Alex Meyer finished his three-year UK career with 253 strikeouts, fifth most in school history. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When Alex Meyer was selected in the first round of the MLB Amateur Draft in 2011, it seemed a matter of time before he would make his debut in the major leagues with the Washington Nationals. After nearly two years and a trade to the Minnesota Twins, it's clear Meyer won't be pitching for the Nationals.
That doesn't mean the former Kentucky ace won't be in the big leagues soon though.
Meyer has been with Double-A New Britain through the first month of 2013 and - just as he has done throughout his professional career - he's been impressive. He has made four starts and has a 1.64 earned-run average and a perfect 2-0 record, striking out 26 and allowing zero home runs in 22.0 innings in the process. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound right-hander has allowed no more than two runs in any outing this season and has lasted six innings in each of his last two starts.
The knuckle curve is baseball's wild card pitch. A handful of pitchers have thrown it, and nearly always it is a pitch they invented themselves. Burt Hooten, who pitched for the Dodgers and Cubs in the 1970s, had his knuckles on the ball and thrust his fingers forward as he released it. Mike Mussina, who pitched for the Orioles and Yankees from 1990-2008, tried to throw a conventional knuckleball, with two fingertips on the ball, but found his pitches would dive if he instead thrust his fingers out and made the ball spin faster, instead of not at all. These knuckle curves were slow pitches. Jason Isringhausen has also thrown a version of a knuckle curve during his long MLB career.
Meyer's version, too, is his own and presents its own challenges.
"I've never met anybody who throws it the way I do," he said. "I really stick my fingernail into the seam. You have to have big enough fingers to be able to do it. Most guys have the finger up against the ball. With me, if my fingernail is not right that day, it's going to be really hard for me to throw it. I've learned to adapt so that the length of my fingernail is where I like to have it. I use a nail file during the season."
Meyer digs his fingernail into the seams and flicks the ball as he releases it with his three-quarters motion. But there's nothing slow about Meyer's knuckle curve, which is why some scouts think it is a slider. He throws it better than 85 mph and it has a late, violent swerve.
"It's a hard slurve," (New Britain Rock Cats manager Jeff) Smith said. "The hitters' reaction? Not good. Especially right-handed hitters. He gets a lot of swings and misses with it."
It might not be long before MLB hitters are swinging and missing at his knuckle curve. Before then, Meyer will make his first start against a club from his former organization. He will get the call against the Harrisburg Senators from the Nationals organization on Tuesday at 6:35 p.m. ET in New Britain, Conn.
Baseball - The No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats completed a season-long seven-game road trip with a four-game week, including an 18-inning game at Western Kentucky on Tuesday and a historic series win at No. 16 Ole Miss during the weekend. UK will break for finals during the week and return to action on Friday in hosting preseason top-ranked Arkansas, currently tabbed as high as No. 14, in a three-game series. - After an 11-5 loss on Friday, the Wildcats posted a comeback 5-4 win on Saturday to claim the series against the Rebels, behind Corey Littrell's 20th career win. It marked UK's third all-time series win in Oxford and its first since 2007, also winning in 2001. - The Wildcats have been led offensively in average by freshman right fielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .347 with four doubles, one triple, 11 RBI and four steals in 2013. All-America two-way start A.J. Reed leads all NCAA sophomores in homers and RBI, batting .310 with eight doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 40 RBI.
Softball - The No. 19 Kentucky softball team posted two wins over the week, defeating No. 7 Louisville and No. 11 Missouri to increase its win total to 36. The week started with Kentucky taking down in-state foe and highly ranked Louisville 2-1 in a thrilling seven-inning battle. Junior Lauren Cumbess was the hero in the game with a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning to win the game. Freshman Kelsey Nunley earned the win in the circle, throwing a complete game and allowing only one run. - Over the weekend, UK went 1-2 against Missouri, earning the win Saturday after a hard-fought nine-inning loss on Friday. Kentucky's win on Saturday against Missouri was its seventh over a ranked foe this season and 38th all-time under Lawson. The Wildcats started the year with a win over then-No. 3 Cal while it also has wins over then-No. 3 Florida, No. 7 Louisville, then-No. 16 Washington, then-No. 20 Stanford and then-No. 25 North Carolina. - Nunley earned the win Saturday in the circle, throwing a complete game and allowing two runs. For the week, Nunley was 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA, striking out 16 in 23.1 innings pitched. Offensively, senior Alice O'Brien and junior Ginny Carroll paced UK. O'Brien had a double and home run on the week, while Carroll had two doubles and two RBI.
Track and field - Michelle Canterna raised the UK pole vault record 3.96 meters / 12'11.75" en route to the Miami RedHawk Invitational on Saturday. - UK competitors also competed at the Penn Relays and Triton Invitational last weekend. - 2012 SEC Discus Champion Andrew Evans threw a collegiate-best 60.12M / 197'03" to place 9th in his signature event at the Triton Invitational. - The Kentucky women's team moved up 17 spots to No. 24 in last week's national rankings. - Kentucky appeared in the outdoor top-25 for the first time since checking in at No. 21 in the 2010 preseason poll. - A three-day total of 111,284 fans watched the Kentucky Wildcats compete at the 2013 Penn Relays.
Friday, May 3 Track and field at Billy Hayes Invitational - 3:00 p.m. (Bloomington, Ind.) Baseball hosts Arkansas - 6:30 p.m. Softball at Alabama - 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 4 Softball at Alabama - 3:00 p.m. Baseball hosts Arkansas - 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 5 Baseball hosts Arkansas - 1:00 p.m. Softball at Alabama - 2:30 p.m.
UK freshman Sarah Harris helped the Wildcats achieve their best SEC Championships finish in 20 years with a second-place 9-over-par last weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On her final hole of the Southeastern Conference Championships, freshman Kentucky golfer Sarah Harris walked off the green in disgust.
She bogeyed. She was mad.
That was not the way she intended to end her round or the tournament for that matter. Harris also had no idea what that bogey had cost her team.
As Harris walked over to head coach Golda Borst with a look of disappointment, Borst had to alert her unsuspecting and somewhat oblivious freshman about what she had just done.
"Sarah, do you know you just did?" Borst asked.
"No," Harris responded, aware of nothing other than the fact she had just ended her round on a sour note.
"You might have had the highest (SEC Championships) finish out of any Kentucky women's golfer," Borst informed her unassuming freshman. "Do you know how big this?"
That quickly changed Harris' perspective on her tournament.
With her final score of 9-over-par, Harris had earned her best collegiate finish with a second place at the SEC Championships as she led the Kentucky women's golf team to its best finish at SECs in 20 years: a tie for fifth place with Mississippi State at 58-over par.
So why then did Harris have no idea where she was on the leaderboard? Well, it goes back to before Kentucky competed at Ole Miss and had its best showing of the spring with a fifth-place finish at the M&F Bank Rebel Intercollegiate.
The Wildcats struggling for much of the spring, fighting weather conditions back home,
having trouble translating the work they put in into tournament play and
frankly unable to get out of their own way.
The Wildcats faced a great deal of adversity. They learned from it. They are better for it.
"We had to go through those tough times in the fall and then the spring to figure out that we're stronger," said Borst. "We've gotten mentally tougher. I saw that this tournament. They did better with their toughness."
Before the Cats went to Ole Miss, they gathered around and decided something had to change. What they were doing wasn't up to their own standards. So each of them - without the influence of the coaching staff - decided that instead of playing for one another or playing for their coaches, family, friends, or any other outside distractions, that they would play for themselves.
"When we all sat down, we decided we were letting the outside things distract us," said Harris. "We all sat down and took it back to, 'I need to be playing for me.' I need to go out there and figure out what I need to do to play good golf. When I'm playing well, it contributes to the team. When we all do what we need to play well, it all adds up."
It's not selfish, but it's a fact. Golf wasn't designed to be a team sport, even though Kentucky might be one of the most tight-knit collegiate teams on the circuit. Kentucky actually might have been too close of a team and put too much pressure on itself to perform for one another.
So they separated, at least mentally, from that idea and started focusing on their individual selves and doing their own part, trusting that everyone would do the same and stay focused on the moment.
Harris on her final round, on her final hole, on her final shot, was focused on the moment. She didn't even know how to process what she had just accomplished.
That's also Harris' M.O. She's humble and modest. She doesn't expect things. She goes out with an open mind and plays with what the day gives her.
When Borst asked her freshman what her goal was for the SEC Championships, Harris simply hoped to place in the top half of the field. And then she finished second.
She simply didn't know how good she really was. She probably has a better idea of that now.
"I expected her to be a solid player for me this year. I really did," said Borst. "It's one of those where you knew she'd be in the lineup, but she didn't know because she doesn't know how good she is. I think she slowly but surely is realizing that."
Harris is quick to give credit to the turnaround of her season and the season as a whole to their four seniors who have done much of the grunt work while Harris and fellow freshman Cylia Damerau are simply expected to pick up where the seniors have left off. Where most seniors wouldn't necessarily be receptive to freshmen coming in and contributing immediately, this senior class has welcomed the youngsters with open arms.
Because of that, UK is peaking at just the right time as the Wildcats await word on where they will head for NCAA Regionals during the Division I NCAA Women's Golf Selection Show on Monday, April 29.
"The upperclassmen are such a wealth of information," said Harris. "Whenever we have questions or need help with something, they're always there to lend a hand. They're so encouraging and it's just great.
"I hear a lot of stories on other teams where they say, 'Our seniors, they hate us,' or 'They hope we don't play.' They are always cheering us on and it's really fun."
Each senior brings something different to the table. Ashleigh Albrecht has been the most consistent player over the last few years and brings great veteran leadership on the course along with Betsie Johnson, while Megan Moir and Heather Lott and lone junior Liz Breed bring gobs of perspective about being good teammates, where this program has been, and where they want them to take it next.
"Each of them has taught me different things, but I've really learned about just enjoying the game," said Harris. "Not necessarily always taking it so seriously, but just enjoying being out there. I've really just learned a lot from them on how to enjoy my time as a student-athlete. They've been so encouraging."
The seniors have also taught the freshman about how Kentucky golfers are to handle themselves while on the golf course, which coincides with the seniors' message to Harris to enjoy the game and have fun. Borst and assistant coach Lucy Nunn have preached to their players since they arrived three years ago that there team would always carry themselves with class and play with a good attitude.
That message not only helps to represent the university in a positive light, but it also actually improves performance. And others have noticed.
On the second day of play at the SEC Championships - a day that's been notoriously troublesome for the Cats over the course of the season - Albrecht had just flown the green on a par three with a tough up and down in her future. Without hesitation, Albrecht stuck her club in her bag, walked with purpose to her ball, and took care of business and parred the hole.
That prompted Mississippi State head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm to walk over to Nunn.
"Lucy, your girls have such a great attitude. What do you do with them?" asked Brown-Lemm.
"We really emphasize playing with a great attitude," Nunn answered.
"Lucy, that saves shots," Brown-Lemm said.
That emphatic message is finally paying dividends.
"That's something that we've preached all year, because if we're going to do anything, we're going to do it with a good attitude," said Borst. "I don't like to see anything else on the golf course. Overall, I'm very happy and pleased and it shows we're going in the right direction."
Now, it's the freshmen helping those seniors advance and reach new heights as UK earned its best finish since before Harris and Damerau were even born. That's what these players set out to do when they decided to come to Kentucky. Now, the pieces are coming together and the entire team is making sure that the Wildcats end the 2013 season on a high note to send off their seniors the right way.
"When I made my decision to come to Kentucky, that's one of the things that drew me here," said Harris. "I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of rebuilding a program. We have such a great program, but we want to get back to where we were.
"Just the pride (the seniors) have in the program and the confidence they have in us. When we go to a tournament, it's always, 'We are Kentucky women's golf. We're here to play well.' It's really cool to watch."
A few days removed from being taken by the Lions in the third round, Larry Warford seems to be the rare draft pick that avoids criticism. The former star Kentucky guard has been well-received by Detroit fans and media alike and the consensus seems to be that he fills a need and will quickly compete for a starting role.
In three seasons as the starting right guard for the Wildcats, he led the SEC interior blockers with an 88.47 percent grade for blocking consistency, and registered 36 touchdown-resulting blocks and 125 knockdowns.
Detroit released starting guard Stephen Peterman at the start of the offseason and Warford is expected to compete for that opening on the right side.
"I think he definitely competes for it," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "You know, he's got some stuff to learn. He's got to clean some things up. But I think he's got a chance to compete as a starter."
The Lions selected Riley Reiff with the 23rd overall pick in 2012, and he could start the season now at tackle if Warford is able to start.
"This is one of my favorite football players in the draft," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said. "You want to talk about a big, square, stout son of a gun. This is him. Every tape I put on, he was dominant."
Warford measures at 6-foot-3 and 332 pounds. He's made the All-SEC second team the past three seasons.
In related news, Warford was the only Wildcat chosen in this year's NFL Draft, but he won't be the UK player to get a chance to live out his dreams at the next level. Soon after the draft's conclusion on Saturday, Martavius Neloms (Lions), Matt Smith (Atlanta Falcons) and Collins Ukwu (Minnesota Vikings) each announced on their Twitter accounts that they signed as free agents. Congratulations to all four.
One final note on the 2013 NFL Draft: Florida State led all schools and set a school record with 11 players chosen this weekend. Of those 11, seven were coached by former defensive coordinator and current UK head coach Mark Stoops, who attended the draft on Thursday and saw two of his players - defensive end Bjoern Werner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes - go in the first round.
Overall Record: 26-17, 9-12 SEC Record Last Week: 2-2, 2-1 SEC
Recent Results Tuesday, April 23 * lost at Western Kentucky, 5-4 (18 innings) Thursday, April 25 - won at No. 16 Ole Miss, 3-2 Friday, April 26 - lost at No. 16 Ole Miss, 11-5 Saturday, April 27 - won at No. 16 Ole Miss, 5-4
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Friday, May 3 - vs. No. 14 Arkansas - 6:30 p.m. (Fox Sports South) Saturday, May 4 - vs. No. 14 Arkansas - 7 p.m. (Fox Sports South) Sunday, May 5 - vs. No. 14 Arkansas - 1 p.m. (Cox Sports Television)
Team notes The No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats completed a season-long seven-game road trip with a four-game week, including an 18-inning game at Western Kentucky on Tuesday and a historic series win at No. 16 Ole Miss during the weekend. UK will break for finals during the week and return to action on Friday in hosting preseason top-ranked Arkansas, currently tabbed as high as No. 14, in a three-game series.
Kentucky (26-17, 9-12 Southeastern Conference) continued its grueling road swing with what turned into an exhausting week, starting with the 18-inning loss at Western Kentucky. In a nearly six-hour game that marked the longest contest played in the NCAA in 2013, the Wildcats fell 4-3 at Bowling Green Ballpark, before arriving back in Lexington at 4 a.m. ET and attending classes Wednesday.
Later Wednesday, UK then traveled to Oxford for the ESPN Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week, facing the blistering hot Rebels, who entered the series owning six consecutive league wins. UK took an early lead on the strength of a first-inning Austin Cousino honor in the nationally televised tilt against Rebs ace Bobby Wahl, an All-America righty who had a sub 1.00 ERA in SEC games entering the start. After allowing unearned runs to score to give Ole Miss a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning, UK mounted an eighth inning rally to take a 3-2 lead. With the UK bullpen taxed from the 18-inning game on Tuesday, UK turned to Chandler Shepherd to pitch extended innings in relief, tossing two shutout frames for the win.
After an 11-5 loss on Friday, the Wildcats posted a comeback 5-4 win on Saturday to claim the series against the Rebels, behind Corey Littrell's 20th career win. It marked UK's third all-time series win in Oxford and its first since 2007, also winning in 2001.
The Wildcats have been led offensively in average by freshman rightfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .347 with four doubles, one triple, 11 RBI and four steals in 2013. All-America two-way start A.J. Reed leads all NCAA sophomores in homers and RBI, batting .310 with eight doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 40 RBI. J.T. Riddle has hit .276 with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 19 RBI, stealing six bases. All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino has batted .256 with 10 doubles, one triple, six homers and 25 RBI, stealing 12 bags. Max Kuhn owns a .253 average with eight doubles, one triple, three homers and 26 RBI, stealing six bags. Outfielder Zac Zellers has a .247 average with three doubles, two homers and 22 RBI, swiping six bases, while catcher Micheal Thomas has hit .245 with two homers and 18 RBI.
UK's pitching staff has used the all lefthanded weekend rotation of Reed (2-5, 2.88 ERA), Jerad Grundy (5-5, 5.27 ERA) and Littrell (5-3. 3.22 ERA). In relief, senior Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.78 ERA) has appeared in a staff-high 21 games, while junior Trevor Gott (4-1, 1.33 ERA) has 10 saves in 20 outings, fanning 32 in 27 innings. Sophomore Chandler Shepherd (3-0, 3.43 ERA) has appeared in 18 games with 42 innings pitched. Freshmen Ryne Combs (0-0, 1.40 ERA), Zach Strecker (1-1, 2.40 ERA), Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 4.38 ERA) and Kyle Cody (3-2, 5.49 ERA) have been used in at least 10 games in relief.
UK is currently in a stretch of facing 14 of 16 ranked opponents. Eight of UK's 10 weekends against SEC foes have come against ranked teams. Kentucky, currently owning a No. 27 NCAA RPI in the BoydsWorld.com projections on Sunday, has three series wins over top-20 NCAA RPI teams (at Florida, at Ole Miss, vs. Miss. State), and has four games against top-12 teams remaining in 2013.
UK freshman Kelsey Nunley stifled Missouri's bats on Saturday as the Wildcats evened the series with an 8-2 victory. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Different day, different pitcher and different result.
The 19th-ranked Kentucky softball team defeated No. 11 Missouri on Saturday, 8-2, to even the three-game series with the rubber match to be played on Sunday. The Wildcats fell to the Tigers in the opening game on Friday, 2-1, in a game they let get away and as two-time All-American pitcher Chelsea Thomas dominated.
Saturday was a different story as UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was the one in the circle controlling the game. She gave up just one earned run in a complete-game effort, while striking out four UM hitters. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native did what she has been doing all season, working the corners and keeping hitters guessing at the plate.
Nunley lived on the inside corner, jamming several Missouri batters while painting the outside corner from time to time leaving the Tigers with little chance to connect the barrel of the bat with the ball. Location has been key for Nunley, who leads the Wildcats with a 22-7 record on the season. She lives and dies by painting the black of the plate and knows just where the zone is by figuring out the umpire early in the game.
"She's been doing that her whole life," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The one thing she does exceptionally well is she has great command and she locates it well. Once she figures out an umpire's zone she's pretty good at attacking it and locating the ball where she wants to and that's really the name of her game is being able to locate and attack batters and giving the umpire what they want."
After Missouri tied the game in the top of the fourth at 1-all, the Tigers filled the bases with two outs in the inning. Nunley threw a pitch on the inside corner that UM's Rachel Hay could do nothing with but fly out to left to end the threat. That pitch looked to be the turning point in the game as Kentucky plated two runs in the bottom half of the inning to stretch its lead to 3-1, taking command the rest of the way.
Nunley hurled 120 pitches in the game and has now thrown over 200 pitches in less than 24 hours after tallying 91 in four innings on Friday. That's a lot of pitches for anyone but to ask out of a freshman is saying a lot. The right hander has been huge for UK all season and is a large reason for its success this year.
"She's a very strong girl and she's been exceptional for us, especially for a freshman to be able to throw as many pitches as she does a game and as many games as she has," Lawson said. "We have been really lucky this year but she has been able to step up and act like a real veteran."
The Cats' offense came alive on Saturday after recording just five hits and one run in nine innings against Thomas on Friday. Senior Alice O'Brien regained the lead for UK, connecting on a long homerun to right center in the bottom of the fourth inning. Junior Ginny Carroll and freshman Christian Stokes charted two RBI each as the Wildcats had nine hits and eight runs on Saturday.
UK is going to need that same offensive-minded attack on Sunday as they will most likely see Thomas in the opposing circle again on Sunday. Having already faced the two-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Year once, Lawson feels the Cats can make some adjustments the second time around.
"I think yesterday we made contact with some balls but we didn't hit them square and stay behind them," Lawson said. "We hit a lot of balls but they were just ground balls in the infield and we swung around a lot of pitches. We are going to have to do a better job hitting the higher dropball that she brings and second when she does bring it a little bit lower we have to do a better job of staying behind it and driving through it as opposed to moving it around and trying to run."
Sunday is meaningful because the winner of the game will take the series and have the tiebreaker when it comes to seeding for the SEC Tournament. However, Sunday also marks Senior Day for two Wildcats. Kara Dill and O'Brien have been key components for Kentucky over their four years.
Dill, who is a former all-league performer, broke her hand earlier in the year and has been limited. That hasn't stopped her from competing as she will enter the game as a pinch runner and is willing to help out the team in any way possible. O'Brien has had a great year at the plate for UK, hitting in the cleanup position for the majority of the season.
"Senior day is always a big day," Lawson said. "This year is a little bit different because it won't be our last game on this field for them. With that said, Kara and Alice have meant so much to the program. They have been starters for four years, they're awesome contributors on offense but more importantly they are great people. They are great students, they do exceptionally well in the classroom, they do well in the community and they have been an asset to Kentucky."
The Detroit Lions selected former Wildcat Larry Warford with the No. 65 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Expecting to hear his name called between the second and fourth rounds of the NFL Draft, Larry Warford was planning to forgo the watch parties potential draftees typically attend.
Nervous and excited to learn of his new team and home, Warford simply wanted to pass the time the best way he knew how.
"My dad wants me to come down and have a party with the family and all that but I kind of don't want to do anything for it," Warford said on Tuesday. "I kind of just want to sit at my house and play video games."
For this, Larry Warford was happy to put down the controller.
The Detroit Lions selected Warford in the third round (No. 65 overall), making the star offensive guard the highest-picked Kentucky player since Randall Cobb in 2011 and second-highest in a decade. Warford is the first UK offensive lineman to be chosen in the draft since both Todd Perry and Chuck Bradley were selected in 1993.
If the Lions are right about him, Warford will be playing for a long time.
"Warford was made to play guard in the NFL," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said in a press conference after Detroit selected Warford.
Warford is expected to compete for a starting spot immediately on a team that ranked 23rd in the league in total rushing yards in 2012. According to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, Warford is more than capable of winning the job.
"This is one of my favorite football players in the draft, Larry Warford from Kentucky," Mayock said. "And you want to talk about a big, square, stout son of a gun, this is him.
"Every tape I put on he was dominant."
