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Michella Chester | NCAA.com | September 16, 2021

How Louisville volleyball went from underdogs to a top-5 team

Louisville volleyball's Amaya Tillman on the Cardinals' perfect start to the season

All volleyball fans probably remember it clearly: It is 2019, Louisville volleyball coach Dani Busboom Kelly is wearing a sparkly red blazer, and the Cardinals pull off a historic upset over No. 2 Texas, knocking the Longhorns out of the NCAA tournament in the regional semifinals. 

Aiko Jones, then a redshirt freshman, now a leader on the Cardinals team, posted a career-high 23 kills and Louisville advanced to the national quarterfinals for the first time in history. 

Fast forward to present day and the Cardinals have a record-high ranking as the No. 5 team in the nation. Their 9-0 start is the best of any Louisville team since 2005. They took down then-No. 6 Purdue in straight sets to march themselves right into the top 10, and just defeated No. 8 Kentucky, the reigning national champions, in a five-set thriller. The last time Louisville beat their in-state rival was in 2012. 

But clearly, this is a new Louisville volleyball team. One that has been trending upwards since that big moment in 2019, and one that went from the "underdogs" to a top-5 volleyball team. 

Junior middle blocker Amaya Tillman ranks in the top five in the nation in blocking. She was there on the court in 2019 when they were considered "Cinderellas" โ€” and she now is helping lead a team that is a Cinderella no more. 

"I would say it's just setting a higher standard," Tillman said.  "This year we're holding ourselves to a higher standard and holding each other accountable even more so than we did at Texas."

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This Cardinals team is certainly living up to that standard. Yes, they are 9-0, but they also have two huge top-10 wins on the season. So what changed from the team that was considered an underdog just two seasons ago? Tillman noted that this Cardinals team has been known in the past to be a strong blocking team, but that this year, their defense is top notch and their offense is making huge strides. 

They have almost entirely the same lineup as that 2019 team, with Tori Dilfer running the offense, Anna Stevenson, Aiko Jones, Claire Chaussee and Tillman. Last year, they added Anna DeBeer, the ACC Freshman of the Year. She currently leads the offense with 3.25 kills per set, followed by Chaussee with 3.04 and Stevenson with 2.66 kills per set. 

But on top of their strides on the court, this Cardinals team has developed a unique perspective and mindset on the game โ€” being grateful. 

"On or off the court, we are just focused on the moment and really appreciating everything," Tillman said. "A big thing on our team is just being grateful and honoring each other and the team are playing so I think that's something really cool too is we respect and honor every team we play no matter who it is and I just love this group."

It was Kentucky the other night, and the match went to a decisive fifth set, just like the 2019 Texas upset. Coach Dani Busboom Kelly had said at the time that if you get this team into a fifth set, they're going to be tough to beat. This clearly remains true as the Cardinals fought their way back into the match after dropping the first set and then went on a 7-0 run to win the whole thing. 

"We just we play with so much grit," Tillman said. "Now we're able to gel as a team and incorporate so many different aspects of our game and put our best performance out on the court every single time."

The quest doesn't end here though. The Cardinals still have another battle before the start of conference play. They've got No. 6 Nebraska, a historically dominant volleyball powerhouse, at the Devaney Center on Saturday night. Which of course, is known to be one of the loudest crowds to play in front of. 

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Tillman noted that playing a team like Kentucky in front of Card-nation prepares them for moments like these. They were able to stay calm, cool, and collected in a tight matchup. As far as what they need to execute on the court, well, they are just going back to the basics โ€” serve and pass. 

"If we can pull those out it'll be it'll be a great matchup," Tillman said.

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