Volleyball Seniors Relish Unique Championship Run
On Saturday, prior to the regular season finale, the Kentucky volleyball program honored its four seniors. Elise Goetzinger, Reagan Rutherford, Azhani Tealer and Riah Walker have been part of a magical run of success for the Kentucky volleyball team during their time in Lexington. But this season might be one that brings this group the most satisfaction.
Yes, these four seniors have been a part of four (or in Tealer’s case five) consecutive Southeastern Conference championships (UK has won seven in a row overall). Yes, these seniors were part of the 2020 national championship team, won in a COVID-19 bubble in Omaha.
But this season was different for the entire UK team. First, the Cats were displaced from their normal home as Memorial Coliseum undergoes an $82 million renovation. That forced Kentucky to play more than its share of matches on the road this season.
Then there’s the schedule. Kentucky faced a total of 13 ranked opponents in 26 matches. Nine of those were on the road, including matches against then-No. 2 Louisville and then-No. 4 Nebraska. The Cats struggled out of the gate, starting 2-6. Rutherford missed several matches due to injury. A pair of freshmen, Brooklyn DeLeye and Molly Tuozzo, took on key roles for the team. There were things that had to be worked out.
But head coach Craig Skinner and his staff continued to stay the course, as did the Cats. And after that tough start, the victories started to add up. On Saturday, Kentucky swept Florida to complete a 17-1 Southeastern Conference slate and claim a seventh consecutive SEC championship. Senior Reagan Rutherford admitted that it was a long journey to this year’s championship.
“I think it’s a little more satisfying than the other ones because it was just a long journey to get here,” Rutherford said. “We really did have to grind for it. This year has been so special.”
Fellow senior Elise Goetzinger believes the tough early schedule paid off for the Cats as the season progressed.
“I think a lot of connecting in that preseason into conference time helped us be ready for conference,” Goetzinger said. “We also knew that we had the hardest preseason (schedule) in the country, so not taking those losses too seriously and not being too hard on ourselves. But also learning from each moment. We have a lot of new people and how we connected those people into this team took time but now it’s flowing really smoothly.”
Rutherford also battled through injury this season but was happy to be able to contribute to two huge wins at the end of the season.
“It’s hard to sit on the sideline and not being there for my team like I usually am,” Rutherford said. “Being out for most of the year was hard and challenging but I just believed in myself and in my faith and it got me where I am. It’s really special to be here celebrating our seventh SEC championship in a row.”
Even though she and her team have done it four times now, Goetzinger knows it’s important to cherish these special moments.
“Realizing this is a big thing,” Goetzinger said. “Winning a conference championship is hard and doing it is hard. Even though we’ve done it four times, still finding a way to celebrate it and find joy in it.”
The Cats have done a lot of winning and a lot of celebrating in the last four years. But this championship has been unlike any of the titles that came before.