Making that all the more impressive in the competition Warford was facing on a weekly basis. He credited going head-to-head with the Southeastern Conference's top defensive tackles for preparing him for the next level and his performance against them caught the eye of ESPN's Todd McShay.
"This guy has faced some big-time defensive linemen and he won the vast majority of his one-on-one battles," McShay said. "He is a phone-booth player. He's gonna get into the pads of defensive linemen and once he's locked on, forget about it."
Warford did not allow a sack during his senior season en route to receiving All-SEC honors for the third year in a row. All his accolades - which include a third-team AP All-America nod - make him one of the most decorated linemen in school history.
At the next level, he only figures to build on his Wildcat legacy.
"I just want to represent my university," Warford said. "It's a great place I've had so much fun and I have gotten a lot out of it and to represent UK in the draft it means everything to me. This is something that I really have been wanting to do and take a lot of pride in."
Long wait well worth it Crazy excited about my new family!!! LIONS!!!!!!!
Larry Warford is projected to become the first UK offensive lineman selected in the NFL Draft since 1993. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Typically, NFL teams wait until later in the draft to go after offensive guards. As Larry Warford said earlier this week, tackle has always been the "glamor" position on the offensive line.
This year, however, is different.
Thanks to one of the strongest classes at the position in recent history, four guards were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft of Thursday night. And as a result, Warford is the top guard prospect left on most draft boards.
1. Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky There are very few sure-things in any NFL Draft much less after the first 32 picks. Warford is a plug-and-play stud at guard who isn't far behind both first-round studs Chance Warmack (TEN) and Jonathan Cooper (ARI). He was widely considered by opposing coaches as clearly the best player on a team with little to no support. And he still produced at an All-SEC level despite the struggle of his team. He is productive, powerful, game-ready and a steal in Round 2.
The draft will resume at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday (ESPN and NFL Network) and Warford could have his video-game playing interrupted early in the evening.
UK celebrates after its walk-off victory over Louisville on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and Missouri's first softball matchup as conference mates is set to be a big one.
With just one Southeastern Conference series left after the Tigers come to town, the Wildcats will look to strengthen their position for the postseason against a quality opponent. If the regular-season ended today, the Wildcats (35-14, 10-8 SEC) would be the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament, while Missouri (27-8, 11-6 SEC) would be the five seed.
It's obvious on paper how much this means for the winner of this series, and with a trip to No. 4 Alabama up next for the Cats, there is an opportunity for UK to climb in the SEC standings by finishing the season out strong.
"Right now everybody is bottle-necked basically three through 10 so we want to have a good seed for the SEC Tournament," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Well first you have to make it and second you want to have a good seed. If we can do something pretty cool against Missouri that would really help our standing and move up."
This is obviously a big weekend for UK and with Missouri ranked 11th in the country, it magnifies the matchup. However, even though wins and losses will likely determine Kentucky's seeding in the postseason, junior Lauren Cumbess knows the right way to approach the series.
"It's nothing different than any other SEC team we have played because they are ranked," Cumbess said. "Our conference is really tough but it's fun so when you do come away with a win it's huge for our team and gets us ready for postseason."
Kentucky will be riding a momentum swing after a walk-off 2-1 victory over rival Louisville on Wednesday at John Cropp Stadium. The win was a team effort as UK had great performances offensively and defensively as well as a gem from freshman hurler Kelsey Nunley.
Louisville defeated UK three times last season, including 3-2 in the regionals to end the Wildcats' 2012 season. This year, the Cardinals won the first meeting between the schools by knocking off the Cats 5-1 in Louisville.
U of L has had UK's number over the last few matchups but the Wildcats were finally able to get over the hump on Wednesday to pick up a momentum-building win heading into the final weekends of the season.
"It's very exciting because last year we didn't beat them and they beat us this year the first time we played them, so we were really looking forward to this game," Cumbess said. "To finally get a win over Louisville, that's huge for us. We evened it up for the year, until postseason anyway."
With just six games left in the season the Wildcats are approaching postseason play where they will need to take their game to the next level to compete with the best teams in the country. Cumbess believes the team is peaking at the right time and is playing their best ball of the year.
"I feel like our team is coming together and finding that chemistry and we are moving up and almost at our peak to play our best," Cumbess said.
Missouri is one of the top teams in the country and features two-time First-Team All-American and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year in Chelsea Thomas. Thomas is a pitcher that relies heavily on the dropball and that's exactly what UK saw when facing Louisville hurler Rachel LeCoq.
The Tigers are no strangers to big games as they appeared in the 2012 Super Regionals before falling to LSU in three games. The Cats are hoping the emotional win over Louisville will motivate them and boost their confidence the rest of the way.
"I hope it's going to carry on big," Lawson said. "Missouri is an awesome team, they have an incredible pitcher and they hit the ball well. The confidence and knowledge that we gain from (Louisville) is great and plus she is a drop ball pitcher in Chelsea Thomas and while she has a lot of other pitches the drop is a huge pitch for her. To be able to work on that against Louisville a little bit is good coming into this weekend."
UK is 20th in Directors' Cup standings in the fifth season of Mitch Barnhart's 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK Athletics is on pace for its best-ever finish in the Directors' Cup.
Learfield Sports released updated Directors' Cup standings following the conclusion of winter sports and Kentucky checks in at No. 20. UK scored 343 of its 511 points in the winter thanks to contributions from rifle, women's basketball, gymnastics, swimming and diving and indoor track and field.
Kentucky is fourth in the standings among Southeastern Conference schools and leads all schools from the Bluegrass state. Louisville is a spot behind UK in 21st.
UK has steadily improved in Directors' Cup standings since Mitch Barnhart arrived as athletics director. UK was 29th in two of the last three seasons after coming in 50th in 2002-03, Barnhart's first. UK's best finish in the 20-year history of the Directors' Cup is 26th in 1996-97.
The Directors' Cup was established in 1993-94 by the National Association of Collegiate Director of Athletics and USA Today to rate the top athletic departments in the country, taking into account all NCAA-sanctioned sports.
Barnhart keeps a close watch on the rankings, including them in his 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. He set a goal nearly five years ago for UK to win 15 conference or national championships by the year 2015. After rifle's conference championship this winter, UK has won 11 titles.
With spring sports baseball, softball, outdoor track and field, men's and women's tennis and men's and women's golf still having opportunities to earn points, UK has a shot at cracking the top 15 in the Directors' Cup a couple years early.
Junior Lauren Cumbess' walk-off RBI single gave UK a 2-1 victory over Louisville Wednesday evening. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth on a wild pitch that scored Kentucky sophomore Sarah Frazer, the Louisville Cardinals came to bat with UK three outs away from defeating it's in-state rival. Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley toed the rubber looking to finish off her complete game shutout.
However, the leadoff hitter in the inning for the Cards, Taner Fowler, had other ideas. The junior took Nunley's 2-1 offering down the left-field line over the fence to tie the game at 1-all. Instead of getting down on herself, Nunley stepped right back in the circle and got the Wildcats back in the dugout without further damage.
The UK offense had Nunley's back and took care of the rest as the Wildcats loaded the bases with Lauren Cumbess stepping to the dish. The junior got a pitch she liked over the plate and ripped an infield single to the left side hole that was too much for Louisville shortstop Whitney Arion to handle and driving in the game-winner to give the Wildcats a 2-1 victory over the eighth-ranked team in the country.
Following the game-timing home run, Nunlely admitted she was a little rattled but quickly regrouped to give the Cats a chance to win in the bottom half.
"Right after she hit that homer I was a little shaky but you kind of always get shaky after that happens," Nunley said. "You just have to regain your confidence and go back out there."
Cumbess and the rest of the Wildcats seemed to keep their cool after the home run by Fowler. She kept reminding herself the advantage of playing at home and having the last at-bat. As Kentucky filled the bases in the seventh, Cumbess stepped in the box in the most pressure situation of the game.
The Normal, Ill., native may have been one of the coolest members in the ballpark. She was seeing the ball well all game and felt extremely confident when it was her time to deliver.
"I was actually pretty comfortable surprisingly," Cumbess said. "I feel like I had been seeing the ball pretty well all game even though I had only had one hit before. I was pretty comfortable and it was exciting. I always love being in those kinds of positions."
Head coach Rachel Lawson also felt good seeing Cumbess at the plate in the pressure situation. Lawson has coached the junior for close to three years now and knows just how smart and how good of a hitter Cumbess is.
In fact, if the sixth-year head coach could have chosen anyone on her roster to get the job done, it would have been Cumbess.
"I have a ton of confidence in Cumbess," Lawson said. "She's a strong woman and she's both physically and mentally strong. She loves softball and she knows the game really well so if I was going to have anybody up to bat I would want it to be Lauren."
The win was big for UK, who evened the season series after falling to U of L back on April 3, by a score of 5-1 in Louisville. The Cards have controlled the series between the two schools for a few years so the win was extra sweet for UK.
"Oh its huge. They have had our number for quite some time so to be able to come in and play it was actually a very fun game," Lawson said. "It was a fast game I thought both pitchers did a nice job. To be able to come out on the winning end is pretty exciting."
Time and time again The Wildcats has shown toughness to will themselves to wins. UK showed it again tonight by collecting themselves after the Louisville home run and producing in the seventh to get the win.
It was an all-around win for the Wildcats, who got production from the entire lineup, both offensively and defensively along with a great effort in the circle from Nunley.
"To get production in the entire batting lineup is big for us," Lawson said. "We were able to do that on Sunday against Arkansas and that has been a big thing for us. The fact that we showed toughness on defense, throughout the order and on the mound was big for us."
With spring practice in the books for all 14 Southeastern Conference schools, head coaches from around the league called in Wednesday morning and early afternoon for the SEC Football Spring Coaches' Media Teleconferenc. Included among them was UK's Mark Stoops, who addressed the spring as a whole, the quarterback position and his early recruiting success. Here's everything he had to say:
On his first spring at UK and how the team progressed ... "I was encouraged with the first spring. I felt like things went well. I was impressed with our players. I felt that they had a great attitude and were embracing the process. Really happy with their attitude and the way they're going about their business. Encouraged with the spring game and our fans and the fan base is awfully hungry to help us be successful. That was evident with their support at the spring game. So overall I'm pleased with the way things are going."
On what makes Vince Marrow a good recruiter and whether he recruits only in Ohio ... "Yeah, I've got him just in Ohio right now. And what makes him a great recruiter I think is just his ability to make everybody feel comfortable. He's very good at just building relationships. He works at it extremely hard and he has a lot of ties to Ohio. He's lived in three or four different parts of Ohio. He grew up in Ohio and went to the same high school (Cardinal Mooney) that I did, so Vince knows me very well. He knows how we want to go about our business in recruiting. And so I think just with his work ethic and his ability to build relationships are some of the best qualities he has." On whether Georgia is an area he plans to recruit ... "Absolutely, yes. We are currently recruiting Georgia. Yes."
On whether he sees any separation in the quarterback battle after watching tape ... "Well I think it's very fair to say that Jalen (Whitlow) had the best spring game and did some awfully good things. So I think, yeah, I gotta say that Jalen had the best spring game and did some awfully good things. With that being said, it's still an open competition there."
On where UK will need the most help from newcomers next season ... "Well, obviously we need help in every position. We need to improve across the board. But what stands out to me right now is the skill positions, both on offense and on defense. We need to get a lot better in the secondary and we need to get a lot better at wide receiver."
On Josh Clemons and Dyshawn Mobley ... "Yeah, Dyshawn, he was a good back. He just really did some good things and I was impressed. I feel like he's a physical guy up about 215 pounds and gives us a little physical punch and also got some good speed. So I was impressed with him. Who else did you ask about? (Clemons) Josh is, again, a pleasant surprise. I think with coming back off a knee injury, I really just was impressed with him. He also had a good spring game. We did not practice him back-to-back (days). We gave him, if we did have a back-to-back practice, we just practiced him one of the other to try to let that knee heal up a little bit in between practices and all that. But again, a big physical guy that's got some good vision, so I was happy with Josh."
On what Clemons and Mobley stepping up means for Justin Taylor ... "He's got a lot of work to do. So we'll see."
On whether he will be at the NFL Draft with three potential high picks from his 2012 Florida State defense and whether that is a selling point in recruiting ... "Yeah, I am going to be there for the draft and supporting those players, a couple of them, and come up and be with them. So I wanted to be there to support them and their family. I don't know if it's a selling point or not, but I'm really doing it because of my relationship with these guys and I've been with them the last three years and really think the world of them and want nothing but success for them. So that's the reason I'll be at the draft."
On whether he has been surprised with how well 2014 recruiting has gone ... "I've been very encouraged with recruiting since I've been to Kentucky. I feel like we're getting a good reception and I feel like the coaches are working extremely hard. The coaches have the ability to get in there and build some relationships and earn some trust from some of these recruits. So overall I've been very pleased with 2013 and the start of 2014, yes."
On whether he is focusing on any positions in 2014 ... "We really need a lot of help in every area. So I feel like we need help across the board, but we need to continue - it's hard to say because we need help everywhere, but we certainly need some help in the skill positions like I mentioned. I think really defensive back and wide receiver we need to upgrade there."
Nerlens Noel is hoping to become UK's third No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick in four years. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When it comes to the NBA Draft, information is just a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes away. If Nerlens Noel wanted, he could read detailed scouting reports about himself and find out where countless experts are pegging him in mock drafts.
He isn't having any trouble resisting the urge to look.
"I don't pay attention to those at all," Noel said on Tuesday. "I just stay focused on my physical therapy and make sure I stay focused and keep my mind right."
If he did take a peek, Noel would see that his name has floated back to the top of many a draft board. Though he's not frequenting Draft Express or ESPN for the latest scoop, he acknowledges that the prospect of being taken No. 1 overall has crossed his mind.
"It'd be a dream come true being the first pick in the NBA Draft," Noel said. "That's something you dream about from when you're a kid and I'd be very blessed to be in that position and very appreciative of it."
But barely two months ago, that dream was cast into doubt.
Noel injured his knee racing down the floor to prevent a fast-break layup in a game at Florida on Feb. 12. In an instant, he went from thinking about winning a basketball game to pondering whether playing the sport was even in his future, among countless other things.
"A lot goes through your head," Noel said. "When it first happens to you, you don't know what the injury is. So you don't know if you'll never play basketball again or if you'll be playing a month from now. When I heard what the injury was, I knew no matter what I'd get back on the court as fast as I could and just get back to what I love doing."
Since then, Noel has directed his energy toward that end.
He is at the six-week mark of his recovery process and Noel goes through rehab every day. He reports he is now doing exercises in therapy out of his brace and slowly regaining lost muscle. Noel is shooting for Christmastime as a rough return date, but that's very much a moving target.
"The knee's doing good," Noel said. "I've been working hard in rehab and my physical therapist has been telling me I'm way ahead of schedule and I'm coming along very well."
Seeing his progress, Noel was comfortable making his decision to enter the NBA Draft on April 15.The prospect of playing with a talented incoming class and the simple fact that he has enjoyed his time in Lexington were tempting, but he is happy with his ultimate choice.
"There was a consideration about coming back, but anybody that gets injured you're probably going to have a consideration and just think about it," Noel said. "But I sat there with my family and just saw the extent of my injury and I felt it wasn't going to affect me too much in the draft. So I've definitely been tackling the rehab and my decision was probably the best decision for me I believe."
Though he has opted to move on to the next level and didn't even play a full season of college ball, Noel believes he has benefited greatly from his time at UK. He was projected as a top pick before he became a Wildcat, but Noel sees himself as much better prepared to be successful in the NBA after playing for John Calipari at Kentucky.
"Coach Cal has taught me so much on and off the court: How to be a good person and just really know how to have a good work ethic," Noel said. "He made us love work and just (how) to carry yourself and just a lot of life lessons that any regular coach would not teach you about off the court."
When he went down, Noel's injury sparked a debate about the one-and-done rule and whether players should be allowed to declare for the draft out of high school. He sees all sides of the argument, but isn't entering the conversation. Noel is just glad to be where he is now.
"I loved this year and it was one of the best experiences of my life being here at Kentucky this year," Noel said. "Regardless of if I had to stay three, four years, these are the best times of your life whether it's one or four years."
Similarly, Noel isn't thinking about the play on which he got hurt. A pragmatist might say that Noel would have been better served to let Mike Rosario have a wide-open layup. But even though UK was down double digits at the time, Noel doesn't second-guess his decision to hustle back and block his 106th and final shot of the season in spite of all the pain it ended up causing him.
"Regardless of the score I wasn't going to let him get that easy basket," Noel said. "That's just who I am though. I will not be embarrassed in any type of way. I will not give them an easy basket. I just want to keep fighting and give my team the best chance of getting back in fighting position to win that game."
Based on that attitude, it's easy to see why NBA teams are still so eager to take him.
Larry Warford is expected to become the first UK offensive lineman to be selected in the NFL Draft since 1993. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With the NFL Draft just days away, Larry Warford is desperate for ways to pass the time. UK's former star offensive guard knows he's about to receive life-changing news and he's trying everything he can think of to occupy his racing mind..
"Play bass guitar, fish, video games, workout," said Warford. "Just anything to get my mind off of it. Might go driving for no reason. That's really it. Just lay down and try to relax."
But how can he relax when in just a couple of days he will be living in a completely new city surrounded by a wholly unfamiliar set of coaches and teammates? Warford literally has no idea where he will be headed come this weekend when his name is called, whenever that may be.
As of now, he doesn't even know where he will be when he gets drafted. In fact, he may just keep playing video games until he gets that phone call.
"My dad wants me to come down and have a party with the family," said Warford. "I kind of don't want to do anything for it. I kind of just want to sit at my house and play video games or something like that because I'm just going to be nervous the whole time."
One thing he will be doing is a virtual certainty: Warford is going to be selected in the NFL Draft (Thursday-Saturday on ESPN and the NFL Network). When that moment comes, he will become the first UK offensive lineman to accomplish the feat since Todd Perry and Chuck Bradley in 1993.
Scouts and analysts have Warford projected anywhere from the second to fourth rounds in a draft heavy with talent at offensive guard. Teams that he has worked out for and talked with on the phone have given him a similar feel.
While he's nervous, it's not about his ability to compete at the next level. After four seasons as a Wildcat, Warford has solidified himself as one of the top offensive linemen in this season's draft class after earning All-Southeastern Conference accolades the last three seasons and becoming an All-American along the way.
It's been his time as a Wildcat and the tutelage of former offensive line coach Mike Summers that have helped him reach this point.
"I'm a lot more confident in myself," said Warford. "I'm very critical of myself still, but when I first got to UK, I thought that I wasn't great at all. I went from high school to college and I wasn't dominating like I was. I failed to realize there's a lot better talent in college.
"Having gone through my years at UK these last four years and steadily becoming a better player, I've gained a lot more confidence in myself."
There was talk about Warford potentially declaring for the draft after his junior season, but he knew that he still had plenty of improving to do before he was ready for the NFL while his confidence continued to blossom.
"I wasn't ready last year to come out as a junior. I had a lot to work on," said Warford. "I feel like through this season, I got to play against a lot better (defensive) tackles with the addition of Missouri and going out to play Florida and Georgia. Those guys had a lot of great d-tackles, so I got to improve my game a lot. It's helped me out a whole bunch."
While confident in his abilities, Warford's humility and desire to continue to improve has put him in this position to have his named called at Radio City Music Hall in New York City this weekend. And even when he gets that call, he'll still go out there and show his team that he has something to prove.
"I knew that I had a lot to work on. I still believe I do," said Warford. "I'm not a perfect offensive lineman. Nobody is. There's always something to work on. Honestly, from keeping that point of view throughout my entire career at UK has helped me progress as a play and become a good one. I'm just going to try to keep that mentality and never become complacent with where I'm at."
Where he's at now and where he's been seem like lifetimes away, though he played high-school football just down the road at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky.
His high school coaches implored Warford to try and improve his body composition and conditioning, things he continues to work on as he prepares for the NFL. At that time, Warford had no idea what to expect going into college. Looking back, he wishes he would have listened.
"It would have made my life easier as a freshman," said Warford. "Coming in and doing the conditioning tests, it just woke me up that I needed to do something about my condition when I first got here. If I would have listened to them a little bit more and ran a little bit more, I wouldn't have been hurting for that whole first year."
Back then, heading into his freshman season and playing football for Kentucky was the unrealized dream. Now, he's ready to play the game professionally in the NFL. That thought, though the moment is just days away, is still taking some getting used to.
"It's still kind of like a dream. Since it's not (at Kentucky), it doesn't seem like it's real," said Warford. I'm getting all these calls from these teams asking me for my information for draft day, and it's like, 'Oh, I'm here now.' It's only a couple of days away. The fact that it's getting so close, it's becoming a reality."
Despite not reaching the level of team success he would have liked over the past two seasons, Kentucky will always be special to Warford as his home and place where he matured and developed as not only a football player, but as a man. This is why when one team decides to draft "Larry Warford from the University of Kentucky," that will be his proudest moment as his life changes forever.
"I just want to represent my university. It's a great place," said Warford. "I've had so much fun and I've gotten a lot out of it. To represent UK in the draft, it means everything to me. It's just something I've really been wanting to do and take a lot of pride in."
Willie Cauley-Stein (left) and Alex Poythress will help incoming freshmen ease into life as a UK basketball player next season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Becoming a champion is arguably the toughest achievement in sports. A championship is every team's ultimate goal each and every season.
"We got big expectations next year," said Alex Poythress, who opted to return to UK for his sophomore season earlier this month. "We just want to come prepared every day because the expectations next year, the goal is a championship, nothing less, nothing more."
Living up to the hype of a ranking or reputation is also no easy task, especially when that hype reads, "No. 1 recruiting class and likely to repeat as national champions."
The 2012-13 Kentucky basketball team had those expectations - fair or unfair - and failed to live up to the billing.
On the surface, it appeared Kentucky had all the ingredients it would need for another stellar season. The top recruiting class in the country, for the fourth consecutive season, was arriving at UK, Kyle Wiltjer was returning for his sophomore season off a national championship freshman season, and Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays would provide veteran leadership as transfers
But games aren't played on paper and the season failed to deliver a third Final Four in as many seasons.
With admittedly "bad tastes" left in their mouths after the way their freshman season ended, Willie Cauley-Stein and Poythress decided to return, realizing they needed more time to mature and had unfinished business to tend to.
Freshman year was difficult for each of them, but countless lessons were learned along the way.
"I already feel different," said Cauley-Stein. "Once the season ended it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly - which I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened. I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do."
"It prepares you mentally," said Poythress. "We should be mentally prepared for everything because really when you're losing, that's when you figure out what people are made of and stuff like that. It should just help us mentally."
