s restoration was marked with another milestone: the first NCAA Tournament victory which was a 3-2 win over No. 20 Ohio in 2006. It was the first postseason win since 1992. Nzenwa shined with a match-high 23 kills – thanks to the setter who could find the middle.

“Every day I came into practice and had the opportunity to compete, I was able to be as free as I could ever imagine,” Rumely said. “There was no sense of stress – it was just, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do, and we’re going to be successful.’ The expectations of being the best we could be were there because he believed it, we believed it, and we believed in him.”

After enjoying a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2007, the team began thinking differently. An SEC championship was certainly within reach and that would become the expectation. If you’re winning league titles, you’re most certainly going to be in the hunt during the NCAA Tournament.

But, there was one mountain in particular the team and Skinner needed to climb for these new goals to become a reality: Florida.

The Gators had won 16 combined SEC Championships since 1992 and had earned wins over the Wildcats in 38 straight matches, a culmination of 17 years. They were the pinnacle program in the SEC and it was time to show the Gators that there was another contender in the race.

When the teams met in late November of 2008, UK had raced out to its best start ever under Skinner with a 24-4 overall mark. Along the way, they emerged in the national rankings, checking in at No. 22 for a date with 12th-ranked Florida in Memorial Coliseum.

It would take an improbable come-from-behind victory, but the Wildcats would pull it off, 3-2, in front of the fifth-largest crowd ever to watch a volleyball match in the coliseum.

It took a plethora of stellar performances from the likes of freshman Becky Pavan, Nzenwa, junior BriAnne Sauer and sophomore Lauren Rapp.

"It wasn't real to me. I had to look at the scoreboard to make sure that we were only going to 15 (in the fifth set)," Rapp said at the time. "It is something that I will never forget and it will be replayed in my head over and over again. I am just so excited.”

And even eight years later, the feeling remains for Rumely.

“The first time that we beat Florida, at home, was unbelievable,” Rumely said. “It was so surreal. I still remember the dogpile on the court at the end, everyone celebrating, and it was one of those moments where you’re like, ‘Yes, we’ve gotten there.’ ”

They had gotten there, and future Wildcats had taken notice too.

THE CLIMB

In the stands that afternoon, sat wide-eyed recruit Whitney Billings. An exceptional athlete from Birmingham, Alabama, who was teetering between wearing blue and orange or blue and white the following year.

“I wasn’t even going to Kentucky at first. I had my mind set on Florida,” Billings recalled. “As soon as I went to Kentucky, my whole mind changed quickly. I felt more comfortable there. I felt like I would fit in well. It felt like family and I really felt like I could accomplish and achieve a lot there. I felt more wanted than needed.”

Billings joined other top-notch recruits in middle blocker Alexandra Morgan and defensive specialist Stephanie Klefot for the 2009 season in which the Wildcats would rise to new heights once again.

Following the 2008 season that saw the Wildcats contend for an SEC title and host the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Skinner era, the 2009 squad began the season ranked No. 21 in the country, achieving yet another landmark along the way. It was the first time under Skinner the team was among the top-25 rated programs to begin a season, and expectations began to mount.

The team would not disappoint.

UK began the season with an unparalleled 10-match winning streak, which included wins over the likes of Kansas State, Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern. A 26-4 regular season was highlighted by another historic win over Florida – this time on the Gators’ home court in five heart-stopping sets.

The victory over the fifth-ranked Gators was UK’s first win at Florida since Oct. 1, 1989.

“Beating Florida at Florida my senior year was so special,” Rumely said. “We lost the first set 25-9 and Craig just said, ‘Well, we’re only down 1-0. Let’s just go out and play.’ To come back and shock them on their home floor and their fans – they hadn’t lost at home in a long time – to be a part of that was incredible.”

Kentucky carried the momentum throughout the rest of the season, culminating in a showdown with Tennessee for the chance to win the SEC title. In one of the most gut-wrenching experiences for that team, the opportunity for the first league title since the 1980s slipped through the Wildcats’ fingers in a devastating five-set loss.

But, for this team, their biggest heartbreak was followed by their greatest triumph.

Kentucky was rewarded with the opportunity to host the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. With a chip on their shoulders, UK swept past Michigan State before matching the score against No. 13 seed Oregon. How sweet it was.

