Hundreds of University of Kentucky students rushed to State Street in Lexington Saturday night, shouting with joy and creating the type of ruckus that only celebrating college students can muster.
A couch was soon up in flames in the middle of the street, surrounded by students with beers in hand. A scooter joined the fray as blue and red lights flashed, keeping the celebrations contained to a relatively small area.
It was a scene unseen in Lexington since Kentucky’s 2012 men’s basketball national championship; before that, the men’s basketball titles in 1996 and 1998.
But Saturday night’s celebrations weren’t about hoops. This time, revelers basked in the glow of UK’s first national title in volleyball — a title spearheaded by Overland Park native and Blue Valley West grad Madison Lilley.
“Being able to bring that back and see it all was so, so cool,” Lilley told The Star.
The senior led the Wildcats to a 3-1 victory over Texas in the championship final, producing the best game of her career when it mattered most: 53 assists and a career-high 19 digs.
That performance certainly wasn’t an outlier for the talented setter.
Lilley was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four; three days earlier, she was recognized as the AVCA Player of the Year.
“Surreal. Surreal, but in the best way possible,” she said. “I couldn’t have drawn it up any better. These are the types of moments that you can’t put into words. You can try, but you can’t. It’s awesome and I will forever be living these last few days.”
Lilley is the top collegiate volleyball player in the nation. But her road to these lofty heights was no picnic.
It started years ago
Lilley took her first college visit when she was in sixth grade.
You read that right. She was 11, checking out prospective college campuses and talking to some of the top volleyball programs in the nation. Juggernauts like Stanford, Penn State and Nebraska, along with plenty of other schools in Power Five conferences, including Kentucky.
“It was early, and it’s crazy to think about,” she admitted.
Lilley committed to Kentucky ahead of her freshman year of high school, effectively deciding what college she would go to before she’d even stepped foot inside a high school classroom.
The Wildcats struck gold.
Lilley led the Blue Valley West Jaguars to a Kansas Class 6A state championship in 2015, won the Evelyn Gates award as the KC area’s best volleyball player in 2016, and then earned the 2016 Andi Collins award as the top prep setter in the nation.
That’s saying something, considering she was competing against St. James Academy standouts Jenna Gray and Audriana Fitzmorris, who’d go on to win three national championships as Stanford teammates in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
Lilley could have gone anywhere for college volleyball. She could have been successful anywhere. But it was always Kentucky for her.
“I could’ve done this at all of those schools,” Lilley said. “I didn’t want to, though — that’s the thing. I wanted to play for (head coach) Craig (Skinner), I wanted to play for the people here, I wanted to play with the people here.”
Kentucky certainly didn’t have the pedigree of some of the other schools vying for her commitment. The Wildcats had never even been to an Elite Eight when Lilley committed (they broke through in her freshman year).
But throughout middle school, Lilley had been attending camps at Kentucky. She’d play with girls who’d become her future teammates, coached by a staff that would soon become her second family. In 2012, Skinner signed a six-year contract at UK that was later extended through 2024, meaning he and his staff would still be around when Lilley arrived in Lexington.
“Our coaching staff has played pretty much the same throughout my whole entire career,” she said. “We’ve had one assistant leave and get replaced by someone who had already been recruiting me, so it’s been pretty consistent and has not changed much, which I’m really grateful for.”
Lilley used to be in awe of the high school students her mom would coach.
“At that age, you think high schoolers are, like, the coolest people on the planet,” Lilley laughed. “I just thought this is the coolest thing. Like, they’re so good at volleyball.”
Kim Lilley had coached volleyball at Blue Valley West since Madison was a baby. Madison’s father, Brent, was often on the road for work, so she’d watch her mom do her thing at West’s practices, shagging balls for the high schoolers during drills and cheering them on during matches.
Her love for the game quickly blossomed and she joined the Mavs volleyball club at age 9. She soon made the jump to PVA volleyball and then to the KC Power for her under-15 season. She even played for the KC Power under-18 team while playing U-15.
She played four hours of volleyball three nights a week with KC Power, and at Blue Valley West during the school season.
“It was a lot, and it was awesome,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been around it (volleyball) forever and I feel like I’ve been trying to perfect my craft forever.”
Her mother took a step back from coaching at West when Lilley arrived at the school, but both Kim and Dad Brent continued to encourage their daughter in her pursuits.
Kim spent a year playing college volleyball before transferring to K-State, so she understood what her daughter was signing up for when she committed to Kentucky.
“You know this is going to be a lot of work,” her parents would tell her. “This is hard work.”
Message received, loud and clear.
“My parents were always just huge advocates that if you were going to do something, you’re going to do it with everything you have,” Lilley said. “And if you don’t do that, then don’t do it at all.”