Kentucky lacked a true leader last season to help prepare the freshmen for the difficulties they were bound to face. The Wildcats had only one senior, Mays, who had never played on the stage that is UK basketball. They didn't have a Darius Miller or a Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb.
They will this year.
"I think that's exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot minutes as a freshman (and) decided to come back and take on the role of a leader," said Cauley-Stein. "We didn't have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy, but he still didn't play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we've got three guys - including (Jarrod Polson) - that were playing almost thirty minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously."
After experiencing a full season of life as a Kentucky basketball player, Cauley-Stein and Poythress have each seen what it takes. They've gone through the tough times, the worst season head coach John Calipari has endured in his tenure at Kentucky.
With that experience, they want to change that and make sure that never happens again.
"You don't want next year to end like this year," said Poythress. "It shouldn't happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We're going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly."
Once again, next season, Kentucky looks awfully good on paper. With multiple key components returning for another season, and UK bringing in arguably the most heralded recruiting class in the history of the game, the Wildcats are considered a lock to contend for their ninth national championship and second in three seasons.
While Cauley-Stein says his decision to come back to Kentucky was "easy," he has seen that living up to the hype and expectations is not.
"The hype with these guys coming; they're freshmen," said Cauley-Stein. "They're going to have to do the same thing we've gone through, plus it's going to be harder next year anyway. That's the way I'm thinking about it. They're going to have to go through the same thing freshmen year we did, and it's tough. It's a tough road to go down."
Both Cauley-Stein and Poythress acknowledged how tough their freshman seasons were, and with the caliber of talent on the way, they expect it be even more difficult next season. That's a challenge they're willing to accept as it will likely lead to more competitive practices and improvement for their respective games.
Nothing will be given to them. Nothing will be easy.
"The hype is different because we have more guys coming in," said Cauley-Stein. "But it's going to be harder because we have 10 potential first-round picks coming back and going to be here playing against each other every day.
"Coach doesn't want the same thing to happen that we did this year for next year, so he's going to change a bunch of things so that doesn't happen. Intensity is going to pick up. The level of how we're going to play is going to go up tremendously."
That has to start from the beginning. From now until the freshmen get here, the returning players must focus on improving and transforming themselves. When the freshmen finally arrive, then it's time for the returners to show them the ropes.
From that point on, it's time to go to work.
"I think the biggest thing I took from all that is you got to know from the get-go that it's real," said Cauley-Stein. "We started off really good and went in those couple games where we lost those two games in a row (Notre Dame and Baylor) and it was like, 'Wow, we're really not as good as we thought we were.
"And that's the biggest thing. Every game you play is hype. It's a Super Bowl for everyone. I think that's the biggest thing for the freshmen coming in is that you have no time to relax when you step in between those lines. It's all business when you step in there."
Cauley-Stein believes that, after speaking with Coach Cal during their post-season meeting, it's up to him to become that leader they lacked last season and to bring next year's team together as early as possible.
"Cal always harps to you about coming together and, the way we were going, we were coming together right when the tournament was happening," said Cauley-Stein. "I think this year (it will start) way earlier, like way in the summer: having team meetings or going out to eat and doing goofy stuff together. I think that's what's really going to bring you together. That's one of my big things I'm going to go into the summer with."
If they don't come together, then just like last season, potential may never become a reality.
"The potential is exactly that. We had the potential this year and didn't capitalize on it," said Cauley-Stein. "If you don't come together and do things right, then you're just a bunch of talented kids that didn't get anything accomplished."
Baseball - Kentucky continued a grueling stretch with 14-of-16 ranked opponents with a four-game week, with No. 8 Louisville earning a midweek win and No. 14 South Carolina sweeping the Wildcats in Columbia over the weekend. - Sophomore two-way standout A.J. Reed smashed his team-high 10th homer of the year on Saturday, as a part of a 4-12 weekend at the plate. - Junior lefty Corey Litrell tossed his seventh quality start of the year and 21st of his illustrious career on Sunday, allowing three earned runs in 7.2 innings. - Freshman catcher George Fettes belted his first homer of his career on Saturday afternoon over the left-field wall that helped UK rally to take the lead before falling to the Gamecocks.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team is coming off a 3-2 week where it swept a doubleheader at Middle Tennessee State before earning a win at Arkansas in a three-game set. UK defeated MTSU 7-4 in game one before a 13-1 triumph in game two. - Home runs led UK in game two over MTSU as the Wildcats blasted five home runs to break the school record for most homers in a game. Sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner started the home run assault, blasting a leadoff shot in the second inning before junior infielder Krystal Smith hit a two-run homer later that inning. Junior pitcher/infielder Lauren Cumbess hit a two-run home run in the third inning before freshman infielder Ansley Smith hit consecutive two-run round trippers in the third and fourth innings to tie and break the school record. In all, the Wildcats posted 15 hits in the game, including three doubles and 12 RBI. - Cumbess has been the offensive leader for UK, hitting safely in 13 of her last 14 games with an extra-base hit in nine of those 14 games. For the season, Cumbess leads the team with a .359 (56-for-156) average, including 12 doubles, 11 homers and 37 RBI. Freshman Kelsey Nunley is 20-6 on the year in the circle with a 2.08 ERA. Cumbess is second on the team with a 3.52 ERA and a 10-5 record.
Men's tennis - Kentucky advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2013 SEC Tournament, knocking off No. 9 Mississippi State in the second round, 4-2. - The Wildcats bowed out in the quarterfinals after dropping a tight match with number one overall seed, and No. 2 Georgia, 4-3. Anthony Rossi defeated No. 6 KU Singh 7-6, 6-3 in his second win of the year over a top-10 player. - The NCAA Selection Show is Tuesday, April 30 at 5:00 p.m. ET on NCAAsports.com. Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team lost 4-2 in its opening round match vs. LSU at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. - Junior Caitlin McGraw and freshman Nadia Ravita won the No. 1 doubles match 8-0. - Ranked 22nd, Ravita recorded another singles win, defeating Kaitlin Burns 7-5, 6-3 in the No. 1 singles slot. - McGraw also recorded a singles win for UK, taking court four 7-5, 7-6 (3).
Women's golf - The women's golf team recorded its best finish at the SEC Championships in 20 years as it placed tied for fifth, shooting 58-over-par for the tournament at the Greystone Golf and Country Club in Birmingham, Ala. - Freshman Sarah Harris was the highlight of the tournament for the Wildcats, finishing a career-best second place at 9-over-par for the event. Harris, who was tied for the individual lead after day one, was tied for fifth coming into Sunday before a 4-over-par, 76 catapulted her into second overall. The second place individual finish was also the highest this season for Kentucky. - Junior Liz Breed, who was nearly as impressive as Harris over the weekend, recorded a career-high finish tying for sixth overall at 11-over-par. The Waynesboro, Pa., native came into Sunday tied for fifth before falling just one slot after a 6-over-par, 78 final round.
Men's golf - The UK men's golf team finished in 13th place at the SEC Championships last weekend, shooting 50-over-par for the tournament at the Seaside Course in St. Simmons Island, Ga. - Junior Ben Stow was the high finisher for the Wildcats, placing tied for 12th at 5-over-par. The Salisbury, England native was even par through the first round before posting 2-over in round two and 3-over in the final 18.
Track and field - Kentucky opened the new UK Outdoor Track and Field Facility with the inaugural collegiate Heart of the Bluegrass Classic on Saturday. - UK won all but one of the 29 events the team entered at the inaugural collegiate Heart of the Bluegrass Classic on Saturday. - Cally Macumber and Michelle Canterna set the school records in their respective events. - Macumber's mile time of 4:37.75 also set the facility record. - Canterna cleared the new outdoor school record vault height at 3.87 meter /12'08.25". - Keith Hayes won all four of the events he entered, including two relays. - Rebecca Famurewa won three throws events, including a PR in the hammer throw.
Tuesday, April 23 Baseball at Western Kentucky - 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday, April 24 Softball hosts Louisville - 6:00 p.m.
Thursday, April 25 Track and field at Penn Relays - 10:00 a.m. (Philadelphia, Pa.) Baseball at Ole Miss - 7:30 p.m.
Friday, April 26 Track and field at Penn Relays - 9:00 a.m. (Philadelphia, Pa.) Track and field at Triton Invitational - 1:00 p.m. (San Diego, Calif.) Softball hosts Missouri - 5:00 p.m. Baseball at Ole Miss - 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 27 Track and field at Penn Relays - 12:55 p.m. (Philadelphia, Pa.) Track and field at Triton Invitational - 1:00 p.m. (San Diego, Calif.) Softball hosts Missouri- 1:00 p.m. Baseball at Ole Miss - 3:15 p.m. Track and field at Miami University RedHawk Invitational (Miami, Ohio)
Sunday, April 28 Softball hosts Missouri - 1:00 p.m. Track and field at Payton Jordan Invitational - 4:00 p.m. (Palo Alto, Calif.)
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart addresses student-athletes, coaches and staff at the 2013 CATSPY Awards. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mitch Barnhart spends a lot of time thinking about what he will say at the CATSPY Awards. After all, it was he who brought the annual celebration to UK Athletics and each year he serves as the keynote speaker before the student-athletes, coaches and staff assembled in Memorial Coliseum.
But this year, UK's athletics director had to do some last-minute scrambling. This year, Barnhart received some news that altered the message he wanted to send.
On Friday, Barnhart learned that former Oregon State linebacker Tevita Moala had lost his battle with cancer at age 37. Moala played college football more than a decade ago at a school thousands of miles from Lexington, which would seem to make his passing sad, but far removed from UK.
Barnhart sees things a different way.
"He's touched our program at UK and you would never know it," Barnhart said.
You see, Moala made a play during the 1999 season and its effects are still being felt today. On Nov. 6 against California, he snatched up a fumbled snap and sprinted 24 yards for a touchdown, clinching a 17-7 win and Oregon State's first winning season in 29 seasons and first bowl berth in 34. The next year, Oregon State would play in the Rose Bowl.
"He had an electric smile and an incredible passion for the game," Barnhart said. "Had he not made that play, Oregon State does not build its program, allowing us to do things we'd never done before at that university and affording me the opportunity to come to Kentucky with many others in this room, coaches and staff."
Barnhart would have been touched by the death of a young man he came to know regardless, but it was the symmetry between Moala's memorable play and the CATSPYs that made him change his speech at the 11th hour.
"Tonight, we're celebrating moments like that and trying to figure out how we can create more," Barnhart said.
It's that duality that makes the CATSPYs unique.
The event draws inspiration from the ESPYs and entertainment award shows like the Grammys, Oscars and Emmys. But those others are all about recognizing achievement from the preceding year, while the CATSPYs are as much about inspiring future achievement.
That's why motivating addresses from women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell, volleyball coach Craig Skinner and gymnastics coach Tim Garrison were interspersed with emotional award presentations by women's soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz to star sophomore Arin Gilliland (Blue Heart Award) and Joe B. Hall to long-time athletic trainer Walt McCombs (Lifetime Achievement Award).
That's why Barnhart took to the podium before the night's most prestigious individual awards - Mr. and Miss Wildcat - were given to Luis Orta and Chelsea Oswald of UK cross country and track and field.
Barnhart touched on a few themes, including leadership, tough love, sacrifice, emotion, training, passion and legacy, but he closed with a word that didn't seem on its face to fit with the rest: almost. His message was that almost is not good enough.
When he came to UK from Oregon State in 2002 with memories of Tevita Moala fresh in his mind, almost would have been a significant improvement for many of the school's 22 varsity sports. Since then, UK Athletics has made remarkable strides, winning national championships and positioning itself for a record finish in Directors Cup standings in 2012-13. That merits recognition, and that's why Barnhart believes the CATSPYs are so important.
But the days of setting improvement as the goal are gone. UK Athletics is aiming much, much higher.
"We've done a lot of great things in the last year and over the last decade," Barnhart said. "That's now just the foundation. We're on a new journey and much more is expected."
Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress elected to return for their sophomore seasons earlier this month. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within a week or so of the season's conclusion, John Calipari meets with each of his players individually. In the meetings, Coach Cal gives advice about the future and directs his players on how they need to improve.
Given the frequency with which his players are selected in the NBA Draft, the meetings are a source of intrigue. That was particularly true this year with so many players facing difficult decisions about whether to stay or leave.
But anyone who wanted to be a fly on the wall when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped into Calipari's office would have been disappointed. The meeting was short and the message simple.
"I could leave this year, go late first round or come back next year and have an opportunity to go really early," Cauley-Stein said.
Then again, that's probably exactly what any UK fan would have wanted to hear: The skilled 7-footer would be returning for his sophomore season. Cauley-Stein had seen where he was projected in the draft and he decided he could do better.
"I heard a wide variety of things, which kind of that's what set me off," Cauley-Stein said. "I heard anywhere from eight to 10, 15 to 20, 22 to 25. That's the whole dang scale. That's everywhere. I didn't feel real comfortable taking a chance on it and landing somewhere that I'm not going to be good at or ending up hurting myself and coming back and helping."
Just like his meeting with Calipari, Cauley-Stein's decision was an easy one and a quick one. For Alex Poythress, it was a bit of a different story. Poythress talked at length about what to do with his family and UK's assistant coaches, in addition to Coach Cal.
"It was a long process," Poythress said. "You just want to make sure your heart is all in it, make sure you made the right decision, and I feel like I did."
The decision he settled on ended up being the same. Cauley-Stein and Poythress believed they could improve their draft stock with another season, but reducing the choice to that one factor is a vast oversimplification.
At the top of that list of reasons is a little unfinished business.
"You don't want next year to end like this year," Poythress said. "It shouldn't happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We're going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly."
Though it's been more than a month, neither Poythress nor Cauley-Stein need any reminding of the way UK's season ended with back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Robert Morris in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and NIT, respectively.
"It just left a bad taste in your mouth," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like something's empty and I want to fill it. Next year, we're going to have a great opportunity to do that."
Cauley-Stein's optimism, of course, is based in large part on the unprecedented volume and quantity of talent coming to Lexington next season. In terms of recruiting rankings, Calipari has signed his most highly regarded class to date, an eight-member group that features six five-star prospects and the top point guard, shooting guard and power forward in the class according to Rivals.
"It's going to be a nice roster," Poythress said. "The competition at practice is going to be very good. You're going to have to go hard every day."
Cauley-Stein arrived at UK an unheralded prospect - at least relative to the standards of the Calipari era at Kentucky - but contributed immediately and even dominated at times as the year wore on. Intense matchups with a potential No. 1 overall pick in practice for the first three-and-a-half months should not be overlooked as a reason for that.
"I think honestly for me that's going to be the best thing to come out of next year is you're going against pros every day," Cauley-Stein said. "This year it was like that until Nerlens (Noel) got hurt, and then we were going against Brian Long. ... You're not getting better. You're going to dominate practice and get into a game and struggle. Next year, it's going to be a lot different."
Though practices will undoubtedly be different, Cauley-Stein is quick to caution that it's in the Cats' hands whether things change in games.
This time a year ago, Cauley-Stein and Poythress were members of a recruiting class generating more than its fair share of championship talk. UK entered last season ranked No. 3 and is likely to be ranked in the same range in 2013-14. Having gone through what he just did, Cauley-Stein knows how insignificant hype can be.
"The potential is exactly that," Cauley-Stein said. "We had the potential this year and didn't capitalize on it. We could easily be, you know, we had the best recruiting class coming in and not do anything with it. It's that simple. If you don't come together and do things right, then you're just a bunch of talented kids that didn't get anything accomplished."
Cauley-Stein also realizes it's up to him and his teammates to write the script for next year.
"It's different if you make it different," Cauley-Stein said. "It could easily be the same where you come in here and you don't work as hard. But the thing is I don't think Cal's going to let that happen and us guys coming back's not going to let that happen just because how we finished, you can't leave off there."
After that ignominious end, Cauley-Stein has already noticed in himself reason to believe things will be different.
"Once the season ended it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly - which I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened," Cauley-Stein said. "I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do. ... This time I want come in here and do it. I don't want to try to do it."
That mentality sounds a lot like that of a leader, and it's no coincidence. Other than the concise advice he gave to Cauley-Stein about coming back, Calipari told his big man he needed to step up in the leadership department. Heeding that advice, Cauley-Stein wants to do what Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb did for Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the likes of Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison.
"I think that's exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot minutes as a freshman (and) decided to come back and take on the role of a leader," Cauley-Stein said. "We didn't have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy, but he still didn't play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we've got three guys (Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer) - including (Jarrod Polson) - that were playing almost thirty minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously."
Overall Record: 24-15, 7-11 SEC Record Last Week: 0-4, 0-3 SEC
Recent Results Tuesday, April 16, lost vs. No. 8 Louisville, 5-12 Saturday, April 20, lost at No. 14 South Carolina, 2-5 Saturday, April 20, lost at No. 14 South Carolina, 6-7 (11 innings) Sunday, April 21, lost at No. 14 South Carolina, 1-3
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Tuesday, April 23 - at Western Kentucky - 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25 - at No. 17 Ole Miss - 7:30 p.m. [ESPNU] Friday, April 26 - at No. 17 Ole Miss - 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27 - at No. 17 Ole Miss - 3:15 p.m. [Fox Sports]
Team notes Kentucky continued a grueling stretch with 14-of-16 ranked opponents with a four-game week, with No. 8 Louisville earning a midweek win and No. 14 South Carolina sweeping the Wildcats in Columbia over the weekend. Kentucky will return to action on Tuesday, traveling to Bowling Green, Ky., to face Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. ET at Bowling Green Ballpark. UK will then venture to No. 17 Ole Miss to face off with the Rebels, starting on Thursday in Oxford.
Kentucky (24-15, 7-11 Southeastern Conference) will face the Hilltoppers in a rematch of a 6-3 WKU win in Lexington on April 2. The game will be played at the low class A stadium of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bowling Green Ballpark. The series with Ole Miss will begin on Thursday as the ESPNU SEC Game of the Week, with a 7:30 p.m. ET first pitch. The series will resume on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET and conclude at 3:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.
UK has been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has a .352 average with 10 RBI. Slugger A.J. Reed has a .318 mark with six doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 44 RBI, with J.T. Riddle batting .301 with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 11 RBI. All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino has hit .268 with nine doubles, one triple, four homers and 22 RBI, stealing a club-best 12 bases.
On the mound, UK's Corey Littrell (4-3, 3.20 ERA), Reed (2-5, 3.20 ERA) and Jerad Grundy (5-4, 4.43 ERA) have worked in 10 weekend starts. In relief, senior Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.83 ERA) has appeared in a team-best 20 games, working 21.2 innings, striking out 20 and walking just four. Junior Trevor Gott (4-1, 1.19 ERA) has nine saves in 18 outings, striking out 26 in 22.2 frames. Freshmen Zach Strecker (1-0, 0.84 ERA), Ryne Combs (0-0, 1.50 ERA), Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 4.76 ERA) and Kyle Cody (3-2, 6.21 ERA) have each appeared in at least 10 games, with sophomore Chandler Shepherd (2-0, 3.82 ERA) appearing in 16 games.
The UK track and field program held a Senior Day celebration on Saturday at the Heart of Bluegrass Classic. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
For the first time since 1996, the Kentucky track and field program hosted an outdoor meet as the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic on Saturday. In more ways than one, it was a special day for the program. Not only did it give UK a chance to showcase its world-class facility, but it also provided a chance to honor its seniors as a special ceremony was held toward the end of the day.
UK had great performances by several athletes, highlighted by junior distance runner Cally Macumber, who broke the school-record mile time, and senior Keith Hayes, who claimed victories in four different competitions.
Head coach Edrick Floreal told his seniors earlier in the week to compete in one event and then rest up so they could be in the action while still enjoying the Senior Day celebration. However, Hayes took a different approach, attempting to race in as many heats as possible because he plainly and simply wanted to run.
"I told him if you need me to run the 4 by 800, I'll run the 4 X 800; if you need me to run the mile, I'll run the mile," Hayes said. "I just wanted to run just to be out because everybody doesn't see what we do on a day-to-day basis. They see results here and results there but we got the opportunity to put on a performance."
The Wildcats put on a show for the fans Saturday, winning several competitions. Although Floreal wanted his Cats to come out and perform well, Saturday was less about how they competed and more about a way to show appreciation to the crowd and alumni.
"The point today was less about performance, more about putting on a good show for the crowd," head coach Edrick Floreal said. "We also wanted the alumni to be part of this after 17 years without an outdoor track meet. It was more of a thank you.
One of Floreal's goals for the coming years is to bring the high school state meet to UK. There were 37 high schools competing against each other on Saturday and the commissioner and assistant commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in attendance to boot.
"I think the meet belongs here at UK," Floreal said. "I think with a facility like that, you have to highlight it. I think having the high schools participate and perform here gave them a sense it's a fast track and they can do well here."
As the day continued and the races starting winding down, a Senior Day celebration took place to honor the student-athletes who have dedicated themselves to the program.
Seniors had their names called and were accompanied by either family members or their respective coaches as they had their list of accolades read off by the public address announcer. After the festivities concluded, there were two more competitions left. The men's and women's 4 by 400-meter races were saved for last as the seniors anchored each.
"Student-athletes have other places they can go to it's not like they are forced to come here. They can go somewhere else and they are great athletes," Floreal said. "If they are going to come here the least we can do is to give them a meaningful thank you to really highlight what they have done and that was my goal."
UK baseball visited Fort Jackson on Friday before its series with South Carolina this weekend.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Usually on the day of night games in the Southeastern Conference, visiting teams spend the day wasting time at the hotel, eating pregame meals and preparing for the daunting challenge of winning a league series opener on the road.
Not so on Friday for the 17th-ranked Kentucky baseball team, which faces off with No. 14 South Carolina at Carolina Stadium this weekend.
The Wildcats had a different Friday, spending the morning at Fort Jackson, the United States Army's main production center for Basic Combat Training under the command of Brigadier General Bryan T. Roberts.
UK's club was invited to visit Fort Jackson during the week leading up to the trip to Columbia. UK jumped at the chance to break from its routine and show its student-athletes the training ground for America's heroes.
UK head coach Gary Henderson, assistant coach Keith Vorhoff, support staff and a dozen Wildcats boarded the bus and ventured down the road to Fort Jackson.
"This was a tremendous opportunity to get some of our group out to see a special place at Fort Jackson," Henderson said. "The men and women that serve in our armed forces are heroes and we were honored to have been welcomed on a visit. The chance to see what our soldiers go through on a daily basis to prepare them to fight for our freedom is an eye-opening experience. We can't thank General Roberts, Captain Meyer and the soldiers who were able to visit with us enough; they make us all proud to live in this great nation."
