By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky volleyball coach Craig Skinner understands the passion juniors Gabby Curry and Madison Lilley, both all-Southeastern Conference players last year, have for volleyball but he also understands he has to be careful that both players don’t burn out this season. (Kentucky opens the season today with two matches in Utah).
They went to Brazil with UK for exhibition matches but when the team returned the two headed to California to train with USA Volleyball before eventually going to Peru to play in the Pan-American Games. They did not get back to Lexington until mid-August.
“When you play at the level they were playing at — and not just in the tournaments but the people they were training with and against — you learn little nuances of the game that are really hard to manufacture in competition,” said Skinner. “The speed of the game is fast, the business like mentality the players go through is something they are going to take not only know but rest of their careers. The game is starting to slow down even more for them now.
“It’s been a long summer but the two of them love the game of volleyball and compete in athletics and manage their bodies the right way. Those two have a lot of confidence in being good to go but it is something you definitely have to manage.”
Curry, the libero, said the summer was “very, very long and very, very fun” for both UK players as they got to train and play against professional players at times. That taught them both about how to see volleyball in a “more professional manner” than they had before.
“I took personal responsibility every day to get better. I think that grind they talk about grew on me and it’s really fun coming back here and seeing how much love and passion there is in college volleyball that sometimes the professional league lacks,” Curry said. “I got the best of both worlds being able to go and work hard and now I get to have fun and show what we can do.”
Lilley, one of the nation’s best setters, said she got better in multiple areas “across the board” playing with USA Volleyball and learned things she can share with the team to make everyone better.
“I am happy to be back with our girls but competing against other people (teams) is where we thrive. We know what we have to work on and get better on and what we can improve,” Lilley said. “It was a long summer for sure but nothing makes me more pumped up to get back in the gym than being back here, back with my girls, back playing for Craig.
“As tired as I might be, I am more excited to get back in the gym every single day and work with my teammates and train under Craig. The motivation has not dropped off at all.”
Kentucky opens the season Friday with three games in Salt Lake City before having three more games in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the second weekend of the season. Last year UK started the season 0-3, something the Cats — who are No. 7 in the preseason poll and picked to win a third straight SEC title — don’t want to happen again.
“We want to go 3-0 to start and not have the week we did last year (to open the season),” Lilley said.