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Baseball turning disappointment to focus for NCAAs

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UK will face Kent State on Friday to open play in the Gary Regional. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK will face Kent State on Friday to open play in the Gary Regional. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
For a moment there, the Kentucky Wildcats thought they were done proving themselves.

The team went from projected also-ran to early-season surprise to Southeastern Conference contender in 2012, shooting up the polls in the process. There were defeats and even a couple losing streaks in the process, but the Cats were unanimously acknowledged as being among the nation's elite.

Well, almost unanimously.

Coming as a surprise to many experts, UK was assigned as a host in the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship. Instead, Kentucky was sent to the Gary, Ind., Regional as a No. 2 seed.

"Apparently we have a lot to prove right now, but we were going to try to win a regional championship anyway so it doesn't change anything," junior catcher/first baseman Luke Maile said. "We just have to play it at a different location."

A day after losing to eventual champion Mississippi State on Saturday in an SEC Tournament semifinal, the Wildcats learned they were not among the 16 regional hosts. On Monday, the team met at Cliff Hagan Stadium - the venue the Cats assumed they would playing in this weekend - to watch the selection show on ESPNU and find out a destination for the first weekend of a hopefully long NCAA run. Getting together as team helped overcome some of the sting of Sunday's news.

"It was a little disappointment last night, but I think it's better today," pitcher Taylor Rogers said. "Everybody kind of gets to see each other and we get to change the mood a little bit."

Spurred by a 15-minute meeting led by head coach Gary Henderson, the Wildcats shifted their collective emotions from directionless frustration to purposeful motivation.

"I think we kind of play with a chip on our shoulders a little bit and now that this happened with us, we might play with a couple chips on our shoulder," Rogers said.

The message delivered by Henderson was tailored to help put the situation in perspective. The bottom line is that the Wildcats get to continue playing baseball. Not having the opportunity to stay at home and play to open the postseason for the first time since 2006 is less than ideal, but it's a whole lot better than staying at home for the postseason and watching on television.

"You're disappointed in a lot of things in athletics," Henderson said "I fumbled against Marshfield High School in October of '78, cost us a touchdown. I'm disappointed about that, but you move on and that's all you can do."

Over the four days leading up to UK's NCAA opener on Friday, the Cats (43-16) will undertake the task of striking a balance between using a perceived slight to pump themselves up and preparing for No. 3 Kent State (41-17) team that has more wins than all but 12 teams in the bracket. The MAC champion Golden Flashes are batting .309 as a team and have outscored their opponents 398-249 on the season.

"You can't hold onto that stuff very long," Henderson said. "You got get going and you got to look forward. We got Kent State Friday night and that's what you got to focus on."

No one on the Kentucky team, Henderson included, is particularly familiar with Kent State, No. 1 Purdue (44-12) or No. 4 Valparaiso (35-23), though that will change in the coming days as statistics, game tape and scouting reports are reviewed. What won't change is an awareness that the Cats are going to be facing quality teams. The four squads that will play in Gary combine for the second-best record out of the 16 regional sites.

"We'll face real people," Henderson said. "That's who plays in these weekends. You face real people, talented clubs that have had a lot of success. It'll be game on Friday night."

With the Boilermakers, Golden Flashes and Crusaders in front of them, the best way for the Cats to show they deserved a better NCAA fate is to advance to a super regional or even the College World Series. However, the first order of business is this weekend.

"You can't get too far down the road," Henderson said. "We're playing a team on Friday night that's won (41 games). We better handle that."

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