After a chance to meet with General Roberts, the Wildcats were given a personal tour of the recently renovated Fort Jackson museum where they were given a glimpse into the fort's history dating back to its inception in 1917.
Among the Wildcats on the trip was redshirt junior catcher Micheal Thomas. The Elizabethtown, Ky., native is a child of the military just 20 minutes from historic Fort Knox.
"It is cool to see what the men and women who serve our country have to go through to get ready to go to Afghanistan and other places for war," Thomas said. "It was an eye-opening experience for me and the guys, to see what guys our age actually have to go through."
Thomas, who has been a fixture behind the plate in 2013 after spending the previous four years behind standout catchers Marcus Nidiffer, Luke Maile and Michael Williams, was touched by the personal invite to the historic military base.
"It is really cool. Most of my family has been in the army," Thomas said. "Both of my parents were in the Navy so it was a little different for me. I got to see some of the other aspects of what my family has gone through from generation to generation. Being one of the first in my family to not join the military right out of high school was kind of cool to see what they went through, how they lived their lives and what has led them to be the kind of people they are today."
After the tour of the sparkling new museum, the Wildcats ventured across the base to an indoor shooting range, equipped with electronic sensors and screens to replicate battle scenarios. Henderson and the Wildcats were instructed on loading and re-loading their high powered, automatic weapons, before beginning the training scenarios.
"This was a great opportunity to come out and see just how the army life is," UK senior right-hander Walter Wijas said. "I had never had this experience, I had never shot a gun before and it was just a great experience to learn how it is and see how difficult it is for our soldiers to live here and fight for our country."
The Wildcats went through several battle simulations scenarios on the range, while lying in the prone and kneeling positions. The players had to think on their feet in a battle simulation, deciding on the fly about potential threats and civilians.
After the visit to historic Fort Jackson, the Wildcats returned to Columbia with a new perspective thanks to an experience much more meaningful than an afternoon spent in a hotel room.
"To see this just makes me respect our soldiers even more then I already do," Wijas said. "To see what they go through on a daily basis, it makes me feel for the work to do, it really makes us feel grateful that we have the life we do. The chance to play baseball everyday has been given to us by the brave soldiers in our military."
UK will showcase its new outdoor track at the Heart of Bluegrass Classic on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In what has been a year of milestones for the Kentucky track and field program, perhaps the biggest step forward will come Saturday when UK hosts its first outdoor meet in more than a decade: the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic.
Kentucky opened its state of the art Outdoor Track and Field Facility last fall, and Saturday's meet serves as a celebration befitting of such a spectacular venue.
The meet will also mark Senior Day, as UK's departing student-athletes will be honored on the new track as they compete in front a home crowd outdoors for the first time in their careers.
"I think this is more so for the fans and the university," Floreal said. "This is more for our kids and their parents to see them compete on the UK facility for the first time in a long time. Having a meet that's not as competitive will be even more fun because they can win more events. It's more so a feel-good type thing and less about trying to break records."
It will be a nice gesture for the seniors who have spent a lot of time at UK training and working hard every day for the program. There should be a good crowd at the UK Track Complex with family members making their way to Lexington to be a part of the event and support their favorite Wildcats.
The day is going to be focused on the seniors and Floreal is going to do the best he can to send them out in style and possibly let some anchor a relay or two.
"Our seniors haven't really been recognized," Floreal said. "If you don't play basketball at your university it's kind of hard to recognize your seniors. I think having a home meet gives us a chance to do that."
Along with the 10 universities participating in the track meet on Saturday, a total of 37 high schools will be attending for their own competition as well.
Floreal and the athletic department have worked hard over the last few months to make sure this weekend's meet is run as a world-class event.
Unlike a lot facilities around the state, Kentucky's track provides it all in one place for the fans. You don't have to leave the track area to go watch the field events and Floreal sees this as an opportunity to showcase every aspect of the sport. He wants Saturday to be a top-notch event, which will serve as a showcase which will hopefully lead to the state high school meet returning to Lexington.
"I think there is a responsibility in having the best looking track in the state that you put events on," Floreal said. "I want to host a state meet as soon as possible because I think it belongs here. I just think having a state meet is a big statement for us and I want to get that back here as soon as possible."
The Cats are coming off one of their best weekends of the season when they teamed up with Louisville at the "Kentuckiana" Border Battle. UK and U of L defeated Indiana and Notre Dame 101-99 in the women's competition and 103-97 in the men's.
Kentucky's effort was impressive, but the successful meet was perhaps more important because UK was able to turn the heads of rival competition for the first time in a long time.
The Wildcats seemed to jell and show the other schools that this was a different unit from the start of the meet all the way through the final races of the afternoon.
The hard work and new training methods implemented by the first-year head coach and his staff have been evident from the cross country season through indoor track and field in spurts. Even with the Wildcats' early success, the Border Battle Meet was the first total team performance turned in by the Wildcats since Floreal arrived in Lexington.
One change for Kentucky this season has been beginning every meet with a show of team unity. At the Border Battle the Wildcats took a team lap before the meet started, followed by a team cheer of "Go Cats."
More importantly, once the meet got underway, the Wildcats raised plenty of eyebrows.
"A couple coaches came by and said, 'I don't know what you are doing but oh my goodness these are not the same kids. They act like they belong and act like they should be beating us,' " Floreal said. "It was pleasant to see that people are noticing that we are different. Not that we are doing it for them but it's nice to see that this is working."
The track has served as an important new asset for Kentucky through training and competing in outdoor events. Floreal - in another basketball reference - compared preparing for an outdoor meet in an indoor facility to practicing free throws on a nine-foot rim instead of the regulation 10 feet.
The turns are a lot tighter inside as opposed to outside and athletes can get the feel of where the start and finish lines are. The UK track is going to match what the Cats will see at the SEC Championships at Missouri in a few weeks.
It gives the team a sense of calm heading into a major competition, instead of arriving at an outdoor event in disbelief as might have been the case in the past.
"I think the performances we've gotten so far outdoors have reflected on the fact that the kids go to an outdoor track meet and they don't have to be in shock," Floreal said. "It can be calmness like, 'This is normal. I have been doing this outdoors the last three weeks and here it is same outdoor track just different color.' "
The women's golf team heads to Birmingham, Ala., this weekend for the SEC Championship. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When Golda Borst took over the Kentucky women's golf program, the Wildcats were 77th in the country in the polls. Today, the Wildcats sit at 32nd.
Things have changed a lot since Borst took the job three seasons ago, and while she's striving to mold UK into a perennial Southeastern Conference contender, this team, in particular its four seniors (Ashleigh Albrecht, Betsie Johnson, Heather Lott and Megan Moir), have much to be proud of.
"We have a group of girls that are very proud of this program and how far we have come," said Borst. "When the freshmen came in, they made sure that they knew that and how far we'd come. They have been really clear in where we want to go."
On the flip side, Borst has brought in two talented freshmen with Cylia Damerau and Sarah Harris having earned spots in the lineup this spring. It hasn't always been smooth sailing as the youngsters learn the ropes and make their mistakes, but every day out on the course with the upperclassmen has contributed to their development.
Borst said it was very important for this crop of freshmen to have this season with the seniors to not only learn what life is like as a collegiate golfer at Kentucky, but what this program was all about to help steer them in the right direction.
The Wildcats, after an up-and-down start to the spring on the heels of a successful fall, appear to finally be hitting their stride, and just at the right time.
UK is riding the momentum of a fifth-place finish at Oxford, Miss., in the M&F Bank Rebel Intercollegiate in which Kentucky bested four other SEC squads. It's been a long time coming, but the tournament in Oxford provided the Cats with exactly what they needed headed into postseason play.
"I must say, the golf course there is pretty similar to what we play at home," said Borst. "It was pretty open off the tee. You still had to play good approach shots and have a good short game, but it was a really good course to get our confidence back up."
It wasn't just about playing better and fixing mechanical flaws. Kentucky had to change its mindset to get to this point. While the Cats wanted to do well for each other, the pressure of performing well for one another was proving to be just too much to deal with.
Things had to change.
"We had to do something different. What we were doing wasn't working," Borst said.
Instead of hoping things would get better, Borst made her team have a players-only meeting to talk about changes that needed to be made.
Borst challenged her team and said, "This is your team. You chose the University of Kentucky. How far do you want to take us?"
So the team sat down, talked and decided that instead of working on team goals, they would focus more on an individual approach and worry about themselves and know that in the end, their collective scores would afford the team greater success . Kentucky's finish in Oxford would suggest that the Wildcats are headed in the right direction. Now, they have their sights set on the SEC Championship this weekend with a goal to improve on their finishes in each of the last two seasons when they finished in 10th in 2011 and ninth in 2012.
"With the team that we have, I think a realistic goal is top seven," said Borst. "Looking at the team, looking at the stats, looking where they are and how we're doing, looking at the two freshmen that we have that are strong, I really think that's a realistic goal. Then, it's individually what do you need to do to prepare for this week?"
If Kentucky needs one area of improvement on the course, it's in the short game. The athletes have done a fine job of driving the ball and putting themselves in favorable situations, but they haven't been able to deliver with their wedges and putters in clutch situations for much of the spring.
"At the end of the day, you have to hit the ball closer and take advantage of the opportunities that you have," said Borst.
While the weather hasn't always cooperated this spring in Lexington for the Cats to get out and work on their short game, it's a mental block more than physical that's keeping UK from executing.
"When I took this job I strongly believed we had the facilities that we need to be the best team in the country," said Borst. "I don't think that the weather is that big of a deal. Is it a disadvantage? Yes, a little bit. But if you prepare the best way you can and you're mentally ready, you can go play just as well as a team down south. You just have to be ready for it and adjust quickly."
The last week of practice leading into the SEC Championship in Birmingham, Ala., has been encouraging as the short game appears to be sharpening in practice rounds.
"We've worked a ton on our wedges," said Borst. "We're starting to make those strides the last couple weeks and I'm really excited about that."
And taking down four different SEC opponents heading into championship play?
"I think that was, again, great for their confidence," Borst said. "Is it going to be tough to beat them again at SECs? Yeah, because they are great teams. They do have some girls that are more experienced in bigger and better events than us, but it gave our team a little bit of a taste of what that felt like and that they can do it."
This weekend, Kentucky has a chance to take this program even further. It will be the seniors' last opportunity to compete at the SEC Championship, but the first for the UK freshmen. It will be an experience that could benefit not only the present, but the future of this program for years to come.
"I want to build upon (the current culture), but also change it to win the championship," Borst said. "There always that glass ceiling and Kentucky's never been there, so that's what we're working for and I think it's good for the freshmen to be with these seniors and now try to move it forward and do great things."
This year's recruiting class was already regarded as the best in 2013. Now, with three more highly talented signees, John Calipari and Kentucky may have pieced together the greatest recruiting class of all time.
Kentucky announced the additions of Julius Randle (Plano, Texas), Dakari Johnson (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Dominique Hawkins (Richmond, Ky.) on Wednesday. Randle, Johnson and Hawkins join fall signees Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, forming what many are calling the greatest recruiting class ever.
"I think it could be the best class of all time in terms of offensive efficiency," ESPN analyst Paul Biancardi said after Randle's verbal commitment on March 20. "This class can score the basketball. They can shoot the 3-point shot. They can beat you off the drive. They score the basketball from their respective position as well as any class that John Calipari has had at Kentucky. ... This class is going to need some help, but as this class stands alone, it could be the best of all time."
The proof is in the numbers: six McDonald's All-Americans. Kentucky's top two high school players. Six consensus five-star athletes. Seven top-150 Rivals signees. A combined 36 stars in the Rivals ratings system.
It all adds up to the nation's No. 1 recruiting class -- Coach Cal's fifth straight, according to Rivals -- and one collective commitment to return UK to the top of college basketball next season.
"The thing I like most about this group is its competitive spirit and its will to win," Calipari said. "These guys are All-Americans and award winners, but more importantly they're world champions, national champions and state champions. They know what it takes to win. The size and talent of the group will allow us to have tough, hard-nosed practices which will carry over to the games. I'm excited for the opportunity to coach this group."
"The final straw that came to me was the system, and I felt like the system at Kentucky was a great system. They have a lot of great players there going in there so you're going to have to battle, but I think like they did the year before with that team being a unit. I play USA Basketball with a lot of great players so I think I'll adjust well. I think it's the best fit for me. That's where it was in my heart or I wouldn't be at Kentucky."
"To be able to battle with those guys every day in practice is only going to make me better, help me prepare for the next level. Playing with great players with a plus for me; it wasn't a negative at all."
"Julius is another hard-working player who is a great student and person along with being a dominator on the court. He has that will to win that the players I've had who have become special have all had. That motor will be important to our success next year. Julius has the skill set to be an inside-outside guy for us. He has the ability to put it on the floor and beat guys off the dribble, but he's also got the toughness, size and ability to score against bigger defenders. At the end of the day, he's a true leader whose personal drive is off the charts."
What they're saying about Randle
"He dominates the game with his physicality. He's explosive, strong and powerful at the rim. His body, it's ready for the college game right now. And he's best in the paint by scoring and rebounding. He can dominate the action. When you think about Julius Randle, you think about a dynamic athlete. The bottom line is this: His versatility, skill level and athletic ability are uncommon for a player his size. Once his game gets in motion, it's hard to stop or contain him. He creates fouls and finishes at the rim. He's going to impact the college game next season." - Paul Biancardi, ESPN
"I've seen Julius since he's been probably a ninth, 10th grader, and the thing that jumps out is his ability, his physical size. I think Paul hit it on the head (with the) Wayman Tisdale (comparison). He's got a little bit more perimeter game. He can handle the ball. He can shoot the jump shot. And the thing I like about him is his maturity." - Matt Doherty, ESPN
6-10, 265-pound center from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Ranked No. 9 overall by Rivals, No. 11 by ESPN and No. 18 by Scout
Consensus No. 1 center
Led Montverde (Fla.) Academy to the 2013 National High School Invitational title
Named MVP of the 2013 National High School Invitational
Member of the 2012 USA Basketball U17 World Championship Team
Finished with 12 points and five rebounds in the McDonald's All-American Game
Chosen for the Jordan Brand Classic
Posted eight points, four rebounds, two assists and one block in Jordan Brand Classic
"I just want to win a national championship. I want to win a high school championship, then a college championship and hopefully an NBA championship."
"(The coaches) were just honest people from the get-go. They told me that this wasn't the place to come if I were selfish, if I wanted the ball all the time or I didn't want to work hard. But I want to work hard, I want to get pushed. I want the pressure on me because that makes me a better player."
"Dakari's improvement over the last year and a half has been phenomenal. His ability to be a true low-post threat adds an important piece to what our team will really need. He's patient when he gets the ball on the block and has a great understanding for how to use his size for a kid his age. Dakari is a great student and a great kid. He's won a high school championship, a world championship with Team USA, and he said he wants to win a national championship with us and an NBA championship. That statement says a lot about the type of winner he is."
What they're saying about Johnson
"Johnson is a true center and will be the low-post anchor for the Wildcats right from the start. He has tremendous size, hands and work ethic and is an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor. Johnson has worked extremely hard to mold his body into excellent shape, and it has really helped him become more productive and consistent." - Reggie Rankin, ESPN
"Dakari Johnson (is) a true low-post center. He'll give the Wildcats a physical presence on the glass, blocking shots and scoring in the low post. Offensively he's just scratching the surface of his ability." - Paul Biancardi, ESPN
6-1, 170-pound guard from Richmond, Ky.
Ranked a three-star recruit by Rivals, Scout and ESPN
Named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball
Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year
Led Madison Central High School to the Kentucky state championship
Named MVP of Kentucky's Sweet Sixteen tournament
Averaged 26.8 points and 8.8 rebounds during the Sweet Sixteen
Scored 29 points against UK signees Andrew and Aaron Harrison on Dec. 1
Averaged 20.9 points during his senior season
Joins Derek Willis as the second signee from Kentucky in the 2013 class
" I was basically shocked once they offered because they do nothing but get the best players. I know I'm a good player but I wasn't expecting it, but I guess I am a great player now that Kentucky offered me. It's amazing."
Nobody's guaranteed a spot. You've just got to come in and compete and that's what you do at every school. Nobody gets a spot just because they're an All-American. You've just got to come to compete."
"I kept hearing about Dominique from Marquis Estill and my good friend Dr. Robert Palmer. When I watched him play, lead his team, and play with a will to win and fight, I was totally sold. At the Sweet Sixteen, he made sure he got his teammates involved and was always happy with their success, but when it was time to take over the game - when it was winning time - everyone in the building knew they were going to play through Dominique, which they did, and they won. The last UK player who was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball and won a state title in the same year was Darius Miller. He went to two Final Fours, won a national title and is now playing in the NBA. My hope is Dominique will be on the same path."
What they're saying about Hawkins
"He's a very good athlete. He's a guy who I think could turn into a really good defender. Offensively I think his strength lies in his ability to hit midrange shots. Areas for improvement would be becoming more consistent with his long-range jump shot. What I like about him is his how hard he plays, his toughness and his athleticism." - Evan Daniels, Scout (from Courier-Journal)
Head coach Brian Craig (right) looks for his team to find their strokes at the SEC Championships this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It has been a season full of this, that and the other for the Kentucky men's golf team. Not once has head coach Brian Craig seen his team put together a full tournament in which it completely fulfills the potential that each individual has within him.
That feeling can be awfully burdensome while trying to win golf tournaments and make a successful run in the postseason. There is also a positive perspective to consider, and that's the attitude that Craig has chosen when looking forward to this week's Southeastern Conference Championships.
"I feel like we're ready to play well. We've just kind of tread water this spring," said Craig. "We're in good shape for the postseason. I feel like our best golf is in front of us. We just haven't been able to get all the guys playing well at the same time, so maybe this will be the week."
This team is certainly capable of winning and playing well. They did so multiple times during the fall season and added one of the top European amateur players to the lineup this spring in junior transfer Ben Stow.
The spring weather has been unseasonably unkind in the Lexington area with cooler temperatures, rain and snow, and unkempt golf courses that have hindered the development of the Kentucky golfers. Less time out on the course means less repetitions and experience to prepare for tournaments during the season.
Craig and his team refuse to use the conditions as an excuse, but it's a fact. With better weather finally on the way in the Bluegrass state, UK is looking for their swings to come around much like the warmer temperatures and heat up at the right time.
"The weather's finally breaking, so we can get on grass a little bit more around town here, which should help," Craig said. "It's just a matter of time, but it would be fun to see it happen this week."
Where Kentucky golfers have struggled most is with themselves. The field isn't too tough, and the UK players are plenty talented. If anything, they are trying too hard to find their desired level of success.
Craig wants his guys to stop trying to be Superman out on the golf course and make smart, calculated shots instead of going for the home run on every swing. If everyone buys into that, the results will come.
"Everything that's costing us and holding us back is unforced errors. It's things that are pretty simple, pretty basic, under our control," said Craig. "We're putting good pressure on the golf course to shoot low scores - that's the mark of a good team - but we've had a lot of errors that have been real basic."
After building a solid foundation in the fall, it's possible that expectations for the spring may have gotten the best of the UK golfers. Mounting pressure of living up to the successes of the fall season may have contributed to Kentucky's struggles so far. Stow was looked at as a difference-maker in the lineup, and maybe it was too much to ask so soon.
So Craig has been working individually with his athletes, whether on the course or in private one-on-one sessions trying to get his players to play within themselves and to play together, rather than trying to do everything on their own. While expectations can be good, he doesn't want them to outweigh the enjoyment of playing golf.
"I think that's one of the challenges Cody (Martin) had. We talked about that," said Craig. "He's just got to focus on what he can control. I think Ben's done that. We've talked about that too where he just has to settle down and focus on the process of playing golf and not be burdened by any kind of expectations."
Craig also made sure to let his players know that golf isn't like other sports. Hustling will not cure a golfer's ailments on the course.
"You don't grit and bear and it makes it better. It actually makes it worse," said Craig. "It's not football. It's not basketball. You don't hustle harder and it makes it better.
"It's a whole different deal, a whole different mentality of being able to let it go and relax, be confident, trust. That was you can swing freely and confidently."
Despite the struggles, Craig is still confident in his team. His team is confident as well. If anything, their confidence may have played a small role in their inconsistent play this season.
"I don't think for one minute that this team doesn't believe in itself," said Craig. "If anything, we might be a little overzealous in that category in not choosing the right strategies on the golf course because you feel like you can hit that shot or you should be doing this, when actually you shouldn't be. If anything, we go that route, as opposed to being able to dial it back a little bit."
That's why Craig continues to feel excited about his team's chances headed into SEC and NCAA Regional play. The effort, will, and desire to win are there. They are playing well enough to win, so now, they just need to put it all together at the right time.
"It's not like we're out there scraping around trying to get it done," Craig said. "We're playing well, we just haven't scored nearly as well as we've played.
"Normally when that happens, it's just a matter of time. That's why I'm encouraged."
A'dia Mathies is moving to the WNBA after scoring 2,014 points during her four-year UK career. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As she proved throughout her four-year Kentucky career, there just isn't much that rattles A'dia Mathies.
Her facial expression - no matter the circumstances - hardly changed and Matthew Mitchell said he could never quite get a handle on what she was thinking.
But as the WNBA Draft moved into the latter half of the first round, Mathies admits that her normally imperturbable pulse quickened a bit.
"I think I was excited so much I was just sitting on the couch and once they got up into the seven, eight, nine area, my heart started beating fast when every single pick was called," Mathies said.
Watching Monday night's draft at her grandmother's house in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., Mathies still wasn't showing much emotion as she waited to hear her name called. But when the Los Angeles Sparks took her with the 10th overall pick, the same could not be said about most of her family.
"My mom started jumping around," Mathies said. "I haven't seen her jump around like that in a while so I know she was excited."
Not only had Mathies become the highest draft pick in UK Hoops history, but she would be joining an organization that has won two WNBA titles in the league's 17-year history and moving to the hometown of someone she has looked up to for a long time.
"Pretty much everybody who thinks about the WNBA they automatically think of the Sparks," Mathies said. "Just to be going there and my brother lives in L.A. and being with him and I miss him and I'm just very excited right now."
Johnny Mathies is a few years older than his sister and played basketball at Creighton from 2003-06. A'dia says she grew up trying to be her own player, but that her older brother was the person she most looked up to.
"He knows basketball and he gives me pointers all the time, especially when I was playing at UK and things I need to work on and I think that's really going to help me out a lot," Mathies said. "He's going to support me so I know I have somebody I can trust and I think it's going to be really beneficial to have him there."
Also already helping Mathies in her transition to the professional ranks is Ukari Figgs, UK's assistant athletics director for women's basketball. Figgs played five years in the WNBA, including three with the Sparks, so she has a good idea of what's in store for the second-leading scorer in Kentucky women's basketball history.
