Early on in the season, divers are often tired, sore, and stressed out from the daily grind of a student-athlete. They are also behind the eight ball because head coach Ted Hautau was unable to be with his team as much as he would have due to doctor's visits with his wife in anticipation of the birth of his daughter.
But they aren't behind schedule. And as last Friday's home meet against Tennessee and Indiana revealed, UK is actually further along than Hautau expected.
"I was very impressed because I thought at this time of the year we would be very broken down," said Hautau. "I was happy with how we performed, but it's really early."
In the meet, junior Greg Ferrucci won the three-meter diving event (423.25) and grabbed second place (361.95) in the one-meter. The women were the pleasant surprise of the meet as freshman Rebecca Hamperian won her first collegiate event in the one-meter with a top score of 298.35. Sophomore Sarah Chewning followed Hamperian up in second place scoring 282.20. Sophomore Christa Cabot grabbed a victory of her own in the three-meter event earning a score of 308.05, and Chewning placed third (305.05).
Chewning was particularly encouraged by her team's strong start out of the gate.
"I think it's a good indicator of what we can see the rest of this season," said Chewning. "Indiana and Tennessee are some of our biggest competitors and to come out with this performance is really spectacular, but we do want to stay humble and hungry. We know that we have a lot of great competitions ahead of us."
However, it's only early with respect to the competitive portion of the Wilcats' schedule. The diving team has been hard at work since this summer in preparation for the 2012-13 season.
With Hautau in and out of the facility for a portion of the summer, the Wildcats were still able to make the most out of the situation even in the absence of their head coach. Perhaps that's where this team has taken off. And perhaps that's why this team is special.
Despite Hautau's absence, the divers continued to get into the Lancaster Aquatic Center to hone their craft.
"All of them want to be here and they all want to train," said Hautau. "I don't have to make any of them be here. Never. When I'm not here, they are there working out every single day. They want to train on their own. So they are highly motivated and just a great group of people to be around."
That's not just coach speak. Hautau's love for his team is easily observed on a daily. The divers come up to him before practice and they talk about each other's days. They joke around and share laughs. Hautau even broke down in practice and showed his athletes how to do proper pushups as they gathered around and enjoyed Hautau's demonstration.
And as much as all the divers appear to love their head coach, the affection they feel for one another is every bit as evident.
In a sport as individual as diving, Kentucky's diving team is anything but. In fact, they will be the first to tell you that they're more akin to a family than just a team. Though the athletes are tired and beat up as they battle through the fall semester, it's the family atmosphere that Hautau and his divers have created that help push this team through the difficult moments.
"Typically diving is a very individual sport with individual performances," said Chewning. "But being part of this team has been probably the most influential part of my experience here. I come in every day and the upbeat attitude of every single person is just incredible.
"It really pushes you through times when your body hurts and you feel fatigued and maybe you don't personally have the best attitude, but being surrounded with these people with the hunger for competition and the joy of life is just really incredible."
Ferrucci agrees. The high scorer on the men's side last season has seen this program grow over the last two years now into his third. He's witnessed it grow into a cohesive unit where no secrets are kept. They have become siblings under the Hautau household.
"(They're) Like family," said Ferrucci of his teammates. "Brothers and sisters. There's nothing they don't know about me. Nothing I don't know about them."
While Hautau deserves a lot of the credit for the culture he's built at UK, he'll be the last one to accept it. He gives all of the credit to his athletes, a group so special to him that he hopes that no member ever leaves. One diver in particular, senior captain John Fox, drew quite a bit of that praise from Hautau himself.
Fox doesn't possess the typical diver's body. He's a bit longer than most of his teammates, but it was just something about him that caught Hautau's eye. Not highly recruited by many major programs, he was highly coveted by his current head coach, and with purpose.
"There was something I just felt and liked about him a lot," said Hautau. "Just the look in his eyes, it's kind of as simple as that. When he got here, he was hard and he was insecure and it was a really high level for him. But, he showed some toughness. And I just told him, you're going to be the leader of this program."
In his senior year, he's already delivered. Though he registered just a fourth-place finish in the men's three-meter dive, he may have been the biggest reason for UK's success last Friday.
"For the first time," said Ferrucci, "(Fox) being a captain, he pulled us together before the meet and had a little talk with us which he's never done before. It really made us feel calm and cool and good about competing."
And then Kentucky went out and had the meet it had to open the season with three individual victories. That's a sign of a good leader.
Now this family looks forward to a tough schedule up ahead leading up to the SEC Championships and eventually zone diving with an eye toward qualifying for the NCAA Championships is March. The road ahead won't be easy as the SEC has added two talented diving programs in Texas A&M and one of UK's opponent this weekend in Missouri.
This weekend, Kentucky will face the challenge of Missouri, Arkansas and Southern Illinois. After a great start to the season, they will look to improve while fighting through the physical and mental drains. But if they struggle on Friday, as Hautau expects they will at some point during the season, it won't deter this team from their long-term goals.
Even though winning is a lot more fun.
"We take all of our competitions seriously, but we don't bank our performances on just what we see at the beginning," said Chewning. "Good or bad meet, we still have hope for our futures. But it really is encouraging seeing good performances right off the bat."