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Maturity in Youth: How Kentucky Volleyball’s Newest Additions Have Led the Cats Back Into Title Contention

Despite coming off a historical season that saw the Kentucky Wildcats hoisting the trophy at the conclusion of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament back in April, there were a lot of questions surrounding the program as the beginning of the 2021-22 season approached.

The questions weren’t completely unwarranted, however, in large part because three of the Cats’ starters from that championship team, All-Americans Avery Skinner, Gabby Curry and Madison Lilley, were graduating seniors.

On top of the departure of three of the greatest seniors to ever play for the program, a large chunk of the Kentucky roster would be composed of five sophomores, a redshirt sophomore and four freshmen. And while the Cats did have another Top 10 recruiting class on its way, many wondered if those incoming freshmen, or the athletes already on the roster, would be capable of sustaining a championship level of play in so many key roles. And two of those roles just happened to be two of the biggest positions on a volleyball court, setter and libero.

Enter Emma Grome and Eleanor Beavin.

A setter from Loveland, Ohio, Grome was ranked the No. 25 player in the country by PrepVolleyball.com. She was a 2020 Under Armour First Team All-American and is the career assists record holder at her high school, St. Ursula Academy.

While most players try out different positions throughout club and elementary programs growing up, outside of a few stints in club playing as an outside hitter, Grome has spent nearly her entire volleyball career running offenses as a setter.

“I’ve always been a setter,” Grome said. “Actually, throughout club I was always a setter and an outside [hitter]. So, it was kind of fun, I got to do a little bit of everything. But setting, ultimately, I love the leadership part of that and it’s fun to run the court. I always just loved that the most.”

Grome’s career in the sport began at a young age. With family members having both played and coached, Grome has been around the world of volleyball ever since she began playing club in the third grade.

“I’ve been doing it ever since. Couldn’t stop,” Grome said. “Tried some other sports but always came back to volleyball.”

Kentucky’s other starting freshman, Eleanor Beavin, had a similar background in the sport. Hailing from Mercy Academy in Louisville, Ky, Beavin is another in a long line of defensive specialists to have come out of the city of Louisville to play for UK head coach Craig Skinner. And like Grome, her family’s background in volleyball heavily influenced her career in the sport.

“My mom played in college,” Beavin said. “I have four older sisters and they all played in grade school, so I started with just a ball when I was like four. And then I started club when I was seven.”

And just like Grome, even after trying plenty of other sports, Beavin always made her way back to a volleyball court.

“Like Emma, I tried softball and all the other sports, but I really liked the team comradery about volleyball and being better for your teammates. It’s not an individual sport and I liked having that group of girls around you to support you.”

Beavin was the final addition to Kentucky’s 2021 recruiting class, having announced her commitment in December of 2020, just a month after the Wildcats had gone a perfect 8-0 in the fall slate of games and finished as one of only two (Texas) undefeated teams across the country. She was a three-time KVCA Defensive Player of the Year and was named MaxPreps Best Volleyball Player in Kentucky.

Showcasing Talent

The accolades and excitement surrounding them was high. The question was simply how they would transition to the college game and whether or not they would be the ones filling the spots left by Curry and Lilley from the year prior.

But despite those positions being vacant, it was by no means a guarantee that the freshmen would immediately step in and be given the keys to the team. Just like everyone else on the roster, they were going to have to earn it. And for those two, that was a challenge they more than welcomed.

“I mean, I think that they [the coaching staff] wanted our class to be kind of, I wouldn’t say rebuilding, but they knew that our class could have an impact immediately,” Beavin said. “And I think they recruited players that they thought could handle it.”

“It’s nice to know that you have a good shot to compete,” Grome said of the opportunity. “Everybody is fighting for a spot and it’s super competitive. You never know what’s going to happen, so you have to bring your best every day.”

Grome began the season as the starting setter right away and immediately tallied 32 assists in a three-set win over Texas State in the team’s first match of the season. Four Wildcats totaled six or more kills that day and the Cats hit a blistering .407 as a team.

Freshman setter Emma Grome (4) runs onto the court prior to the match against Arkansas on Saturday, October 23, 2021 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the match 3-2. Photo by Hunter Mitchell.

This early in the season, Beavin’s role was a bit different than what it would be later in the year, as the defensive specialist subbed into the match to play in the back row whenever sophomore outside hitter Madi Skinner would rotate out of the front row. She only played three rotations at a time, but in her collegiate debut she picked up 11 digs and helped the Cats limit Texas State to hitting just .012.

The Cats began the year 5-1, with the lone loss coming in a 3-0 sweep to Creighton at 10:30 am inside Memorial Coliseum in the first of two matches the Wildcats would play that day. But the seventh game of the season was a completely different animal, as the Wildcats traveled to No. 2 Wisconsin to take on the Badgers in front of 7,540 fans inside UW Fieldhouse.