"She has just been giving me the basics right now like getting an agent and really helping me out with the draft experience since she has been through it," Mathies said. "We will talk more about it as far as what it's like to play out there and being a WNBA player. We have been working out a little bit and we are just going to take it step by step over the next couple of weeks."
Mathies will take any help she can get right now because of how much she has on her plate. She is slated to graduate with a degree in psychology in early May and will head west immediately after for training camp. The Sparks play their first regular-season game on May 26.
"Right now (her head is) on cloud nine, but I'm going to come down very soon," Mathies said. "Just stay grounded and humbled. I had a great workout today with the team and Coach Figgs. ... It's real great to see how everything is coming together and I'm just trying to stay focused and do everything right and try to be the best that I can."
That's really no big change for Mathies.
Just as she'll enter the WNBA intending to do nothing but make the most out of her ability, Mathies came to UK four years looking to be the best version of herself. By doing that, Mathies became unquestionably one of the best players in the history of her soon-to-be alma mater, helping to bring the program to national prominence in the process.
"It's very humbling to see somebody like me to actually get that accomplished and just doing the things that I've done here," Mathies said. "When I first came here, I never would have imagined I would be top in this and doing this and even getting drafted this high. The work that we put in as a team and individually I think it's definitely paid off and I'm just happy and humbled that it actually happened and it's a great time in my life and I'm very excited."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, April 14:
Softball: Lauren Cumbess
Went 3-0 on the week to become the first player in school history to win 20 games in a single season, surpassing former stars Chanda Bell and Keary Camunas ... Started the week with seven strong innings against Marshall before a win against EKU where she allowed only one earned run ... Best outing of the week came against No. 3 Florida, where she threw a complete game Saturday, allowing only three hits and two earned runs behind eight strikeouts ... The win over UF moved her record to 20-4 ... Followed that performance with 4.2 strong innings in relief on Sunday, allowing only two hits with one run with two strikeouts ... Her 15 strikeouts this week moved her into eighth all-time on UK single-season strikeout list ... Leads UK in nearly every pitching category.
Softball: Kelsey Nunley
Went 3-0 on the week to become the first player in school history to win 20 games in a single season, surpassing former stars Chanda Bell and Keary Camunas ... Started the week with seven strong innings against Marshall before a win against EKU where she allowed only one earned run ... Best outing of the week came against No. 3 Florida, where she threw a complete game Saturday, allowing only three hits and two earned runs behind eight strikeouts ... The win over UF moved her record to 20-4 ... Followed that performance with 4.2 strong innings in relief on Sunday, allowing only two hits with one run with two strikeouts ... Her 15 strikeouts this week moved her into eighth all-time on UK single-season strikeout list ... Leads UK in nearly every pitching category.
Even though her college career is over, A'dia Mathies continues to find ways to rewrite the Kentucky women's basketball record books.
On Monday night, Mathies was selected with the 10th overall pick in the WNBA Draft by the Los Angeles Sparks, becoming the highest draft pick in UK Hoops history. She is UK's second first-round pick in the last three seasons, joining former teammate Victoria Dunlap.
Mathies will begin her professional career after cementing herself as one of the all-time greats at UK with a stellar four-year career. She ranks second in program history with 2,014 points and is in the top 10 of 13 different career lists, including steals, games started and games played.
Even more importantly, her arrival in Lexington marked the beginning of the renaissance of the UK program. Picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference before her freshman season in 2009-10, Mathies helped lead her team to the first of three Elite Eights in four seasons that year and a league title in 2011-12.
"All of us are thrilled for A'dia," UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She did so much for the Kentucky program while she as here and we had no doubt she was one of the top players in the country. Being chosen as a first-round pick just shows what she did for us and how hard she has worked to get here. I think the Los Angeles Sparks made a great pick."
She will now look to make an impact at the next level, though she likely won't be asked to carry as heavy a load as at UK. The Sparks reached the WNBA Playoffs a season ago and appear poised to once again compete for a title in the upcoming season, which begins on May 26.
"She will be a good player to come in," analyst Carolyn Peck said on ESPN2's draft coverage. "She doesn't have to shoulder the weight of responsibility of providing all of the offense."
From day one, Mathies will have a relationship with Mitchell in common with her new head coach. Carol Ross - in her second season with the Sparks - is a former head coach at Ole Miss and Florida and hired Mitchell for his first collegiate assistant position while with the Gators.
Though Mathies will be far from the Bluegrass - where she has spent her whole life first as a Louisville native and later at UK - she won't have to look far for a familiar face. The Sparks share their home court at the Staples Center with the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Playing for the Lakers is former Wildcat Jodie Meeks and playing for the Clippers is Eric Bledsoe, who arrived at UK the same season as Mathies.
With Tennessee's Candace Parker and other former college stars like Nneka Ogwumike of Stanford and Kristi Toliver of Maryland on the roster, Mathies will play a supporting role. Though that's something she never did while at UK, her time as a Wildcat did prepare her well for one facet of being a successful role player.
"You know that you're going to get that defensive effort because she's going to bring that Kentucky defensive style," Peck said.
UK head coach Gary Henderson and the Wildcats look to take the season series with a win over Louisville on Tuesday (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When No. 17 Kentucky and No. 8 Louisville tangle for the second time this season on the diamond, UK head coach Gary Henderson would like to see his team take the field with a little more purpose and focus - and perhaps a little more confidence - in the Wildcats second and final meeting with the Cardinals this season.
The Wildcats, who are coming off of a disappointing weekend that saw them drop two of three at home to Tennessee, are looking to get back on track with a win over one of their biggest rivals. Heading into yet another difficult Southeastern Conference road series with South Carolina, it's going to be important to head into Columbia, S.C., with a good taste in their mouth.
"Just like every time you lose a weekend series, it's important to come back and get the mid-week game. You can't deny that," said Henderson. "To play well, that's important. To get a 'W' is important. Get your confidence back at the plate; clearly we're going to need to do that."
The Kentucky offense over the last two weeks has been lackluster. Save a nine-run performance in the second game of the Tennessee series when UK scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth, the Kentucky bats have rung hollow.
After scoring just six total runs at LSU including a pair of one-run outputs, the Wildcats are averaging just 3.7 runs per game. The pitching hasn't been up to UK standards either, as the Cats are allowing 7.8 runs per contest over that same seven-game span.
Kentucky is looking for both its bats and the arms to get right.
Life in the SEC can be rough, and it usually is for everyone for at least a few weeks at some point in the season. Right now, it's Kentucky's turn, like it or not.
"We've got a good club, but we haven't played very well for two weeks now," said Henderson. "That's the truth. The things that I think about are, we can get back to doing the things that we did.
"It's our turn now, unfortunately. We'd like for it not to be, but it is. You own up to it."
So Henderson brought in his three weekend starters on Monday morning and took a look back at the video from the series and talk about their approach. A.J. Reed had the most success of any of the three, allowing just two runs over 6.2 innings, and the Wildcats went on to win that night. Reed got stuck with the no-decision.
Henderson wants to make sure that his starters aren't trying to pitch a perfect game every time they take the hill and get ahead of themselves in the process. Instead, he wants his staffers to slow down and make the best pitch they can throughout the course of the ballgame.
Rather than trying to pitch a perfect inning and being upset with a hit, walk or run scored, Henderson wants his guys to manage the inning and keep damage to a minimum while keeping any frustrations on the backburner.
"You start with making sure those starting pitchers understand what they need to do in terms of just be who they are and do a good job of playing the game of a pitch at a time and don't try to do more than they should do," Henderson said. "We don't need anything more than what you can do and do a pitch at a time."
It's easier said than done, however. What Henderson does have going for him is that his team has been able to do already at points in the season. For the first seven weeks, his team was picking up the clutch hits in big situations. His pitchers were making great pitches and wriggling out of jams.
It's all just a matter of getting back to that and Henderson believes he knows what that's going to take.
"I'm just a huge believer in doing the basics and doing them well, and if you do that, you've got a chance to get back on track," Henderson said.
The key to getting back on track will be confidence. After LSU rattled UK's cage a bit, the confidence has seem to be a little bit shaken. Hitters are thinking too much at the plate. They are taking more third strikes now than at any point earlier in the season. They just aren't themselves.
"I think the indecisiveness, the lack of plan, the lack of clarity, those are the things that show a little bit of the stress, pressure and distraction," said Henderson.
"The indecision leads to chase, expanding the strike zone when you don't need to. I think it also leads to those called thirds. We didn't have a lot of those early on. All of a sudden those are popping up."
The uncharacteristic traits UK has exhibited over the last two weeks were fairly familiar to Henderson, though they weren't necessarily attributed to his own team. Actually, Henderson thought that his squad resembled another SEC team, one that UK took two of three from in March in Lexington.
"I thought John's (Cohen) team when they were here looked a lot like us this weekend. All of a sudden three weekends later they turn it around," said Henderson. "I knew John would get his guys going, he's got a good team.
"I really felt like when we got done this weekend we were Mississippi State three weeks ago."
Mississippi State is coming off a big three-game sweep on the road over Texas A&M after a slower-than-expected start to the season. The Bulldogs bounced back, so why not Kentucky? Henderson knows his team will.
There won't be a better way to do it than by getting back on right track with another win against the Cardinals on Tuesday. The Wildcats took the first meeting of the season in Louisville in an exhilarating 5-4, 10-inning win just two weeks ago.
An additional bump in attendance for Tuesday night's tilt may give the Wildcats an extra jolt in confidence when UK football head coach Mark Stoops throws out the first pitch. Additionally, fans that pack Cliff Hagan Stadium early can enjoy a cheap dinner with $1 hotdogs and drinks until 5:30. UK students can purchase $1 hot dogs and drinks the entire evening with a student ID.
With marketing efforts ramped up and the always-heated in-state rivalry in full motion, it's clear that there is plenty at stake. Though it's a non-conference matchup, this one, all things considered, is just as important.
"It's an important game. We want to win," said Henderson. "It's an in-state rival. We've never played a Tuesday or Wednesday game here where I didn't think it was important to win."
"It's a win against a good team if you can do it. It helps you in the postseason. It helps you in the RPI. Beyond that, it's another game against a good team."
At 8 p.m. ET on Monday, the WNBA will hold its annual draft on ESPN2. There, A'dia Mathies will be looking to become the second Kentucky player chosen in the first round in three seasons. Before then, take a look back at Mathies' stellar UK career in the video above.
Bud Dupree had 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As front offices have grown more sophisticated, three positions have emerged as the most important on NFL rosters.
Quarterbacks touch the ball on every snap and direct offenses that rely on the pass more and more. Left tackles protect those quarterbacks, ensuring they need not worry about getting hit from the blind side.
Defensive ends, meanwhile, are tasked with disrupting all of that.
If Saturday's Blue/White Spring Game is any indication, Kentucky might have a pair of ends with quite a talent for disruption in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith.
"They're both fast," quarterback Jalen Whitlow said. "They've got safety speed, almost. Bud is a freak and Za'Darius is long and strong and fast. They're both pretty good players."
When he was playing for the White team, Whitlow had to be constantly aware of where Smith and Dupree were. Smith had six tackles, including one for loss, while Dupree had a sack of Maxwell Smith. That production came in spite of the fact that two-hand-touch rules applied to the UK quarterbacks throughout the four-quarter scrimmage.
"If it was a live game and we were live on the quarterbacks, I think they could have created some havoc," head coach Mark Stoops said. "They did a nice job, they are very active and have been very solid all spring."
Since Smith and Dupree couldn't make their presence felt with hits, they made sure they were heard.
"They can't tackle us, so they talk to us a lot -- about how they wish they could tackle us and how they would do us if they could," Whitlow said.
Smith - who lined up at right end opposite left tackle Darrian Miller most of the evening - estimated he would have had "two or three" sacks had the quarterbacks been fair game.
"I don't even want to think about it just because that excites me when I make a sack," Smith said, adding the 50,831 fans in Commonwealth Stadium made following the don't-hit-the-quarterback rules even more painful.
It's no secret that the Wildcats have much work ahead of them at linebacker and in the secondary. But if Smith and Dupree produce at the level they believe they can, it could serve as an eraser of sorts for the defense as a whole.
"If you can get some pressure with four guys, then you can put another guy in the coverage," Stoops said. "So that's a big part of it and also in the run game, if you can learn to play the run game without numbers all the time, then that helps your defense, as well."
Avery Williamson is particularly excited about that prospect. The middle linebacker led UK by a wide margin in tackles last season, but he made just seven on Saturday.
"Last year it was kind of like I was making every tackle, so it was kind of weird not having to make every tackle," Williamson said.
The senior certainly doesn't mind if he doesn't match his 135 tackles from 2012.
"I'm just worried about winning," Williamson said. "The rest will take care of itself."
Smith admits he's worried about sacks too. The good news for UK is that wins are likely to follow if he and Dupree spend as much as time in opposing backfields as they believe.
"When we play in a real game, we feel sorry for the quarterback that we're going to play against," Smith said.
Baseball - Kentucky baseball picked up a 6-3 win over Austin Peay on Tuesday, behind five strong innings from freshman righthander Kyle Cody and a two-hit performance from freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett. - Kyle Barrett shined once again on Friday going 3-5 and plating the game-tying RBI in the series-opening comeback win over Tennessee. - After a quality start that led the Wildcats to victory on Friday night, A.J. Reed crushed his team-leading ninth homer of the year in UK's heartbreaking 10-9 loss to Tennessee on Saturday afternoon. - Junior closer Trevor Gott added two more saves during the week, improving his total to nine on the year and program-record 20 in his career. Gott's ERA is now an impressive 0.95 with a 4-0 record, while fanning 24 in 19.0 IP.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team wrapped up one of its most historic weeks in school history last week with several records broken. The first was sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson becoming the winningest head coach in school history with her 182nd career win. That honor came a few days before UK upset No. 3 Florida on the same day it named its new $9.5 million stadium after longtime administrator John Cropp. Overall, UK went 4-2 on the week with wins over Florida, Marshall and two against EKU. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley earned the win in the upset over UF, becoming the first player in school history to win 20 games in a season, surpassing former stars Chanda Bell and Keary Camunas. Nunley went 3-0 on the week with a 1.64 ERA, while junior Lauren Cumbess also earned a win in the circle. - Cumbess was the star for UK at the plate, going 10-for-22 throughout the week with four doubles, three homers and seven RBI. Cumbess is riding a nine-game hitting streak - a career long - posting an extra-base hit in eight of those nine games. Senior Alice O'Brien went 8-for-19 on the week with a double, home run and four RBI, while freshmen Maisie Steed and Nikki Sagermann also had home runs.
Men's tennis - The University of Kentucky men's tennis team has earned the No. 8 overall seed in this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament, it was announced on Sunday night. - UK will face the No. 9 overall seed, Mississippi State on Thursday at 6:00 p.m. CT. The Wildcats and Mississippi State have faced off two times this season already, with UK winning both prior matches. - The first match saw Kentucky sweep MSU 4-0 at the ITA National Indoor Championships in Seattle, Wash., in the Sweet 16. Kentucky lost the doubles point and rallied to win four of six singles matches in the second meeting of the season in Starkville. Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team upset No. 27 South Carolina 4-3 on Sunday at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex. - Junior Caitlin McGraw clinched the match for Kentucky with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win on court five. - Kentucky won the doubles point, winning two of three doubles matches as Khristina Blajkevitch and Jessica Stiles clinched the point by winning three consecutive games to win the No. 3 doubles match 9-7. - Freshman Nadia Ravita defeated another ranked opponent, taking down No. 77 Jaklin Alawi 7-5, 0-6, 6-4.
Track and field - The Kentucky track and field teams enjoyed one of the best total team performances of the season at the "Kentuckiana" Border Battle on Saturday. - The Wildcats' men's and women's teams combined with Louisville to defeat the aggregate scores of Indiana and Notre Dame. - Fifteen - 10 men's and five women's - Wildcat individuals or relay teams claimed event titles on Saturday. - Rebecca Famurewa increased her UK freshman record discus throw to 57.09 meters / 187'04", which gives her the No. 2 ranking in school history. - The mark also is the third-farthest discus throw in the nation this season. - UK competitors won four of the seven throws events they entered. - Tamyah Pipkin became the third fastest Wildcat ever at 200 meters as she won race with a time of 23.67. - Kadeem Kushimo enjoyed a career-afternoon winning both the 100 and 200 meters.
Men's golf - The UK men's golf team placed eighth in the 14-team field at the Gary Koch Invitational last week, finishing at 22-over-par. The Wildcats recorded top-10 team finishes in all six of their spring tournaments. - Juniors Cody Martin and Ben Stow led the way for the Cats, shooting 5-over-par for the invitational and finished tied for 29th. - UK wrapped up its regular season schedule and now look toward the post season as the Wildcats travel to St. Simmons Island, Ga., this weekend for the Southeastern Conference Championships, April 19-21.
Tuesday, April 16 Baseball hosts Louisville - 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 17 Softball at Middle Tennessee State (DH) - 4:00 p.m. Women's tennis vs. LSU - 3:00 p.m. (Starkville, Miss.)
Thursday, April 18 Men's tennis vs. Mississippi State - 7:00 p.m. (Oxford, Miss.) Women's tennis at SEC Tournament (Starkville, Miss.)
Friday, April 19 Softball at Arkansas - 7:00 p.m. Baseball at South Carolina - 7:00 p.m. Men's golf at SEC Championship (St. Simon's, Ga.) Women's golf at SEC Championship (Birmingham, Ala.) Men's tennis at SEC Tournament (Oxford, Miss.) Women's tennis at SEC Tournament (Starkville, Miss.)
Saturday, April 20 Track and field hosts Heart of the Bluegrass Classic - 10:00 a.m. Softball at Arkansas - 1:00 p.m. Baseball at South Carolina - 3:00 p.m. Men's golf at SEC Championship (St.Simon's, Ga.) Women's golf at SEC Championship (Birmingham, Ala.) Men's tennis at SEC Tournament (Oxford, Miss.) Women's tennis at SEC Tournament (Starkville, Miss.)
Sunday, April 21 Baseball at South Carolina - 1:30 p.m. Softball at Arkansas - 2:00 p.m. Men's golf at SEC Championship (St.Simon's, Ga.) Women's golf at SEC Championship (Birmingham, Ala.) Men's tennis at SEC Tournament (Oxford, Miss.) Women's tennis at SEC Tournament (Starkville, Miss.)
An estimated crowd of 50,831 watched Blue defeat White 24-23 in UK's annual spring game. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops had no way of knowing what kind of crowd would be in attendance for his first Blue/White Spring Game. He heard all about how tickets had been distributed at a record rate and felt the excitement around the program.
But until the day came he had no way of knowing how that would translate.
It turns out he was wise to withhold judgment, because no matter how optimistic he may have been, Stoops couldn't have foreseen what Saturday night would bring.
"I was amazed," Stoops said. "You felt that, you heard these numbers for the past couple weeks, and you know, you never know who is going to show up. It was overwhelming. It was fantastic."
What Saturday brought was a record crowd of 50,831 fans (estimated) that figures to rank among the top spring games nationally in terms of attendance. What Saturday brought was an environment that felt a whole lot more like October than April.
"I've said it a few times, but again, I really thank them for their support and their belief and their passion for this program," Stoops said. "It's tremendous. It does nothing but help us, and it also, you know, makes us want to do better. As players and coaches, we feel that passion and energy and we want to deliver."
And they felt it even before they set foot in Commonwealth Stadium. An hour and 45 minutes before kickoff, thousands of members of the Big Blue Nation lined the Wildcats' path from the Nutter Field House to Gate 1 for the first Cat Walk of the Stoops era.
"I feel it from the fans," defensive end Bud Dupree said. "The Cat Walk was unbelievable and that's for the spring game. Imagine the first game."
The Cat Walk and, later, taking the field in front of an almost completely packed lower bowl was so incredible, in fact, that it completely changed the team dynamic.
"When we ran through the tunnel and saw everybody in the stands, we really thought we were going to play a real game," Dupree said. "That whole practice mentality switched over and everyone was in game mode."
The result was a level of play closer to what will be demanded of the Cats in Southeastern Conference play than anything Stoops saw in four weeks of spring practice.
"I thought it was a great night for the program," Stoops said. "Really appreciate the fan support, just an unbelievable atmosphere. I thought the players played hard. Made some mistakes, but overall, pretty clean game."
The Blue team - composed of UK's first-team defense and second-team offense - built a two-touchdown lead, only to allow two scores in the final 7:52. White, however, couldn't convert a two-point conversion and Blue held on for a 24-23 victory.
"It seemed like (the coaches) were pretty happy," Williamson said. "There's always going to be, on film, mistakes, but we weren't being lazy out there I feel like. We were really flying around and making plays."
Even though UK had barely a dozen practices to install new offensive and defensive systems, the Cats committed only one turnover and two penalties in the four-quarter scrimmage.
Splitting reps evenly at quarterback were Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow. Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown were conscientious all spring about not tipping their hand in a quarterback battle that will likely last into fall, and they took that to a new level on Saturday. All three were on the field for the game's opening snap, only to split wide as Raymond Sanders took a snap in the Wildcat formation.
Each of the threw for at least one touchdown, but it was Whitlow who stood out. He completed 17-of-28 passes for 193 yards and two scores while carrying seven times for 49 yards.
"Jalen did a nice job, he has that dimension to run the football and pull it down when something is not there and create," Stoops said. "He did a nice job tonight. I was impressed with the way Jalen played."
Smith completed 11-of-18 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown while Towles was 6-for-14 for 65 yards, one touchdown and the game's lone interception.
"I have to go back and look at the film," Stoops said. "It was really hard for me to tell but I thought each of them had their moments and were consistent. We need more playmakers around them, and so it's not always on the quarterbacks. It's on the other ten guys that are out there playing with them."
The supporting cast certainly needs work, but there were impressive performances. A.J. Legree (seven catches for 68 yards) and Demarco Robinson (six catches for 93 yards) each scored a touchdown, though neither was much of a surprise. The same goes for running backs Raymond Sanders (45 yards rushing and a touchdown), Dyshawn Mobley (79 yards) and Josh Clemons (56 yards on just 10 carries)
Rashad Cunningham, however, had his best day of the spring with eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown of his own.
"This is the best he's played and that's good to see," Stoops said. "Again with the fans out here and the media out here and all that, to see him step up and make some big catches was good to see."
A few of those catches might not have been had defenders been able to hit the quarterbacks.
Even though they had just one sack between them, defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith consistently presented problems rushing from the edge. Smith was a factor against the run as well, accounting for six tackles and a tackle for loss.
