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Drada looks to restore winning tradition in 2013

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Carlos Drada's UK women's tennis team kicks of the 2013 season this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Carlos Drada's UK women's tennis team kicks of the 2013 season this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Carlos Drada is a better tennis coach coming off of a 9-14 season than he was when he last brought his team to the NCAA Tournament in 2009. When Drada took over the women's tennis program at UK seven seasons ago in 2006, he had inherited a Sweet 16 team.

Fast forward to 2013, and Drada is just looking to get his team back into a competitive realm in the Southeastern Conference.

Drada had known nothing but success for his program after spending four years as a UK assistant and reaching five consecutive Sweet 16s. However, after his first four seasons, the program suffered a stretch of setbacks

"It was basically three injuries we had in 2009 and 2010, and they were career-ending injuries," said Drada. "Usually you have one of those every five years, but to have three in a year and a half is just devastating, especially when the players were top of the line."

With the struggles came some transfers out of the program. Drada and his staff were faced with the challenge of bringing in young talent to fill some holes in the program. It's been a gradual rebuilding process up to this point.

The top players lost to injury or transfer were upperclassmen and players that were expected to be leaders to show the younger players the ropes. With them gone, the freshmen and sophomores were placed in the tough position to figure things out on their own at practice and during competition.

This season, Drada is stressing to his team to give "100 percent effort 100 percent of the time." In fact, that's been the Wildcats' motto this season both on and off the court. Teaching freshmen to give that type of effort is a lot more difficult when there aren't others to show them the way.

"When you are a young freshman, you learn by example," said Drada. "You learn from your upperclassmen doing it. When there aren't a lot of upperclassmen doing it, then it's harder than when the majority is. At one point, we had five freshmen, so it was very tough to make that transition."

This season, however, two freshmen could be the key to this season's success. Kirsten Lewis and Nadia Ravita are expected to make a big impact in the starting lineup. Ravita is the highest nationally ranked player on the team at No. 78 joining 117th-ranked junior Caitlin McGraw as the only ranked Wildcats this season. It's the first time that Kentucky has had two ranked players in the lineup since 2006.

That season, Kentucky reached the SEC Tournament final.

Though the freshmen have been impressive in their brief time at Kentucky and performed well in the fall, it remains to be seen just how effective they will be when it comes to team competition.

"I'm just very interested in seeing how our freshmen are going to be able to compete at a different venue," said Drada. "All they've competed in is individual tournaments, so I'm interested to see how they handle that pressure."

Their first challenge comes this weekend in a Saturday doubleheader at the Boone Tennis Center when UK hosts Morehead State and Belmont. But there will be several more difficult challenges, not only for the freshmen, but the collective team down the road.

The SEC boasts six top-25 teams, including three top-10 squads. It has seen the competition level continue to rise year after year. Kentucky's biggest challenge is keeping up with the times while trying to stay competitive in the conference.

Last season, UK only managed one victory in the SEC. The Wildcats were competitive in several of those matches, but time after time they had trouble sealing the deal in the end. Drada's goal is to be at least a .500 team in the conference and go from there.

"We're going to start with that," said Drada. "More than that, I want my players to compete on every court. If they do that, they are capable of beating 70 to 80 percent of the players they play against. But it has to be pure competition every day that they go out there."

Drada has learned more about himself in defeat than he ever had in victory. He has learned more about himself as a person. It's made him better.

"The beautiful thing is that it has allowed me to learn a lot of things about coaching, adversity and having to come back," said Drada. "What I know is that has given me a better understanding of being in the top of the nation and having a high ranking."

Now, Drada feels that he's rebuilt his program with the type of people and competitors that he knows can make a difference for this team. Slowly but surely, Drada hopes to turn the page on the last three years to restore his program to where it was during his first four years on the job.

"The good thing now is that I know exactly what I want and what I do not want," said Drada. "We keep looking for the players that we want to bring into this team and the players who have a better affinity to meet the standards we try to reach each day. We're hoping that by following these standards, 10 years from now they are going to be better at whatever they are doing at that time."

Drada knows that because this program has had plenty of success in the last decade - success that he's helped produce and seen with his own eyes - Kentucky can reach that level again. He knows the Cats have all the tools they need to win at their disposal.

Now, it's time to put it all together and win some matches. Kentucky feels that it's better at every position than it was heading into 2012. The Cats will get an early indication if that's the case this Saturday. Either way, Drada is confident in the future of his program.

"As the level of the SEC has risen, it's tough to maintain that standard, but I know we're going to get there," said Drada. "We're doing really well. Now we know exactly what we need and what we want for this program.

"We're doing a great job in recruiting and it's going to show in the years to follow."

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