Not only was it the most hostile environment the Cats would play in all season, but Wisconsin is a team that features six seniors, four of whom are graduate seniors that elected to return to school to use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to all 2020-21 athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not exactly an ideal matchup for a team as young as Kentucky.

And in the first two sets against the Badgers, the youth of the Wildcats was on full display, as Wisconsin graduate senior Dana Rettke, a clear candidate for this year’s coveted AVCA National Player of the Year award, and the rest of the Badgers thrashed Kentucky 25-17 and 25-11 to begin the match. Through the first two sets, Kentucky had a total of just 15 kills compared to 29 for Wisconsin. The Badgers were hitting a blistering .393, while the Cats were attacking at a meager .015 clip.

But in between sets two and three, UK head coach Craig Skinner made a change. Beginning in set three, Beavin would no longer be coming into the match for three rotations and then subbing out. She was donning the off-colored jersey and being asked to play as the libero for the first time.

And while most freshmen might have panicked in the same situation, Beavin simply threw the jersey on and broke the task down to something simpler.

“I think I more just told myself, ‘It’s only three extra rotations,’” Beavin remembered about the experience. “’You’re already playing in the game. It’s not like you went from sitting on the bench to starting. You’re in the game, you’ve held the ball, you have a good touch now. You just have to do that for three more rotations and not freak out. You’re not going to make every play. It’s No. 2 Wisconsin and you’re moving to a new position. Just do the best that you can do and stay calm and be a calm presence for the team.’”

After she was inserted into the lineup as the libero, the Cats took the third set 28-26 and dropped a tightly contested fourth set 24-26. While the Badgers recorded just five total errors in the first two frames, they tallied 13 in the next two. And after a slow offensive start, Kentucky registered 16 and 12 kills respectively through the final two sets.

They didn’t come out of Madison with a win, but what they found in Beavin and the young squad’s resiliency proved to be more valuable to the team than any win would have been.

“I’d say just being down 0-2 and being able to fight back like that kind of just gave us more confidence in ourselves,” Grome said when reflecting on the loss.

“Obviously Madison Lilley and Gabby Curry and Avery Skinner were all gone and we had freshmen in,” Beavin said. “And we had new lineups and people playing in positions they hadn’t before. And I don’t think we really believed in ourselves that we could replicate what they did last year. In that game, the fact that we were down 0-2 with all of these young underclassmen and we were able to fight back and keep composure just proved to ourselves that we were good enough.”

Solidifying Connections and Bringing Home Hardware

All that being said, the loss certainly didn’t immediately fix all of the Cats’ problems. And part of that was simply because Grome and Beavin being in the lineup meant that those connections, the ones between a setter and her hitters and a passer and her setter, were still being ironed out each and every day in practice.

“I’d definitely say that’s one of the toughest things about coming in this year as a freshman and having an entirely new group of hitters that I’ve never set before,” Grome said. That’s definitely been tough. But one of the things that I love about this group is that everyone here is just always looking for a chance to get better.”

Beavin echoed her sentiment and noted the importance of constant reps as a key factor to ironing out some of the kinks that Kentucky struggled with early in the season.

“Obviously as much as we practice and play together now it’s just natural for us but at the beginning of the season it’s not just like, oh it’s there. You’ve got to work on it.”

But putting in the work between the lines means nothing if the relationship outside the gym is nonexistent. And for Beavin and Grome, all their success this season can be directly tied to a budding friendship off the court.

“I think it’s also you [Grome] being one of my best friends makes me want you to do super well on the court,” Beavin said.

It’s not just the freshmen that have made it a point to build those connections outside of the world of volleyball, however. With a team as young as this one, all the Wildcats have made it a point to spend time together any chance they get to continue solidifying their on-the-court chemistry.

“It’s not like the classes are divided or anything like that,” Grome said. “We all genuinely like to hang out with each other and enjoy being around each other. And I think hanging out off the court, especially over the summer and even now we just had a ‘Friendsgiving’ celebration last night, things like that definitely help us get more comfortable with each other and build those connections that are really important going forward.”

It turns out all that work seemed to do the trick, as the Wildcats tore through a drastically improved Southeastern Conference with wins coming against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, No. 21 Tennessee, South Carolina and a pair of sweeps over No. 20 Florida, all teams that would eventually be in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

The Cats finished with just one conference loss on the season, a five-set heartbreaker at South Carolina on November 4th. Since the loss, Kentucky has won eight straight matches, all sweeps, and captured an outright SEC Championship, the fifth-straight year that the program has won at least a share of the conference title.