"(Getting strong play at defensive end) does an awful lot, because if you can get some pressure with four guys, then you can put another guy in the coverage," Stoops said. "So that's a big part of it and also in the run game, if you can learn to play the run game without numbers all the time, then that helps your defense, as well."
Just as Dupree and Smith could serve as the foundation for UK's defense, spring practice and specifically the spring game could do the same for the Stoops era. Coaches had a chance to see how players reacted in a pressure-packed environment and the Cats now have an idea what to look forward to in Commonwealth this fall.
"I feel like we took a great step forward today," Williamson said. "It's good to have pressure on us because that makes everybody work harder. I know we're going to work hard. I'm going to push these guys as well as all the other defensive and offensive guys. We're going to push each other and we're going to grind it out this summer."
Stoops feels the same way.
"Nobody wants it more than that group of guys down there in the locker room, so we want to get this done and deliver for this state because we deserve to have a great program," Stoops said.
The Grand Opening Ceremony of John Cropp Stadium was held pregame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Let's go give this stadium and ESPN a show it deserves."
That was the direct quote from head coach Rachel Lawson while wrapping up her pregame ceremonial speech before the UK softball team went out and bested the third-ranked Florida Gators, 4-2 in front of a season-high 1,206 fans.
The ribbons have been cut and the banners have been dropped as the UK Softball Complex was reintroduced as the new John Cropp Stadium on Saturday on a day that will never be forgotten for the UK softball program.
The Wildcats gave exactly what ESPN deserved alright and showed the nation what UK softball is all about.
"The atmosphere was great," Lawson said. "The fans were into the game they loved it. I thought both teams played really hard and there were a lot of really exciting plays. I don't think we could have asked for a better game from us. I thought the whole thing was an incredible day for us."
Kelsey Nunley starred on the mound, tossing a complete game as she set the school single-season wins record with 20. It was Krystal Smith who a bulk of UK's damage at the plate two hits and three runs batted in, including a go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Before the upset win, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, Lawson and stadium namesake Associate Athletics Director John Cropp all spoke at the podium. The day has come where UK softball boasts one of the top facilities in all of college softball. There was a time where some thought it might never happen. That includes Cropp, who has been a large part of the program since its existence.
"I can remember our very first practice that took place in Woodland Park," Cropp said. "We didn't even have a field on this campus. Our first coach, she can remember well going over to Woodland Park and practicing softball. That was a long time ago but I don't think either one of us ever envisioned us being here today."
Lawson is in her sixth year as the head coach and what she has done since her time at UK has grabbed everyone's attention.
Barnhart noted that there are times when programs build a facility to increase performance and help gain a winning reputation and there are other times when teams are able to produce with what they have and are rewarded for their achievements.
That's exactly what Lawson has done in her tenure and she is now getting recognition for her accomplishments. Six years later, she owns the school's all-time wins record and has taken UK to unprecedented heights.
"We need to thank her for the five straight NCAA appearances and the college Super Regional that we hosted two years ago that gave us the ability to do these kinds of things and build this facility," Barnhart said. "To have 2,000 people in here on national television, gave our program the visibility we have not had."
Lawson's success has garnered attention from other schools during her time at UK. There was a point where she was interviewing elsewhere for jobs which, at the time, had better softball facilities than UK.
There was a day a few years back when Lawson remembers speaking to Barnhart on the phone about what this program needed to become among the best. Barnhart promised Lawson they would provide her with a new stadium and he stayed true to his word. Lawson decided to remain at UK and according to her, the stadium actually came a year before than expected.
"(Barnhart) actually did it a year earlier than he said he was going to do it," Lawson said. "To be around people who actually not only say things but actually come through with what they say they are going to do, that's exceptional and that's very special to me because we live in a world where not very many people come through with their promises. I will never forget that day so that's very special to me."
Lawson took time to thank multiple people, including Barnhart, Cropp, former UK president Lee Todd, current UK president Dr. Eli Capilouto and the rest of the athletic department. She also gave thanks to her associate head coach Kristine Himes and assistant coach Molly Johnson, who have both been with Lawson for every win at UK either as a coach or in Johnson's case as a player as well.
But Lawson gave special thanks to the Big Blue Nation, because without the fans, alumni and current players, Saturday's celebration would have never taken place.
"You can build an incredible stadium and I can't be more thankful for this stadium, but this stadium is only worth the people that are in it and work for it every single day," Lawson said. "The Big Blue Nation is awesome. We are one of the few softball programs in the country in that we had a large fan base prior to the new stadium.
"I think that's great that they are going to have some place where they can sit and see a game because each year we are putting up temporary bleachers. Not only do we fill those seats up but we have had to build more and more and more until we had 2,000 people at Super Regionals. So I have to thank the Big Blue Nation because without you we would not have this stadium."
The stadium is going to do some great things for the softball program. The obvious thing is it will enhance the recruiting and will give players and fans an atmosphere that they deserve for SEC softball.
However, what the new facilities bring is the ability for the players to become complete student-athletes and give them a home away from home where they can feel comfortable. Not only did the program get a new stadium, but a new locker room and hitting practice area is being constructed down the third-base foul area.
Lawson takes pride in her student-athletes' work on the field and just as importantly in the classroom. She wants the Cats to become great off the field when they leave UK. Lawson says the new locker room will give her players a place for them to go after class to study, practice, eat and then go home to get a good night's rest.
Barnhart appreciates the efforts Lawson has had on the made but he notices what she does in the community and the example she sets for the players for them to become the best human beings as possible.
"She has given a lot of young women in this community the dream that they can play in a place like this in a league like this," Barnhart said. "Maybe just maybe you get to the College World Series in Oklahoma City. On the way she has done an amazing job that her kids do a great job in the classroom."
This entire project took a lot of hard work from several different people. It's been a long process but it's now time to take the next step in UK softball history.
Cropp capped off the opening ceremony with the last speech of the three and he emphasized UK softball would not be here today without the leadership of the two standing right there next to him: Barnhart and Lawson.
"Athletics is a team, and it took the whole team to put this together," Cropp said. "But what else you have to have in athletics and life is leadership and the real reason we are here today doing this is because of the two people here standing beside me. They are the ones to make this happen."
Zac Zellers gave Kentucky a 4-2 lead with a clutch two-run single in the eighth. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
The first two hitters in a batting lineup are usually responsible for getting on base and scoring runs. Friday night in the series-opening 5-4 victory over Tennessee, the table setters wiped the bases clean to claim the come-from-behind win.
Since Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson inserted freshman Kyle Barrett at the top of the batting lineup, Barrett is batting .500 (5-of-10) in his first two games as the Wildcats' new leadoff hitter while driving in four runs.
"When you look at the scoreboard, we weren't exactly banging it around and someone's got to step up," said Henderson. "(Barrett)'s done it a few times for us."
Barrett drove home Kentucky's first two runs of the game, including a game-tying RBI double to knot things up at two in the momentum-shifting bottom of the eighth.
While Barrett was continuing his hot start in the leadoff role, Zac Zellers looked to be rediscovering his stroke as well in the two spot. Coming into the game hitting just .272 (15-of-55) with runners in scoring position, Zellers ripped a one-out, two-run single to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game and put them ahead 4-2.
Sophomore center fielder Austin Cousino, now the third batter in the UK lineup, added an important - and ultimately decisive - insurance run with an RBI double in the four-run eighth.
Barrett seems to be transitioning into a role that may look familiar. Cousino came in as a freshman last season and took the reins as the Kentucky leadoff man. With Cousino now in a position to impact the UK offense as a more prominent run producer in the middle of the lineup, Barrett is providing this offense with a sparkplug at the top.
"He's really aggressive and gives us a strong presence," said Henderson. "He's done a really nice job of making hard contact with guys in scoring position. He's a threat defensively, so they've got to come in at the corners to take away a bunt, but the thing I like the most about him is his presence."
As a freshman, it took Barrett a while to finally break into the lineup on a consistent basis. It wasn't until the second game of UK's first Southeastern Conference series in Florida when Barrett would put a stranglehold on a starting spot that he's yet to relinquish.
Now batting .343 with a .397 on-base percentage, Barrett is the ideal man to get the offense going.
"He looks like a winner when he plays," said Henderson. "He just makes you proud to have him on your team."
Though it took him a solid portion of the season to finally break into the everyday lineup, Barrett feels like that's where he belongs. And his play is backing it up.
"I was honestly just glad to be out here," said Barrett. "It's just an awesome experience. I got my opportunity and took advantage of it. I'm still the cheerleader in the dugout, even though I'm playing."
It took Barrett and the Kentucky offense a while to finally get something going. After being swept by LSU last weekend on the road, the Wildcats needed to take advantage of the Volunteers back at home. With A.J. Reed on mound for the opener, Kentucky had to feel pretty good about its chances.
Reed held up his end of the bargain, allowing just two runs over 6.2 innings before leaving the game trailing 2-1 in the top of the seventh. It could have been worse, but as Reed has done time and again this season, he battled through a big-time jam to leave runners stranded at second and third in the sixth to keep the deficit at one.
"He's been fascinatingly good at that all year," said Henderson. "He has probably done something exactly like that or very close to it five times this year. It's fascinating. That's not coaching."
After Reed was lifted, Chandler Shepherd came in and gave the Wildcats 1.1 scoreless innings in relief, finishing off the Volunteers in the seventh and leading the Wildcats to the bottom half of the eighth where they would do the bulk of their offensive damage.
After Barrett doubled in the tying run in eighth to pull even at two, Zellers stepped in with a chance to give the Cats their first lead of the game. Zellers has yet to find his stroke from the 2012 season, but he put a solid swing on Dalton Saberhagen's delivery to drive in two go-ahead runs to make it 4-2.
The hit came in a huge moment as Zellers picked up his teammates as they have done for him throughout the season.
"It's always good to be able to come through for your team," said Zellers. "A lot of guys got on before me. Kyle had a great at-bat. All the guys before him were able to get on base. I was able to get the pitch I was looking for and we scored two, and that's what it's all about: picking up your teammates."
Kentucky would need all four eighth-inning runs to pull out the Friday-night winner, as UK's all-time saves leader picked up Zellers after his costly ninth-inning error. After Trevor Gott took care of the first Tennessee hitter, the Vols got two runs on a single to left field that got past Zellers.
In a jam, Gott settled in and delivered back-to-back outs including a strikeout to clinch the series opener, 5-4. With two more games remaining in the series including Saturday's 2 p.m. ET matchup at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Cats were happy to get back into the SEC win column after they were swept last weekend at LSU.
"It's good to win on Friday," said Zellers. "We were able to get back on the right track, but we still have to win two more, though."
UK will hold the first Blue/White Spring Game of the Mark Stoops era on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For four weeks - with the exception of one practice that was open to the media - Kentucky has worked behind closed doors.
As Mark Stoops and his coaching have installed new schemes and systems, fans have only heard about the Wildcats' progress secondhand.
On Saturday, that will all change.
"I'm excited to show everybody what we've improved on," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "Last year was a real bad year for us and I just want to show everybody what we've improved on, how much better we've gotten and how committed these guys are to making these fans proud."
More than 40,000 tickets have been distributed to Saturday's Blue/White Spring Game in Commonwealth Stadium, meaning a record crowd is certain to see the event when it kicks off at 7 p.m. ET. Through film sessions, individual workouts and 14 tough practices, that unprecedented support has been a constant motivator.
"I'm excited about the energy and really appreciate the great support that we've received and from everything I'm hearing about the spring game tomorrow," Stoops said. "The team feels that; we're energized by that."
That energy was on display Friday at UK's final practice before the spring game. Though the Cats practiced without pads, Stoops reported seeing an energetic, fun practice. He is hoping for more of the same on Saturday.
"Just good football," Stoops said when asked what he wants to see at the spring game. "Good execution, good tough blocking, good tough running, catching the football. On defense, great pursuit. Physical, making good tackles, just good execution on both sides."
To encourage that kind of competitiveness, Saturday will feature a regular game format. The first-string offense and No. 2 defense will pair up to form the White team and face off against a Blue team composed of the No. 1 defense and No. 2 offense.
UK has not yet released a depth chart this spring, which means the way the teams are split will be the first indication of who has grabbed the early lead in battles for starting roles. Even so, don't think anything is decided just yet.
"They're all up for grabs," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "I know there are some good players out there that are doing some good things, but we don't have many spots at all that our solid."
That's particularly true at quarterback. Snaps will be split evenly between Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow as they have been all spring, and expect to see all three line up with both the Blue and White teams.
Absent from the scrimmage will be most of UK's special-teams sets. There will be no kickoffs or kickoff returns and all punts will be fair caught.
The Cats have gotten enough work on special teams that Stoops feels comfortable, and that's mostly true for the offense and defense as well. None of UK's units is anywhere near where it will need to be when the season opens, but Stoops and his staff had a clear idea of what needed to be accomplished this spring. On that front, they are satisfied.
"I think they have a good understanding of the tempo that we want to operate," Stoops said. "I think they've got a good understanding of how precise we want to be. So we've made some good strides in those areas."
The spring game will represent somewhat of an end point for UK, but only to the initial phase of the Stoops era. Much work is ahead in the next stages, but Saturday - with a strong showing by both the team and fans - can serve as a springboard into the summer and fall.
"It's gonna be great," Williamson said. "I'm excited. It would mean the world to me to see all these fans come out and show their support to us. I'm just so excited. Can't wait."
Just before 4:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, @KentuckyMBB introduced itself as the official Twitter of UK's men's basketball program. At the time, the account had just a few hundred followers.
A few (hundred) retweets and a challenge to the Big Blue Nation later, @KentuckyMBB already ranks among the top accounts of its kind.
As of 9:50 a.m. Friday, the account has nearly 18,000 followers, already good for 13th among men's college basketball teams on Twitter. The number is growing by the minute and it seems a matter of time before @KentuckyMBB cracks the top 10.
UK rebounded from a three-game sweep at LSU with a 6-3 win over Austin Peay on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Nothing went the way of the Kentucky baseball team last weekend.
The Wildcats played their worst weekend series of the season. LSU - arguably the nation's best team - played exceptionally well in front of a raucous home crowd. And it didn't help that every break went the Tigers' way.
The result was a three-game sweep - UK's first weekend series loss of the season - as the Wildcats were outscored 29-6.
"That wasn't a one-inning blip," head coach Gary Henderson said. "We just didn't play well."
As disappointing as the performance was, Henderson isn't sounding any alarms. There were issues that needed addressing, but UK had played too much good baseball leading up to the road trip to Baton Rouge, La., for grave concerns.
"Baseball's like that," Henderson said. "You've gotta be able to experience those weekends, get through 'em and then get rid of them and then get on to the next one."
But before the Cats could move to the next weekend, they faced a midweek matchup with Austin Peay in a game that suddenly took on additional importance as UK sought to avoid a four-game skid. Behind a second straight strong start by freshman Kyle Cody, the Cats won 6-3 on Tuesday night.
"I thought it was really important," Henderson said. "Austin Peay's a good team, they've got a really good chance of winning the (Ohio Valley Conference), they have really good players, a good track record. For us to play well, pitch well - especially defensively play well - was a really good sign. I thought we came back and played with a lot of confidence."
The task now becomes transferring that confidence back into Southeastern Conference play.
UK (23-9, 6-6 SEC) will host Tennessee (14-17, 3-9 SEC) for a three-game set beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday. The Volunteers have lost six straight in conference play, but Henderson singled out Saturday and Sunday starters Nick Williams and Zack Godley as pitchers who will give the Cats all they can handle.
"They present the challenges of being an SEC team that's got two solid starting pitchers, and they're in a corner," Henderson said. "They'll show up and they'll be aggressive and they'll fight. We need to respond accordingly."
UK's pitching staff, meanwhile, will face an offense reminiscent of the one it sees in practice every day. The Volunteers have just eight home runs on the season, but have already stolen 54 bases, which will be a test of the Wildcats' ability to control the running game. UK has allowed just 13 steals in 22 attempts in 2013.
"They try to rattle you a little bit," Henderson said. "Our guys typically are very good with that type of approach because it's similar to ours."
Henderson believes it important for the Wildcats to embrace their own offensive identity. At times this season - particularly the first two games at LSU - UK has tried to go against that nature and the result has been pop-ups aplenty.
"It's not a home-run game anymore; it's a different game," Henderson said. "It just is and we need to approach it where we really emphasize or utilize or accentuate our talents, our skills. We're a line-drive, doubles-hitting club and that's how we need to approach it."
In emphasizing that approach, Henderson used a tweaked lineup in the Austin Peay win. It was by no means an overhaul, but Austin Cousino, after leading off in every game of his first season and a half at UK, moved into the three hole, freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett led off and fellow newcomer Zack Storm got his first-career start.
Barrett and Cousino are likely to stay in those spots on Friday. Beyond that, anything could happen.
"I don't think anything's permanent," Henderson said. "That's where we are now, but a baseball lineup is constantly in flux."
Regardless, don't view the Tennessee series as some sort of proving ground or place for experimentation. The Cats will play 14 of their next 16 games against ranked opponents, but this weekend is the priority.
"Anybody in this league is good enough to beat anybody," Henderson said. "That's proven every weekend."
Head coach Rachel Lawson recorded her school-record 182nd career victory in the Wildcats' 6-2 win over Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This weekend will mark a monumental moment for the Kentucky softball program. Not only do the Wildcats welcome the third-ranked Florida Gators, but the Grand Opening Ceremony of the newly renovated UK Softball Complex is set to precede Saturday's 1 p.m. ET game.
Gates will open at 11:30 a.m. with pregame festivities slated to begin at 11:45. Athletic's Director Mitch Barnhart, head coach Rachel Lawson and select others will be speaking to officially open the new stadium.
Six years ago Barnhart hired Lawson as UK's new softball coach. Since Lawson's arrival, the program has made major strides and now the athletic department is rewarding the hard work of the coaches and players by providing them a brand-new playing atmosphere.
This is a big moment in UK softball history and Lawson is the first to recognize who is responsible for it all and give thanks.
"First you have to thank the Big Blue Nation," Lawson said. "If we didn't have the fan support and the financial support you would never see an amazing stadium like this going up. You have to thank everybody who works so hard in the athletic department to make these things possible."
Of course Lawson wouldn't be a part of this weekend's celebration had she not been hired back in July 2007. It was Barnhart's decision, but there was another member of the athletic department who played a key role in the process.
"You have to thank Mitch but you have to thank (associate athletic's director) John Cropp for hiring me," Lawson said. "Mitch ultimately made the decision but Coach Cropp was the one that went out and believed in me."
On Wednesday, the Wildcats traveled to Frankfort, Ky., to compete in a doubleheader against Eastern Kentucky. UK took the opener 6-2, giving Lawson her school-record 182nd career victory.
Lawson, who is humbled by the whole experience, is always striving for more and is looking for ways she can improve the program.
However, she did take a moment after to sit back and take it all in.
"It's really cool," Lawson said. "You never stop and think about what you accomplish you only keep moving forward. It was a brief moment in time where I got to stop and I got to think about all the people that helped me get here."
Associate head coach Kristine Himes has been with Lawson since day one at UK and Lawson says she wouldn't be where she is today without her. Lawson also took time to thank the athletic department and all the players that helped rack up the record amount of victories.
A few minutes was enough time for Lawson to think about breaking the record as she quickly turned her focus back to the future goals of the program.
"That's a cool moment, with that said I know we all want a national championship," Lawson said. "While the wins are incredible and it's good to get to that point, it will be even better when we move forward. Every team at Kentucky, our goal should be to win the SEC and to win national championships, that's what we all do. Once you get there and you have one, you're going to want another and another."
Fans should be in for a treat this weekend with the Gators coming into town. Florida is an impressive 39-4 on the season and 12-3 in conference play, but the Cats are having a tremendous season themselves and have no reason to back down.
With the 18th-ranked Wildcats sitting at 8-4 in SEC play, a series win over the Gators would give them loads of confidence heading forward. Lawson knows her Wildcats have a huge challenge in front of them but also realizes it's a great opportunity for them to make a statement.
"It's going to be quite a challenge," Lawson said. "With that said, us and Florida are usually good games. They are usually played hard and played clean and usually they are good television games. Hopefully that will continue this weekend and we can get some wins."
When Lawson was brought in to lead the Wildcats back in '07, one of the things on the top of the athletic department's list was to build the softball team a new facility. The opening of the stadium hasn't been a major shock for Lawson, however the dedication and pace that everything has come together has really taken the sixth-year head coach by surprise.
"I knew it would be coming but for it to be coming so soon and in such a huge fashion has been such a huge surprise for me," Lawson said. "Everything that we have asked for is actually happening. They have gone top rate with everything in here. It's going to one of the best if not the best facility in the country."
Cedric Kauffmann has guided the men's tennis team to the No. 8 ranking in his first year as head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky men's tennis is team is very good. The No. 8 ranking next to its name suggests that is so.
Cedric Kauffmann, UK men's tennis head coach, would agree. But sometimes very good just doesn't cut it, especially when the head coach holds his program to such high standards.
"I thought we started a little bit better than I expected, and in the middle we took some losses," said Kauffmann. "Overall, they're doing very well. But I'm a perfectionist and I'm very picky, so very good is just not good enough."
The No. 8 Wildcats (19-8, 6-4 SEC) are in the midst of yet another terrific season as they battle through the war that is Southeastern Conference men's tennis. They have eight wins against current top-25 teams including two wins against teams in the top six in No. 3 Georgia and No. 6 Ole Miss. UK also boasts two players in the top 25 in the singles rankings in senior team captain No. 19 Anthony Rossi and No. 21 Tom Jomby.
Those two upperclassmen along with junior Grant Roberts have been given a little extra burden to carry this season as Kauffmann has been forced to fill half of his singles lineup with freshmen. With the loss of junior Alejandro Gomez to injury earlier this year, the lineup got much younger and inexperienced. It also made Kauffmann's job more challenging as UK looks for a strong finish to its regular season.
In Gomez's absence, Kauffmann would like to see a bit more urgency, especially from his younger players, heading into the postseason.
"We've had to do it quicker since we lost Gomez," said Kauffmann. "I have three freshmen in my lineup out of six. It's not easy. My freshmen sometimes act like freshmen. It's OK because they're freshmen, but I don't accept it.
"You can see if you come to a match that there is a difference in the body language in my freshmen than to Rossi or Grant Roberts. You can see the difference. What I want to see not just through one through six, but one through 12, is the way you conduct yourself on the court and how you take care of business every day, and not just talking about it."
Kauffmann, who is enjoying his first season as head coach after serving as an assistant coach to former head coach Dennis Emery since 2005, says things haven't changed all that much in his new role, but there have been plenty of challenges in following up last year's SEC regular-season championship.