“I told all my professors the week of the Sweet 16 that I wouldn’t be there for the next week of classes because we’d be in the Final Four,” Rumely said. “I was so confident.”

That confidence echoed the sentiment of Skinner’s original squad. With Skinner leading the way, every player believed the team had a shot each and every time they stepped on the court.

The first Sweet 16 appearance only enhanced the program’s new standards under their coach’s tutelage.

“My freshman year we practiced in Alumni Gym and we’d joke about the humble beginnings – there’d be nails coming up from the floor and people would be diving,” Rumely said. “It’s a part of the history that if you’re walking through the door now you’d never know, the recruits now will never live that. Building it (advancing to the Sweet 16) were fond memories too, getting to be in the trenches and seeing ‘This is what it takes to build this program,’ was special.”

Rumely and the 2009 senior class’ final match came in the Sweet 16 against the No. 3-seeded Florida State Seminoles. A five-set marathon once again showcased the depths the Wildcats had overcome to go point-for-point with one of the nation’s elite.

Kentucky displayed a gutsy comeback by forcing a decisive fifth set. Despite fending off four set points and a three-point deficit, UK would fall 17-15.

“Successful coaches are usually strong at either the X’s and O’s of the game, or managing people,” Rumely explained. “Not many coaches are good at both teaching the execution of the game and having the ability to care for people at the same time. Craig is one of the few who is good at both.”

That sentiment rang true on that night, when the unseeded Wildcats nearly pulled off the upset of the tournament. It was a remarkable end to an era of firsts.

The 2009 squad capped the season ranked No. 12 in the nation – still the highest season-ending ranking in the modern era. Those Wildcats boasted three All-Americans: Rumely, Sauer and Sarah Mendoza. They tied the school record with five All-SEC selections. They ranked sixth in the country with 14.74 kills per set and 10th with a .279 hitting percentage.

The bar had been raised, and now the torch had been passed.

The lone freshman making significant contributions to that team was Klefot, who was set to take the reins of the libero position her sophomore season. Ball control – the cornerstone to Skinner’s blueprint for a successful team – began from two positions: defensive specialist and setter. Rumely set the tone for all of Skinner’s successful setters who followed, but it would be Klefot who would take the libero position to national success.

LIBERO U

Stephanie Klefot committed to Kentucky by way of the ever-popular and growing UK Volleyball camps. A native of Louisville who played for state powerhouse Assumption, she had never really considered venturing southeast on I-64.

“I started going to Kentucky volleyball camps probably when I was a freshman in high school and I went because my parents said it was close and it would get my name out there,” Klefot said. “I really didn’t want to go. After my first camp I told my dad, ‘This is where I’m going to go to college. This is where I’m going to play.’ Once I met Craig and got to know the program, I knew in my heart that’s where I belonged.”

Klefot immediately made an impact for the Wildcats, serving as a defensive specialist during the 2009 Sweet 16 run. It marked the first season of her volleyball career in which she solely focused on play from the backrow. Just a year later, Skinner would shift her into the libero position.

“I never played libero in my entire life until my sophomore year at UK,” Klefot said. “For me, going into that position I had no idea what to expect. Craig sat me down and said, ‘We’re going to put the jersey on you.’ ”

It became a symbol of pride for Klefot, and she knows she wouldn’t have been able to adapt to the transition had it not been for her coach.

“Craig took the time to get to know my style and get to know how I would be taught best,” Klefot said. “I think Craig does a very good job of getting to know his players and what they need. That says a lot about him because I’ve been through a lot of coaches who haven’t taken that time and is probably why I didn’t get as good as I was until my sophomore year of college.”

And Klefot was plenty good.

By the end of her career she had been tabbed the SEC Libero of the Year in three consecutive years, becoming the first player in the history of the conference to earn the distinction. Additionally, she earned All-SEC accolades and became a two-time All-American. With 1,924 career digs, she owns the school’s record for digs in a career in the 25-point rally scoring era.

That run of success was just the beginning for the Wildcats for the players on the floor wearing a different colored jersey. Klefot captured the Libero of the Year honor in 2010, 2011 and 2012. During her reign, a former high school teammate of hers in Jackie Napper played alongside her in the defensive specialist role waiting for her turn for the chance to wear the jersey. During Napper’s senior year in 2014, she was bestowed with the league’s Libero of the Year honor. In Napper’s record-breaking season, she had freshman Ashley Dusek roaming the backrow with her. Dusek, of course, took over the position in 2015 and was named the league’s Libero of the Year.

