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Fall sports get athletics year off to hot start

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When Mitch Barnhart took over as Athletics Director in 2002, he set out his vision for the success of all 22 varsity teams at the University of Kentucky. During that time, UK has seen unprecedented levels of achievement across those sports, especially during the last athletic year.

Between rifle's national championship, men's basketball's trip to the Final Four, softball's berth in the Super Regionals, the appearance by men's tennis in the Elite Eight, volleyball's sixth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, football's fifth straight bowl game and UK Hoops' second consecutive NCAA berth, 2010-11 was arguably the best season in the history of UK Athletics.

As good as last year was, this one is setting up to potentially be even better. Teams with high expectations like rifle, men's and women's basketball and softball have yet to begin their seasons, but fall sports have the 2011-12 athletics year off to an amazing start. The fall sports teams have a combined record of 27-9-1 among those with win-loss records, while teams that play tournaments or participate in meets have four first place finishes in eight opportunities.

Here are some of the top storylines from the first month of the season:

Volleyball rallies from early season adversity

Craig Skinner presents junior libero Stephanie Klefot with a game ball commemorating her 1000th career dig. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Craig Skinner presents junior libero Stephanie Klefot with a game ball commemorating her 1000th career dig. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Knowing UK would be hosting a regional in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats had high goals entering the season, wanting to position themselves to potentially play in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in Memorial Coliseum. The season, though, did not get off to the best start. Volleyball lost two of its first four matches, both by sweeps. The second came at home against Cincinnati and the Cats did not hesitate to call the performance "embarrassing".

Since then, the Wildcats have been anything but embarrassing on the floor, winning 10 of 11 matches to run their record to 12-3 on the season, 3-1 in SEC play. In the 10 wins, UK has won an astounding 30-of-33 sets. The lone loss came in the toughest game the conference has to offer: on the road against No. 6 Florida.

After winning SEC Libero of the Year a season ago, junior Stephanie Klefot has been a defensive stalwart. Averaging nearly five digs per set, Klefot became the 11th player in school history with 1,000 digs three weeks ago. UK's attack is a balanced one, with five players averaging at least two kills per set, including junior Ashley Frazier with a team-leading 2.73.

Men's and women's soccer making a mark

Both the men's and women's soccer teams recently entered conference play having established themselves as contenders during difficult non-conference schedules.

Senior forward Kelsey Hunyadi has tallied 20 points in 10 games this season (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Senior forward Kelsey Hunyadi has tallied 20 points in 10 games this season (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
At 8-2-0, Jon Lipsitz and his women's team rank 12th in the nation in the RPI, the highest rating in program history.  Seven of the Wildcats' 10 games have come against teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI, with UK winning five. The team started the year with six straight wins, but a loss to No. 24 Dayton on Sept. 17 ended the streak and forced Lipsitz to cut the beard he promised to grow until his team's first loss.

After losing their next game at Alabama in the SEC opener, UK bounced back with a 4-1 win over Auburn in which Kelsey Hunyadi tied a career-high with five points. Her two goals and one assist moved her point total on the season to 20, putting her on pace to make a run at the school record.

Since arriving at UK before the 2009 season, Lipsitz has built the program quickly. The Cats advanced to the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals a season ago and appear poised to improve upon that finish in a difficult conference that features nine teams in the RPI top 50. Next up for UK is a pair of road games this weekend against South Carolina and Florida.

Ian Collins and the men's team (7-4-1) currently are ranked 21st in the nation. Right off the bat, UK made a statement with a home upset of then-No. 9 ranked Michigan en route to a 4-0-1 start. The Wildcats are in now the midst of a stretch of games that called for them to travel nearly 10,000 miles in three weeks and face some of the country's top teams. Though the Cats have lost four games during that time, three of the losses have come at the hands of teams ranked in the top 20 and all have been on the road.

Most recently, UK suffered an overtime loss against No. 10 Central Florida, but sophomore Tyler Riggs scored his team-leading ninth goal. Riggs leads one of the nation's top attacks and ranks among NCAA leaders in both points and goals. Junior Matt Lodge also keys UK's high-octane offense and has tallied seven goals and seven assists.

Don't let the record fool you, because UK is more than capable of making noise in the post-season. With that stellar offense, an improving defense and the experience of playing an exceptionally tough schedule, there won't be a challenge the Cats face that they won't be capable of overcoming. UK next faces Florida International at noon ET Sunday in the second game of play in Conference USA.

Orta leads cross country's strong start

Junior Luis Orta has twice won SEC Runner of the Week this season. (UK Athletics) Junior Luis Orta has twice won SEC Runner of the Week this season. (UK Athletics)
Following a strong first two seasons at UK, junior Luis Orta entered the season with high expectations. Looking to improve on his three top-five meet finishes from a year ago, Orta has exceeded the goals head coach Don Weber set for him.

In the opening two meets of 2011, the Caracas, Venezuela, native has dominated, leading the men's team to a pair of wins in the Belmont/VU Opener and the Tennessee Invitational. Orta placed first in both meets, including finishing the 8,000-meter course at the Tennessee Invitational over 17 seconds faster than his nearest competitor. Orta was named SEC Men's Runner of the Week after both wins, the second and third times he earned the award in his career.

The women's team has also had a successful start to the season, placing first in the Tennessee Invitational and third in the Belmont/VU Opener. Junior Chelsea Oswald has paced the Cats in both meets.

The men's and women's cross country teams are in action again this weekend in the Greater Louisville Invitational in Louisville, Ky.

Men's, women's golf in full swing

Women's golf head coach Golda Johansson Borst is in her second season as head coach and is looking to build on a successful first year that saw the team advance to post-season play for the first time since 2008. Things are looking good so far as UK finished third in its first tournament of the season, the Texas A&M "Mo"Morial. The finish is the best of Borst's tenure. Senior Ashlee Rose and junior Ashleigh Albrecht each finished in the top 10 of individual play to lead the team.

Women's golf is the only fall sport with a home event this weekend, as they host the Bettie Lou Evans Invitational Friday through Sunday.

Men's golf has had three events already this season, including a first place finish in the UK Bluegrass Fall Invitational two weeks ago. Sophomore Cody Martin has been steady for UK, earning top-five finishes in all three tournaments. UK next plays in the Bearcat Invitational in Hebron, Ky., Oct. 10-11.

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