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Louisville volleyball carrying championship expectations

The Cardinals are 14-0 and have achieved their highest ranking in program history.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Being part of the highest-ranking volleyball team in program history slipped the mind of Louisville All-American Anna Stevenson.

"I had forgotten we're number three," the fifth-year senior middle blocker said. "That's fun to hear."

It's new territory for the Cardinal volleyball program, which has won 28 conference championships, made the Sweet 16 six times and advanced to one Elite Eight. That came in Stevenson's first season back in 2019 after transferring from Auburn, which showed her that her new school could go beyond the expected conference titles.

"We're creating a new storyline for Louisville volleyball," Stevenson said.

And the next chapter is Louisville's first trip to a Final Four, which would allow UofL a shot at its first national championship.

"You don't want to avoid the elephant in the room, which is what our goal is," Louisville head coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. "And that it's achievable to be able to win a national championship."

In year five under Busboom Kelly, Louisville is embracing those expectations. The Cardinals are 14-0 this season, 4-0 in ACC play and riding a streak of five straight sweeps. They've lost just four sets all year.

"I didn't come here saying we're going to win a national championship in five or even 10 years," Busboom Kelly said. "I want to be in a position to compete with the best teams in the country and we have the players to do that."

UofL knew it had a chance to be great with plenty of stars returning. The team brought back three All-Americans in outside hitter Anna Debeer, setter Tori Dilfer and Stevenson. It also got back 2020 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Amaya Tillman as well as All-ACC Honoree Aiko Jones. 

The Cardinals said that continuity immediately made a difference when they started preparing for this season.

"I think everyone just came in with a lot of confidence," Tillman, a middle blocker, said. "I feel like we're a very welcoming team. So there was no awkward moment."

"I felt like we competed from day one," Stevenson said. "And I just felt kind of in control of my game. And I was like, 'Whoa, this is new.'"

"Just having Anna Stevenson and Tori Dilfer back for a fifth year, I think seniors just add a whole other element to your program," Busboom Kelly said. "It's their last chance and they're both great players. So you know when you have two people leading your team like that, you're going to be in a pretty good spot."

Stevenson has already been named ACC Player of the Week three times, while freshman libero Elena Scott has earned Freshman of the Week three times in a row. Louisville is fifth in the nation in team hitting percentage and eighth in opponent hitting percentage. 

"I think our backcourt defense has really improved," Busboom Kelly said. 

"There's very few times that I'm blocking up there and I'm kind of worried about us not getting that dig," Tillman said.

"And then we've never attacked as high as we have in the past," Busboom Kelly said. "So our attack percentage is the highest it's ever been since I've been here by quite a bit."

That attack percentage is at 32 after the previous high under her had been 27. Louisville also leads the ACC in blocks while allowing the least amount of kills in the conference.

"I feel really confident, like the best I've ever felt in my game," Stevenson said. "And I think that having experienced players makes a difference. Even the freshmen who play when they come in, I just feel confident in what they're doing."

It showed in the most impressive stretch of the season. The Cardinals dropped just two sets while conquering three top-10 opponents from Sept. 10-18: No. 6 Purdue, defending national champion No. 8 Kentucky and No. 6 Nebraska. The win over the Huskers was the first sweep of the five-time national champions in Lincoln since 2019. 

"They weren't just luck," Stevenson said. "It wasn't like they were all tight five-set matches. We were clean, crisp and we just finished it."

"That's when I think we knew that this was special," Busboom Kelly said. "We are better than sometimes we think ourselves."

That confidence is what Louisville hopes to carry to chase a championship. And the Cardinals are staying loose while enjoying the ride.

"We want to have goofy, focused fun," Stevenson said. "And I think that's something that kind of defines this team."

"We talked a lot about what we should be thinking versus what we could be thinking," Busboom Kelly said. "That goes with when you're playing great or no matter who your opponent is."

"We always remember that we need to have humble confidence," Tillman said. "So no matter what we're ranked, no matter who we're playing, they're going to come out and we have a target on our backs."

You can contact Tyler Greever at tgreever@whas11.com or on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.  

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