Craig Skinner was visiting with his assistants earlier this week about Kentucky's run of practices leading up to the 2014 season.
There have been up and downs, to be sure, but the coaching staff could find little to complain about in the effort department.
"The coaches kind of said that we really haven't had a day where the concentration and intent to perform wasn't there, and that's fairly unusual because you go so hard for so long and a short period of time that you're bound to have some days where it's not really focused and energetic," Skinner said. "But that hasn't been the case."
If you ask Skinner or the Wildcats themselves, that has a lot to do with a cultural exchange trip to China the team took in May. For two weeks, UK toured the Far East on a journey that combined high-level volleyball, education about the nation they visited and plenty of team bonding.
"It went really well. We played professional teams over there which was even more experience," senior outside hitter Lauren O'Conner said. "It's great that we were able to get experience with the team that we had without the seniors (from the 2013 season) to get even more practice with us and to build the chemistry on the court playing together with a new lineup. So I think it helped out a lot both physically and mentally."
That's especially true on defense.
Given the experience and talent of the opponents they faced in China, the Wildcats learned quickly no points would be given to them. That resulted in some losses, including a 3-0 defeat in their final match with each set being decided after a deuce point, but also a new mentality in practice this August.
"We've talked about how this could be the best defensive team we've had here at Kentucky," Skinner said. "I think part of it is talent, but I think also that it is because all but three of the girls (true freshmen Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek and Darian Mack) saw firsthand how hard it was to win a rally over there and that you have to work for it."
The Cats won't go up against any teams as veteran as the ones they saw in China, but UK won't get much of a reprieve to start the season or really at any point during the 2014 season. In hosting two tournaments in Memorial Coliseum to start the season, the Cats will go up against three teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament, including Wichita State in Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET season opener and Elite Eight participant USC next week.
UK will have to do it without Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan, two players honored as All-Americans last season who have since graduated.
"We've had to adapt a little bit, to change our style a little bit and I think our players understand and appreciate that challenge and are certainly embracing it and we're finding new ways," Skinner said. "Now it's just putting all of it to the test when we finally play against outside competition to see if those things have worked."
Even without Billings and Morgan, it's not as if UK is devoid of experience.
The Cats return five of seven starters from last year's team, which reached the tournament for a record ninth season in a row. Leading the way will be O'Conner, senior libero Jackie Napper and setter Morgan Bergren.
"We have a core group of people on the court that are working together," Napper said. "Morgan's a junior, but she's really stepped up to be a leader, as well as other underclassmen and upperclassmen. So together, we all try to figure out what works best with this team, ways to lead others, and ways to bring others on board."
UK's roster features a mix of veterans and players who will look to contribute for the first time, with seven seniors or juniors and five freshmen. Skinner doesn't downplay the importance of experience, but he also doesn't believe it's the most important thing once the ball is served.
"I think in our case, probably the most important thing in all of our athletes is that they're talented and motivated," Skinner said. "So whether they've been here for four years or just beginning, we feel very good about the group of people that we have and now it's about getting on the court Friday and seeing what it's all about for us this year."
Newest Kentucky baseball assistant coach Rick Eckstein joined Dick Gabriel's Big Blue Insider on Tuesday night. Eckstein talked about his time as a big-league hitting coach with the Washington Nationals from 2009-13 and his last year with the Los Angeles Angels and UK baseball great Collin Cowgill.
On why he would leave the big leagues to come to the SEC ... "That's an easy question. To reconnect with Gary Henderson and be in the SEC. Raise my family here in Lexington. There are just so many positives; I can go on and on."
On his previous relationship with Gary Henderson at Florida ... "He recruited me as a preferred walk-on. Made the team and earned my way. We ended up finishing third in the country that year. When the year was over, I was offered the opportunity as a volunteer assistant coach and that is where I really got to work side by side with Gary and see how he went about his day. And right away I recognized why we were so good. Gary is meticulous, just so knowledgeable. Gary was our recruiting coordinator and we were just getting so many great players. As my career unfolded we stayed in touch and this opportunity came up and my wife and I looked at each other and said this is the right opportunity for us. I couldn't be happier. We are here in Lexington and looking forward to raising our family here and settling down in Lexington. Jumping in head first the last few days has been great, getting to meet the staff and the players, I just couldn't be more excited."
