OMAHA, Neb. – Kentucky's Alli Stumler bumped into coach Craig Skinner at the team hotel a few hours before the NCAA volleyball championship match and had a question for him.
“You ready to win a natty?" she said she asked him.
Of course, Skinner was. So was Stumler. The All-American had a season-high 26 kills, the biggest coming on the final point of the match, as Kentucky won its first national championship in women’s volleyball with a four-set victory over Texas on Saturday night.
“The moment we woke up, we knew we were going to win this thing,” Stumler said. “The moment we stepped off the plane in Omaha, we said we were going to win this thing. There was never a doubt there was any team better than us.”
The Wildcats had the nation's most efficient offense this season and, with the exception of a few hiccups early in the first set and the start of the fourth, they were in top form with Stumler and sisters Madi and Avery Skinner leading the way.
After Texas forced a second match point, Stumler hammered a kill the Longhorns had no chance of handling, that ended a 20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22 victory.
The Wildcats (24-1) converged on the court and went to their knees in celebration. After exchanging hugs, several players made snow angels in the confetti that had dropped from the ceiling.
“I knew we were going to be good. Did I know we were going to be this good? I thought we had a chance," Craig Skinner said. “We’re good on offense, we’re good on defense. The skill this team has is super underrated. I don’t know what our weaknesses are. It’s hard to spout that before today. If someone wants to tell me a weakness, I’d love to hear it.”
Kentucky setter Madison Lilley, the national player of the year, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after finishing with 53 set assists against the Longhorns.
Kentucky freshman Madi Skinner had a season-high 19 kills and Avery Skinner had 14 kills and four blocks.
Stumler, who had only two errors on 51 swings, won the battle against Big 12 player of the year Logan Eggleston, who had 21 kills and just one error on 50 swings. Skylar Fields added 16 kills for the Longhorns (27-2), who were in the final for the fifth time in 12 years.
“I had confidence coming in to tonight," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said, “but we knew if Kentucky played a great match they could beat us, and they did that tonight. I can’t hang my head on anything. Kentucky just played that good.”
Kentucky's championship also was the Southeastern Conference's first in women's volleyball, and commissioner Greg Sankey was on hand at the CHI Health Center to see it.
The Wildcats only loss this spring was a five-setter against Florida last month. They lost only two sets in five tournament matches.
Fields had five kills and Texas hit .455 with just one hitting error in winning the first set. Avery Skinner, sensational in the semifinals against Washington, got off to a slow start and had three of the Wildcats’ seven hitting errors in the opener.
Stumler and the Skinners led Kentucky back in the second set and kept the Wildcats’ mojo going the rest of the way.
Kentucky had three errors on its first nine swings of the fourth set and was down 6-1 before it clawed back and went ahead 15-13 on two attack errors and a kill by Madi Skinner.
Texas tied the set three times before Kentucky got it to match point. A rare error by Stumler forced a second match point, but there would be no third after Stumler received a set from Gabby Curry and delivered the finishing cross-court kill.
The Longhorns expect to return the core of their team in the fall, and Eggleston said they expect to be back in the championship match.
“We're winning next year. That’s how we’re all feeling,” she said. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you end the season with a loss. We're coming back stronger next year. There’s a lot of blood boiling and we’re ready to go.”