Paul Sunderland’s words echoed across the tv broadcast as junior Alli Stumler’s swing found the floor for the title-clinching kill.
“Stumler, out of system… For the Championship! Alli Stumler leads Kentucky to their first ever Title, having the career match of her life!”
No sooner had Sunderland finished his sentence and Stumler’s kill had found the floor than the dogpile formed and gold and silver confetti began falling to the court- The University of Kentucky women’s volleyball team had won the National Championship over Texas in a four-set battle. The win marked the first National Title for not only the program, but the entirety of the Southeastern Conference as well.
Amongst the teary-eyed coaches, players and staff was a warm embrace from two of Kentucky’s newest Wildcats- freshmen Madi Skinner and Reagan Rutherford. Madi had just tallied 19 kills on 33 swings with only four errors on the right side, good for a .455 hitting clip and the second most kills on the team. But it was her backup, Reagan, who hadn’t started in a match since October the semester prior, who may have actually been one of the biggest unsung heroes of the entire season.
Discovering a Passion
Hailing from Missouri City, Texas, Reagan spent her elementary years playing soccer. And while she enjoyed the comradery the sport provided, her love of the game didn’t extend much further than enjoying the time spent with friends.
Luckily for Kentucky fans, Reagan’s older sister, Kenedi had already begun playing volleyball and slowly introduced her younger sister to the sport.
“She had been playing for two years,” Reagan said. “And she’s two years older than me so I would just watch her and be like, ‘Oh this looks so fun!’”
Once she got a taste of it, it didn’t take long for the sport to stick. Almost immediately Reagan found her place on the right side. However, unlike most right-side attackers, Reagan is actually left-handed. And as it turns out, when it comes to hitting on the right side, that’s an extremely useful tool to have in your toolbox.
“I think I can see the court so much more as a lefty because the ball is coming to me instead of the ball having to travel to my right shoulder,” Reagan said. “So I think it’s just easier to hit multiple shots and hit those out-of-system balls instead of having the ball go all the way across your body and having to hit that.”
It’s a skill that proved to be a huge advantage for her even as a young child- and an incredibly difficult challenge for opposing defenses to figure out.
As if that wasn’t interesting enough, Reagan also began to develop a talent for setting. And while a lot of young athletes dabble in multiple positions throughout their younger years in the sport, Reagan’s talent for setting wasn’t just a quick phase. In fact, from the time she began setting when she played on the 13’s team in club until the day she graduated high school, Reagan actually played as both a right-side attacker and a setter.
“I just liked the defense side of it. I think that really built my volleyball IQ and just being on the court all the time and seeing how different positions work.”
Throughout her time in high school and club, Reagan built up quite the long list of accolades, being named the Texas Volleyball Coaches’ Association All-State and District Setter of the Year in 2018, a First-Team AVCA Under Armour All-American and the 10th-best recruit in the country according to PrepVolleyball.
With a resume as packed full as that one, it didn’t take long for Reagan to pop up on UK head coach Craig Skinner’s radar.
“Well, I mean just her elite athleticism is the first thing that jumps out at you when you watch her play and how high above the net she plays and her versatility,” Skinner said.
Early Success… and Early Trials
Reagan was one of five new Wildcats that made up the 2020 signing class for Kentucky, a class that was named the No. 1 class in America according to PrepVolleyball. While the rankings came with a fair share of pressure and expectations, to Reagan’s credit, she seemed to manage them pretty well early on.
On the Cats’ opening weekend in a pair of matches against Tennessee, Reagan totaled 16 kills with just seven total errors through seven sets of play, good for a .257 hitting clip. And considering she had already earned the starting spot for the Cats on the right side as a freshman, the future was looking bright.
But in the second match of a back-to-back at No. 9 Missouri just twelve days later, the freshman found herself on the bench icing her ankle after an injury suffered in the third set. While thankfully not a season-ending injury, it would sideline Reagan for the remainder of the fall slate of games. One of the few bright spots, however, was that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, only 8 total matches would be played in the fall. The remainder of the season wouldn’t begin until late January, plenty of time for Reagan to come back from injury.
Except in Reagan’s absence, one of Kentucky’s other freshmen, Madi Skinner, settled into the rotation on the right side. And after getting a few matches starting under her belt she, and the team, began to really flourish.
While she was thrilled to see Madi and the rest of the team doing well, there was certainly a bit of frustration that it was an injury that ultimately led to her having to watch from the bench.
“I think it was really hard and difficult for me to get through. Going into my freshman year I just had all these goals and I wanted to prove that I was more than 10 (her ranking) and I wanted to be Freshman of the Year, things like that.”
