Craig Skinner ‘thankful’ to be playing and counting on seniors to lead talented team

All-Southeastern Conference setter Madison Lilley is one of the seniors coach Craig Skinner is counting on to lead his team. (Vicky Graff Photo)

Kentucky volleyball coach Craig Skinner admits this season could be similar to what a Major League Baseball season must seem like.

“It seems like we are playing 162 games from October to April,” said Skinner.

He admitted he didn’t know exactly what to do based on having eight games this fall and then waiting for the season to hopefully resume a few months later with the NCAA Tournament in the spring.

“We finally just narrowed it down to getting better today and tomorrow,” Skinner said. “I have no idea what to expect after Thanksgiving weekend until we start up again. We will put a lot of trust in our seniors and team to maintain focus and strength and be as sharp in January as they are now.

“Winning and losing are important but we have to keep people connected for a long period of time this year. You can’t be in full-out grind (all year) or you are going to lose people.”

Kentucky opens the season with home matches tonight and Saturday against Tennessee and then will also play Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri twice in the upcoming weeks.

Skinner is “thankful” the SEC and UK put in the work to where Kentucky can play since only four leagues in the country are playing volleyball this fall.

“One of the advantages we have is experience but also the skill they have,” Skinner said about his senior class that has been part of three SEC championships.

He noted without spring and summer workouts he will rely on those seniors a lot.

“Their abilities should put us in a position to focus on competing and not just keeping the ball in play,” he said. “Our senior class has been phenomenal. The level of competition in the gym is very high and they certainly make that happen.”

The UK coach knows some SEC football programs have been derailed by COVID-19 positive tests this week, including one by Alabama head coach Nick Saban. His team tested for the third time this week on Thursday and he said he would “hold my breath for 24 hours” hoping everyone was okay for tonight’s match.

“Every team in our league has dealt with positives (on tests) or quarantining. If a team has been together the whole preseason I would be shocked,” he said. “Our team has done a phenomenal job looking out for each other and staying healthy.”

Skinner’s team will face the same issue Mark Stoops’ football team had with no non-conference games to get ready for SEC play starting tonight. He said pre-conference matches let him know how certain players react in different situations and how the team has progressed. He feels fortunate to have three all-SEC players — Gabby Curry, Madison Lilley and Alli Stumler — to lead and make sure his team’s effort is what it should be.

Kentucky also has to learn to play without four-time All-American Leah Edmond. Much like Lynn Bowden was for the 2019 UK football team, Edmond was UK’s best clutch player.

“You just don’t throw someone out there and say be Leah Edmond,” Skinner said. “The biggest challenge for us will be who is taking swings when the pressure is on and bails us out. She could take so much pressure off because she could terminate. Her fearlessness, she had no fear. She didn’t know if it was point one or point 25. She was bringing it on.”

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