It’s not often you have an individual standout earn National Player of the Year and SEC Player of the Year honors while being named a four-time All-American to go with four consecutive conference titles and a national championship. The Kentucky Wildcats got that in Madison Lilley, the SEC’s first Female Athlete of the Year from volleyball and inarguably the most accomplished and decorated player in program history.
It’s a priviledge to have someone of that caliber rewrite record books and hang banners for your school. But to bring that same player back to the Kentucky bench as a coach? That’s a whole different level, something Craig Skinner was able to accomplish this past May, hiring Lilley as his third full-time assistant ahead of the 2023 season.
“We are pumped to have Madison join our staff,” Skinner said of the hire at the time. “Her career as an All-American, national champion, and years playing professional volleyball will be a huge asset to our program and players. Talking to her during the process, she expressed how playing pro really helped her understand the value of coaching and the type of impact you can have on people in that role.”
Lilley transitions from student to teacher
Lilley joined fellow former Wildcat and two-time SEC champion Merideth Jewell, who was also hired as a full-time assistant on Skinner’s staff in January 2022.
How are his stars of the past adjusting to life as coaches, molding the next generation of volleyball talent in Lexington? For the head coach going into his 19th year, it doesn’t get more rewarding than watching those he taught become teachers of the game at the highest level.
“It’s super rewarding for me as a coach, for not only Madison, but Merideth Jewell — my other assistant who played for me,” Skinner told KSR on 630 WLAP’s Sunday Morning Sports Talk. “To have those two players choose to come back to the program says a lot about the experiences they had. And that means a great deal for recruiting. Madison’s knowledge of the game is superior.”
It’s never a sure thing the transition from player to coach is a seamless one. Being able to process and play the game is one thing, but translating and communicating those skills as a teacher? Easier said than done.
Jewell already has one year under her belt. Lilley, though, is gearing up for her first regulation match when the Wildcats open the season at Colorado State on Friday at 9 p.m. ET.
“You never know how delivery is going to be when they’re delivering their message and knowledge to players, how it’s received. What they see and how they can teach. Knowing something is one thing, but teaching it is another,” Skinner added. “I think Madison has a really good perspective on what teaching is and the progressions it takes to go from one spot to another as an athlete. Playing experience is huge for our players, for them to pick their brains about it.”
Rounding out Skinner’s staff
Skinner’s staff isn’t limited to former Wildcat standouts, either. The veteran coach went across our border to the north to find his right-hand man in Ben Josephson, the leader of one of the most dominant men’s volleyball programs in North America. Guiding Trinity Western University to five national championships and nine consecutive conference finals in 16 years as head coach, along with spending time leading the Canadian Men’s National Team, it was a no-brainer to bring him on as associate head coach back in February.
All in all, as well-rounded and talented a coaching staff you’ll find in volleyball. And Skinner is pretty proud of it.
“You certainly brag on your staff,” the Kentucky head coach said. “Having a former player, an All-American, National Player of the Year and national champion certainly adds to it. Meridith (Jewell) was a multiple SEC champion and team captain, Ben (Josephson) coached Trinity Western in Canada to five national championships on the men’s side and was the men’s Canadian national team coach. The value of our staff is huge and recruits definitely see that.”
Continued recruiting success
Emphasis on the recruiting factor. Kentucky won the 2020 NCAA National Championship and Skinner was named the AVCA’s National Coach of the Year in 2020-21. The Wildcats followed it up by signing the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class this past fall, a group that included a GGCL Player of the Year, Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year, the No. 1 setter in Michigan, the VYPE Libero of the Year and a USA Volleyball Nationals participant.
“However anyone ranks something is media fodder, but it’s everything. It’s the program, it’s the people, it’s the staff, it’s the players, it’s success,” Skinner said. “Whether it’s No. 1 in someone’s eyes, No. 6 in someone’s eyes or No. 10, etc., the cool thing is character is culture. All of these kids are great players but they’re better people.
“That’s one of the most important things for us, who they are as people and how they are going to represent Kentucky and the university itself.”
Don’t expect that recruiting success to slow down anytime soon — certainly not with Lilley on staff.
8/21/23, 7:28 PM
Seem a bit premature to talk about her "early success." Why don't we give a little time. I think she will do great. I thought the same thing about Joker Phillips, too, though.