To state the obvious: The rivalry between University of Louisville and University of Kentucky is not taken lightly. No one knows that better than former Assumption volleyball teammates Molly Sauer and McKenzie Watson.
Sauer, a libero for the Cardinals, and Watson, a defensive specialist for the Wildcats, will find themselves on opposite ends of the rivalry when U of L hosts UK at 7 p.m. Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center.
Sauer and Watson, both sophomores, played club volleyball together for KIVA, helped Assumption to a state title in 2013 and had older sisters who played volleyball for UK. Growing up, the two attended multiple U of L-UK volleyball matches together with their teammates. One time, they were even ball girls.
Last season, as college freshmen, was their first time actually playing in one of the rivalry games, and their first time being opponents.
“It’s pretty weird,” Watson said. “The first game, last year, was pretty different because we’ve played together since we were 12, so it was pretty weird seeing her on the other side of the court. But I think now we kind of embrace the rivalry and we have fun with it.”
MORE U OF L COVERAGE
Sauer recalled the pregame trips to Panera she and Watson used to make back when they were teammates. The two don’t like to talk to each other about the upcoming match, Sauer said.
“Anyone you play with that long, you form a special bond with,” Sauer said. “She’s a great player and great friend of mine. That kind of goes out the window in a rivalry match when we step on the court, but afterwards it’ll go right back to normal.”
In the 2015 match, Kentucky beat Louisville, 3-1, in Lexington. The Wildcats have won four of the past five meetings between the two teams, and the Cardinals will be looking revenge Thursday. The atmosphere will be tense.
“I think you could have a U of L- UK checkers match and the anxiety and everything is going to pick up on it,” Assumption volleyball coach Ron Kordes said.
Although Sauer said some of her teammates from out-of-state initially needed explanations of the rivalry’s significance, it seems to have sunk in. The Cardinals have another match Friday against Lipscomb, but the Kentucky match has become an overwhelming presence in the minds of U of L players.
“Oh, our kids, there’s nothing else they’re thinking about,” Louisville coach Anne Kordes said. “In fact, Lipscomb is a phenomenal team, but I haven’t heard that name mentioned in two weeks.”
MORE UK COVERAGE
Louisville (4-4) is coming off three straight losses, most recently to No. 5 Minnesota and No. 2 Wisconsin. Anne Kordes said her team’s strength is passing, led by Sauer. The libero is averaging a team-best 4.23 digs per set. Both Anne Kordes, and her father Ron, used the word “smooth” to describe Sauer’s playing style.
“Honestly, she’s just that good,” Anne Kordes said. “She has a long body. She has a lot of range and then she can just read and move just so smooth. There’s nothing about her that’s jerky. So it just allows her to control so much of the ball when it comes in her area. We also rely on her to take a lot of balls that are out of her area and snag balls away from other players on serving receive.”
But Kentucky coach Craig Skinner has a defensive weapon as well in Watson. After starting at defensive specialist in 2015, Watson suffered a hip labral injury last spring and has been working her way back. She now leads the Wildcats in service aces and is second in digs.
“She is one of our best communicators,” Skinner said. “She sees things before they develop, and she really helps our team stay organized in long rallies.”
Ron Kordes, who has coached at Assumption since 1989, agreed.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a right back defensive player better than McKenzie Watson,” he said.
As much experience as Sauer and Watson have playing volleyball together, their most vivid memories with one another occurred off the court. Sauer spoke fondly of the many trips she took with Watson, from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the beach in Destin, Florida. Watson’s favorite memory took place at home in Louisville.
“When we were about 12, (Sauer) had our whole team over and I remember we were playing wiffle ball in her backyard,” Watson recalled. “It was just so fun. We took pictures of each other’s feet — like, we all got in a circle and took pictures and made the caption on Facebook, ‘Sisters forever.'”
Kentucky (5-4) is fresh off sweeps of Virginia and St. Louis, but a few players are battling abdominal strains and concussions. Louisville will also be without three starters. With both rosters depleted by injuries, it’s hard to predict who will have the advantage Thursday.
“It creates little unknowns in preparation,” Skinner said. “You’re not 100 percent sure once you finish warm-ups and the whistle blows and the people come out there, who you’re going to see and at which spot.”
Sauer and Watson have each played in every set for their respective teams this season, so it is likely they will be among the players on the court when the whistle blows.
After that, anything could happen.
“When you look at rankings, or when you look at how teams fared so far, a lot of times you can throw that out the door when U of L and UK play because it means so much to everybody on both sides,” Anne Kordes said.
Sauer and Watson will both walk into the Yum! Center on Thursday. Only one will walk out the night’s winner, but that won’t divide them. After playing together for so long, they know there is a bond that will still be there: “Sisters forever.”