On following along with UK when it soared to its first No. 1 national ranking in 2012 ... "It doesn't surprise me. I know Gary. I know what Gary stands for and I know what he is going to build. When I had the opportunity to be a part of that I didn't even hesitate. I knew it was where I needed to be. On a side note, being with the Angels and Collin Cowgill being on the major league roster, I got to talk extensively with him about his time at Kentucky. And Collin is just a wonderful human being and just an outstanding player on top of it. It is no wonder the Angels are right there in first place because he is a part of that. He brings that type of attitude with him. And that is what Kentucky baseball represents and he is representing UK in the big leagues with that same attitude."
On working with Collin Cowgill as he impacted the Los Angeles Angels ... "Having worked under Mike Scioscia and knowing his philosophy. It's everything that I believe in, and Gary too. It's the character of the player. It's the work ethic. It's the attention to detail. It's the commitment to excellence. Its giving it everything you have for your teammates. That is what Mike Scioscia values for his system. And when Collin came over in spring training and was earning a spot on the team, it was visible from day one that this guy was going to help us win. Whether it was coming off the bench to steal a base, or coming off the bench to get a bunt down. Or whether he was going to hit the game-winning home run like he did against Oakland earlier in the season. He had every trick in his bag and that is because of the development Gary and his staff had in the program. It is just a wonderful process that you can see in Collin."
On his relationship with Albert Pujols ... "Well Albert and I were able to work together through the years. My brother was a part of the St. Louis Cardinals and I was around them for a lot of time and then in 2007 I was hired by St. Louis and got to see Albert 1-on-1 for a good portion of the season. He has a work ethic that is second to none; his attention to detail. He would not let anything go. He wants to know everything and he will work until he figures it out. Our relationship blossomed because of one at-bat. It was against Carlos Zambrano and needless to say he did a few things to get himself in position and the rest is history from our relationship standpoint. We reconnected again with Anaheim and from day one it was the same type of approach, the same mentality, the same work ethic. He showed up every day with the same commitment on day one that he has on day 162 and more. It is phenomenal."
On how much he can talk with UK's hitters about his big-league experience ... "No you are absolutely right. This is about JaVon Shelby. This is about Zach Arnold. This isn't about Albert and Collin. It is my job to understand our guys as a person and a player. Get inside their head and understand their mindset. I believe in coaching as a two-way street. We are both going to understand each other so we have a great line of communication and dialog. The buy in is going to be easy, they are going to understand where I am coming from and I am going to understand where they are coming from. That respect is where you gain miles and miles of knowledge and acceptance and everything that comes with achieving the goals that come with that. I am sure players are going to want to know about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Barry Bonds and all the guys that I have had the great fortune to work with. But at the same time, I am going to focus on our players and I am going to use the knowledge I have working with those guys to talk about adjustments. To talk about mindset, the mentality, about the character it takes and the understanding that failure is a part of how to be successful and how do you handle the tough moments and how do you rise to the top. That is all a part of the message."
On if UK's offense has some big pieces to replace in former stars AJ Reed and Austin Cousino ... "Absolutely. You are going to lose some of those good guys in AJ and Austin Cousino. But we are going to get to replace them with some great guys that Brad Bohannon and Keith Vorhoff have helped bring in and recruited. They are getting talent into the system and that is exciting. I am glad to be a part of that. I am proud to be a part of that. We might miss out on a little power but we have team speed, we have the ability to get on base. We have the mentality, I know has been preached and that is right up my alley. The make-up of our team is going to be a huge strength. We had a team meeting last night. Gary Henderson led the meeting and I just sat back and watched the room. I watched the players. They were into it. They were there. You felt like one big family. I tell you what, I left that room and I told my wife after I got home late, 'I am fired up. I am ready to go. These guys are ready to go.' I am not a big guy. My brother is not a big guy. We were raised on the mentality that the size of the player doesn't matter. It's what you give every day. It's how much you pour into the program. What stamp are you leaving on the program? That is indicative, whether you are the giant monster of Kyle Cody or the little big guy of Rick Eckstein."
On what hitting philosophy he subscribes to ... "I would say that I know Charley Lau's theories. I know Ted Williams' theories. I know Davey Johnson's theories. I've worked for Frank Robinson. I know Mike Scioscia's theory. I've had the great fortune to work with some of the best hitters that have ever played the game, and talk with them. I had a chance to work 1-on-1 with Barry Bonds for three weeks in Japan for the Major League All-Star Series and literally was fascinated with how his mind worked and we talked and hit it off. I have taken pieces of everyone I have been around and you file those in your head. Everyone is unique. Everybody is different. Everybody is going to stand in the box different. Everybody is going to see the baseball coming at them differently. It is my job to get into the mindset and understand how they see and how they digest that information to make it efficient. To say that I am a Charley Lau guy or a Ted Williams guy, no, I am a guy that is going to work to help each guy individually to see who they are supposed to be with the parameters of that I believe that there are table setters and I believe that there are run producers. When you have a table setter like David Eckstein trying to hit home runs, then that isn't going to work. And when you have a run producer, like Barry Bonds, we don't want him hitting singles the other way. There is a common sense in that philosophy, where we are looking at you like what is your potential? What are you supposed to do in our system? Where are you supposed to be? And that is how the philosophy shapes the guys while they are here under my watch and by the time that we get everything settled and the lineup, top to bottom, everybody will be pulling their weight."
