Throughout the course of his coaching career with the Wildcats UK head coach Craig Skinner has made it his primary goal to change the culture of Kentucky volleyball. And when freshmen like Gabby Curry and Madison Lilley stepped foot on campus four years ago loudly proclaiming that they would one day be National Champions, he knew he had something special brewing inside of Memorial Coliseum.
Now playing as seniors on the No. 2 team in the nation, that same class backed up their words with action, knocking off No. 4 Texas in four sets (20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22) to capture the program’s and Southeastern Conference’s first-ever women’s volleyball National Championship.
To begin the match, both teams were dialed in with neither holding more than a two-point advantage through the first 22 points. But midway through the set, the Longhorns found a groove, taking their largest advantage of the frame after a kill by sophomore Skylar Fields gave Texas a 23-17 advantage. A pair of kills by senior outside hitter Avery Skinner and a late one from her sister, Madi Skinner pulled the Cats within four, but Texas and company closed the set 25-20 to take the 1-0 lead in the match. For only the fourth time all season, Kentucky found itself trailing at the conclusion of the first set.
But just as they did all season, it wasn’t long before the Cats were off the mat and back on their feet. An early service ace by freshman Riah Walker gave the Cats an early 9-5 lead and forced the Longhorns into a timeout to try to stop the momentum. And while they did eventually pull within one at 11-10, it would be the closest the Longhorns could get for the remainder of the frame, as Kentucky coasted to a 25-18 set two victory. In the second stanza, the Wildcats tallied 16 kills on a .375 hitting clip, well above the .216 attacking percentage they registered in the first frame.
The third set proved to be the closest one of the match as Kentucky held a slim 17-16 advantage over the Longhorns late. But a sudden burst of momentum coming at the hands of a Madi Skinner kill and Madison Lilley solo block suddenly gave the Cats a late 19-16 lead and forced Texas head coach Jerritt Elliot into his first timeout of the frame. From there, the two teams traded runs until a kill from Texas outside hitter and Big 12 Player of the Year Logan Eggleston puled the Longhorns within one at 24-23. But when they needed a point they fed the hot hand, pushing a ball to Madi Skinner for a kill and a 25-23 set three victory.
Texas wasn’t phased by the Cats’ victory however, as the Longhorns quickly opened the fourth frame on a 6-1 run to force Kentucky into an early timeout. But the Cats had an answer once again in the form of the Skinner Sisters. Thanks to a pair of kills by Avery Skinner and two more by Madi, the Cats ran off a quick 9-3 run to capture the lead for good at 16-14.
With a pair of match points at 24-22, Kentucky went to its most consistent offensive option of the season: Alli Stumler. Stumler found the floor for her 26th kill of the evening, winning the match and writing the Cats into the history books yet again.
After a bit of a slow start, the Kentucky offense was masterful, led for the final time by senior setter Madison Lilley. Lilley directed the Cats to 70 team kills on a .349 hitting clip against a Texas team that featured one of the best blockers in the country, Brionne Butler. Heading into the match, Butler ranked No. 1 in total blocks (144.0) and No. 10 in blocks per set (1.52).
To round out her final match in the Blue and White, Lilley also added a match-high 19 digs and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player at the conclusion of the match, the first time in school history a Wildcat has been given the award.
It was Stumler who stole the show in this one, though, hammering down 26 terminations with only two errors on a .471 hitting clip. She also added five digs, a block and a pair of service aces to the winning effort as well. But she and her team knew a performance like this was coming long before first serve. In fact, they knew it the minute their plane touched down on the runway in Omaha.
“The moment we stepped in Omaha, off the plane, it was, ‘We’re going to win this thing,’ Stumler said. “And there was never a doubt that any team was better than us, that could play harder than us, have more grit, determination. We just knew that we had it and if we could play like Kentucky volleyball then we were going to win it all.”
In the biggest game of her young career, freshman Madi Skinner put on one of the greatest freshman performances in school history, registering 19 kills on a .455 clip with only four errors.
“Incredible job,” coach Skinner said of Madi’s performance. “She had more hands in her face (tonight) than she probably has all year and produced and hit shots that she hasn’t hit before in matches. Wanted the ball, was confident and aggressive. She was big time.”
And closely behind her was Avery Skinner, who added 14 kills of her own. Standing at only 5’10”, sophomore Azhani Tealer rose to the occasion once again, tallying eight kills and a pair of blocks against one of the most physical teams in the country. And rounding out the scoring was freshman Elise Goetzinger, who had three kills and a trio of blocks.
In her final match as a Wildcat, Gabby Curry put on a career performance, picking up 14 digs and a career-high 13 assists for the second double-double of her career. Avery Skinner added six digs of her own, Stumler had five, Walker had four and Madi Skinner and Lauren Tharp each had a pair.
With the win, Kentucky becomes just the 11th program to capture an NCAA Volleyball Championship and the first SEC school to take home the trophy. They finish the season with a 24-1 overall record, with the lone loss coming in a five-setter at No. 7 Florida. Throughout the entirety of the NCAA Tournament and in four matches against ranked opponents, Kentucky dropped just two sets by a combined seven points.
At the conclusion of the match, Lilley, Stumler and Avery Skinner were all named to the 2020 NCAA Volleyball All-Tournament Team, with Lilly capturing Most Outstanding Player honors. And after finishing off her collegiate career with a title, Lilley is more than happy to welcome the entirety of the Big Blue Nation to jump on the bandwagon and see what Kentucky volleyball is all about.
“Welcome to the bandwagon, everyone,” Lilley said. “We’ve been on it but it’s exciting to see other people on it. Volleyball school and we love to see that. We’re excited to get back to Lexington.”
Fans can celebrate the championship with the Wildcats Sunday afternoon inside Memorial Coliseum with a welcome home party at 2:30 pm ET. The event is free to the public and doors will open at 2:00 pm.