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Thomas McCarthy adding name to list of UK junior college stars

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UH vs. UK 177.jpg This is the third of a six-part series, highlighting some of Kentucky's standout returnees entering the season opener. UK opens its 2012 season in Spartanburg, S.C., facing Wofford on Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Sunday's feature was on senior catcher Michael Williams and Monday's story was on junior southpaw Taylor Rogers.

Ever since Ryan Strieby showed up in Lexington in 2006 to lead Kentucky to the Southeastern Conference Championship and earn SEC Player of the Year accolades, junior college players have thrived in the UK system.

During a four-year span, three UK baseball junior college sluggers earned first-team All-America honors while suiting up for the Wildcats, including Strieby, Sawyer Carroll (2008) and Sean Coughlin (2007). In addition to the decorated All-Americans, immediate-impact talents like Taylor Black, Mike Brown, Gunner Glad, Shaun Lehmann and Lance Ray have helped push UK into one of the better programs in college baseball as junior college transfers. Over the last seven seasons, a junior college product has led UK in hitting six times.

In 2011, Thomas McCarthy added his name to that distinguished list.

A native of Corvallis, Ore., McCarthy came to Lexington from Western Oregon and Feather River College, where he had destroyed opposing pitching, hitting over .400 at each stop. The SEC is a different ballgame however and it is always hard to predict how a junior college star will adjust to playing in the best conference and the best division in college baseball.

It didn't take long for McCarthy to solidify himself as the next junior college star for the Wildcats, starting 54 of UK's 55 games and reaching base safely in 53 contests. Following his dynamic junior season, McCarthy became the first UK third baseman to be voted by the league coaches as first-team All-SEC since 1972.

"I'd say it was a successful year, personally, in 2011," McCarthy said. "Team-wise, we didn't do exactly what we wanted to do. Looking forward to 2012, I plan on having my personal success but also being more of a leader. Hopefully win some more games and having a more successful season."

In achieving such an All-SEC milestone as a league preseason unknown, McCarthy had to put up monster numbers, which he did. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder led UK in average (.371), hits (78), doubles (19) and slugging (.581), totaling the second-best average for a UK player since 1988.

One could dissect the statistics from McCarthy's junior season for hours but some of the highlights include a staggering .411 average in SEC play, where he finished just shy of the league batting title. Overall, McCarthy finished with seven homers and 39 RBI, stealing eight bases and adding two triples.

McCarthy's offensive prowess was on complete display as the 2011 season wound down. The right-handed hitter began a 10-game hitting streak to conclude the season during a 2-0 win over No. 1 Vanderbilt, where he provided the only run that UK starter Alex Meyer would need in his complete-game win, a solo homer off VU ace and first rounder Sonny Gray.

His 10-game hitting streak began after UK head coach Gary Henderson pulled McCarthy from the lineup in the middle of a loss at LSU on April 30. McCarthy - regarded as a strong defender at the hot corner - committed three errors through the first few innings in Baton Rouge.

After that game, and with the UK team somberly waiting on the bus to fly back on its charter plane to Lexington, Henderson and McCarthy sat in the Alex Box Stadium dugout and had an in-depth conversation about his future and what Henderson saw in McCarthy as a player, leader and young adult.

"That was obviously probably one of the lowest points of the season for me," McCarthy said about his three-error game. "Hendu (coach Henderson) and I had a really good conversation about what I want to do with this opportunity here and it kind of opened my eyes to try and just make the most of what I can do here. I just started playing better and never looked back and instead of playing to not make mistakes, I just tried to maximize my opportunity to be the best player that I can be here."

That talk sent McCarthy on a historic run. An offensive tear that defied logic, vaulted him into first-team All-SEC candidacy and toppled any hot streak in the recent history of the program.

During his hitting streak McCarthy boasted a .605 (26-for-43) average with three homers, 16 RBI and a bevy of national accolades, including Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week.

"Well obviously that's the goal every time I go out there," McCarthy said about his hot streak. "You know, it's a real special thing. Baseball is a crazy game and I just got hot and every time I went to the plate I knew I was going to get a hit some way somehow. It was a really fun time and hopefully I can start out the season like that and carry it throughout the entire 2012 season."

McCarthy's infectious personality and leadership skills will take center stage during the 2012 season, when the Wildcats will count on the senior - who earned preseason first-team All-SEC honors by Collegebaseballdaily.com - to lead a talented UK club.

"We have multiple leaders, Taylor Rogers, Michael Williams, Luke Maile and I," McCarthy said about being a leader. "My personal style of leadership is to lead more by example. Some of the other guys are more vocal than I am, so I just try to set an example for the younger guys by going in and getting my work done and show them how things should be done around here."

The veteran's leadership style has been well received by the crop of newcomers, as the Wildcats boast a close-knit group ready to face the challenges of the SEC.

"We have an extremely close group this year," McCarthy said. "We had a team building meeting and that's kind of been a highlight of the preseason so far for us. We all feel like we have a really good group of guys. Everyone gets in and works hard every single day. I think we all have a sense that this team can be real special. Everything that translates in the classroom and off the field carries over to on the field where we have really good team chemistry."

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