The biggest challenge heading into the season was finding out if returning players like Rossi and Jomby would be able to handle the roles of No. 1 and No. 2 in the UK singles lineup with UK great Eric Quigley and fellow senior Alex Musialek departing last year. Fortunately for Kauffmann, while those departed players are irreplaceable in many respects, Rossi and Jomby have filled a very deep void and helped make Kauffmann's transition to head coach smoother than expected.
"Rossi and Tom have done a good job replacing the one and two spots," said Kauffmann. "They're very, very good. What Quigley and Musialek did was show up in the big matches and the big moments, especially in the postseason. They came up big.
"I expect Tom and Anthony to do the same in the coming weeks. But they've done a tremendous job filling those shoes."
The shoes left by Emery for Kauffmann were oversized as well because Kauffmann's first match as head coach at UK would be his first as a head coach at the collegiate level.
Emery had basically built the entire men's tennis program from the ground up in his 30-year career as the UK tennis head coach, acquiring legendary status in amassing 655 wins and 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, and is responsible for nearly half of UK's all-time wins. He also lays claim to two SEC championships.
Kauffmann, however, has remained true to himself and the lessons he'd learned from Emery while coaching by his side for the last eight seasons while also playing for him for four as a Wildcat. Not much, other than some extra office duties, has changed the way Kauffmann handles his business. He has, however, found losses a little more difficult to deal with in his new role.
"I don't feel that much different," said Kauffmann. "I maybe just blame myself a little bit more which is normal. If something goes wrong or we lose, I can tell the guys you didn't do this right or wrong, I kind of blame myself first. What could I have done better for this kid to play better and do more of, which is good."
What Kauffmann has come to realize, however, is that there is more to being a tennis coach than coaching tennis. He's learned that there's more to being a student-athlete than just being an athlete. He's taken it upon himself to improve the lives of everyone in and around his program no matter who they are or what they do.
Whether it's improving the skill of the last man on the team or having a roster full of gentlemen, Kauffmann wants his players to constantly grow. That's what he claims is his job.
"I pay a little bit more attention to everybody on the team," said Kauffmann now that he is a head coach. "Even when people are not playing, at the end of the day, I know my job is measured on wins and losses and how we do in the SEC, but I try as a head coach to do more than that.
"I try to make them grow and attack them as much what they do on the tennis court as much as saying 'hi' to people, looking them in the eye, opening the door for the ladies."
As far as results go, he's doing his job just fine. No, the Wildcats won't win the regular-season conference title this year as Georgia has already clinched, but there is plenty of optimism left for a successful postseason run.
With the SEC Championships just around the corner and only three regular-season matches left, Kauffmann wants his team to start preparing for the postseason by treating the remaining matches as such with challenges on the road at Florida and South Carolina.
"We talk about (the postseason) at the beginning of the season," said Kauffmann. "A little bit of reminding when I feel it's not good enough. I just want them to treat each match like it is postseason. I think that's why Virginia, who is the No. 1 team, has not lost this season. They don't take anyone for granted in their play. That's what I'm looking for from me and this team."
As the conclusion of his first full season as head coach draws near, Kauffmann hopes this team has learned from some of the mistakes it's made along the way as they strive to be a perfect, finished product by season's end. He also knows his team has what it takes to be good enough and to reach the standards he's set for them. If he does his job to the best of his ability, year No. 1 for Kauffmann may finish with a perfect ending.
"Yes, I believe they can win the SEC Tournament," said Kauffmann. "I think they can win at the end of the year. It's going to be physical and mental and all those things, but talent-wise, I think we have enough on the tennis court to do it. After that, I have to do a good job."
John Schlarman is in his first season coaching offensive linemen at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Losing weight is not typically high on the priority list for offensive linemen. Given the size and strength of the defenders who line up across from them each down, mass is almost always an asset.
But as Darrian Miller has gone through his first spring practice in Kentucky's new offense, the pounds have melted off. After working for so long to gain or maintain weight, Miller has dropped 10 pounds without even thinking about it.
"I didn't feel like I wanted to or needed to do that at all," Miller said. "It just sort of happened when we got out here with this fast-paced offense."
Offensive line coach John Schlarman - a former UK offensive lineman - says there's no reason to sound the alarm about the shrinking left tackle. Having spent the last five seasons coaching linemen under offensive coordinator Neal Brown, Miller - now 6-foot-5, 285 pounds - is not a unique case.
"It's very high-paced," Schlarman said. "These guys burn a lot of calories out here in these practices."
If he needed any additional evidence, Schlarman needs look no further than Miller's play in 13 practices so far this spring to reassure himself. Lining up most often opposite Za'Darius Smith - a 6-foot-6, 257-pound defensive end - Miller has more than held his own.
"Darrian Miller, I've been very, very pleased with him this spring," Schlarman said. "He's really had a good spring. He's played very, very consistent. I know we still have two practices left so I hope I don't jinx him, but he's been real consistent all spring long, come to work every day with a great attitude and done a great job on that left side."
Miller, who played well as a sophomore at left tackle in 2012, has shown himself to be a natural in UK's quick-tempo attack. The Lexington, Ky., native had a reputation as a cerebral player over his first two seasons, but reports the speed of the new offense helps him because he has less time to think, paradoxical as it may sound.
"I like to play fast," Miller said. "I think best when I don't have a lot of time, if that makes sense. Sometimes when you have more time to think about stuff, you start second-guessing yourself and you start to get confused, things start blurring together. When you actually know the offense, things sort of pop up and I guess that's what you're supposed to do."
Having established himself as a solid performer this spring, Miller is being asked by his coaches to step up in other areas. When something needed in either of the past two years, Matt Smith and Larry Warford would be the ones saying it. With those two having exhausted their eligibility - though they are still fixtures at practice as they pursue professional careers - the staff wants Miller to help fill the void.
"They've told me several times that they wanted me to step up and be more of a vocal leader," Miller said. "I'm not really all that big on yelling and screaming; I usually try to lead by example. But that's something different that I'm trying to get used to."
Miller is a logical candidate to move into a leadership role because of his experience, something many of his fellow linemen lack.
At right tackle, Jordan Swindle has gotten the majority of first team reps. The true sophomore played in 11 games, but only as a reserve or on special teams. Junior Teven Eatmon-Nared and senior Kevin Mitchell have worked at the two guard spots, but only Mitchell has starting experience and that was at right tackle. At center, redshirt freshman Zach Myers is ahead of the pack.
Left out of that group, but not because he is not a potential starter, is Zach West. The redshirt sophomore started all 12 games last season next to Miller at left guard, but had offseason shoulder surgery. Because of his recovery, West missed the first two weeks of spring and is still working his way back into the mix.
"Zach's coming along," Schlarman said. "I'm proud of him. Just coming off of surgery and getting out here in spring ball and getting some work. There's a lot of guys that could have just kind of gone through non-contact in the spring and probably nobody would have said anything. But Zach's not that type of guy."
Adding West to the conversation at guard and potentially even center, Schlarman sees his group of contenders.
"Right now I would have to say we've got a starting six," Schlarman said. "We've gotta figure out how that six turns into five."
Those six linemen still have the Blue/White Spring Game to make their cases, but final decisions on starters aren't likely to be made before the fall. However, work in the summer could be what lays the foundation the five linemen that start on Aug. 13 vs. Western Kentucky.
"We're nowhere near the shape we need to be in to run this offense for four quarters right now," Schlarman said. "So the summer program is very important for us up front.
"Now they have a little taste of what this is all about. I think they'll really understand the importance of getting into good shape."
Not only do the linemen have a taste for what will be demanded of them next season, but they also have a pretty clear idea of what they could do to opposing defensive lines in the new offense, even if they might be a bit trimmer than a season ago.
"Watching our defensive linemen, I know it's going to take a toll," Miller said. "It's not something that's easy to keep up with. It hurts. It hurts to say the least."
You better throw all your Kentucky gear in the laundry right now, because you're going to need every clean piece of blue clothing you can find.
This weekend, the UK campus will be buzzing with activity, highlighted by the Blue/White Spring Game at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. But that's far from the only opportunity fans will have to cheer on the Wildcats this weekend. With upwards of 10 events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday across five different sports, it's going to be a Big Blue Weekend.
Let's take a look at your options (all times Eastern):
There's a fair bit of overlap here, but you can make it to doubles play and at least the start of singles at the tennis match before making a short trek north or south to baseball or softball.
Saturday, April 13 (Forecast: Sunny with a high of 57 degrees, zero percent chance of rain) 11:30 a.m. - UK Softball Complex grand opening 1 p.m. - Softball vs. No. 3 Florida (UK Softball Complex) 2 p.m. - Baseball vs. Tennessee (Cliff Hagan Stadium) 4 p.m. - Wildcat Refuge opens (Gate 9 of Commonwealth Stadium) 5 p.m. - Men's soccer spring game vs. Lipscomb (UK Soccer Complex) 5 p.m. - Alumni Association tailgate (Commonwealth Stadium Red Lot, near Gate 4) 5:15 p.m. - Cat Walk (Gate 1 of Commonwealth Stadium) 7 p.m. - Blue/White Spring Game (Commonwealth Stadium)
Does that give you enough to do on a Saturday?
No matter what, start your day at the grand opening of the UK Softball Complex at 11:30 a.m. Refreshments will be available and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and head coach Rachel Lawson will speak at the ceremony. From there, you can either stick around for the softball game, head to baseball or some combination of the two.
The baseball game still figures to be going on when pre-spring game festivities begin, but you should have plenty of time to tailgate and maybe even make it to the Cat Walk if you stick around for the end of the game at Cliff Hagan. Gates open at Commonwealth at 6 p.m.
All parking for the spring game is free. A portion of the Green Lot will be reserved, but the remainder is available on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, a shuttle will be available for those wishing to park at Commonwealth and receive transportation to Keeneland and back to the stadium. For complete information on the spring game, visit our Gameday Central page.
Kentucky returned home on Tuesday night having lost its first weekend series of the season. The Wildcats had been swept on the road by No. 2 LSU and turned to freshman Kyle Cody to play the role of stopper.
For the second time in a week, Cody delivered in a big spot.
After his first quality start of his career at Louisville last Tuesday, Cody (3-1) pitched 5.1 innings, allowing just one run and striking out four. Eight of nine starters had hits in the 6-3 Kentucky (23-9) win over the visiting Governors (25-8), including true freshman Kyle Barrett. Leading off for the first time of his career, Barrett was 2-for-5 with a two-run triple.
After the game, Cat Scratches caught up with head coach Gary Henderson, Cody and shortstop Matt Reida to talk about the victory. Video highlights are also posted below. Highlights
Ginny Carroll's walk-off bases loaded single in the bottom of the seventh, led the Cats to a 4-3 victory over Marshall on Tuesday. (Brittany McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It's been a characteristic of the University of Kentucky softball team's 2013 success. And the Wildcats showed off just how tough they are once again Tuesday evening with a bases-loaded walk-off single from junior outfielder Ginny Carroll to earn a 4-3 victory over a pesky Marshall team at the UK Softball Complex.
"It was awesome," Carroll said. "That's one thing Coach (Rachel Lawson) has been getting
on us about is being tough. I think we really showed it tonight and
didn't give up."
UK came back twice in the game, scoring a run in the bottom of the fourth to tie the contest at 1-all and plating three in the bottom of the seventh to win after the Thundering Herd took a 3-1 advantage in the top of the final frame.
The game looked as though it may have been decided after Marshall took a two-run lead heading into the bottom of the seventh and senior hurler Andi Williamson dealing a gem. However, the Cats used a never-say-die mentality with the help of a couple Marshall errors and key hits, including the game-winner from Carroll to come out on top.
Carroll struggled in her first three at-bats but saved her best for last. The Hendersonville, Tenn., native says Lawson tells the Cats in practice that she doesn't care if they only get one hit, so long as they contribute and are doing their jobs.
She certainly did her job on Tuesday and with the pressure on. The Wildcats had one out in the inning with the bags packed, a full count on Carroll and the score tied at three.
Carroll's plan at the plate on the last pitch was simple.
"Since it was a full count I was just looking to protect," Carroll said. "Go after anything I could drive and then let it go if it was a ball. She was a great pitcher and we did a good job of hanging tough with her."
Marshall came into the evening sporting a 25-13 record and having won 15 of its last 16 contests. The Herd featured Williamson in the circle, who leads the country in strike outs and innings pitched and an offense that leads the Conference USA.
Head coach Rachel Lawson was pleased overall with her team's performance. She knows they didn't play their best game of the year but saw something out of her Wildcats that she has seen all season.
That word again. Tough.
"Obviously, the seventh inning we showed how tough we were and that has been a theme for us throughout the entire year," Lawson said. "I thought (Kelsey) Nunley had a good performance on the mound again. I think there were some things we could have done better but Marshall is a really good team. They are one of the best teams in the Conference USA and the best offensive team and for Nunley to keep them down was big for us."
With the victory, head coach Rachel Lawson tied the UK record with her 181st win at Kentucky. In just her sixth season, Lawson has taken the program to new heights and has the 28-10 Wildcats off to one of the best starts in history.
Kentucky travels to Frankfort, Ky., on Wednesday for a twin bill against in state foe Eastern Kentucky. Tomorrow will be a golden opportunity for Lawson to break the school's wins record, but the sixth-year head coach has bigger goals on her mind for this year and the future of the softball program.
"My goal is always to win softball games," Lawson said. "I don't really know that much about the records and such here. Our goal is to get to the (Women's College) World Series so that means we have to continue to win to do it and hopefully my teams will break a lot of records here over the years."
Bob Wiggins began his association with Kentucky basketball simply as a fan. But over nearly 66 years, he has come to symbolize what the most storied program in college basketball is all about.
Wiggins, now 85 years old, has attended more than 1,650 UK games in his life, building relationships with players and coaches over the years. Ken Howlett has a story on the UK super-fan at CoachCal.com:
When John Calipari was introduced as Kentucky's new basketball coach in April 2009, Coach Cal sought out Mr. Wiggins, pointed to him and said, "You're the guy I wanted to talk to."
During one unbelievable stretch, Bob Wiggins attended every Wildcat game for 19 consecutive years. His incredible streak ending because of a mild heart attack he suffered in 1997, only hours prior to the team leaving for a trip to Alaska to participate in the Great Alaska Shootout.
Although Mr. Wiggins did not attend road games during the 2012-13 season due to health reasons, he still makes the trek from Falmouth to Rupp Arena for every home game, dutifully taking his seat behind the UK bench in his trademark suit and tie.
"You talk about someone who is driven and passionate about Kentucky basketball, this man embodies the real Kentucky fan," said Winston Bennett, former UK player and assistant coach. "I can remember him in the '80s being at those games and being at some of the practices and being on the plane when we flew to different games (in the '90s). Talk about dedication and longevity ... this was a religion. People talk about Kentucky basketball being a religion; it was truly a religion with this man."
Women's basketball - The 2012-13 season was the most successful in program history with school records of 30 wins and eight victories over top-25 opponents. The Wildcats tied a school-record with 13 Southeastern Conference wins and advanced to their school-record fourth Elite Eight in the last four years, including second straight. - UK has charted 25 or more wins in a school-record four straight seasons. - Seniors A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson leave as the winningest class in UK Hoops history with a 111-30 record (.787). - Mathies ends her career as UK's all-time leader in steals (320), games played (140) and started (139), while ranking second in scoring (2,014), 3-point field goals made (177) and field goals attempted (1,687), third in field goals made (712), free throws made (413) and attempted (590) and ninth in assists (349).
Gymnastics - The Kentucky gymnastics team posted the program's highest-ever NCAA Regional team score with a 195.575 on Saturday. - Kentucky finished in fourth-place overall just .45 outside of second position. - Audrey Harrison finished in a tie for third for the individual all-around title with a score of 39.2, but tied for the highest AA score among competitors not on a team advancing to regionals. - Alexis Gross earned a career-high all-around score 39.05, in her first meet competing in all four events during a single meet this season. Softball - The Kentucky softball team finished a 3-1 week with a sweep over Southeastern Conference foe South Carolina over the weekend, moving its SEC winning streak to a school-record tying six games. The streak began with a sweep of Mississippi State a few weeks ago. - True freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend with a 2-0 record and a 2.50 ERA. Nunley is an impressive 17-4 on the year with a 2.09 ERA with her 17 wins moving her into a tie for fourth on UK's single-season wins list with Morgan Marr, who had 17 in 2001. Nunley is the first UK pitcher to post 17 or more wins in a season since Chanda Bell had 18 in 2010. Junior Lauren Cumbess went 1-0 on the weekend, clinching the sweep with a strong seven-inning performance on Sunday, allowing three runs on seven hits with four strikeouts. Cumbess led UK at the dish over the weekend by going 5-for-10 with a double, two home runs and four RBI. - Cumbess tied the game Saturday with a two-run homer and tied Sunday's game with an RBI single. Freshman Nikki Sagermann also went 5-for-10 with a double and home run, while junior Ginny Carroll, senior Alice O'Brien and freshman Christian Stokes also hit home runs. Sophomore Griffin Joiner had three hits and three RBI.
Baseball - Kentucky suffered its first series loss of the year at the blistering-hot Tigers, previously owning series wins over Florida, No. 14 Mississippi State and Georgia. - UK earned a thrilling 5-4 win over No. 9 Louisville in 10 innings in front of a UL school-record crowd, with freshman Kyle Cody turning in a quality start and freshman Kyle Barrett driving in the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th. - Freshman Kyle Barrett drove in the game-winning RBI against Louisville in the top of the 10th inning, completing the dramatic late inning comeback. - UK has been led offensively by junior J.T. Riddle, who has hit .322 with six doubles, one triple, one homer and 17 RBI, stealing five bases. Sophomore A.J. Reed has belted eight homers and has 33 RBI, batting .319.
Men's tennis - Kentucky dropped the first match of its three-match road trip to conclude the regular season at No. 14 Vanderbilt, 4-2. - Kentucky won the doubles point with wins on courts one and three to get the early 1-0 lead, but were unable to hold on in singles play. - Beck Pennington gave UK the early 2-0 lead as he won on court six. The Bowling Green, Ky., native is undefeated in singles play this season, with an 8-0 record, and is 2-0 in SEC play. - The Wildcats finish the regular season at Florida and South Carolina this weekend before traveling to Oxford, Miss., for the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats defeated both UF and SC in 2011.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team fell 5-1 at home on Friday to No. 19 Vanderbilt. - Freshman Nadia Ravita improved on her already impressive freshman season, defeating No. 61 Lauren Mira in straight sets. The 24th-ranked individual won the match on court one 7-5, 6-3. - Kentucky will host No. 2 Florida on Friday and No. 29 South Carolina on Sunday to round out the regular season.
Track and field - A small contingent of Wildcats competed at the Bellarmine Invitational on Saturday. - Joanne Imbert placed second in the high jump with an outdoor season-high clearance of 1.72 meters/5'07.75". - Michelle Canterna finished as the runner-up in the pole vault, with a top clearance of 3.80 meters/12'05.5" - Shelby Kennard cleared 3.5 meters/ 11'05.75m, tying her outdoor season-high pole vault, before being unable to get over the bar at 3.65 meters /11'11.75".
Women's golf - The UK women's golf team finished fifth at the M&F Bank Rebel Invitational last week in Oxford, Miss., shooting 22-over for the tournament. The Cats recorded the third lowest round on the final day to propel them into fifth place of the 18-team field. - Junior Liz Breed, who competed as an individual for the Wildcats, charted one of her best performances of her career, tying her career-low with a 54-hole score of 2-over-par, 218 and equaled her best finish, tying for eighth place overall. - Senior Ashleigh Albrecht tallied her third-lowest score of the season, finishing tied for 12th at 1-over-par. Freshman Sarah Harris also had an impressive tournament, posting a career-low 7-over-par, 223, including a personal-best 1-under-par, 71 on the final day. She finished tied for 24th.
Monday, April 8 Men's golf at Gary Koch Invitational (Tampa, Fla.)
Tuesday, April 9 Men's golf at Gary Koch Invitational (Tampa, Fla.) Softball hosts Marshall - 5:00 p.m. Baseball hosts Austin Peay - 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 10 Softball at Eastern Kentucky - 2:00 p.m. Softball at Eastern Kentucky - 4:30 p.m.
Overall Record: 22-9, 6-6 SEC Record Last Week: 1-3, 0-3 SEC
Recent Results Tuesday, April 3 - won at No. 9 Louisville, 5-4 (10 innings) Friday, April 5 - lost at No. 2 LSU, 11-1 Saturday, April 6 - lost at No. 2 LSU, 9-1 Sunday, April 7 - lost at No. 2 LSU, 11-4
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Tuesday, April 9 - vs. Austin Peay - 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 11 - vs. Tennessee - 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 12 - vs. Tennessee - 2 p.m. Sunday, April 13 - vs. Tennessee - 1 p.m.
Team notes The seventh-ranked Kentucky baseball team had a grueling week, facing four top-10 teams on the road. UK posted a midweek win at No. 9 Louisville on Tuesday in 10 innings, before traveling for a three-game series at No. 2 LSU, with the Tigers setting a new school record by sweeping UK to improve to 30-2 in 2013. UK will host four games at Cliff Hagan Stadium this week, welcoming 25-win Austin Peay on Tuesday, before hosting Tennessee for a three-game series.
Kentucky (22-9, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) suffered its first series loss of the year at the blistering-hot Tigers, previously owning series wins over Florida, No. 14 Mississippi State and Georgia. UK's midweek thrilling win at No. 9 Louisville game in 10 innings in front of a UL school-record crowd, with freshman Kyle Cody turning in a quality start and freshman Kyle Barrett driving in the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th.
The Wildcats have hit .278 as a team, with a .391 slugging and a .386 on-base percentage, belting 19 homers and stealing 40 bases. On the mound, UK has a 3.00 team ERA, walking only 78 in 276 innings, striking out 223.
UK has been led offensively by junior J.T. Riddle, who has hit .322 with six doubles, one triple, one homer and 17 RBI, stealing five bases. Sophomore A.J. Reed has belted eight homers and has 33 RBI, batting .319, with Barrett hitting .316 with three doubles and five RBI. All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino has a .298 average with eight doubles, one triple, four homers and 21 RBI, stealing 10 bases. Catcher Micheal Thomas has added a .284 average with two homers and 18 RBI.
On the mound, UK has used the weekend rotation of Reed (2-4, 3.06 ERA), Jerad Grundy (5-3, 3.46 ERA) and Corey Littrell (4-1, 2.72 ERA). In relief, Trevor Gott (4-0, 1.06 ERA) has seven saves in nine chances, striking out 20 and walking three in 17 innings. Senior Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.57 ERA) has appeared in 14 games, with Chandler Shepherd (1-0, 3.77 ERA) appearing in 12 games.
