OMAHA — When Craig Skinner left his spot as a Nebraska volleyball assistant coach after the 2004 season to be head coach at Kentucky, he figured he’d give it five years, and then go from there.
Well, five years turned into 10, and now it’s 16, and it’s a good thing he stuck around because what Skinner and Kentucky are doing now is making history. On Monday, the Wildcats beat Purdue in the NCAA Tournament regional final to reach the Final Four for the first time.
The next first is even bigger, because on Saturday the Wildcats will play in the national championship match for the first time.
Second-ranked Kentucky beat No. 7 Washington in four sets Thursday in the national semifinals at CHI Health Center Omaha, 25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17. Outside hitter Avery Skinner led the Wildcats with 19 kills. The third set was key, when Kentucky trailed 21-16 before rallying with a 6-0 run and winning the set for a 2-1 lead.
Kentucky will play No. 5 Texas in the championship match on Saturday.
Texas swept No. 1 and previously undefeated Wisconsin 26-24, 25-19, 25-23 in the other semifinal. Texas beat Big Ten teams in its last three matches — Penn State in the Sweet 16, Nebraska in the Elite Eight and Wisconsin in the semifinals — and never needed five sets to do so.
Texas middle blockers Asjia O’Neal and Brionne Butler dominated, combining for 22 kills on .616 hitting.
Twice Nebraska coach John Cook hired Skinner as an assistant. The first time was when Cook was the head coach at Wisconsin in the 1990s. Skinner had just graduated from college and was working at a country club in South Carolina. A mutual friend told Skinner that Cook had an opening. Skinner got the job, and made $12,000 the first year.
Then when Cook became the head coach at Nebraska in 2000, he hired Skinner again, and they were undefeated national champions that first season.
“I wouldn’t be the head coach at Kentucky if I didn’t have the opportunity to coach with John at Nebraska, and the success we had together,” Skinner said.
It was at Nebraska where Skinner met his wife, Megan, who was an assistant soccer coach for the Huskers. Megan played college soccer at Creighton. She coaches high school soccer now, and they have three children.
After the 2004 season at Nebraska, Skinner looked at few head coaching jobs.
“I looked at several different schools and had some interviews and chances, and my wife and I felt like Kentucky was the place,” Skinner said. “We had a 1-year-old, Sophie, our oldest, and Lexington and Kentucky was the place that we wanted to venture out. We thought that that point and time let’s give it five years and see where we are. Megan was a soccer coach, and had soccer opportunities as well. We took this one and haven’t looked back.”
In the five years before Skinner arrived, Kentucky never had a winning record. Skinner has never had a losing record there, and now the Wildcats will play for a national championship.
“I sat in this (Omaha arena) in 2006 in the front row and watched Nebraska win a national championship, and I recruited some of those (Nebraska) players, and just dreamed about being in this moment,” Skinner said. “So for us to be currently living a dream, and for me and my family to live a dream like this, there is no monetary value or material thing you can put on that.”
Two players from Nebraska played for Skinner at Kentucky while he was building the program — Ann Armes from Grand Island and Brooke Bartek from Lincoln.
Skinner thought he’d been able to get good players, and that’s certainly the case now.
“We’re in the borderline of the Midwest,” Skinner said. “There is a lot of great club and high school volleyball. Volleyball in the South had just started to take off and get bigger and bigger.”
The Wildcats have five All-Americans this season, with two from Texas, and one apiece from Kansas, Indiana and Georgia.
The award goes to: On Thursday, Skinner was named the national coach of the year by American Volleyball Coaches Association. And Kentucky setter Madison Lilley, a senior from Overland Park, Kansas, was named the national player of the year. She’s the first player from the Southeastern Conference to win the award, and the only setter in the past six years to get the award.
The national freshman of the year was Ohio State right-side hitter Emily Londot.
An Omaha Final Four first: In 2006 the Final Four came to Omaha for the first time, and it’s become a regular stop since, coming four times. This is the first Omaha Final Four that won’t include Nebraska; but with the tickets already purchased, many Nebraska fans still attended Thursday’s matches and were scattered throughout the crowd, from the first row to the top of the arena.
The capacity was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the announced attendance was still 4,948.
See you at Starbucks: For the first time, this was a one-site NCAA Tournament due to the pandemic, with all six rounds under one roof. For a few days all 48 teams were in Omaha — bringing about 1,200 players and staff members.
The teams saw each other at daily COVID-19 testing, practice and the hotels. And, apparently, the coffee shops downtown.
“The Starbucks, I think, had all 48 teams in it every day,” said Sydney Hilley, the All-American setter for Wisconsin. “But it’s been really fun to be able to see so many other teams around. There is so much talent here, so it was actually cool to have all in one spot this year.”
Badgers for Badgers: The Wisconsin softball team, which begins a series against Nebraska on Friday, attended the match to support the Badger volleyball team. The softball players got as close to the court as they could when the volleyball team took the court for the first time, and then moved to the top of the Wisconsin section to watch the match.