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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.