Volleyball challenges No. 18 Kentucky in Lexington

Abby McCreary, Staff Reporter

This weekend, Alabama volleyball will travel to Lexington, Kentucky, to challenge the No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats.  

The Wildcats have made 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances and have held the SEC champions title for five years in a row, but Alabama setter Brooke Slusser says that doesn’t matter.  

“[We’re] thinking of them as just another team — don’t put a school name on them,” Slusser said. “They’re just players, so we just need to focus on what we’ve been working on in practice and on what we need to do to win this game.” 

Alabama (6-9, 0-3 SEC) has lost three matches in a row, including one against No. 14 Florida (10-3, 2-1), the only other ranked team the Crimson Tide has played this season.  

Both Florida and Kentucky (7-5, 2-1) have historic programs led by storied head coaches, but head coach Rashinda Reed says it doesn’t matter who her team plays.  

“It’s not about Kentucky for us,” Reed said. “It’s about what we do right now. It’s about what we do on our side at this time.” 

Alabama currently ranks last in the SEC in both hitting percentage and assists per set. After a season-high hitting percentage of .396 against Texas State, the Crimson Tide haven’t been able to climb above .200 since starting SEC play. 

Throughout the season, Reed has been preaching consistency, and Slusser said that it’s all in the head. 

“It’s just a whole mental thing,” Slusser said. “We have to knock it up one and know that we can beat these teams. It’s just rebuilding that confidence.” 

Alabama’s advantage going into Lexington will be its serves. The Crimson Tide lead the conference with 115 service aces — the only team above 100. Kentucky, on the other hand, is in the top three SEC teams for most service aces allowed. If the Alabama serves can stay in, they will certainly be the Crimson Tide’s greatest chance at success.  

Alabama outside hitter Abby Marjama has led the SEC, and most of the NCAA, in service aces for a majority of the season. She said she walks up to the service line with an ace in mind.  

“When I go back there, I just try to get in my rhythm and let it rip,” Marjama said. “Top spin is high-risk, high-reward, and I want to ace people all day long.” 

Although Marjama also has one of the highest number of service errors, she said those don’t bother her that much. 

“With the serve I have, sometimes it’s not going to go well,” Marjama said. “At the end of the day, I’m just trying to get more consistent. When I miss one, I just focus on getting the next one in and go from there.” 

The Crimson Tide need to bring their best against the Wildcats. Kentucky recently split their two-match series against LSU, an unranked team — a rare weakness for the Wildcats.  

Kentucky, though, still reflects the historic program that head coach Craig Skinner has built. In his 17 years with the volleyball program, he has ended each season with an NCAA tournament run, including a 2021 National Championship — the first SEC volleyball team to ever win the tournament. Last year, his team fell in the second round to the University of Illinois, where Reed was an assistant coach at the time. 

This year, Kentucky returns nine players from its 2021 squad and has pulled off some big wins, but certainly suffered its fair share of losses as well. This weekend, Alabama aims to add another unranked loss to the Wildcats’ record.  

Marjama said she looks forward to the challenge.  

“I’m really excited,” Marjama said. “[We want to] find weaknesses that they have that compare to our strengths. Pinpoint those, and then just have this big energy and atmosphere.” 

The Crimson Tide will play the Wildcats on Saturday at 3 p.m. CT on SEC Network+.

Questions or comments? Email Austin Hannon (Sports Editor) at [email protected]