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UK volleyball standouts Skinner, Stumler navigate challenging circumstances during pandemic

By Tim Letcher
University of Kentucky

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people around the world do everything. And that includes college student-athletes, who had to stop in the middle of their regular schedules and adjust to the new way of the world.

University of Kentucky volleyball senior Avery Skinner said that the changes that happened in the spring left herself, and the team, with no idea what to expect.

Avery Skinner

“It all kind of happened so fast. We’re just kind of starting our morning practices and things started to come out and other schools are saying stuff (about the virus),” Skinner said. “We had a team meeting and Craig (Skinner) just said ‘we don’t know what’s going to happen so let’s be prepared for anything.’ We kind of all talked and it came out that we were going home for spring break and we ended up staying home. It was just a whirlwind and something that was very unexpected.”

As the pandemic worsened, players were told to stay home and not return to campus. That caused quite a bit of change, especially with how players worked out and how they took classes, according to junior Alli Stumler.

“We were very unsure when we were going to come back. Craig worked with us and just asked us how we could work on our skills. Just trying to keep up on fundamental things,” Stumler said. “School was another thing, switching to online. It was just a lot of changes all at once. Being an athlete, you have to know how to balance things, and we did a good job with that.”

The summer, when players are accustomed to playing volleyball nearly every day, was also very different.

“It was definitely different, our gyms were closed, but my sister, who is on the team now, we were able to play a lot and work out together,” Skinner said. “That was really great, for us to push each other and me, being a senior, being able to teach her the things that we could. We tried to get as many touches as we could. We were able to get into our gym, with lots of rules, before I came back.”

As many of those same student-athletes return to campus, they are more than happy to be back.

“It is the best feeling,” Stumler said. “Obviously, things are different and challenging. But the fact that we’re back on campus overrides that. It’s weird getting used to the new rules but there’s not a better feeling than being back together.”

Things are different, now that the student-athletes are back on campus.

“When we first got to campus, we all had the antibody test and the COVID test,” Skinner said. “After everyone was cleared, now every day, we have to fill out a daily survey of symptoms and they take our temperature when we go into the facility. And everyone has their masks on at all times. And when we work out, we all have our own (lifting) racks. We just try to keep it as normal as possible.”

The new rules pose their own set of challenges, according to Stumler.

Alli Stumler

“It’s a little tough to breathe in (masks), it’s just really easy to get wrapped up in that and that could take away from cheering on your teammates,” Stumler said. “That’s something we’re having to work through. Just being cognizant of the new rules. Knowing that when we’re in the gym, we have to be six feet apart. Just being aware of the rules and being on top of it because you have to do what’s best for the team.”

The restrictions have forced the players to get back to some basics.

“I think going back to discipline, determination,” Stumler said. “Craig talks about how we’re going to be better people coming out of this. You have to be really disciplined. You have to really want it. It shows that, if you don’t want this in the end, it’s not going to be worth it for you. Discipline is the big thing.”

Both players are excited about the prospects for this year’s team, whenever the season starts.

“I’m really excited, this is going to be a really fun year,” Skinner said. “It’s great to all be back together. All of the freshmen are buying in. It’s super exciting and we’re all eager to get back.”

Stumler agreed.

“I have very high expectations for our team. The number one recruiting class coming in is awesome,” Stumler said. “We already have a target on our back. The last couple of years, we’ve been at the top of the conference, finishing well in the (NCAA) tournament. Obviously, we want to keep increasing those things. With the number one recruiting class, people are expecting us to come in even better, even stronger. We just have to keep thinking about how we can be better than other teams right now. I’m pumped for the season.”

If that means playing with no fans, Skinner is ready for that possibility.

“It definitely would be different,” Skinner said. “Our fan base is amazing and that’s my favorite thing about playing in Memorial is just how loud everyone is and the atmosphere, it’s a really neat place to play. It definitely will be different. We’ll have to create our own energy in a different way.”

For now, the players are just preparing, even with so many unknowns out there.

“It’s definitely a struggle every day. Craig is on a lot of (volleyball) boards, so he’s getting a lot of information and he’s trying to relay that to us,” Stumler said. “So, one meeting you leave and think that we’re going to play. The next, we don’t know. That gets hard, going into workouts every day. We might be training for not even having a season. You have to keep that focus and we have to be prepared for our next moment. In the end, if we end up playing in the spring and when our moment comes, we’ll be most prepared.”

Stumler also knows how hard the UK volleyball staff is working during these challenging times.

“(Assistant coach) Carly (Cramer) and the staff have been working really hard on the recruiting,” Stumler said. “That has to be tough because you can’t see people play in person.”

Through all of the challenges, Skinner and Stumler are preparing for the season. They hope that can happen sooner rather than later, but they will be prepared for any scenario.

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