But rather than let the injury and subsequent loss of her starting spot ruin her attitude, she instead chose to reshape her mindset.
“From getting injured I realized there’s just so much more than just earning rewards in volleyball. I learned to be a better teammate. I could’ve complained and just been like, ‘That’s my spot.’ But me and Madi (Skinner) both were very competitive with each other and we pushed each other every day in practice and we just had fun with it.”
That competition certainly played a factor in Madi’s growth for Kentucky that year as she and the rest of the Wildcats tore through the remainder of the regular season with only one loss, a five-set heart-breaker at Florida, along the way.
Reagan wasn’t just challenging Madi in practice, though. As a right side, it’s your job to block against the outside hitter of the opposing team. And on the practice court, it just so happened that, more often than not, it was Alli Stumler that was tasked with trying to get around Reagan’s block.
“She battled every day to earn her spot on the court and never gave up,” Alli said on her time competing against Reagan. “I can confidently say I would not be the hitter I am if it weren’t for “Rebo” (Reagan) consistently giving her best effort every day in practice. She made me better as an attacker by pushing herself and putting up a phenomenal block.”
Reagan’s ability to challenge her teammates came in handy as Alli and Madi combined for 45 of Kentucky’s 70 total kills in the championship match against Texas and both hit well over .450 on the evening. And the winning kill, a point off the arm of Alli Stumler, came on a sharp cross-court shot that Reagan helped her master.
“With Alli Stumler, she was like, ‘You’ve challenged me to be able to hit that sharp cross shot or down the line because you’re showing up every day and trying to block me in practice.’”
At this point in her retelling of the conversation with Alli, Reagan paused and laughed.
“Yeah, Alli, I was,” she joked.
Settling Into the Lineup
As a sophomore, Madi Skinner moved to the left pin and Reagan settled into the rotation as the starting right-side hitter once again and saw immediate success. In her first match as a sophomore against Texas State, she totaled 9 kills on a .500 hitting clip to go along with four blocks and a dig. Ironically enough, on the other side of the court stood her sister, Kenedi, who was in her senior season with the Bobcats.
Reagan would go on to have a breakout year for the Wildcats, averaging 2.1 kills per set on a .288 hitting percentage. She eclipsed double-digit kills for the Cats six times and set a new career-high with 16 in a match at South Carolina.
Kentucky finished the regular season with a 24-4 overall record and captured the program’s fifth-straight SEC Championship. Their work throughout the season earned them the seventh overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and the opportunity to host the first and second rounds.
After defeating Southeast Missouri State University in the first round, however, Kentucky saw its season come to a surprising close in the second round as Illinois upset the Wildcats in four sets.
An Offseason Leap
But it wasn’t long before Reagan was back in the gym getting in extra reps to prepare for her junior season.
“You can ask her teammates, I mean they all recognize how hard she worked in the spring on her ball control, on her serve receive, and serving and defense and attacking out of system,” Craig Skinner said.
The reason for working on so many different areas of her game at once?
“I always expressed to Craig, like I want to be a six-rotation right side. And he said to do that we’ve ‘got to work on your ball control.’ So yeah, I worked on a lot of serve receive.”
Reagan’s improvement in the offseason ended up being not only a nice luxury for Kentucky, but a necessity as well. With Stumler leaving the program due to graduation, it wasn’t long before Madi Skinner announced a transfer back to her home state of Texas to play for the Longhorns. Suddenly, Reagan was the only returning pin hitter, not counting middle blockers, that saw significant time the season prior that would be returning to Kentucky to play for the Cats.
But thanks to her work in the offseason, Skinner and the rest of the staff were more than confident that Reagan would be ready to shoulder more of an offensive load as she approached her junior season.
“She’s worked on it. She bought into it. She’s gone through some ups and downs and now she’s super confident.”
To begin the year, Reagan in fact did play six rotations for the Wildcats and totaled double-digit digs in 9 matches. But while the defensive side of her game has indeed taken a big leap, it’s her offensive numbers that really jump off the page compared to her first two years playing for the blue and white.
During the regular season of her junior campaign, Reagan has averaged a mammoth 3.88 kills per set on a .341 clip. She’s reached double figures in kills in 21 of Kentucky’s 27 matches and has eclipsed 20 terminations three times this season. She ranks fifth in the SEC in kills per set and eighth in hitting percentage and has recorded seven double-doubles on the season. And thanks to her and her teammates’ efforts, Kentucky captured a share of its sixth-straight SEC Championship in its regular season finale against South Carolina, the longest such streak of conference title wins in school history.
