By LARRY VAUGHT
Not much seems to ever bother Kentucky junior setter Emma Grome on the volleyball court, which is one reason she’s leading the nation in assists per set.
However, she was a “little intimidated” going into this season after four-time UK All-American Madison Lilley returned to Lexington join coach Craig Skinner’s staff.
“I certainly knew who she was and had been to plenty of games when she played at Kentucky but I had never interacted much with her,” said Grome. “I just didn’t know much about how she would be but it’s not intimidating any more. She has been great.”
Lilley was a dominant setter at UK and led the Cats to their first national title her senior year when she was the 2020 NCAA Division I Player of the Year and the NCAA championship most outstanding player. She was also named SEC Female Athlete of the Year, the first volleyball player in conference history to win the award.
“It really cool to learn from somebody who has been in my shoes. I have never had that experience before,” Grome said. “She was the starting setter before I got here. She was a great player and leader and I love the one-on-one setting training I get with her.”
During any break in play Grome always comes straight to Lilley before joining the team huddle. The UK junior said they have a “little setter conversation” that will include what is working well, what could be better and maybe how the other team is trying to block UK’s attacks.
“Sometimes her message can be as simple as everything looks great and there’s nothing more I need to do,” Grome said. “But a lot of times teams will change their blocking schemes and if I don’t catch it she will tell me.
“She’s very helpful. She can be tough if she needs to be but she has taught me so much, especially with the individual training we do at the start of practice.”
Most wondered how Skinner could replace Lilley with the pressure her successor would have. Grome was SEC Freshman of the Year and then was named SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore when she also earned All-American honors.
Grome has been so good that when she does leave UK her successor is going to have huge shoes to fill as well. Kentucky has already won two conference titles and is in position to do so again this year.
Grome said she never thought about what her legacy would eventually be when she got to Kentucky.
“Now I hope I do leave a good legacy and give everything I can to the program,” the junior from Loveland, Ohio, said. “I knew I had very big shoes to fill and people were wondering how I would do. I just tried to work hard and be the best Emma Grome I could be.”
Grome tried basketball and beach volleyball — “I even dabbled in tennis” — but never liked anything as much as she did volleyball.
“I think I was pretty decent in those other sports but I just grew up with volleyball. My mom never coached me but she coached a long time. My sister played from the time she was born through high school. I grew up in the gym watching her and just always loved volleyball,” Grome said.
Even though her mother was never her team coach, she was always there offering advice.
“She was hard on me but she is a huge part of why I am the player I am today,” Grome said. “She always made sure I had every opportunity to get in the gym and get better. My love of the game stems from her.”
Grome’s love for the game is obvious. On the court no matter the score or competition, she’s almost always smiling or laughing. She encourages teammates and never lets a misplay impact her.
“If you play on a team with some athletes like we have you should have fun,” she said. “I have options everywhere I look on offense and our defense has really been holding its group. I always have fun but it is really fun to be on a team with so many great athletes.”
Grome doesn’t do a lot away from volleyball because she’s always in the gym working on her skills. She used to watch a lot of TV with teammates but that has changed recently.
“I am watching a lot of movies with teammates. I used to never do that. Now we are into Christmas movies and I love that,” she said. “I just love doing things with my teammates and seeing new places around Lexington.”
Eventually she hopes to be a physical therapist like her sister because that is one way she can stay involved in sport when her playing career eventually ends.
Grome had 1,099 assists – 12.08 per set – in UK’s first matches. That not only leads the SEC but also leads the nation.