The schedule calls for Mark Stoops to talk to the media on Mondays and Thursdays during game week, with UK's offensive and defensive coaches available on Tuesday and Wednesday. After his weekly media luncheon on Monday, Stoops was supposed to have a two-day break.
As he came off the field on Tuesday, Stoops was in a jovial mood, even stepping over to the podium for an unscheduled media opportunity.
"It was good," Stoops said of UK's Tuesday practice. "We had a lot of work. We got a lot of work done today. We needed to. Good hot day. Felt good about the energy. Guys are starting to lock in and execute well. So overall, it was a very good practice."
With the Wildcats just five days from its season lidlifter vs. UT Martin at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday at noon on the SEC Network, Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown are continuing to get the offense working at the desired tempo and excelling on first down.
"We'll be much faster week one this year than we were at any point last year," Stoops said, referencing UK's 2013 season opener against WKU. "Like I said before, we've got to get some production on first down. That's a big key for us to move the football. We're not good enough on any side yet to go fast and not get first downs. So we have to move the ball, and even though you're going fast, you still have to chew up some clock by getting first downs and running plays. But I feel good. I feel like we're improved, and they're ready to go."
Brown echoed Stoops' assertion that a high-tempo offensive unit needs to excel on first down in order to run the desired offense.
"We did not play with very good tempo at Western," Brown said about the tempo of 2014 camp compared to 2013. "We tried to early and we just didn't do a very good job of it at all. We'll pick our spots in this game. I want to make sure that we're not playing so fast that we're hurting ourselves, you know? But we're in a position now, going into our second fall, that we're able to play really fast when we need to. And there's going to be some times in this game where we'll play at a really quick pace - faster than we ever executed last year."
With sophomore Patrick Towles earning the starting quarterback job entering the campaign, Stoops and Brown are focused on getting the 6-foot-5, 238-pounder and the offense off to a strong start.
"Yeah, I think it's important to get Patrick and everybody (off to a fast start)," Brown said. "Y'all looked at our depth chart. We've got a bunch of young guys in that two-deep, especially at the skill positions. So we've got to be simple. It's important to get Patrick off to a good start, but it's also important to get Kyle Meadows off to a good start. It's also important to get Stanley (Williams), when he gets in the game, off to a good start, all those freshmen wideouts that are going to play. So you've got to not only take Patrick into (account), but you've got to take everybody."
While Towles and the entire UK squad will be eager to get on the field and face a team not wearing blue and white, Stoops stressed the importance of keeping things as normal as possible.
"(Patrick) doesn't need to put any more undue pressure on himself," Stoops said. "The whole team needs to play well. I expect that he will be a little bit antsy. But he's just got to calm down and stay within himself and operate the offense. And that's where it is important to get off on a fast start and give him some things that he can manage early until he gets settled in."
Leading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. Next up is redshirt freshman Sharay Barnes:
"Kentucky volleyball is all about improving yourself as a person as well as a player. By being in this program, my teammates and coaches have helped me gain confidence in my play."
A redshirt freshman from Swarthmore, Pa., Sharay Barnes did not compete in her first season at Kentucky. A four-year letterwinner for Strath Haven High School, Barnes was a two-time All-State selection and was named Player of the Year as a senior. The middle blocker/outside hitter also competed for Synergy Volleyball Club and was named one of the top seniors by PrepVolleyball.com.
Preseason Team Update: August 26, 2014
Today was media day for several of UK's fall sports, including the volleyball team. Head coach Craig Skinner, seniors Jackie Napper and Lauren O'Conner and junior Morgan Bergren met with the media to preview the upcoming season. Video from the event can be viewed here.
For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVBand on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.
Junior goalkeeper Callum Irving was named first-team All-Conference USA in 2013. (Chet White, of UK Athletics, took this photo)
It is common that good goalkeepers don't hit their peak until their late 20s, early 30s.
It is a position that require vocal leadership, quick thinking and a mature physical presence.