That’s five honors in six years. All three players earned All-America distinction.

“I’ve been out for three or four years now and I still make a point, even with Ashley (Dusek), I reached out and said, ‘You’re a part of the libero family,’ ” Klefot said. “This is a tradition that I refuse to let someone come in and not really realize how special of a tradition it is.”

Stemming from Skinner’s desire to build a team through ball control, the libero tradition began with a holdover player from the previous coach’s tenure in Jenni Casper in 2005 who won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor in Skinner’s opening season as UK’s head coach. BriAnne Sauer claimed the torch and grew the position when she earned All-America honors in 2009 with Klefot alongside of her.

“It’s a tradition that we’ve created through UK volleyball, but also nationally because now people recognize that UK has some of the best liberos in the nation,” Klefot said. “Beforehand, we had some great liberos, but Craig has developed it to the point that other schools have realized it (how strong we are at that position). We call each other ‘The Bro Family.’ "

Long hours before and after practice are spent with Skinner and the liberos. He sends ball after ball over the net until the players can no longer breathe or move. He offers insight, but often times just allows the repetition to take over.

The strength in the position also lies in the connection passed down from one libero to the next. Klefot is quick to point out what Sauer taught her, and what she hoped she passed to Napper.

“BriAnne wanted every single ball that was on our side of the net,” Klefot said. “I think what I learned from her is that when you have that jersey on, and can get to the ball, and if it’s reasonable, then you need to go get that ball before anyone else does. I told Jackie, ‘When I’m out of this jersey, you take every single ball that you can possibly take. Move everybody out of the way because you have the most ball control on the team.’ ”

Klefot’s 608 digs during the 2011 season still ranks No. 1 in school annals for a single year.

That year’s squad returned several veterans including Klefot, Billings, Morgan, Pavan, Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann and were seeping with expectations for a 2009-like season.

They had one goal to begin the year: to get to Lexington. UK’s Memorial Coliseum was selected as one of four hosts for the NCAA Regional (Sweet 16 and Elite Eight). It served as another benchmark in the Skinner era and one of immeasurable respect for the program.

After dropping two of its first four matches of the season, UK would rattle off 23 wins in its next 25 matches and ascended to as high as No. 13 in the national rankings. Once again in the hunt for a league championship, the team was shocked to learn it had not earned one of the coveted 16 national seeds in the NCAA Tournament for the right to host the first and second rounds of the tournament.

If they were to make it back to Lexington, they would have to go through College Station, Texas, and take down Atlantic 10 champion Dayton and the Aggies of Texas A&M, who had stolen their No. 16 seed.

Dayton would prove to be a bigger test than anticipated. The Wildcats survived two match points before scoring the final four, escaping with a 16-14 win to move on to the second round of the tournament.

The scare woke up the Wildcats, who wasted little time in taking care of the host Aggies the following day in a 3-0 victory.

The stage was set. Kentucky had rallied to return to its home court and was slated to take on the No. 1 overall national seed Texas Longhorns.

In what remains arguably the most entertaining match, and played at the highest level, in the Skinner era, it was a night nobody will forget.

“When I was being recruited my freshman year through senior year, there were always big crowds at Kentucky, but I never felt in my entire life that I had seen that big of a crowd that was so into a game watching Kentucky play,” Klefot recalled about the crowd of 4,022 fans that night.

The match featured 52 tie scores and 20 lead swaps combined. The teams were evenly matched in nearly every statistical category. Texas rang up 63 kills, UK 62. The Longhorns posted 59 assists, Kentucky had 60. Texas had eight blocks, UK nine. The Longhorns had 58 digs, UK 61. Four aces for Texas, three for the Cats.

“What stands out to me the most is that Craig said, ‘No matter who you’re playing, they could be the No. 1 seed or the No. 15 seed, all that matters is who you’re playing for – who’s on the front of your jersey.’ I think Craig gave us that confidence with saying that.” Klefot said.

Despite a valiant effort by a resilient Kentucky team the top-seeded Texas Longhorns outlasted the host Wildcats in a thrilling 3-1 match.

