By LARRY VAUGHT
Getting to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1987 — and the first time since coach Craig Skinner took over the Kentucky volleyball program — was more than enough reason for UK to celebrate Friday.
The Wildcats won a five-set, 2 1/2 hour match against an equally gutty BYU to advance to Saturday’s regional championship match against Nebraska, which beat Colorado in three sets.
“I never really had a doubt. I know my team is pretty calm, but obviously we can get pretty excited, too,” junior Brooke Morgan said. “It was fun to finally make it to the Elite Eight and say we are there because it has not happened with this program for a while. It’s just great.”
It’s even a little sweeter, though, because it was a way for the players to let junior teammate Anna Nyberg know they were thinking about her after the passing of her father, age 52, last week in Wisconsin. The celebration of life service for him was Friday, so obviously she was not with the team and will not be again Saturday.
But her presence was felt. The players wore blue ribbons in their hair to honor her and Skinner had a blue ribbon on his shirt.
Senior Ashley Dusek, UK’s emotional leader, said it was a “team thing” to wear the ribbons.
“We are 17 strong, so to have Anna in that situation, we really wanted to show that she is with us and wish her the best. We really wanted to play for her,” Dusek said. “We say that every time we play, play for her and play for each other. She is with us all the time even though she is not on the bench.”
The team interacts with Nyberg on social media before and after games. They never quit thinking about her or her family’s loss.
“She is always there with us. It is like she is there on the bench with us,” Dusek said. “She has always been there for us, so we are just sort of repaying the favor for her. We want to be there for her as much as we can. And I know she is so excited for us. It is kind of a win-win type of thing today with us winning. We wanted her to know we care and we know she’s happy we won.”
Morgan got to Kentucky the same year Nyberg did. Morgan said Nyberg’s father was a “big supporter” of the team.
“She will always be here with us whether she is or not. We wore these ribbons to represent her and her dad. I have always been with her here. We just play for her every game she misses to let her know we miss her and care about her,” Morgan said.
Sophomore Leah Edmond missed some shots early in the match that Skinner admitted he knew she wished she could do over. But in the fifth set after UK got behind, she was money. She had six kills to let UK end the match on a 14-4 run that put it into the Elite Eight.
“She was insane (in the fifth set),” Dusek said about Edmond, who had 21 kills and 13 digs because BYU seemed to single her out on serves. “Everyone did well. We just pushed through. We have that fifth-set mentality to push through and she did really, really well to make that a lot easier.”
Edmond didn’t want to brag on herself. She credited her teammates for having confidence in her despite her low attack percentage going into the final set.
“Them having that confidence in me makes me want to play better. And also, they’re just like really, really good at telling me where the block is and kudos to Madison (Lilley) for her sets. She doesn’t get enough credit for how good her sets really are,” Edmond said.
Lilley’s sets were so good that the freshman had 63 of them to go with 12 digs.
But Skinner knew the impact Edmond’s play had in the final set.
“She’s a gamer and she’s a competitor. No play affects the next play for her. She’s mentally tough and just wants the ball in crunch time. It showed in that situation,” the coach said.
The team also got a needed lift at times from Meredith Jewell off the bench.
“She is always the first person in the huddle giving us information and I think she is really aware of what is going on. I think that’s a big reason why she makes such an impact when she comes in because she knows everything that is going on and she comes in and does her job. It’s really amazing to have a player like that,” Edmond said.
Almost as amazing as finally getting to the Final Four where UK will get a chance to silence the trash talking Nebraska players and fans have done about UK getting a higher seed than the Cornhuskers. Kentucky will go into the match off two five-set wins (it beat Western to get to the Sweet 16 in five sets).
“Each time that you step on the court and pull out a win, it adds a layer of confidence. So, I think we just have to find a way to recover and rejuvenate and fuel up and get ready. It is obviously going to be a heck of a match,” Skinner said.
Skinner thanked fans who found a way to get to the noon match Friday. He expects a lot more for the 4 p.m. start Saturday.
“I just want our fans to be able to watch this team play again and it was going to be a tough field. But again, the resiliency of our fans to get here is something that I will never forget,” Skinner said. “They’ll be here (Saturday). I have no doubt. It has been building and everyone is excited and it is a perfect time for a volleyball match on a Saturday at 4 p.m. It is just like a football game. We are ready to go.”