In his third season in between the pipes for the Kentucky men's soccer team, Callum Irving is developing into one of the best goalkeepers in college soccer.
Coming off a first-team All-Conference USA season as a sophomore, Irving enters the 2014 season with high hopes of taking the next step in his development, while helping lead the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.
With a stated goal of allowing 18 goals or less on the year, Irving and the Wildcats have high hopes for a strong defensive unit. With a back four featuring returning starters Jordan Wilson and Kaelon Fox at center back and Charlie Reymann at outside back, the strength of the UK roster appears to be in its defense.
Part of a strong defensive unit involves a vocal leader in goal, a role that Irving is embracing as a third-year standout.
"It is massive to be a vocal goalkeeper," Irving said. "As a keeper I have to be loud and commanding because I can see everything on the field. I need to be able to help guys out whenever I can. They also need to be able to let me know when I am doing things wrong or when I need to help them in certain areas. The communication with me, and not just the backline but with the entire team, is really important to keep things cohesive."
A 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, Irving has been tabbed a team captain for the 2014 season, with UK third-year head coach Johan Cedergren employing a leadership council.
"It's a real honor," Irving said about being a team captain. "It is something I've wanted to do for a while. I am just happy that I have been able to be put in a position to be one of the leaders on this team. It is a big challenge with such a young squad but the guys have a lot of respect for each other and I think they respect me as a player and a person. I look forward to being able to share some of the tougher situations I've been through as a junior player and help the freshmen get past that learning curve so they can all have a good impact on our season."
In 2013, Irving entered the season as the backup to senior co-captain Jack Van Arsdale. Van Arsdale shined in 2012 after earning the job midway through the season. Irving moved into the starting role for the final 13 games of 2013, totaling 16 starts on the year and allowing 18 goals in 1484 minutes. He finished with a 1.09 goals-against average, the 11th-best total in program history, with his six shutouts ranking ninth.
Irving was voted by the league coaches to the C-USA first-team in 2013, marking the second first-team all-conference goalkeeper in UK history and the first since Andy Gruenebaum in 2005.
Irving enters 2014 having transformed his body and benefiting greatly from two years of experience for the Wildcats.
"Naturally I have physically matured quite a bit, putting on 30 pounds since my freshman year," Irving said. "Other than the physicality, it is just about being through different game scenarios. Being down, letting in own goals, making saves, there are a bunch of different scenarios that you go through and you learn from. For a keeper every game is a learning experience. Having a bunch of reps and having some game time has really helped me understand a lot of different scenarios, especially when it comes to college soccer, because it is a real different game from youth soccer. Being able to start leading the team has helped me mature and made me more calm at the back and have an expectation of what's going to come."
One of the keys to Irving's development has been the individual instruction from third-year goalkeeping coach David Casper.
"It has helped a ton," Irving said about his relationship with Casper. "It is great that we have a goalie coach that works with us every day. He puts in a ton of work on and off the field. He is one guy that is never satisfied, which is the best thing. Even if I had a good game, he will congratulate me, but we are still focused on the things that I did wrong in the game. He helps to keep me humble and keep me focused on always getting better and not being satisfied. No matter what he has always had my back. He is pretty big in getting me where I am."
As a freshman, Irving came in as a highly touted recruit out of Vancouver, British Columbia. In a preseason battle with Van Arsdale, Irving won the starting job for the season lidlifter at Dayton. He allowed four goals in a 4-3 loss but made six saves on 15 shots, making several jaw-dropping saves that left glimpses of his raw abilities.
Van Arsdale started the next two games before Irving returned to the starting lineup in Cedergren's first career win, posting a clean sheet vs. St. Joe's. After starting vs. No. 4 Charlotte and allowing a first-half tally, Irving gave way in the second half to Van Arsdale. The next game sparked a season turn around for the Wildcats, as Van Arsdale turned in a heroic effort in leading UK to a win at No. 18 Louisville, securing the starting job for the remainder of 2012, with UK earning an NCAA Tournament hosting berth.
"I learned how to bounce back from failure and realize that not everything is going to be handed to you," Irving said about what he learned as a freshman. "And you have to work to earn the respect from the people around you. It was a really good learning experience and I think it benefited me more than if I had played."
After resting the two-game exhibition schedule to open the year, Irving returned to the training pitch on Monday and is eager to get on the field for the season opener. Kentucky will open its 2014 season on Friday at Wright State at 7 p.m. ET. The Wildcats will then open up the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex with Belmont on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.
At long last, UK's season opener is on the horizon.
