UK volleyball more focused this postseason

Published 4:10 pm Thursday, November 10, 2022

LARRY VAUGHT

Contributing columnist

She was the Southeastern Conference libero of the year and a member of the SEC all-freshman team in 2021, but Eleanor Beavin admits she was not ready for the way her freshman season ended.

Kentucky, coming off a national championship season, lost at home in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Illinois 3-1. Looking back, Beavin admits the team was probably too overconfident going into postseason play.

“I think we came in knowing they had won the championship the year before and we came in not as focused and prepared thinking the first and second rounds were at home and this would be a breeze,” said Beavin. “Defending champs … we got a little ahead of ourselves for sure and got the wind knocked out of us in the second round. A lot of disappointment for sure.

“This year, especially since we have already had a lot of losses that we learned from compared to last year, I think we will go in more hungry and be a lot more focused. We are expecting better results and know we should get better results. We are ready to erase what happened last year out of our memory.”

Kentucky is 15-6 overall and 10-2 in SEC play going into a match this week with Mississippi State before hosting Tennessee Nov. 16. Next will come matches at SEC leader Florida Nov. 19 and 20 that could decide the conference winner.

Kentucky has lost to some of the nation’s best teams — Wisconsin, Louisville and Nebraska — this season and Beavin knows when postseason play begins in December that the Wildcats will have a different postseason mentality.

“Not that we were not humble last year, but it’s just when you are the defending national champion, no one expects you to go out in the second round. We didn’t think it was even a possibility,” she said. “So when we got down, it was like, ‘Oh crap. This team can’t beat  us.’ But they did.

“This year we have that expectation that it doesn’t matter who we are playing or whether we are ranked or not, we are going to go in prepared like it is a national championship match from the start.”

Beavin played at Mercy High School in Louisville where she was a defensive standout and all-state player. Four times her team got to the state championship game. Each time, Mercy lost.

“We could never quite win it all in high school. Last year winning the SEC was super special but I definitely want to win a natty (national championship),” Beavin said. “Every year in high school we got closer and closer (to winning the state). We lost by two points in the fifth set my senior year and that is definitely something that has always stayed with me and coming to college I wanted to change that. I definitely want to win a championship here.”

Kentucky has become Libero U. under coach Craig Skinner. Starting with Jackie Napper in 2011 and then Ashley Dusek followed by Gabby Curry, Kentucky had the SEC’s best liberos — a streak Beavin continued last year with her play.

Curry, a three-time SEC libero of the year from 2018-20, has been a “bit of a mentor” for Beavin. The UK sophomore knew plenty about the history of UK volleyball since the Louisville area produces a lot of quality liberos.

“It’s like Libero U. here at Kentucky. We win (SEC) libero of the year all the time and it’s not by sheer luck. We train it. We have the mindset going in that we are going to win it.,” Beavin said. “As a freshman last year I had the mindset I never doubted I could win the award because it is the history here. A player respects the history here and that is a big reason why I came here. I knew they would train me exceptionally well.”

Beavin didn’t assume she would be the next Gabby Curry but she thought it was a “possibility” she could be that successful if she put in the work.

“I knew I had the ability to be the libero if I worked hard enough and luckily that did happen. We have extremely talented players on our team who push me every day and I think that is why our team gets better because our passing is insane,” Beavin said.

Because Beavin was not the opening match starter in 2021, she knows her play surprised a lot of people and probably had doubts about her.

“That was a totally fair assumption but I love proving people wrong. I have done it my entire life. I love when people have that expectation of me and then see I can do it. I don’t think people have that assumption any more about my play,” she said.

“I just feel like I am very composed when I play. I don’t let things rattle me. I have a really good knack for the game. I have the ability to kind of run the entire backcourt because I know the responsibilities of my job. I just know the game very well and that translates to my play.”

Beavin has also become much more talkative on the court this year. She would defer to older players last season and admits she was a bit “tame” last season.

“I know the game and feel like people definitely trust me now in my position, so I feel like I have the ability to step up in my position and just talk a lot on the court to help my team,” Beavin said.

* * *

Kentucky senior guard CJ Fredrick is in a unique position. He played with Luke Garza, the national player of the year at Iowa in 2021, and now plays with Oscar Tshiebwe, the 2022 national player of the year.

“I have been able to play with some really good guys,” Fredrick said. “What I did (for Garza) was just trying to make things easier for him.

“It’s the same here. My job is to get the ball to the returning national player of the year and make it easier on him.”

Fredrick could only sit and watch Tshiebwe play last season after transferring from Iowa because he was injured. However, he knows playing with Tshiebwe will be “awesome” this season.

“I always joke that if you are on a team with Oscar it is easy to shoot. If you miss, you know he is getting the rebound,” Fredrick said. “He is such a dominant player.”

* * *

Defensive coordinator Brad White had been the outside linebackers coach for the Indianapolis Colts for six years when coach Mark Stoops brought him to Kentucky five years ago. He was named defensive coordinator in February of 2019.

Stoops knew White was a significant staff addition when he hired him and he has developed terrific defense as well as sent players to the NFL.

“I knew when I hired him, I said that day one, that it was extremely important, number one, to develop the talented outside backers that we had in the program and then, number two, he was a big-picture guy,” Stoops said.

“I knew right away that was important to me and to our staff. I’ve mentioned with how complex and how many different styles there are in college football. You see so many different styles.

