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Where Champions Are Made: UK Women's Volleyball Makes History

Head coach Craig Skinner kisses the championship trophy during the ceremony to welcome home the volleyball team from their national championship victory on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Jack Weaver.

After a nonstop 2020-21 season from fall to spring, the University of Kentucky’s Volleyball team won the NCAA Championship in the final game against Texas. The title was not only a first for UK, but the entire Southeastern Conference.

The hard-working women of the UK Volleyball team played each game with the performance of it being the championship. Their confidence and unwavering determination led the team to their 3-1 win against the Texas Longhorns in the final game in Omaha, Nebraska on April 22.

The team had begun their practices in the late summer, going into a season of unknowns due to Covid-19. Games canceled at the last minute for the safety of the players was a hardship.

“There was definitely disappointment when we would go hard at practice and then be told later that night our game the next day was canceled,” said sophomore Sophie Fischer, playing Outside Hitter.

“We were taking it day by day,” senior Lauren Tharp said. “Positivity was our only mindset when looking forward to the next game we had to play.”

Playing a full season during Covid-19 restriction redefined determination for the team. The positivity the team kept no doubt showed in the way they played, their victories occurring game after game.

“The team culture is one of the best qualities of being a player for Kentucky,” said senior Alli Stumler, Outside Hitter.

Confidence and support are two of the biggest characteristics of the UK Women’s Volleyball team, said sophomore Reagan Rutherford, playing Opposite position.

“Everyone on the team genuinely wanted to see each girl succeed more than themselves,” Stumler said. “It’s really rare to find a team of 15 that is so absorbed with the team before self. That’s what made competing with them so fun.”

Senior Gabby Curry carries the championship trophy toward fans after landing on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Jack Weaver.

Uplifting one another to become stronger and to play harder brought a sense of fulfillment, benefitting the team and each individual player, Tharp said.

“The atmosphere of our team is incomparable,” Tharp said. “Being around people who want to be better makes me better.”

The Kentucky Women’s Volleyball team has shown they’re more than just a group of players and coaches, they’re truly a family.

“Our coach, Craig Skinner not only recruited some of the best players for Kentucky’s team but he recruited a family,” Fischer said.

The friendship of the players on UK’s Volleyball team is clearly demonstrated whenever they’re seen playing on and off the court.

A positive outlook became motivation for winning games and for the team to set new goals.

“We feed off each others’ confidence,” Rutherford said.

To keep their positive mindset, “we had to inflict the habit of saying ‘when’ we do this, instead of, ‘if’ we do this,” Rutherford said.

Winning game after game, moving higher up in ranking, the team’s only priority was to focus on the next match. To keep the team grounded, a saying from Coach Skinner, “be where our feet are” led the team to focus on their goals to beat their upcoming opponents, Tharp said.

After Texas called their final timeout from having the lead 23-21, players knew they had the game when senior Gabby Curry declared their win to happen in the next moment.

“Our team saying, ‘pressure’s a privilege’ only encouraged us to push harder to that ultimate goal,” Skinner said.

UK celebrates the game winning point after the University of Kentucky vs. Texas NCAA women’s volleyball championship game on Saturday, April 24, 2021, at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. UK won 3-1. Photo by Michael Clubb.

The team began adjusting their plays to beat teams in better ways they previously had done and finding new strategies to score more. Each player had set new goals to help each other get better.

“The game isn’t about whether you win or lose. It’s about using your role the best of your ability to benefit the team. It’s about the bond you share off the court and not just with your teammates, but with the staff as well. It’s about the impact we have on the community, it’s for all of those things that make our team and that’s what I think Kentucky Volleyball should be known as,” said Stumler.

Not only were the players gaining their motivation from each other, but the staff as well.

Reaching the championship, the team put a year’s worth of hard work into the final game of the season. The team had accomplished so much by becoming the first SEC school to reach as far as they did, let alone placing UK on the map of being NCAA finalists in volleyball.

“It’s one of those moments you can’t even put into words. The moment being so surreal,” Skinner said.

After Riah Walker’s serve gave UK the lead 23-21 and Texas called their fnal timeout, Fischer and Tharp said they get chills every time they think of the amazing kill by Stumler that won their game.

Even months after their success, the players are still reeling from the shock of the extraordinary season they experienced, now being recognized in public, and being stopped for pictures and autographs.

Having young girls share their aspirations of becoming like the players was an unparalleled feeling for Fischer and Rutherford.

Excited for their upcoming season, the players of Kentucky’s Volleyball team can’t wait to see what awaits them in their upcoming season. They are currently practicing and playing their pre-season games in hopes of another successful season.

“I’m looking forward to having that target on our back of being National Champions just so that the pressure from other teams can push us to be better,” Fischer said.

UK’s volleyball team has made history by winning the national championship in their last season, bringing new and exhilarating attention to the sport. More fans, more passion, and even more energy will be brought to the upcoming season that will be back to having full crowds.

“I’m ready to prove who Kentucky Volleyball is and what we’re all about,” Stumler said.


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