When Kentucky plays at home this weekend for back-to-back SEC matches against Auburn, you would have imagined that Alli Stumler would be leading the unbeaten Wildcats in kills. But you might not have thought that Avery Skinner would be tied with her with 65 kills, averaging 4.33 kills per set.

What’s more, Skinner, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Katy, Texas, is lighting it up, hitting .389. It marks a remarkable comeback for Skinner, who is now joined on the UK roster by her freshman sister, Madi. Both are products of the Houston Skyline club.

Before we get back to Skinner, Thursday’s schedule marks the first of back-to-back Big 12 matches we’ve all been waiting for when Texas (10-0) plays host to Baylor (11-1). The same teams — regarded as the top two in this abbreviated fall season — play Friday. Last season, Texas swept Baylor — Baylor’s only regular-season defeat — but then the Bears not only won the rematch at home in five, went on to the national NCAA semifinals.

There were two SEC matches Wednesday as Kylie Deberg went off with 28 kills and eight service aces as Missouri held off Arkansas in five and Mississippi State defeated Texas A&M. The recaps follow after more about Kentucky’s Skinner.

The same SEC teams play again Thursday, but two teams that won’t play this weekend are Ole Miss and LSU. Ole Miss is out “due to a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent quarantine of student-athletes among the Ole Miss program, the Southeastern Conference announced Wednesday afternoon,” LSU reported. The matches have been rescheduled for November 24-25.

There are also three Sun Belt Conference matches when South Alabama plays at Georgia State twice and Georgia Southern goes to Coastal Carolina.

Avery Skinner

Now back to Skinner. As a freshman in 2017, Skinner burst onto the scene, second only to All-American teammate Leah Edmond with 362 kills (3.32/set) while hitting .247. In 2018, she played in 23 of Kentucky’s 31 matches, but in roughly half the sets and had 132 kills (2.32/set), hitting .235. And then last year, Skinner, bothered by a bad knee, played in just nine matches and had 53 kills.

So what happened?

“(Last year) I kind of struggled with an injury and it was tough getting back to 100 percent from there,” Skinner said. “It definitely was a struggle just trying to work in the gym day in and day out.

“But I would say quarantine for me was really good.”

Indeed. She never needed surgery she said, but when she was stuck back in Texas this spring, “I was really focused on myself. I couldn’t really do anything else except be home and going to work out. That was kind of a really good time for me to re-center myself and be able to work on the little things.”

And a bonus was being able to have a workout partner in Madi, a 6-2 outside, and one of three players with similar names on the Kentucky team, along with senior setter Madison Lilley, and freshman libero Maddie Berezowitz.

“It was nice to work out together. We were able to push each other and not everyone on the team had that,” Skinner said. “It’s really hard when you’re alone to push yourself to your limit, so it was really good to work out together every day. Our strength coach would send us workouts to do.”

Worth noting is that there are also three Skinners, since the coach is Craig Skinner (no relation). Madi Skinner, who has played in one match this fall, was the top first-place vote getter on the 2020 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 list this past spring. Avery’s and Madi’s dad is 6-9 Brian Skinner who played at Baylor and whose 13-year NBA career included stints with the Clippers, Cavaliers, 76ers, Bucks, King, Trail Blazers, Suns, and Grizzlies. He retired in 2011.

“As a kid we played as many sports as possible,” Avery said. “Our parents played every sport and exposed us to everything. Just being able to watch his drive and what he did, working every day to play at the highest level of basketball, was just an amazing role model for me. And he pushed me all the time, giving me extra workouts and things like that. I tried to use that to my benefit.”

Baylor was one of the many teams recruiting Skinner. She made her first visit there and also strongly considered Texas A&M and Iowa State, another SEC school.

“I was trying to figure out if I wanted to stay close to home or move away, and obviously ended up decided to let volleyball take me where it could,” she said. “And I love it here.”

Certainly there was an opportunity for Skinner this season with the graduation of Edmond, who did it all for Kentucky. She led with 491 kills last season, while Stumler was next with 391.

During that time last spring, Skinner said she emphasized strength and footwork and “Madi and I were able to pepper some and work on ballhandling stuff and do what we could without a net.”

Kentucky opened the season with a sweep and then a four-set win over visiting Tennessee, but had to work hard at Missouri last week, winning in four both nights after losing the first set both times.

“We definitely had some adversity going down in the first set, but I think it was really good for us to have that,” Skinner said. “Moving into next weekend we’re looking pretty good and we’re excited.”

WINS FOR STATE, ARKANSAS — Mississippi State (1-4) got its first victory and Texas A&M (4-1) took its first defeat as Gabby Wadden had 20 kills and hit .412 in the 21-25, 25-21, 25-17, 25-23 victory. Wadden also had three digs and four blocks. Morgan Davis had five blocks and 13 kills and hit .435 for A&M, which hit .150 as a team.

Arkansas (4-1) gave Missouri (3-2) all it could handle as the Tigers prevailed 25-13, 25-22, 21-25, 25-27, 15-6. Deberg got her 28 kills on 71 attacks. She had five errors and hit .324 and in addition to those eight aces had 14 digs and two blocks. Anna Dixon had 18 kills and Danielle Hollingsworth 14. Setter Andrea Fuentes had six kills with one error in 11 attempts and 48 assists to go with 14 digs and two blocks.

Taylor Head had 17 kills, 13 digs, and two blocks, one solo, for Arkansas, and Jillian Gillen added 16 kills, 15 digs, and two blocks, one solo. They each had three aces.

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