“You don’t always see that at the next level. With college football there’s extremes and different styles and I think it’s important to have as many big-picture guys as you can.”

UK has held teams to 24 points or less and 400 yards or less in 12 of the last 13 games and three times this season has held a team to three points or less in the first half. Kentucky also allowed Missouri to convert just two of 13 third-down plays and held Missouri under 100 yards rushing the third time UK has done that to a team this season.

* * *

Kentucky freshman guard Cason Wallace is not going to hit 3-pointers like seniors CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves. He’s not going to hand out assists at the same rate as point guard Sahvir Wheeler. However, what he is going to do is bring infectious energy and potential lockdown defense to the court.

“They want me to play hard, that’s what it takes to win, so that’s what I’m willing to do,” Wallace said. “That’s kinda who I am. Bringing energy, picking up full court.”

His teammates like what he’s shown he can do.

“It lifts everything up,” Fredrick said. “You see him disruptive on the ball, blocking shots, diving on the floor. It makes you want to go harder and lift your game up that much more on the defensive end.”

Wallace can play point guard or two guard equally well. He’s terrific in transition both offensively and defensively. He might not be quite as quick as Wheeler, but he’s bigger and stronger — and is capable of blocking shots in transition or the half-court.

“Coming out, playing with a chip on my shoulder every game, bringing energy, playing hard,” Wallace said about what he could add this season. “I feel like once I got in, I’m gonna be that spark, I’m gonna make sure there’s no drop off, that’s why I play so hard.”

Playing hard but he is also playing well in so many areas.

“Have to like how many ways Cason Wallace can impact that game. Anybody who plays that hard and can create, shoot, pass, defend, and rebound looks like an All-SEC player,” Cats Illustrated publisher Justin Rowland said.

* * *

No matter what happens during games, Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy knows she always has at least one reason to smile this season.

“Do you see how happy I am that I can look down the bench and I had a whole row of people?” Elzy said.

After playing with as few as seven scholarship players in some games last year, Elzy now has a full roster of 15 players that will be on display again Friday night when UK hosts Morehead.

“I love our versatility and it’ll take us a couple of games to find the right combinations and it really depends on the opponent and what we’re looking for, but I like that we have options but our versatility,” Elzy said. “We have several players that can play the one through the four which helps us offensively as well and defensively.“

Oregon transfer Maddie Scherr is one of the 10 new players on the team and is expected to be one of the team’s major contributors this season. However, she likes the team-first attitude the team has and displayed in last week’s exhibition win.

“We shared the ball really well. Everybody knew when their shot was coming and we pushed the ball in transition,” Scherr said. “ Nobody, I think, took shots that they weren’t supposed to take and, obviously, the coaches are good and people know their roles here. That’s really important.

“As a point guard, my favorite thing is seeing players run the (down the) side and post runs down the floor.”

Scherr already knows playing with sophomore guard Jada Walker is going to be fun this season because of the quickness she brings.

“She’s just in and out of all the people and she gets her open layups when she can. Sometimes you need to reel her back in and say ‘Okay, let’s slow down, bring the ball in’ but that comes from just experience,” Scherr said. “She obviously does great there, attacking the basket and finding open players.  She’s a really fun person to play with.”

* * *

No experience can prepare a college basketball coach to know how to deal with the unexpected death of the father of one of his players.

Kentucky sophomore Daimion Collins’ father passed away unexpectedly last week a few hours after watching his son and UK teammates practice.

Calipari does remember a game in 1996 when he was coaching at UMass when star center Marcus Camby collapsed before a game against St. Bonaventure (that was the same year UMass beat Kentucky in the Great Alaska Shootout but then lost to the eventual national champion Cats in the Final Four in New York).

“I’m in the locker room and he passes out and he’s on the floor unconscious in the hallway and Dante Bright, I can still remember, runs into me and says, ‘Coach, Marcus fell out. Marcus fell out.’ And I ran out and literally he was out cold,” Calipari said.

“I didn’t coach the game. I went to the hospital with the kid. I was so concerned. I thought he was going to pass away. I can still remember the feeling of being in the waiting room, pacing, praying. He ended up being okay. He had to stay in the hospital, try to figure out what it was. They never did.”

That had an impact on Calipari the rest of the season.

“It was hard coaching him the rest of the year because any time he went to grab his knee, you okay? You all right?” Calipari said. “But it happened with Camby, that kind of way, which is, you just drop everything. It’s, whatever’s going on literally does not matter at that point.”

Which is how Calipari felt last week when he found out Ben Collins had passed.

* * *

Redshirt freshman tight end Jordan Dingle had three receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win at Missouri. He now has three touchdown catches this season, which ties the previous freshman receiving touchdown record shared by Derek Abney (2000) and Tommy Cook (2001) before current freshman Dane Key raised that mark to five this season.

The former four-star prospect from Bowling Green has a catch in all nine games this season, something only freshman Dane Key has also done. Overall he has 17 catches for 188 yards and has become a vital part of the UK offense.

“He is blocking well and doing a lot of good things,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after the Missouri win. “I thought Jordan really had a good game. It started in that early drive when Will hit him. He is just doing a lot of good things.”

Stoops even pointed out that in the 44-6 loss at Tennessee a week earlier, Dingle had one of UK’s best offensive plays.

“That over the shoulder catch (at Tennessee) is hard for a big man. Not everyone can make those catches,” the Kentucky coach said.