Belief. Passion. Heart. All qualities their coach saw in them, and they saw in their coach.

“You could just tell he believed in everyone, and the biggest thing I learned throughout my career is that you determine your own success,” Lauren O’Conner, a freshman on that team said. “He would be there for you, he would support you, he would tell you what you need to do, but in order for you to be successful, that’s on you. You had to make those moves.”

If anything, the Texas match signified two things for Kentucky. The Wildcats were here to stay, and they could play and beat anyone.

'til the battle is won

Every player’s story is different. They all found their way to Kentucky in a variety of ways. One person remains a constant, however.

“Meeting Craig, seeing his vision for the program, the family atmosphere, and everything he had already accomplished in those few years, I knew it would be something special to be a part of while also getting to represent my home state,” O’Conner, a native of Taylor Mill, Kentucky, said.

Every player has a similar bond.

“I remember him telling me, ‘If you come here, then you’re going to be a big part of this program.’ That really made a difference,” Billings said. “These other coaches weren’t really saying much. They were just like, ‘We need you here. We want you here. You can do a lot.’ But the way that Craig told me – I just trusted him.”

That same person remained a constant throughout their careers and in their development as players. Each one will tell you that he took the time to get to know them as people and as players, and with that attention the two of them would craft each player’s own path.

Billings redshirted her freshman year before being thrust into the starting lineup in 2010. O’Conner joined the team in the spring, after graduating high school early in December. And these are just a few of the numerous stories from the 59 players he has coached since his arrival.

“I tell people to this day that I’m so glad that he redshirted me,” Billings said. “Craig always demanded the most out of me. He always pushed me to my limit. He really molded me to be a three-time All American.”

Billings began her career as an outside hitter in 2010, before Skinner recognized her best asset was attacking off of one foot. And so, the switch to right side happened and the rest was history. Billings was a three-time All-America selection and finished her career with 1,393 kills, 98 aces, 321 total blocks and 1,242 digs – all ranking in the top three among players in the Skinner era.

After essentially being a part of the program since she was 15 years old, O’Conner arrived on campus a semester early to be able to go through the spring season in preparation for her freshman year. She was the first player in Skinner’s tenure to go this route, and it was a learning experience for them both.

“It was huge being able to get caught up in my conditioning and strength. It was one of the best decisions I made,” O’Conner said. “I think that spring showed me that Craig was there for me the whole time. We could come to him with anything, and when he said it was an open door policy he meant it.”

O’Conner was inserted into the starting lineup her freshman season in 2011 – that same year the Wildcats went toe-to-toe with Texas. At 6-foot-5 she was a dynamic outside hitter who was a consistent player for four years for the Wildcats, resulting in a first-team All-SEC selection her senior season. She finished with 1,204 career kills, the second most in Skinner’s tenure, trailing only Billings.

“My overall game transformed tremendously,” O’Conner said. “I learned a lot about being mentally tough and dealing with adversity. Craig would refer to it as ‘being comfortable with the uncomfortable,’ which is something that can really apply to everything in life.”

Being comfortable with the uncomfortable served as another building block for the Wildcats as they transformed into one of the nation’s elite programs. From the conclusion of the 2012 season through the 2015 season, UK was ranked in 47 consecutive polls – a new program high.

UK was no longer a program on the rise, but instead a perennial power. The national volleyball audience recognized that, as well as the Big Blue Nation. Kentucky has played host to the NCAA Tournament in seven of the last eight seasons. Memorial Coliseum is consistently packed with diehard fans and continually ranks as one of the toughest places to play as seen by UK’s .828 winning percentage at home over the last 10 seasons.

High-caliber matches are played between the white lines on the blue taraflex court on a consistent basis in the historic venue on Avenue of Champions.

One of the more memorable matches over the last few years was when Minnesota, coached by former USA National team coach, Hugh McCutcheon visited Lexington for an early-season date in 2013.

Behind a dominating 15-8 fifth-set victory, 19th-ranked Kentucky upset No. 4 Minnesota, 3-2, in another epic quarrel during Skinner’s tenure.

“There was just something about that game,” Billings remembered proudly. “The team was super hype. We went in with a different mentality and that’s what helped us to win that game. Winning lights out, nobody was thinking about anything. We were all in it together. That’s what got us the win.”