Her biggest match in a Wildcat uniform came in a 26-kill eruption in a four-set victory on the road at Arkansas back in October. She finished the match with a near triple-double, recording 26 kills on a .367 clip to go along with 14 digs, nine blocks and a service ace.
“I think that’s one of the cool things about volleyball, like you can just play and let loose and just have fun. You can trust your training without having to be so intentional in a game. So I think that was one of those moments where I had to trust my training and I would just let loose and everything I’ve been working for just came so naturally to me. And I think that shows that everything I’ve been working for in the spring and the summer has paid off.”
Following her performances in a pair of matches against the Razorbacks, Reagan was named the SEC Player of the Week and SEC Offensive Player of the Week for the second time this season.
Part of the reason for that offensive jump is Kentucky’s intentional decision to find Reagan in out-of-system situations, something that doesn’t always happen at the collegiate level. For the most part, teams tend to send a majority of out-of-system balls to their outside hitters on the left pin simply because it makes for an easier set. But with Reagan’s offensive ability combined with the fact that she’s a hard-to-stop left-hander, a clear emphasis has been placed on finding ways to get Reagan the ball on plays that otherwise seem broken.
But that’s not something that happens overnight. It takes hours of reps to build up the confidence and communication between a hitter and a libero to do it effectively.
“Me and Eleanor (Beavin) have worked on that all through the summer. We worked on the location of the set, the height of the set, where we like it and sometimes working on a little fast tempo.”
Skinner echoed that sentiment and cited her desire to improve as a key reason that Kentucky has been able to find so much success setting her during out-of-system situations.
“I mean, you have a weapon like that you want to use it as much as possible. And there was a want and desire and her improving and getting better and better at it. And then we started doing it more and more. She has the confidence, Beavin has the confidence to give her those balls and we have the confidence to give Beavin the green light to go that direction too.”
As she approaches the postseason in her junior year, Reagan still has her sights set on finding ways to improve, citing defense as one of the biggest areas left for her to grow.
Skinner seconds that, stating that passing is where Reagan can take the next big leap.
“I’d love it if she passed three rotations. She was such a good passer we couldn’t take her out.”
Beyond that, he also wants to find ways for her to flex her setting abilities when Emma Grome is forced into taking the first contact by the opposing offense.
“I want to get her more balls that when Emma digs that she can set and she can turn and hit and stuff like that. Just got to figure out the way to do that.”
“I just want to be able to inspire the people around me…”
As she looks back on her freshman season and the challenges and growth that came with it there’s a sense of gratitude and joy from Reagan for where she is today.
Joy in how she performed in practice to challenge those that saw game action in the NCAA Tournament, evident in her and Madi’s hug and conversation following the Cats’ win over Texas for the National Title.
“I was just so proud for her (Madi). Immediately after the game we hugged each other, we were crying and we were like, ‘This is for us, we did this. We pushed each other to this point.’”
And gratitude not because of her success and the accolades that have come with it but because she gets to play the sport she’s loved since she was a kid.
“This year I’m not playing for rewards. I’m not playing to be the best player of the year. I’m just playing because I love volleyball and I just want to be surrounded by the people around me.”
It’s something that’s immediately evident any time you watch Reagan play. From the casual fan who sees her big, bright smile after every point once game time rolls around to the coaching staff and teammates that see her every day in practice.
“Every day. Every day she’s that way. She’s always thankful to be around her friends, her teammates, the program and her family.”
If you ask Reagan what it’s meant for her to play in a Kentucky uniform and why she plays with so much joy her answer is very simple.
“I just want to be able to inspire the people around me, especially young black girls that don’t see a lot of role models in this world. So just being that person for them just builds a lot. It just helps me build confidence and hopefully that they have confidence from seeing the glow and the light that I share.”
That’s a light that has spread to all of the teammates that have played with her, both past and present.
“I absolutely loved playing with her and am so happy to see the success she had this year,” Stumler said. “She takes gutsy swings and has completely embraced a new leadership role this year. I can’t wait to watch her in the post season!”
But Craig Skinner has a warning for anyone who might think that Reagan’s joyful spirit is any sign of weakness once the bright lights turn on come game time.
“You got to be careful though. I wouldn’t mistake her niceness and kindness for lack of fire and intensity as a competitor. Because she wants to win big time.”
And after watching from the sidelines during the NCAA Tournament her freshman year and being bounced from it early as a sophomore, the junior appears more ready than ever to take Kentucky back to the ultimate peak of college volleyball: standing on the court with confetti falling down as the Cats capture another title thanks to some stellar play from their left-handed right side.