Kentucky outside hitter Alli Stumler says UK loves the pressure that comes with playing at Florida this weekend. (Vicky Graff photo)

Before the season even started it figured that the Southeastern Conference volleyball championship would again come down to Kentucky and Florida.

The two SEC powers play today and Saturday in Gainesville and as expected the matches will settle the league championship.

“We have not discussed it much (during the season), but we always know it will be a big match with Florida,” junior outside hitter Alli Stumler, UK’s kills leader, said. “They are one of the best teams in the conference every year and we know the SEC will come down to playing them.

“We would love to be playing at home and love to have our fans there but I think we are just grateful to be playing. Just being able to play with my teammates is awesome. It’s also kind of fun playing when people are cheering against you. I like that.”

Coach Craig Skinner’s team has won three straight SEC championships and swept Florida the last two years. Stumler says that past success builds confidence for UK, 16-0 this year.

“There’s a fine line between cockiness and confidence. We know people are coming for us. Florida already has a couple of losses and that just adds a target on our backs,” Stumler said. “But we love that pressure. That’s the personality of our team. Ever since I got here, the bigger the competition we play, the better I have played. Madison (Lilley), Gabby (Curry), Avery (Skinner) all also play better when the matches mean more.”

Kentucky volleyball has yet to make a Final Four or win a national title. The Cats are ranked third nationally in a season that started in October and will end in April. Stumler believes UK has a terrific chance to win the national championship this season.

“We are super balanced. Madison can set any hitter and get a point for us,” Stumler, the 2018 SEC freshman of the year, said. “In years past we have been really outside dominated. This year our middle has stepped up, the back row is more involved. When you have four attackers at all times it is hard to defend.

“Our defensive focus is really good. A lot of teams can play defense but we take great pride in that.”

Stumler not only leads the team in kills, but is second in digs behind libero Gabby Curry.

“I take more pride in that because without defense you do not have offense,” Stumler said. “I knew since I was little that to play at a big school you have to have ball control. I have taken pride in that since I was 13.

“All the hitters here are playing defense in drills. Everyone has to be able to control the ball. It didn’t come easy at first but the more training you have, the more confidence you have. All our passers are in the gym 30 minutes before practices and games. You can never over train.”

That philosophy has helped Stumler offset the graduation of All-American Leah Edmond, one of UK’s all-time best players. Stumler said during her first two years at UK when the team needed a spark or big point, Edmond usually provided it.

“I was hoping to step into that and have people have the same respect for me,” Stumler said. “You need someone to step up each year to gain respect and build leadership and trust. I hope I’ve been able to do that.”

She has. Craig Skinner calls her a “rock” because of her steady play.

“She’s hitting, blocking at a different level,” the UK coach said. “She just gives people around her a certain level of confidence.”

Mintz’s plans

If you are an optimistic University of Kentucky basketball fan you have to hope that the struggles of this 9-16 season can somehow benefit the Cats next year.

Senior guard Davion Mintz — who is not sure about his timeline to decide if he might return to UK for another year — said feeling so low definitely resonated with the players.

“I’ve never lost this many games in my life in basketball, I mean, just consecutively like this. I know other guys on this roster haven't either,” Mintz said after the SEC tourney loss to Mississippi State. “Now you know. You know how it feels. You don't want to climb back into that hole.

“Like now, once you dig in, you know exactly how to escape. You just don't want that pain to come back. It's terrible. Whether it's my last college game or not, you just don't want to go out like that. I know a lot of guys are feeling terrible. I mean, even if that's the next level or not, you know how it feels to lose like this.”

Sharpe a recruiting target

Shaedon Sharpe, a 6-4 shooting guard for Dream City Christian (Arizona), is one of the top players in the 2022 recruiting class and a player many seem to think is a definite lean to Kentucky.

“I would not say Shaedon is a lock for Kentucky,” said Rivals.com recruiting writer Krysten Peek. “He’s what I would call a sleeper in the recruiting class who still has options but does seem to really like Kentucky.

“I have not seen him a lot in person but when I have, I have been overly impressed with his athleticism and the type of player he is. He just jumps out of the gym. He does things you do not expect to see. He is becoming a real star and has kind of blown up in this world we now know.”

Peek said he is not yet a great shooter but has “great shot mechanics” to indicate he will be a terrific shot maker.

“With his athleticism he does not have to shoot well in high school to score,” Peek said. “He can get to wherever he wants on the court. He does know he has to fine tune his shooting and he will.”

