By: Hunter Mitchell
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Heading into the 2020-21 season there were a lot of questions swirling around the Kentucky volleyball program. It seemed that the spotlight that once shown on star outside hitter Leah Edmond had officially faded to black as the hitter left due to graduation. But luckily for the Cats, it turns out the spotlight hadn’t turned off, it had merely shifted positions, this time shining on Edmond’s opposite on the court: Alli Stumler.
The junior had always been an integral part of the Kentucky offense but didn’t necessarily grab the headlines the way that Edmond did. However, even in just her second year of high school, Stumler never let the idea of playing with such a dynamic athlete deter her from the challenge of suiting up for the Blue and White. Instead, she relished in the opportunity.
“I was an early sophomore when I committed and so I wasn’t even thinking, ‘Okay, what is my role on this team going to be?’”, Stumler said. “It was more, ‘How can I be the best? And whatever happens when I get to college, whether I sit the bench or I play, I’m just going to be the best at my position and that’s what I’ll bring to the team.’”
That mindset proved to be one of the biggest reasons the Floyds Knobs, Indiana native saw immediate action once she stepped foot on Kentucky’s campus.
“She can do it all and we didn’t know for sure coming out of high school if she’d be physical enough yet to play in the front row for us,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “But as you’ve heard her talk, she’s ready to prove anybody wrong.”
That she certainly did. In its first tournament of the young 2018 season, Kentucky traveled to Los Angeles, Ca. for a round-robin tournament featuring No. 13 Creighton, No. 10 USC and Northern Iowa. In three games, the then-freshman Stumler totaled 29 kills and 34 digs in losing efforts. The Cats may have left California with an 0-3 record on the season, but what they found in Stumler proved to be of far more value than any victory would have been.
Her debut performance was so impressive that Edmond took immediate notice.
“I’ve never seen a freshman at any college come in with the skill she already had,” Edmond said. “Especially how refined it was at that.”
But when reflecting on her first weekend in a Kentucky uniform, it’s not the numbers that Stumler remembers. It’s the trust and belief that Skinner and the coaching staff displayed by entrusting her with a starting spot in the lineup in just the second match of her Wildcat career. Rather than be intimidated by the moment, however, Stumler approached the game the way she does everything else in the sport: by simply being Alli Stumler.
“It was just, ‘How can I be myself?’, the junior said. “Not try to be someone else. Not try to be a Leah Edmond, just being who I am.”
Stumler would go on to finish her freshman campaign averaging 2.40 kills per frame on a .229 hitting clip, along with 2.32 digs per set. She was second on the team in kills (257) and aces (31) and third in digs (248). Including the second game against Creighton, she started the remaining 30 matches and her performance earned her the award of SEC Freshman of the Year, the third-consecutive year that a Wildcat brought home the honor.
As impressive as her offensive prowess was during her freshman campaign, though, it was the defensive performance that stood out amongst the coaching staff and her teammates. But the defensive side of the court doesn’t always come easily for hitters. And Stumler was no different. In order to stay on the floor, she knew she would need to become more than simply an offensive threat.
“Serve-receive and defense was something that I was up at 5:00 am, three times a week going to the gym training because I knew if I could get solid in the back row on defense, that it would obviously help me stay on the floor,” Stumler said.
After Stumler and company won a second-consecutive SEC Championship by rattling off 23-straight victories following a loss at No. 6 Texas, they were swept by the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament to end the season.
However, even in the conclusion of a season, Stumler knew her work wasn’t complete. The offseason represented an opportunity to improve, and Stumler intended to take full advantage. Heading into her sophomore campaign, she was firmly established as a legitimate offensive threat alongside Edmond, as she and the Cats captured a third-straight SEC crown for the first time in school history. En route to the championship, Stumler averaged 3.36 kills per set and received Sports Imports/AVCA Player of the Week honors after averaging 18 kills in matches against Mississippi State and No. 19 Missouri during the first weekend of conference play.
Perhaps her biggest moment in a Kentucky uniform, however, came just a month and a half later as the Cats traveled to Gainesville for a clash with No. 11 Florida. In the five-set thriller, Edmond (30) and Stumler (27) went on an offensive tear, each setting career highs in kills in the victory and combining for 57 of the 78 terminations the team produced.
But again the Cats fell just short of an Elite Eight appearance once the postseason rolled around, this time falling to the Washington Huskies in four sets in the Sweet Sixteen.
The conclusion of the season provided yet another opportunity for Stumler, though, this time in the form of a tryout for the USA Collegiate National Team in February of 2020. As quickly as the opportunity presented itself, however, it just as quickly disappeared after a serious injury to her left thumb dashed any hopes of competing on the national stage.
“I was just help-blocking in the middle and from there I couldn’t really tell you what happened,” Stumler recalls about the injury. “The ball I think just came down on it, dislocated it.”
Stumler was immediately taken to a local hospital in Colorado for the first of what would eventually be two surgeries. She flew home the next morning and received her second surgery two weeks later before being told she would be unable to play for roughly ten-twelve weeks. But unsurprisingly, the diagnosis didn’t discourage Stumler in the slightest.
“It was never like, ‘Oh, am I going to get to play again?” Stumler said. “It was just like, ‘When am I going to get to play again?’.”
