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Baseball having no trouble finding edge with season around corner

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Austin Cousino addresses reporters at UK baseball's media day on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Austin Cousino addresses reporters at UK baseball's media day on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Thinking back to a year ago, few outside the Kentucky baseball locker room were talking about the Wildcats as contenders for much of anything. Preseason pollsters glossed over Gary Henderson's program and the Cats were little more than an afterthought in their own conference.

That, however, did nothing to quell the Cats' confidence. In fact, it may have done the opposite.

Inspired in part by the lack of belief, UK delivered on Michael Williams memorable guarantee that the Cats would "surprise some people." Reaching No. 1 at one point in 2012 and coming within a win of a Southeastern Conference regular-season title, UK exceeded all reasonable expectations - except perhaps their own.

Almost a year to the day after Williams' proclamation, the Cats are in a completely different spot. They are ranked in the top 15 of every major poll and as high as No. 8. Preseason accolades are rolling in for individuals and the Cats are being talked about as realistic contenders for a trip to Omaha.

No longer is Kentucky the unheralded underdog. No longer can the Cats play the "us against the world" card. That doesn't mean motivation is an issue, not in the least.

"Last year's group had a pretty good chip on their shoulder," Henderson said. "I think we'll have the same type approach. You're losing a couple personalities that really helped, older mature personalities, but there's growth within the program. We have a lot of guys that are a part of that. I think we have enough personality as a club to carry the expectations."

In spite of losing Williams, fellow catcher Luke Maile, Friday starter Taylor Rogers and other key contributors to the MLB Draft, Kentucky has never been projected to accomplish so much in the preseason. Instead of gaining an edge from a lack of expectations, these Cats must cope with an abundance of them.

"It's an honor to get all those awards and stuff," starting pitcher Corey Littrell said. "But basically once the season starts, none of that matters."

UK's season opener is on Feb. 15 against UNC Asheville. As reflected by Williams' prescient words, the Cats were a self-assured bunch in 2012. The experiences from last year only add to that and closer Trevor Gott, who set a school record with nine saves last season, calls this the most team he's ever been a part of.

"We have experience in the postseason now, so we know how it is," Gott said. "We're confident that, if we get back there, last year is not going to happen. Our experience has created outstanding confidence and our confidence has translated over to the freshmen too."

Not only has last season's trip to an NCAA Regional added another layer to UK's confidence, it's also given the Cats some motivation to replace the lack of preseason respect of a season ago. After being denied the right to host in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was sent to Gary, Ind., where Kent State eliminated the Cats with a pair of dramatic wins, one in the longest game in postseason history.

Austin Cousino's hometown is a little more than a two-hour drive from Kent State's campus. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Year was recruited to be a Golden Flash, which made it especially painful to be eliminated by a group of coaches and players he knows well.

"They're all great kids and a great staff and it was something that coming here to Kentucky, it was a very realistic goal for me," Cousino said. "Then you put all the names on paper and then out to the field, something you grow up and dream of, it can become a reality and being that close, it not going the way you want, it definitely leaves a sour taste in your mouth."

Cousino didn't let that overwhelm him. The star centerfielder went on to an impressive summer playing with Team USA and believes he improved as a player. Never short on self-belief - Cousino once followed a five-strikeout night last season against LSU by going 2 for 5 with a homerun and three RBI less than 24 hours later - he knows he's going to get results on the field and in the batter's box. Cousino is more concerned about making sure he steps up in the leadership department.

"I had a good year and I think I should become more of a leader this year," Cousino said. "We had Luke Maile, Rogers, Williams, a great senior class that led us. I think some of the other younger guys can look up to me now being a sophomore and what the season was like."

According to his coach, that's a logical development. Cousino is, after all, a notably self-possessed player even on a roster full of them.

"He's a unique kid, very unique," Cousino said. "He's just really talented and really skilled and not scared."

Along with Littrell and Gott, Cousino was one of three players to represent UK at media day on Monday. With a swarm of reporters and cameras surrounding him, Cousino was completely at ease. On one occasion, a media member thrust a microphone in his face and, without a moment's hesitation, Cousino grabbed it and kept talking. When the crowd laughed, Cousino simply said, "I thought she was just giving it to me," before continuing to answer the question posed to him. It was just another example of Cousino taking whatever happens to be thrown at him - a pitch, a slump at the plate, preseason hype, a microphone - in stride.

Cousino might be the best example, but he is but one member of a team that, to a man, believes that big things are in store. In fact, the Cats might be ranked higher than they ever have been, but they still feel like they might be underrated.

"We think we're the best team in the country," Littrell said. "We know we're the best team in the country. I think that having that mentality going in, we're not trying to be cocky or arrogant, but it's just that way you have to go about your business."

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