And to cap it all off, after two fantastic individual seasons Beavin and Grome were awarded two of the biggest honors available to athletes that play in the SEC. Grome was honored as the SEC Freshman of the Year and Beavin was named this year’s SEC Libero of the Year.

Grome was given the award after averaging an impressive 11.45 assists per set, the highest mark in the SEC and the fifth-highest in the country. She led all freshmen nationally in that category and directed the Kentucky attack to a .301 clip, the fifth-highest percentage in the nation.

What’s most encouraging about her, however, is that when you compare Grome’s numbers to what former AVCA National Player of the Year Madison Lilley averaged during her first year playing for Kentucky, the numbers aren’t too far off. During her freshman campaign, Lilley averaged 12.14 assists per set and helped the Wildcats hit at a .318 clip, the fourth-highest mark in the country. Lilley also ranked 3rd in the country in assists per set and, like Grome, first among all freshmen.

Beavin was named the SEC Libero of the Year after averaging a team-best 3.36 digs per set. And while there were others in the conference that averaged more digs per set than she did, it was her play in serve receive and in the passing game that put her above everyone else. Beavin led the league in passing average and good-pass percentage, two areas that are integral to running a successful offense.

Freshman libero Eleanor Beavin (6) picks up a pancake dig during the match against Texas A&M on Sunday, November 14, 2021 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the match 3-0. Photo by Hunter Mitchell.

“It doesn’t matter if you have youth. I think youth is honestly a really good thing on a team.”

Their numbers aren’t just impressive from a statistical standpoint, however. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that they’re coming in a season that’s featured so many teams composed mostly of upperclassmen. In fact, of the following statistical categories – aces per set, attacks per set, blocks per set, hitting percentage, kills per set and points per set – each of the players that rank first in their respective categories nationally is a senior. The two categories that would apply to Grome and Beavin, assists per set and digs per set, are both led by juniors.

But seniors like Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke or anyone else for that matter aren’t something that intimidate Beavin and company.

“I mean I think at the end of the day, whether you’re a fifth-year or a freshman, it’s just volleyball,” Beavin said. “And you bring to the court what you bring. I don’t have a ton of experience, Emma [Grome] doesn’t have a ton of experience. But at the same time, I’ve played as many games this season as Dana Rettke has. And all that matters is this season.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t value a senior’s experience in a match, it’s simply a belief that regardless of their age, they believe they can compete with anyone in the country.

“Obviously in big games they’ll probably have a little bit more composure at the beginning. But I think me and Emma are pretty composed for our age. So, I think that’s what’s good about us is that, yeah we’re not fifth-year seniors, but we bring a calmness to the team that a lot of fifth-year seniors would.”

That’s a mature outlook for a team with so many youngsters. But that’s been a theme of this team all year long. One phrase seems to come up at least once in every postgame interview: competitive maturity.

“I think we’re at a point now where we don’t really feel like we’re freshmen going into a game,” Beavin said “We’re just part of the lineup. It’s cool that we’re freshmen, but we don’t really think of ourselves as like, ‘Oh they’re little freshmen out there.’ They’re out there doing their job.”

And it certainly isn’t lost on them just how big the opportunities that they’ve been given this season truly are.

“It’s such a great opportunity and I know we’re both so grateful to have the opportunity to be in those roles,” Grome said. “And I think it just kind of forces us to step up a little bit too which is not something you always see from freshmen.”

Now, after being given the No. 7 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament and being matched up with Southeast Missouri State in the first round, Grome and the rest of the Wildcats look to the post-season as they prepare to defend last year’s NCAA title. And according to Grome, the tournament couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for Kentucky.

“We just work on things a little bit every week and you can just see we get 1% better every day,” Grome said of the team’s development this year. “And I think it’s helping, it’s showing. I think we’re peaking at a good time too, going into the tournament. It’s just insane how much we’ve grown. Honestly, it blows my mind a little bit.”

And that growth, coupled with the motivation that came after so many initially wrote these young Cats off prior to the start of the season, are two primary forces driving this team forward.

“I mean there was just so much doubt on us at the beginning of the year,” Beavin said. “I think every announcer or whatever kind of counted us out: ‘They’re not going to win it again; they lost all their seniors.’ But people are slowly realizing, ‘They could do it again!’ It doesn’t matter if you have youth. I think youth is honestly a really good thing on a team.”

It certainly has been on this year’s squad, and as the Wildcats prepare to defend last year’s NCAA title, a title that was won in part because of a host of seniors, Kentucky will look for that same leadership and passion in two freshmen – Beavin and Grome – to help guide them. And while the box score may list them as only freshmen, the competitive maturity they play with on the court tells an entirely different story.

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