But as if the injury wasn’t enough, the onset of shutdowns due to Covid-19 saw Stumler being sent home from campus early as millions of people across the country suddenly found themselves stuck at home with little to do.
Little to do? Not according to Stumler.
She spent the first couple of months back home recovering from the injury before immediately throwing herself into offseason workouts. Along with help from her mom, a former collegiate volleyball player in her own right, the pair trained and lifted to prepare for the upcoming fall season. The result? A PR in standing vertical where she touched 10’3”.
“I was really trying to focus on getting my body stronger. Cardio was never an issue, it was more just like, ‘How can I jump higher? How can I grow muscle?’”, Stumler said.
And with her track record, Skinner was never worried about whether or not his junior would be back and ready to go after coming off an injury.
“There was zero doubt in my mind that she was going to be ready,” Skinner said. “Did I think she was going to come back and touch 10’3”? I mean, that was an impressive feat by her.”
According to Skinner, the biggest reason for Stumler’s impressive return was the fact that she respected her injury and prepared herself for the challenges ahead.
“She respected the fact that she’s hurt. ‘Okay, so what are my challenges? What are my obstacles?’ And went about her business to get to the next level.”
But respect alone doesn’t yield results. It was Stumler’s work ethic that proved to be the difference. And much like Tom Brady, chasing perfection is what drives her.
“Alli, if you give her something to do she’s going to attack it like no other,” Skinner said. “I read an article about Tom Brady and how he’s just always chasing perfection all the time. Are you going to ever be perfect? Absolutely not. But the excitement is chasing it. And I think Alli is no different that way.”
Now in her third season, despite being one of opposing defenses’ primary targets, Stumler is putting up massive numbers, averaging a team-high 4.48 kills per set while hitting .319%. In the eight matches played in the fall, she totaled 15 or more kills five times. And in a pair of contests at No. 9 Missouri, she tallied 21 terminations in each game, leading the Cats to two four-set victories over the Tigers.
In spite of the difficulty surrounding the season due to the pandemic, Stumler and the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats finished the fall slate a perfect 8-0, one of only two teams (Texas) across the country with an unblemished record thus far. But that achievement certainly didn’t come easily. Despite some senior leadership being in place at many key positions, several talented freshmen were forced to step into the lineup after injuries to Avery Skinner and Reagan Rutherford midway through the season.
And with a young offense now even more dependent on her, Stumler stepped up once again, this time adding much-needed guidance and leadership to a number of young freshmen suddenly seeing the court for the first time.
“I think they all came in and worked really hard and were given different opportunities and they stepped in huge,” Stumler said. “I just think they’re really trusting the leadership above them, which is awesome.”
Combine that youth with an improved SEC, and the Wildcats had their work cut out for them navigating a challenging conference slate without the luxury of being able to figure things out in a typical non-conference schedule. But just like any other challenge that’s stepped in front of her, Stumler craves the idea of competing in a league where everyone is giving Kentucky its best shot.
“We want people to keep saying, ‘We want Kentucky out. We want Kentucky out,’” Stumler said. “So how can we just continue to be confident with that target on our back and know that people are going to attack us?”
That attitude is very reminiscent of Edmond, who spent Stumler’s first two years as the vocal leader and explosive athlete guiding the Wildcats through the season. But if you ask Edmond, Stumler’s talent has always been apparent, even if it wasn’t as loud or noticeable as her own.
“I don’t think she gets appreciated for what she does like she should,” Edmond said. “She is for sure one of the best six-rotation outsides that I have played with and that I know.”
With Edmond gone, though, it certainly would have been easy for Stumler to fall into the trap of comparing herself to the former Wildcat. After all, who would fault her for trying to imitate Kentucky’s all-time kills leader? But Stumler isn’t worried about being anyone else other than herself, and she approaches every game the same way.
“Whether I had the best game of my career or the worst, I’m going to come in the next day and I’m still Alli Stumler.”
When it comes to Stumler’s unflappable approach to the game, Skinner echoes her sentiment.
“Whether Alli just had 27 kills or whatever against Florida or she had a bad match or she broke her thumb, the next time you see her it’s going to be the exact same Alli Stumler.”
And as far as her continued success at Kentucky, Skinner doesn’t see an end to it coming any time soon.
“Now she wants to be the dominant player in the Sweet Sixteen, in the Elite Eight,” Skinner said. “And those are the things that she’s chasing now. She always knows that someone is chasing her. And she’s not going to let them catch her.”
That’s one of Stumler’s most obvious traits. It’s not about the awards, the recognition or the personal achievements. For Stumler, it’s about improving her game in an effort to better her team.
“She doesn’t crave being an All-American,” Skinner said. “She doesn’t crave getting 30 kills. But she craves getting better and improving and a challenge.”
Now, according to Stumler, her ultimate goals seem to change every day. From playing for Team USA to delving into the world of beach volleyball after her indoor career is over, the goals are many and ever-changing. But regardless of where the sport takes her, she’s going to approach it all with the very same mindset she had in her first weekend on the court as a Kentucky Wildcat.
“Just whatever my role is, just be the best at that that I can and bring people along with me to succeed.”
And if her past performance is any indication, it doesn’t appear that the spotlight now shining firmly on Stumler is going to fade any time soon. Thankfully for the Kentucky Wildcats, it seems it’s only going to get brighter.