AUSTIN, Texas — Setters are having a moment. It used to be the case that volleyball’s quarterbacks were content to toil behind the scenes, dishing the ball to the big hitters who got the kills and the glory.
But not so anymore.
Penn State’s Micha Hancock emerged as the leader in this group of modern celebrity setters in the college game. With her wicked lefty jump serve and ability to attack on two, Hancock gained a cult following and led the Nittany Lions to back-to-back national titles.
Then, along came Lauren Carlini, the top recruit regardless of position in the class of 2013. Standing 6-foot-1, Carlini posed a blocking and attacking threat in the front row and boasted speed and athleticism that allowed her to make great sets out of even less-than-mediocre passes.
Don’t forget current Minnesota setter Samantha Seliger Swenson, whose silky, smooth hands deliver perfect, highlight-reel sets practically every play.
Perhaps the next in line in this list of exceptional, show-stealing setters is Kentucky’s Madison Lilley, who cites Carlini among her role models. Lilley and the 16th-ranked Wildcats play at No. 6 Texas on Friday night.
Entering her college career as the No. 4-ranked recruit in the class, Lilley earned the starting setter position in Lexington as a freshman and led the 2017 Kentucky squad to a 29-4 record, the SEC title, and regional final of the NCAA Tournament, where the Wildcats lost to eventual champion Nebraska.
“Madison is a complete player,” Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said. “She obviously is a great setter and has proven that already in her career. She can execute every facet of the game. She also knows and understands what her weaknesses are and always wants to make them better.”
After raking in the accolades as a freshman — second team All-America, All-Southeast Region, Southeast Region Freshman of the Year, SEC Freshman of the Year, All-SEC — and ranking third in the nation and first in the SEC with 12.14 assists per set last season, Lilley made the USA Volleyball Collegiate National Team that traveled to China over the summer.
A rock star as a freshman, by all accounts Lilley enters her sophomore team even better and continually improving.
“We’ve spent a lot of time working on (Madison) being more deceptive, not only along the net, but when she’s off the net, so I think she’s taken her game to another level there,” Skinner said. “She’s taken her game to another level in the back court defensively. She’s a much better blocker right now than she was her freshman year.”
Always one to speak her mind and hold teammates accountable, Lilley is also becoming an even more confident leader, whether that manifests in calling plays and performing on the court or being the only player in the gym to hit the wiffle ball off the cone during serving practice.
“I’ve been setting since I can remember,” said the 5-11 Lilley, a product of Overland Park, Kansas. “I got like three rotations back in the glory days when I got to hit but other than that, I’ve always set. I think it fits my personality.”
This season, Lilley’s offensive arsenal is missing the graduated Emily Franklin, Kaz Brown, and Darian Mack, but has gained dynamic six-rotation freshman outside Alli Stumler and long and lean middle Gabby Goddard. And, of course, there’s first-team All-American junior outside Leah Edmond, versatile Brooke Morgan, and All-SEC Freshman pin hitter Avery Skinner.
And yet, opening weekend, Kentucky, which ranked No. 5 in the AVCA Coaches preseason poll, didn’t win a match, losing to Creighton and UNI in five and USC in four.
Lilley and Skinner were both unperturbed by what happened on the Wildcats’ road trip to Los Angeles.
A 3-0 second weekend at home certainly helped boost the collective confidence, especially after coming back from trailing 0-2 to Kansas and winning in five.
“I think going 0-3 on the road and then coming home and going 3-0 says a lot about how much we can bounce back,” Lilley said. “Obviously being at home was good for us, and this road trip will be good to show what we can do on the road.”
“We always want to play good teams in pre-conference,” Skinner said. “We learn a lot more about ourselves in those situations, and it gives you more opportunities to beat high-level teams. If you only play one good team in preconference, it gives you one chance to play and compete and have a chance to win great matches.”
The next big test, likely the toughest match of the Wildcats pre-conference slate, will be at Texas.
“I don’t think anyone in the country matches up position by position athletically with Texas,” Skinner said.
But, he continued, “We’re different. We’re a very effective serve-and-pass and defensive team with some offensive arms that can score points for us. We go very fast, not that (Texas) goes slow, but I think we’re a quick tempo team offensively, so we want to try to do what we can with that to give us some problems.”
Kentucky will face a young, but incredibly dangerous Texas team. Coach Jerritt Elliott has a true or redshirt freshman in four of the seven starting spots.
Like Kentucky, Texas has scheduled tough, opening the season at the Vert Classic, where it took down Oregon and Florida. The Horns then travelled to Madison and lost in four to Wisconsin. Then, Texas will play Stanford both in Palo Alto and at home in Austin to wrap up the pre-conference portion of the season.
“Typical Texas, really athletic and talented and well-coached,” Skinner said. “And they’re obviously going to be jacked up to play on their home floor.”
But Lilley’s pretty jacked up, too. She saw her team bounce back from a tough first weekend, and, she says, she sees improvement from her teammates every day.
“(This year) connections are building, on and off the court,” Lilley said. “I think that helps being able to find hitters in certain situations.”
Perhaps, as she prepares herself for tomorrow’s match, Lilley will channel one of her role models. In Carlini’s freshman year, she set the Badgers to an upset of Texas in the national semifinal match, and that national championship appearance cemented her place in the celebrity setters club. Friday night just might do the same for Lilley.