(Featured image courtesy UK Athletics)

So now comes the official word: The University of Kentucky volleyball seniors are getting on with their lives. UK issued a press release informing all that Gabby Curry, Madison Lilley, Avery Skinner and Kendyl Paris, fresh from a national championship, will not be exercising their right to an additional season in Lexington, that they’ll take life’s next big step, whatever that is.

Anyone who’s been out of college for more than a few years might be tempted to cup their hands to their mouth and scream, “Stop! Go back! The real world sucks!”

But it wouldn’t matter to them and why should it? Most of us doing the screaming haven’t been where they’ve been. We haven’t visited the mountaintop and odds are, if they DID come back for another climb, they’d fall short.

Why? It’s hard. It’s REAL hard to win a “natty.” So why not go out on top?

Craig Skinner’s team shares a building with three other programs that have won national titles: Men’s basketball, Rifle and Women’s Cross-Country. The first two have won multiple championships but even John Calipari will tell you, there should be more big trophies on his shelf. Three or four of his teams have fallen short when they could have, nay, SHOULD have cut down the nets.

In a wonderful parallel, volleyball teams likewise get to slice up nets only they don’t need a ladder to do it. They take scissors and attack the barrier that only minutes prior had separated them from the opponent that was looking to squash (or spike) their dreams. Kentucky had to fight off a Texas Longhorns team that, like so many others this season, had more size on the front line than the Wildcats. But like all the others, they didn’t have the athleticism.

The person typing this has preached long and as loudly as one can on the radio about the allure of college volleyball – particularly on the women’s side. There are a number of NCAA men’s programs but it’s similar to tennis in that the game has given itself to power so much that long rallies are rare.

If the Wildcats and Longhorns won new fans the night of their title bout, it likely was because of the extended rallies that inevitably included a handful of marvelous plays. Think of Curry, flying out of bounds by some 15 feet into the scorers’ table to rescue an errant pass, or Alli Stumler, back to the net, launching herself well past the end line to punch the ball into the air, enabling one of her teammates to send it back over and keep the rally alive.

It’s explosive. It’s athletic. It’s entertaining.

In a recent 60 Minutes piece, Hall of Fame sportswriter Dave Kindred, now semi-retired, was explaining why he’s chosen to write about the girls’ high school basketball team in the small Illinois town where he now lives. In describing the difference between the sport as played by men versus women, he allowed that the men’s game, with all its high-flying leaps and dunks, is vertical. The distaff version, more dependent upon ball handling and passing, is horizontal.

True enough. But volleyball, both men’s and women’s, is vertical. Men might fly higher, but anybody who watched the Cats and the ‘Horns could see players, be it 6-foot-5 Molly Phillips of UT or Kentucky’s Azhani Tealer, all of 5-foot-10, soaring over the net for a kill and, oh yes, without touching said net so as to avoid a violation that would negate the point.

Thanks to Skinner’s recruiting, Kentucky featured what had to be the deepest and most talented roster in the land, starting with Lilley, the setter who first caught his eye when she was a seventh-grader. She committed to UK a year later and when she arrived, championships followed. In Lilley’s four seasons in Lexington, the Wildcats have won or shared four SEC volleyball titles.

And now she can slide in alongside the likes of Jack Givens, Tony Delk, Jeff Sheppard and Anthony Davis, all of whom know what it’s like to save their best for last – leading their team to a championship in their final appearance in blue and white, snagging Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.

Lilley says she has no idea what’s ahead for her, but she’s excited, nevertheless. Skinner will move elsewhere to graduate school for Communication Sciences and Disorders and might play one more season. Curry likewise is ready for whatever lies ahead.

Paris will pursue her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, perhaps some day treating athletes looking to walk the same path she did. And any one of them might look up and say, “Hey, Doc – what’s it like to win it all?”

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