After months of work in spring practice, summer conditioning and fall camp, the Wildcats are about to line up across from opponents in different color jerseys. Finally, Mark Stoops' offseason refrain about the progress of his team will be put to the test.
"As I said before throughout this summer, we've improved," Stoops said. "Be interesting to go out there and see how much."
For the first time since 2007, a home crowd will be able to see UK's offseason improvement firsthand in the season opener. The Wildcats will face UT Martin at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.
"I know our fans are ready to go," Stoops said. "We need to do our part. I know we'll have great support. We need to go out there and start fast and play good football, play with great energy, play with great discipline, make it exciting for the fans."
Opening at home for the first time in seven years and following that with another game in Commonwealth in week two, the Cats have a chance to build some early-season momentum. It's an opportunity Stoops says they can't squander.
"I think it's real important, I do," Stoops said. "I think we need to start fast. We need to go out and play well."
In evaluating that, Stoops will be looking for an accumulation of routine plays, not highlights readymade for SportsCenter.
"We've got to go play well and be consistent," Stoops said. "We're not good enough to make simple mistakes and shoot ourselves in the foot, turn the ball over, things like that obviously."
That's a challenge given how much UK will rely on a number of players who have never been on the field at this level. Seventeen players listed on Kentucky's two-deep depth chart are first-year junior-college transfers or freshmen, including eight true freshmen.
All of them, to this point, have prepared as much as possible in practice and through UK's High Performance program, but there's only so much that can be done.
"Certainly with young guys, some guys are going to go out there for the first time and they're going to exceed our expectations, then some guys will probably have some rough spots here and there, have some mental mistakes, physical mistakes, things like that," Stoops said. "That's why you have to get out there and play. There's no substitution for experience."
As young as this Kentucky team may be, the Wildcats are still in a better spot than they were a year ago. That's why UK won't rely on newcomers quite as much as in 2013.
"We're getting better," Stoops said. "As we get better, it gets harder to beat out some guys for playing time. That's what you want in our program."
Dupree, Smith still drawing raves from Stoops
Stoops isn't normally one to think too far into the future, but he made an exception on Monday.
Asked where he expects senior defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree to go in next spring's NFL Draft, the second-year UK coach didn't hesitate.
"I'd be very shocked if Bud was not a first-round draft pick," Stoops said.
Stoops went on to say that he can envision Dupree going early in the first round if he has the kind of season expected of him. Given Stoops' experience coaching NFL-level talent at Florida State, his opinion has some weight.
"Bud is special," Stoops said. "He has that ability to play standing up. Put his hand in the dirt. He's a pass rusher. He's got instincts. With everybody going to a lot of the 3-4 things, outside backers, versatility, he's a very good player."
Dupree is listed as a strong-side linebacker on the depth chart, but the versatility Stoops appreciates so much will allow him to play plenty at end as well. When he does, he'll line up opposite Za'Darius Smith, who has a professional future of his own.
He and Dupree bypassed the NFL Draft to return for their senior season. Stoops believes they'll improve their draft stock with their decisions, but he knows UK has already benefited from their presence.
"As I said a lot through the offseason, leadership is the first thing that jumps out at you," Stoops said. "But also confidence. Our players see those guys out there, they make plays, are consistent, they're always there. They're great to have."
UT Martin linebacker Bell has UK's attention
With an offseason for UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson to make changes, Stoops knows to expect the unexpected on Saturday.
"They might get out there and try to pressure the heck out of us, or drop," Stoops said. "They've shown both, where they've been conservative and drop eight guys into coverage a bunch, or they can blitz the house and come after you. I imagine we'll see a bit of everything. It will be good for us to see how we prepare and respond to that."
Whatever looks the Skyhawks show, Stoops knows to be on the lookout for Tony Bell. The senior linebacker returns to anchor the UT Martin defense after an All-American season in 2013 in which he tallied 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
"They have a great defensive player, No. 40, the linebacker, an exceptional player," Stoops said. "He's a really good football player. He can play anywhere in the country. Really like the way he plays." Miller, Cunningham suspended for opener
UK announced on Monday that left tackle Darrian Miller and wide receiver Rashad Cunningham have been suspended for Saturday's season opener for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Both will return for week two.
In Miller's absence, regular right tackle Jordan Swindle will move to the left side and redshirt freshman Kyle Meadows will fill Swindle's spot.
Returning to the lineup after a two-game suspension to close 2013 will be Demarco Robinson. He is listed as a starter at one of four wide receiver spots along with Ryan Timmons, Javess Blue and Joey Herrick. Robinson will also share punt-returning duties with Timmons.