Kentucky has been crowned as the 2020-21 NCAA Volleyball national champions after defeating No. 4 Texas 3-1 (20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22) in the title game. With that victory, the Cats finish the season with a resounding 24-1 record, blazing through a tough conference and elite tournament competition to win their first championship in school history.
Such an achievement has been a long-time coming for Kentucky Volleyball. Under head coach Craig Skinner, the Cats have climbed step after step to reach the top of the figurative volleyball mountain in a historical year.
Take the championship run at face value, and logic says this team was dominant, but let’s look into what came together in such a dream season for the Cats.
Coach Skinner has without a doubt built a national powerhouse from the ground up in Lexington. He possesses a 377-126 overall record, including 17 or more wins in all 16 seasons. They’ve also won a school-record four straight SEC titles and four consecutive Sweet 16’s. And of course this season they finally reached their first championship as a program and in SEC history.
“Just amazingly proud to be living a dream right now,” Skinner said after the game.
Madison Lilley could very well go down as the greatest Wildcat to ever play on the volleyball court. On her campaign to be recognized as the best player in the country, she led the nation in assists (12.37) and commanded the most powerful offense in volleyball. In the championship game, she posted 53 assists, but also 19 digs and a big-time solo block in the third set. In other words, she was in control, and all the way through a season lasting since the fall.
“The sacrifices and hours put in, the extended season, I think it means ten times as much,” she said following the match.
As previously mentioned, Madison Lilley conducted an absolute machine offensively. Kentucky finished first nationally in hitting percentage (.360), assists per set (14.13) and kills per set (15.31). Numbers like that led to accolades for the setter, but she was not the only one…
Junior outside hitter Alli Stumler and senior outside hitter Avery Skinner joined Lilley on the AVCA All-American First-Team. Stumler finished seventh nationally in total kills (364) and led the team with 26 of them in the title game on a .471 hitting percentage against a Longhorn squad who finished first nationally in total blocks.
Avery Skinner has had an up-and-down career as a Wildcat, but not this season. Her physicality at the net proved to be huge for the Cats all year, finishing second on the team with 274 kills. The senior also had a huge impact down the stretch against Texas, finishing with 14 kills on the night.
Finishing on the AVCA All-American Third-Team was senior libero Gabby Curry and sophomore middle hitter Azhani Tealer. Curry was without a doubt robbed of a first-team selection given her amazing defensive ability and hustle. Curry finished with 303 on the season, and added 14 digs and 13 assists against Texas. Her ability to keep the ball off the floor is sensational, and she finishes her career having been named SEC Libero of the Year three-straight times.
Hitter Azhani Tealer may just be an unsung hero of this championship squad. Despite standing just at 5’10”, her leaping ability makes each hit so powerful and assertive. The sophomore finished 10th nationally in hitting percentage (.431) and proved as an X-factor working in the middle.
Pulling off the highest-ranked recruiting class in 2020 was a huge accomplishment for Skinner and company heading into the season and it proved to be a big reason the Cats finished it off with a title. Headlining that class was No. 2 player in America Madi Skinner, who you would hardly know was playing her first year of collegiate volleyball. Skinner finished third on the team in kills (174) and 31st nationally in hitting percentage (.384). Against Texas, she knifed through a stingy Longhorn defense with a career-high 19 kills on a .455 hitting percentage.
Freshmen Elise Goetzinger and Riah Walker also had massive roles on this season’s squad. Goetzinger was a physical presence in the middle as a blocker, but also would get in the action offensively. She finished the season leading the team with 57 blocks including three against Texas to go along with a trio of kills.
Defensive specialist Riah Walker also had a calming presence on the back row. She finished with 13 service aces on the year and 53 digs. Against Texas, the freshman had four digs and two HUGE service aces, again proving the stage was not too big for her.
All of the individual awards and accomplishments combined for an amazing year. Of course, the Cats are likely not done playing at such a nationally dominant level, so I’ll just direct you to what senior setter Madison Lilley said after the title game:
“Welcome to the bandwagon, everyone.”