The win marked the biggest upset under Skinner’s tutelage. Kentucky would nearly match the feat with a win over No. 5 Florida on the road in 2015.

Billings led the way with a match-high 25 kills and 12 digs, while O’Conner charted a career-high 18 kills against Minnesota.

“When we beat Minnesota my junior year and they were ranked fourth in the country, in Memorial, (it is) such an awesome memory,” O’Conner stated. “I think we all did a group hug. Craig went around and gave everyone high fives (in the locker room). It’s just such a great feeling after a huge win like that and you can see in your coach’s eyes that he’s just so proud.”

Even after all of these years, O’Conner remembers the win – but more importantly, she remembers the look in her coach’s eyes following one of the most exhilarating moments of her career.

She’s not the only one. And for as long as he coaches, there will be more and more stories just like the one O’Conner described.

everlasting impact

Eleven seasons as UK’s head coach, 11 NCAA Tournament appearances. UK is one of just 10 programs in the country that has made the field of 64 in each of those 11 seasons.

One of 10. That’s as elite as it gets.

“Being in the coaching world, I don’t think people understand just how difficult it is to get to the NCAA tournament,” Rumely said. “The fact that he’s been every single year that he’s been a head coach – there aren’t even words to describe what an accomplishment that is.”

But, it’s more than just NCAA Tournament appearances. Fifteen total players have earned 22 All-America honors. Nineteen players have been named All-SEC. A freshman has been tabbed to the All-SEC Freshman team in each of his 11 seasons. Five SEC Libero of the Year honors. An SEC Player of the Year and a Freshman of the Year. Two Academic All-Americans and two SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year selections, while more than 40 players have claimed All-SEC Academic honors.

“Craig is really like family,” Billings said. “I’ve talked to a lot girls and I hear horror stories about how they hate their coach and college career because of their coaches. When they’re telling me this, I say ‘I’m sorry, but my coach was the bomb.’ ”

When he arrived in Lexington in 2004, he brought with him a wife, Megan, and an infant child, Sophie. While he molded the UK program into one of the premier teams in the nation, his family which grew to add Izzy and Eli, - was as much a part of the team as the team was a part of his family.

“I felt like his family was my family,” Klefot said.

The lessons are endless.

“He would just try to instill in us that life is so much bigger than just volleyball. Volleyball is just one little circle,” O’Conner said. “I think that’s part of why I want to coach; I want to give those girls the experiences I got to have, and I think that Craig did a great job in letting us understand that – that there are so many different things that we can do through volleyball.”

O’Conner isn’t the only one who wants to turn her attention to coaching and be able to give others the gifts she received from Skinner. Rumely, now at Arkansas, is already a mainstay in the collegiate coaching world.

“I try to mimic his professionalism as best I can to mirror what was done at Kentucky so our girls can feel that same way,” Rumely said. “I had the best four years of my life playing at Kentucky. I want to pay back the role model he was for me to my student-athletes, because I know those next four years are going to shape the next forty.”

Players like Klefot and Kaplan are tasked with training our youth.

“I coach a little bit of club, and when people ask where I played, ‘I say Kentucky with a lot of pride,’ ” Kaplan said. “I always make sure to slip in, ‘Don’t worry – I played for Craig,’ because now people know Kentucky volleyball. Before they knew UK, who doesn’t? But now Kentucky volleyball has made a name for itself.”

It’s hard to remember what Kentucky volleyball looked like before Skinner’s arrival. So much has changed – from practicing in Alumni Gym to Memorial Coliseum. A renovated locker room, with showers that work. From the lines on the hardwood to the recognizable blue floor for home games. From the scattering of fans in the wooden chairs, to the sea of blue that now emphatically yells, “Point, Kentucky!” Being one of the frontrunners every year for a league title. From the lack of respect, to being considered one of the best.

The climb was incredible, but he’ll tell you, they’re not done yet. And as Amy Kaplan will tell you, anything is possible with Skinner at the helm for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly because of his belief in his players.

“He gets out of his kids what you don’t even think you can get out of yourself. He puts the belief in people,” Kaplan concluded. “He’s unbelievable.”

Created By
Deb Moore
Appreciate

Credits:

UK Athletics

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