Kentucky’s quarterback

Don’t expect new Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen to name a No. 1 quarterback when spring practice ends.

“I am looking for guys to improve and for growth in the offense,” Coen said. “We are not going to name a starting quarterback after spring practice. We have (Penn State transfer) Will Levis coming in to compete this summer. The spring will be more of information gathering rather than evaluation.”

Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen are expected to be the two contenders with Levis for the starting spot, but Nik Scalzo and true freshman Kaiya Sheron will also be participating in spring practice.

“We have not had a ton of time with the guys since I got here to get things installed (on offense). We are still learning about systems and the core principles,” Coen said. “Right now I am just trying to help the quarterbacks get better and try to improve their fundamentals.

“Just trying to give the quarterbacks some coaching and learn what makes these guys tick, what is underneath the hood. How do I connect with these kids? When it comes to on field throwing, how does he take coaching and what is the best way to get through to each player?

“All the guys are going to have a chance to compete. Beau and Joey have each played a few snaps but not really enough to judge anything off of.”

What about Levis? What did Coen like so much about him that he recruited him when he announced he was leaving Penn State?

“The first thing that sticks out is his intelligence. He is graduating from Penn State with a finance degree in three years,” Coen said. “You always like your quarterback to be smart.

“There is some untapped potential there with things he can do throwing and physically running the ball. He is a weapon that can come in and run the football, too. He wants to be a full-time guy and wants a chance to show he can be that guy.”

Fletcher’s transfer

He barely played after the first two games of the season when he had 13 points and 11 rebounds and he even got sent home for several weeks by coach John Calipari for an attitude adjustment. So it was not a shock when freshman Cam'Ron Fletcher announced he was putting his name into the transfer portal and would not be back at UK.

He was a top 50 recruit. Calipari said Fletcher had “matured as a person” and Fletcher said he had a “great experience” at UK. However, parting ways seems best for both him and UK.

Kentucky assistant coach Jai Lucas said before UK played its final two games that Fletcher was improving.

“I think he’s understanding the game a little bit better. And that’s been the biggest thing with the team this year and the freshmen we’ve had is just getting them to understand the game a little bit better,” Lucas said.

“He’s in good shape, playing with high motor, high energy, and that’s the big thing for Cam and how he’ll be successful, just the energy and the effort he plays with. So, understanding how to put that with thinking through the game and understanding new terminology and stuff like that, he’s done a good job.”

Just not good enough to stay at Kentucky.

Morehead’s Calipari connection

John Calipari couldn’t hide his pride about having two of his former staff members getting Morehead State into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years.

Morehead coach Preston Spradlin was on the UK staff from 2009-2014 and Morehead assistant coach Dominic Lombardi was assistant video coordinator at Kentucky for two seasons at the same time Spradlin was at Kentucky.

Spradlin’s duties at UK as a graduate assistant and then assistant director of operations included film breakdown, scouting, working with NBA personnel and conducting camps both on and off campus.

“Really bright basketball guy. Really level-headed. As a matter of fact, if I remember right, I put him in practices because he could still play,” Calipari said about Spradlin. “I mean he was a really good shooter.”

Calipari said Spradlin told him Lombardi had done “unbelievable work” and had been an “absolute giant” for the Eagles, who won 19 of 20 games to get into the NCAA Tournament.

“That’s what he’s about. I mean, pushing the guys around him, not worrying about himself. And I told him, he said, ‘My team was tough, Coach. They were tough.’ So, when you look at it you know, and I know that’s how you win,” Calipari said.

Calipari said a lot of high major teams were not going to want to play Morehead, the best defensive team in the Ohio Valley Conference.

“I’m happy that those guys have done what they’ve done and they’re in the NCAA Tournament and they won their league. It’s just been good,” Calipari said.

Quotes of the Week

No. 1: “Anywhere you go you see blue and white on somebody with Kentucky on it. It’s amazing how many people it affects. A lot say it is like a religion. It’s more than that to some people in this state. It didn’t take me long to figure out this was a whole lot bigger than I thought it was,” 1978 NCAA Tournament MVP Final Four Jack Givens during “Win or Else,” an SEC Network film on UK’s 1978 national title team.

No. 2: “The best problem to have in 2021 is figuring out how to get all the trophies in the van,” coach Harry Mullins after UK won the rifle national championship and Mary Tucker won both individual national titles.

No. 3: “He was the reason I was an All-SEC player. I never liked the return game but he made me fall in love with it. I’m going to miss Coach,” former UK cornerback David Jones on the passing of former UK special teams coach Steve Ortmayer.

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