LEXINGTON, KY- On a cold, brisk Tuesday morning at Memorial Coliseum, the Craft Center was quiet as coaches prepared for the Cats’ upcoming match at South Carolina. Leah Edmond went about her business with a quiet innocence, something that is certainly not the case when she steps onto the volleyball court.
But she wasn’t always the fiery volleyball player that you see today. The outside hitter actually began her athletic career as a gymnast in Arizona before realizing that her 6’2” frame was no longer conducive to the sport.
“My parents both worked at Arizona when we lived there,” Edmond said. “My mom was an academic counselor and then my dad had the same job as a strength coach. The volleyball coach was like ‘Have her come to camp and she can come watch practice if she wants to.’ So basically I went in and saw them practice and I was like ‘Oh this is pretty cool, I like this.’”
Fortunately for head coach Craig Skinner and the Kentucky volleyball program, Edmond’s appreciation for the game of volleyball stuck, and she never looked back.
Edmond and her family moved to Kentucky when her dad Corey accepted a position as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the UK Football team. Edmond attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and saw immediate success, being named the 2015 Region Player of the Year.
Fans of volleyball might be shocked to learn that Edmond actually began her career as a setter. She tried libero for a brief time before transitioning to middle blocker in high school. In fact, she preferred the middle above anything else, and was adamant that she would never become an outside hitter.
“All the girls at Arizona used to tell me ‘You’re going to turn into an outside.’ And I was like ‘No I’m gonna be a middle. I want to be a middle.’ And now, looking at it I’m like thank God I’m an outside. Because playing middle in college… like watching Brooke (Morgan) and Kendyl (Paris) and all the stuff that they have to do…that’s too much.”
Turns out her Arizona teammates were right, as Edmond has become one of the most successful outsides in program history, having broken nearly every offensive record in the book.
This season the junior is averaging 4.56 kills per set on an attacking percentage of .290. Most recently, she became UK’s all-time leader in kills in the 25-point rally-scoring era after recording 22 terminations on a blistering .439 attacking clip in the Cats’ sweep over No. 23 Missouri. She now has 1,413 kills and sits at fourth all-time in kills in school history (the rally-scoring era didn’t begin until 1998). Molly Dresibach leads all players with 1,737 kills, a record that was set when she played at UK from 1992-1995. Before her career is over, Edmond will almost certainly have obliterated that record.
But the history of the Kentucky volleyball program isn’t something that Edmond was all that familiar with. Not for a lack of appreciation, though. She simply didn’t know the storied success that the Cats had in the mid to late 80s under then head coach Kathy Deboer. Under Deboer, Kentucky achieved its best finish in school history (5th) in 1987, an achievement that earned her the award of both SEC and NCAA Coach of the Year. Deboer also led the Cats to two SEC titles in both 1987 and 1988.
“I really didn’t know about Kentucky volleyball-wise until I got here. I knew about basketball because everybody knew about that. But I never knew about volleyball and how actually good the program was until I got here.”
Turns out coach Skinner actually has his wife Megan to thank for bringing Edmond to UK, as she was the one who first noticed Edmond’s talent and brought her to his attention and Kentucky to Edmond’s.
“She met me at the first spring game here of our first year. And she went to Craig and was like ‘Hey, there’s a new volleyball player.’ And of course everybody has already told him there’s this new volleyball player and he’s like ‘Okay whatever she’s probably not.’ But then I remember seeing Anders (Nelson) at one of my practices and then that’s when they actually started recruiting me.”
‘No One Ever Told Me That’
Since Edmond’s arrival on campus, a lot has been made about her being the first Lexingtonian to ever play for Kentucky. But again, Edmond was innocent of that detail.
“I had no clue. I found out actually when I committed. I was sitting in Craig’s office, I committed and they were like ‘You realize you’re the fist from Lexington ever.’… No one ever told me that.”
One thing Edmond is very aware of, however, is how much the Big Blue Nation has embraced the sport since Kentucky has come back in the national spotlight in recent years under coach Skinner’s direction. In his 14th season, Skinner has led Kentucky to 13-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, with another one coming this year, and two straight SEC titles, a feat that hadn’t been achieved since the 1987 and 1988 seasons.
And after earning the program’s first Top-4 seed in school history last year, Memorial Coliseum saw unprecedented attendance numbers in the NCAA Tournament. The match against WKU was the ninth-largest crowd in program history, as 3,620 fans watched the Cats come back from an 0-2 deficit to defeat the Hilltoppers 3-2. And against Nebraska, a whopping 4,464 fans attended, the fifth-best crowd in school history.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a turnout like that in a really long time. So seeing that and just seeing people embrace it and actually want to learn the game and be here. It’s really cool to see.”
Kentucky’s recent success had been a long time coming. Before Skinner arrived in December of 2004, Kentucky hadn’t appeared in an NCAA Tournament since 1993 and was averaging just 12.6 wins per season in that span. If the Cats defeat South Carolina tomorrow in Columbia, however, Kentucky will win the SEC title outright for the first time since 1988, something that Edmond wants to achieve not just for her teammates, but for everyone that’s donned the blue and white before her.
“I think it’s just a great feeling knowing that all of our hard work and all the hard work of the people that came before us is finally getting noticed. There’s so many people before us that didn’t get the chances that we did but they laid down the foundation to allow us to get to the point we are. So it’s just really good to know that we’re winning not only for us but for the people that laid the foundation for us.”
But Kentucky’s start to the season certainly didn’t go as planned. After beginning the year ranked 5thin the country, the Cats fell to Creighton, USC and Northern Iowa in the USC Tournament to begin the season 0-3. After traveling to Texas and being beat by the Longhorns in early September though, something clicked.
“I think we really had to focus in and kind of remember why we’re here, what our goals are for the season and what we’re trying to aspire to be. And we had to really re-focus and find ourselves as a team because this team is very different from last year’s team and it’s even different from my freshman year team. So we had to find ourselves as a group of people.”
Turns out losing the three-time SEC libero of the year in Ashley Dusek and All-American middle blocker Kaz Brown to graduation can have an effect on a young squad. But since that loss to Texas, the Cats have rattled off 19-straight, including eight straight sweeps, with victories over No. 11 Florida and No. 23 Missouri.
And while Edmond is certainly happy to have led the team to back-to-back league titles, she has much bigger goals; goals that involve taking the Cats to a Final Four for the first time in school history.
“It would be literally the greatest feeling. I sat in Craig’s office and I told them I’m not leaving here until I at least get us to a Final Four. So I got two years left to do it and I feel like this year we got a really big chance to do it.”
That determination will prove invaluable as the Cats wrap up the regular season with hopes to earn a national seed and host the first and second rounds of the tournament. And while Edmond is still only a junior, she’s hoping that her legacy is already being defined to the fans that watch her and the teammates that play around her.
“I just want people to know that I left everything on the court. That no matter what the circumstance was that I tried my absolute hardest to win the game for my team in any possible way.”
But beyond the awards, the recognition and the fame, Edmond attributes all of her success to the university that gave her a chance.
“Through all of my recruiting people were like ‘Yeah she’s just an athlete but she’s lacking in this, this and this.’ So it gave me even more motivation to be like ‘Well you know what I’m going to be the best to ever walk through any program because you guys constantly doubted me through my early career.’”
Before her career is over, she certainly might be the best to ever put on a volleyball uniform at Kentucky. But for now, she’ll just continue going about her business with a quiet innocence off the court, and a dominating presence on it that echoes through every corridor in Memorial.