8:14:13 VB vs. Michigan

Kentucky volleyball players dance during a timeout in the second round game of the DI NCAA Volleyball Tournament against Michigan on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 3-0. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Typically, the college volleyball season would have ended over a month ago. As we’ve all come to learn though, COVID-19 has made life anything but. Volleyball was one of a number of fall sports that had portions of its regular season moved to spring as a result of the pandemic, and after a six-week layoff, the No. 4 Wildcats are finally back in action. Their first mission: today, and tomorrow, in Fayetteville for tests against the Razorbacks.

Kentucky opened the year with a spotless 8-0 record – and nearly flawless fall campaign set-wise – as it defeated four conference foes twice in just about a month’s time. Tennessee strolled to town first back on Oct. 16 and 17, and proved to be no match, as the Cats beat the Vols 3-0 and 3-1 at Memorial Coliseum.

The biggest test of the young schedule came next, with road dates versus then-No. 9 Missouri on Oct. 28 and 29. With the Cats sitting in the country’s No. 3 spot at the time, both matchups were monumental for conference supremacy and garnered 9:00 p.m. E.T. television slots on ESPNU.

Kentucky fiercely battled the Tigers on the floor of the Hearnes Center, but had its backs against the wall early. After dropping a tough first set 25-23 and getting behind 12-5 in set two of the best-of-five affair, things felt dire. But the Cats fought back, finally pulling even at 20-20.

As the two pushed toward the finish line, the intensity continued to rise. Once tied at 24-24, the squads alternated a whopping 16 consecutive points before the Tigers jumped in front 33-32. In do-or-die mode, the Cats answered with three straight to take the second set 35-33 and sap up all the momentum. They took set three 25-20 and set four 25-18 to bring home the first meeting.

The next day offered a sense of déjà vu, as Mizzou again took set one. But just as they did the day before, Kentucky responded with wins in sets two, three and four to claim victory.

The Cats rode the wave of emotion from their Columbia performances through the rest of the fall, managing to not drop a set over their final four competitions (vanquishing Auburn 3-0 in Lexington on both Nov. 7 and 8, then doing the same at Mississippi State on Nov. 13 and 14).

You may not have expected such a dominant showing through eight outings, but in the volleyball world, it’s hardly a surprise. Despite losing three-time All-SEC and two-time SEC Player of the Year Leah Edmond, Kentucky began the season as the preseason No. 3 team in the nation. While this was in large part to its returning core, such as setter Madison Lilley, opposite Ahzani Tealer and outside hitters Alli Stumler and Avery Skinner, a top-notch recruiting class has also played a big role.

Among others, Kentucky brought in three top-30 PrepVolleyball prospects: middle blocker Elize Goetzinger (27), opposite Reagan Rutherford (10) and outside hitter Madi Skinner (2), who is the younger sister of the aforementioned Avery. Each has had an impact during this spectacular start. They not only have the Cats poised to compete for the conference and national titles in 2020, but for years to come.

You can see Kentucky square off with Arkansas both this evening and tomorrow afternoon. Tonight’s first serve is set for 6:00 p.m. E.T. on SEC Network Plus, while Saturday’s is at 3:30 p.m. E.T. on SEC Network.