Megan Moir was named the Brad Davis SEC Female Community Service Leader of the Year this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Megan Moir and Chelsea Oswald have come to know each other well over the last four years.
Moir is on the Kentucky women's golf team and Oswald is a distance runner on the track and field and cross country teams. They aren't teammates, but their paths have crossed often since Oswald arrived in Lexington a year after Moir in 2009, most frequently as representatives on UK's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, where Moir is president and Oswald the historian.
So when Oswald learned on Thursday that Moir had been named the Brad Davis Southeastern Conference Female Community Service Leader of the Year, Oswald naturally reached out. What Oswald didn't know at the time was congratulations would soon be in order for her as well.
"She actually sent me a text message to congratulate me about my award," Moir said. "And then it was cool because she won the next day."
On Friday, Oswald was named the SEC's H. Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year, marking the first time since 1999 that UK student-athletes had won both the prestigious Davis and McWhorter awards.
Wildcat teams and athletes have had more than their share of moments of excellence in competition. Competing at the Division I level, of course, is what all of UK's 22 teams have in common. But perhaps more than anything else, the achievements of Moir and Oswald reflect what it means to be a Wildcat off the field.
"To have two people win in the same year, it definitely says something about the department," Moir said.
It says plenty about Moir and Oswald as individuals too.
During her time at UK, Moir has spent an astounding 700 hours serving the community, from inside the borders of Fayette County to across the Atlantic Ocean in Ethiopia with a group of fellow student-athletes. Moir, a native of Louisville, Ky., cites her Christian faith as the inspiration for her commitment to volunteering.
"I've been blessed with so many opportunities and so many privileges just because of the family and the life I was born into," Moir said. "I'm constantly looking at myself seeing how I can use what I've been given to give back and bless other people."
True to her words, Moir plans to use the $10,000 post-graduate scholarship that comes with the Davis award to do just that.
Last May, she received a B.S. degree in accounting and marketing and will complete her master's in sports leadership in a month. She is then planning to spend seven months in Uganda to do ministry and mission work. After that, she'll decide how best to put the scholarship money to use.
"Ideally long term, I want to do financial planning for people living on the margins of society, so I'll probably go back to school to get a master's in family or financial planning or something of that sort," Moir said.
Chelsea Oswald (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Oswald has more definitive plans for how she'll use her $15,000 scholarship. She expects to complete B.S. degrees in biology and psychology in May 2013 and June 2014, respectively. Once she finishes her undergraduate studies, she plans to attend physical therapy school.
If her college career to this point is any indication, you can expect her to fulfill those plans.
With her 4.0 grade-point average, Oswald has received almost every conceivable academic award, including the 2013 NCAA Elite 89 award. She did, however, admit to one close call that nearly blemished her perfect GPA. It was in a course called animal physiology and she was pleasantly surprised to look up her final grade when she returned to her home in Medina, Ohio for the summer and see an "A."
"I wouldn't have been upset if I had gotten a 'B' because I try my hardest with every class," Oswald said. "If I would have gotten a 'B,' I would have known I put all my effort into it. I think that's what success is: just knowing you've applied yourself as best as you can to the task at hand."
Oswald has certainly done that in competition throughout her career and has the results to prove it in 2012-13. She has had her best season under the leadership of first-year head coach Edrick Floreal, earning All-America honors in both cross country and indoor track and field.
"This whole last year has made a complete turnaround," Oswald said. "With the new coaching staff and everything, I think it's a blessing. I'm extremely thankful that they've helped turn my running career around and kind of everything in my life. I'm more positive about everything because I have more confidence."
That confidence translates to all facets, including service. Oswald is active in the track and field team's Soles4Souls shoe drive, mentors a young Lexington-area girl and volunteers with a number of other organizations, following the service-oriented lead of her friend Moir.
"I think it's good to get UK Athletics out there in the community," Oswald said.
And just as Oswald makes an impact in the area for which Moir was honored by the SEC, Moir stands out in the classroom. She is a two-time Academic All-American and graduated summa cum laude a year ago.
Moir and Oswald are two student-athletes who have made the most of every opportunity afforded to them at UK, from the classroom to the community to competition. And even as they received the most individual of awards this week, their reactions show why they are such excellent of examples of what it means to be a Wildcat.
"This award recognizes not only my achievements, but also all the great people who have helped me along the way," Oswald said. "I truly would not have been able to do this without the help of the whole University of Kentucky including my coaches, teammates and family."
"I am so very proud to be a Wildcat and it feels good to be able to represent the university that means so much to me," Moir said.
UK held its third scrimmage of the spring on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout three practices this week and really most of the spring, the Kentucky defense had its way.
After a particularly lackluster effort from the offense on Friday, Neal Brown threw down the gauntlet to his offensive troops heading into a Saturday scrimmage.
"We challenged them this morning because I didn't think they competed at all yesterday," Brown said. "I thought they turned it down and that wasn't good enough. We're not going to accept not playing hard, not playing physical."
The message was received and the result encouraging.
"We were just trying to respond," sophomore running back Josh Clemons said. "Yesterday the defense got after us a little bit and Coach got onto us and motivated us to come out here and get the job done today."
Mark Stoops said UK's third scrimmage was the offense's best day of the spring. Some of that can be chalked up to the natural "ebb and flow" of spring football - borrowing Brown's words - but Saturday marked a significant step forward as the Wildcats install a new offensive system.
"Today was really the first day that I thought we looked like an SEC offense," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I thought our guys competed hard today, they had good energy, we finished plays, and they had fun."
Many of the mistakes that have plagued UK throughout the spring - turnovers, penalties, dropped passes, missed assignments - disappeared for a day. As a result, the offense was able to both sustain long drives and hit big plays as the Cats worked for the first time in Commonwealth Stadium, the site of next week's Blue/White Spring Game.
"I think for the first time since I've been here I had one side really take over and make some plays and dominate a practice or a scrimmage," Stoops said.
Fans hearing about the offense's good day will likely picture the ball flying all over the field in Brown's Air Raid attack, and quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow did have their best day as a group. The importance of the run, however, should not be dismissed.
"We ran the ball better, which if you run the ball, you can have some opportunities to hit some big play-action passes," Brown said.
The perception that UK's new system is about throwing the ball is wrong to begin with, but considering running back is arguably the deepest and most talented position on the offense, the ground game could become ever more vital.
Jonathan George and especially Raymond Sanders - the two seniors at the position - have consistently impressed throughout the spring and they did so again on Saturday. But it was another player - one who didn't dress once last season - who ripped off the biggest run of the scrimmage on a long touchdown that sounds vaguely similar to an 87-yard run he had back in 2011, at least based on the description of those who saw it.
"I thought Josh Clemons really stood out today," Brown said. "He had a couple of nice runs. That was encouraging. He hit one big run up the side."
The redshirt sophomore is still practicing only every other day as he tries to round back into form after missing a season and a half with a knee injury, but Clemons' confidence is growing by the carry.
"I'm feeling great," Clemons said. "I'm not really thinking about it anymore, just going out there and trying to get better and shake off those cobwebs from however long I was out."
Brown wasn't willing to say Clemons is back to 100 percent just yet, but it means something that he is beginning to feel like he is.
"That's the hardest thing with knees, is mentally," Brown said. "... And if he mentally is there, that's a huge, huge breaking point really. There's probably some things he can get better at, but I was big-time encouraged with him today."
Sanders and George, at least right now, might be better-suited for catching the ball - something backs will be consistently asked to do - but there's plenty of room for a bruising back like Clemons.
"Ray's shifty and probably a little bit better out of the backfield and motion-wise and some things, but Josh is a one-cut, downhill (runner)," Brown said. "He's a load to tackle, and (Dyshawn) Mobley is the same way. Those guys are hard, physical runners."
There was plenty to be positive about in the passing game as well.
Demarco Robinson overcame a stomach virus to give UK a consistent threat at wide receiver, while A.J. Legree came up with some important third-down catches and Rashad Cunningham made progress. Junior-college transfer Steven Borden had his best day of the spring at tight end, while Jordan Aumiller and Tyler Robinson made a couple plays of their own.
But a good day for the offense means the opposite for the defense. UK's line - the defense's most consistent unit this spring - had its moments, but the defense as a whole will need to respond just as the offense did on Saturday.
"The defense came hard last scrimmage, but I guess we held back and let the offense come back and put pressure on us," defensive end Za'Darius Smith said. "But we just gotta keep working, that's the main thing."
The good news is the Cats still have three practices and the spring game to do just that.
"We'll put the best product we can out there next Saturday," Stoops said. "We'll prepare hard this week. We've got a lot to get better at. We've got to make each practice count and each rep count to get better today, this week. And we'll do that."
Demarco Robinson - 28 catches for 297 yards in 2012 - is UK's leading returning receiver. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Competition, according to every coach in America, is a good thing on the practice field.
It brings the best out of everyone involved and, when game day comes, assures that everyone will have worked for their spots.
For Kentucky's wide receivers at spring practice, competition is no issue. On any given day, there's no guessing which of the targets on the outside will look the best.
UK's coaches don't want to see the competition stop, but they'd like to see that latter trend end soon.
"We have a lot of guys kind of clumped together right now," wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord said. "I'm still looking for that guy to sort of take ownership of the position and say, 'Hey, this is mine.' "
Through 10 practices of spring ball, the player who has come the closest to grabbing hold of a starting position and not letting go is Demarco Robinson. The junior is UK's leading returning receiver with 28 catches for 297 yards in 2012 and has drawn the most consistent praise from Mark Stoops and the rest of the UK coaching staff. But even he is being asked to raise his game.
"Demarco, he needs to be a big-time player for us," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "This football team needs him to be a playmaker. And he's never been asked to be in that role, so it's a little bit different."
Robinson has never produced at the college level in that way, but Brown wouldn't be asking if he didn't believe Robinson could do it.
"He's a talented guy," Brown said. "He can run. He can stick his foot in the ground. He can get open. He understands the passing game."
For the rest of the receiving corps, understanding remains an obstacle.
In discussing the installation of Brown's fast-paced attack, the quarterbacks are the ones most often referred to as facing a significant learning curve. But as the weeks of spring practice wear on, it's becoming clear just how much is required of the wide outs.
In his post-practice comments, Stoops has singled out dropped passes as an issue among the wide receivers. As physical a problem as that may seem, its root is very much mental in the estimation of Mainord.
"A lot of it is head-spinning," Mainord said. "That's a lot of our guys. They're heads are spinning still. Maybe they're not grasping the offense as well; maybe they're not playing as fast as they need to play."
The coaches are doing everything they can on the practice field to address that, but they are very much limited by the NCAA rulebook. As much as Mainord and Brown would like to be on the practice field and in the film room with their players for hours on end, they are only allotted limited time. For that reason, it's on a young group of receivers that lacks a single senior to make up for that.
"You can't do it in the time we're allotted by the NCAA," Mainord said. "A lot of these guys gotta get in here and put some time into it on their own, get in there and study on their own on the computer. Everybody's a little bit independent, everybody's got different issues."
Mainord and Brown - who coached together at Texas Tech for the last three seasons - are giving their pupils the tools they need, starting with software that allows for detailed viewing of film of the Red Raider attack, one of the nation's most prolific over the last three years.
"They've got to be mature enough to get up there and do it," Mainord said. "They've got to get up there and do it on their own and say, 'Hey this is what I want to do and I want to be this great.' And some of them are doing that. Some of those guys are doing that; it just hasn't clicked yet. They'll get there."
In five starts last season, Daryl Collins showed flashes of the kind of skillset needed to excel in this new offense. He admits it hasn't been an easy transition, but now has an idea of the level of detail Brown is asking Collins and his teammates to grasp.
"Learning frontside and backside (routes) what you gotta do," Collins said. "You can't just know the frontside and on the backside because you'll mess up and you'll hear it from Coach Brown."
Along with DeMarcus Sweat, A.J. Legree and Rashad Cunningham, Collins is one of four sophomores looking to emerge in the new offense. The youth of the unit makes the growing pains understandable, but it hasn't diminished excitement over what they group will be able to do on opening day.
"We're very eager to get started," Collins said. "I can't wait for the first game to show out the new offense. They say it's the Air Raid, so that's pretty much what we're going to do: put the ball in the air."
True as that sentiment may be, it also ignores an aspect of Brown's offense that often goes unrecognized. Playing wide receiver at UK these days is about a lot more than running and catching and running some more.
"We ask them to block," Brown said. "We're asking these guys to be physical blockers. That's the thing that I was probably most proud of our guys last year at Texas Tech: Our wide outs, they punished people. If you watched us play or you talked to the people we played against, that's one of the first things they're going to talk about, how physical our receivers (were)."
According to Brown, UK's wide receivers and tight ends are "not even close" to where they need to be in terms of physical play. The coaches are demanding the Wildcats be much more willing to embrace the yeoman's work when it comes to blocking, and the same goes for pass catching.
"We need steady. ... We need guys to make routine plays," Brown said. "If they make a great one every once and awhile, that's fine, but I want guys that when the ball is thrown to them they catch it."
Audrey Harrison and her teammates will look to advance to the NCAA Championships with a top-two finish at the Morgantown regional. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After the Kentucky gymnastics team suffered a setback to its historical season with an eighth-place finish at the Southeastern Conference Championships, head coach Tim Garrison hasn't done very much coaching.
Yes, that sounds alarming. No, it's not as bad as it sounds. It, in all likelihood, is the best thing for UK gymnastics right now.
"I've done less coaching since that meet than I have at any point in the season prior to that, which is great," said Garrison of practice since SECs. "If I'm doing less coaching, that means they're doing more on their own. So I love that."
The Wildcats have responded, even if it's just in the practice gym. They've taken ownership of what happened in Little Rock, Ark., that day and have tried to get back to their old ways.
Confidence heading into the championships was at an all-time high for the Wildcat gymnasts, but the environment and the big stage may have been more of a factor than they had expected.
"I just think it just kind of fell apart a little bit," said junior Kayla Hartley. "I think nerves has a lot to do with is and going up on platform and not being used to it and not really knowing what to expect and how to adjust to being in that big of arena."
Kentucky wasn't sharp in warm-ups, and it showed in its first event. From there, it all kind of snowballed. A team that's been so used to getting off to solid starts for the majority of the season saw the opposite effect take place last weekend.
That led to Kentucky's second-lowest point total of the season as UK finished in eighth place with a 194.6, a surprising and disappointing performance.
"I was pretty surprised because we've been doing so awesome and going 196 four times in a row," said junior Audrey Harrison. "We were expecting to do it again, so it was surprising."
Kentucky would have loved to put up a huge score at SECs heading into the regional selections. It would have boosted its regional qualifying score as well as given Kentucky a full head of steam heading into NCAAs. Though the Wildcats couldn't accomplish those goals, there is still one big goal out there, one that they've had their sights set on from the beginning of the season: Nationals.
Kentucky was selected as the No. 4 seed for the Morgantown, W. Va., regional which is set for 6 p.m. ET Saturday on the campus of West Virginia. They will join top-seeded Michigan, No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Illinois, No. 5 West Virginia, and No. 6 North Carolina.
Saturday evening, Kentucky looks to be one of the top two teams in the regional advancing to Los Angeles, Calif., for the NCAA Championships, even if no one else does.
"We're not expected to make it. Other people aren't expecting us to make it," Garrison said. "But we're expecting to be the spoiler. That's what we're trying to do. That's kind of where we are."
The regional provides another chance, and UK's last chance, to prove to everyone how far this team has come. But the Wildcats have to get back to being themselves in order for that to take place.
"I feel like there is a chip on our shoulder," said Hartley. "We just really want to go out there. SECs was a mess-up. This is our do-over and this is what we're going to do, and we're just going to do what we do. We're not going to put on any extra pressure on ourselves because of that chip. We're just going to do what we do."
Garrison has noticed the chip as well.
"I think they have a bad taste in their mouth," said Garrison. "I feel like we went into SECs and they did not even close to what they are capable of or what they expected to do. They came out of it fired up and ready to go and I've noticed it in practice."
Harrison believes her team just had a really tough day at the championships. Hartley thought the environment and format of the event may have played a role. Garrison felt the slow start derailed the Wildcats for the rest of the day.
Whatever the cause, there's much to be learned from that experience going forward.
Garrison wasted no time in trying to figure out what happened that night, so he cancelled the team's dinner reservations, had the food ordered to go and held an impromptu team meeting in his hotel room. Just as shaken as the athletes were, Garrison asked the team what had happened.
"I just threw it to them and said, 'You guys tell me what happened. It was just as strange for me as it was for you. What happened?' " said Garrison. "There were a lot of good things that came out of it. One, they were upset. Not pouty upset, but mad upset, which is great. The leaders were especially upset.
"I think some good things came out of it. I don't want to dwell on this, but I don't want to forget about it either. If you want to use it as fire, great. If you want to use it as motivation, fine, that's awesome."
However the Cats have used the experience from the SECs, it appears to at least be working in practice, which is essential as UK looks to make one final run at nationals. But unlike the SECs, the Wildcats are looking to get back to who they are, not where or who they are doing it against.
"It means a lot because we all really want to make nationals really bad," said Harrison. "It does mean a lot to us, but I think we've just got to stay calm and confident going into it. Maybe not build it up as the most important thing, but just do what we do in practice and then we'll do great."
Believe it or not, Kentucky is coming down the home stretch of spring football. After the 10th practice of the Mark Stoops era on Friday, UK has just one scrimmage on Saturday and three practices next week before the spring game on April 13.
After a good Friday practice that featured plenty of situational work - including third downs and red zone - Stoops spoke for the first time on the format for the spring game. Plans are by no means finalized, but Stoops says he does expect to split the Wildcats up into teams and have a true scrimmage to encourage competitiveness.
"You know, you want to put on a good performance," Stoops said. "You want to look good for our fans and all of the excitement out there. So you want to make sure you go out there and execute."
As for Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow - the three quarterbacks competing to start - they will split reps equally as they have throughout the spring and play for both teams. The first one to see the field will likely be determined by a coin flip.
All that, however, is subject to change, as full details will be announced later.
In the meantime, here are videos of Stoops and offense coordinator Neal Brown's post-practice comments on Friday.
In what has become an annual tradition, the University of Kentucky Track and Field Shoe Drive began earlier this week and will last until May 10.
Former UK track student-athlete Josh Nadzam and seniors Luis Orta and Hiruni Wijayaratne are leading the way for the drive, which will benefit Soles4Souls. a Nashville, Tenn.-based not-for-profit organization that distributes shoes to more than 100 countries.
This is the drive's third year. It began at UK, but has since expanded throughout the Southeastern Conference. Last year, nearly 3,000 shoes were collected at UK alone and more than 13,000 among all SEC schools. Here's more from UKNow:
"This all started from an epiphany that Luis and I had when he realized we were wastefully discarding wearable shoes in the trash," Nadzam said. "As distance runners, we have to replace our shoes every 400-500 miles; we run anywhere from 60-80 miles a week so you can see this adds up quickly. Luis came to me with the idea that instead of throwing the shoes away what if we collected them and sent them to countries with citizens who have never owned a pair of shoes."
Nadzam, Orta, and Wijayaratne collected shoes in a somewhat haphazard fashion that first year, spreading the word through Facebook, Twitter, email, and any other form of communication they could think of. The trio partnered with Soles4Souls, a nonprofit organization in Nashville that collects shoes and ships them to over 126 different countries.
Those wishing to donate can bring new and used shoes to on-campus collection sites at the Johnson Recreation Center, the Center for Academic and Tutorial Services (CATS, located in Memorial Coliseum), Shively Training Center (next to Cliff Hagan Baseball Stadium) and the Patterson Office Tower on the sixth floor. There is also an off-campus collection site at the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) located at 200 East Main Street.
Matthew Mitchell looks on as his team falls to Connecticut in the Elite Eight Monday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Wildcats have been on a meteoric rise through the women's basketball ranks over the last four seasons, but they haven't yet reached the top tier of elite teams. For the second consecutive season, Kentucky's season came to a halt at the hands of one of those elite squads in the Elite Eight: Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies.
For the second straight season UK has been unable to get over a pretty sizable hump.
Kentucky has made no secret to the public about its desire to win Southeastern Conference championships and reach Final Fours. After UK took care of an SEC title in 2012, the main focus shifted to making a larger splash on the national scene.
This season, the Final Four was a goal, if not the primary goal, from the outset. Players spoke openly about their desire to reach New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four, much like the men's team exactly a year ago. After Monday night's loss, UK has now reached three Elite Eights in the last four years, but has zero Final Four appearances to show for it.
Monday's loss prompted the question as to whether or not Mitchell believed that his program would ever be able to get over that hump. His response was emphatic.
"I think if anybody starts to think this is not going to happen, they will not be inside our program," said Mitchell. "Because it is going to happen."
If Kentucky continues reaching Elite Eights, Mitchell is right; it is bound to happen. It's only a matter of time.
For comparison's sake, it took Auriemma six seasons at Connecticut to reach his first Final Four, but he had never reached an Elite Eight prior to the 1990-91 Final Four season. Mitchell already has three Elite Eight appearances to his name in his six seasons at Kentucky.
Still, Kentucky seeks to reach its first Final Four in program history. Mitchell knows that he's developed a devoted fan base, one that longs to see him reach his goals. He also knows those fans are just as disappointed as they are for not having realized them this season.
That won't keep UK from taking another swing at it next year and for many years to come.
"I don't think we're going to get discouraged," Mitchell said. "Maybe people outside the program to see a result like tonight (will be). ... I know our fans wanted us to perform better. I know our players did, too."
Kentucky is at the doorstep and knocking. Just a few years ago, not long before Mitchell got to Kentucky, such a thought seemed impossible. The women's program was merely a middle-of-the-road SEC squad with little chance of ever chasing down a program like Tennessee. Today, the Wildcats are reaching the SEC Tournament final, competing for and winning regular-season crowns and making waves in the national landscape of the sport.
This program has come a long way. The program still has a long way to go.
Much is still left to be achieved, and Mitchell plans on seeing that through.
Thanks to the efforts of a player like A'dia Mathies - to this date, Mitchell's greatest recruit at Kentucky - the UK program has been able to flourish to the point that it's not a surprise when the Wildcats sign a player of Mathies' caliber.
Kentucky has a couple of top-notch recruits joining them next season to help reload the roster when Mathies and fellow senior Brittany Henderson depart from the program. It won't be easy to fill that void, but a greater influx of talent year after year shouldn't put the Wildcats too far off from contending for more SEC titles and that elusive Final Four.
It didn't happen last year. It didn't happen this year. It may not happen next year. But Kentucky won't stop trying. The Cats have come too far to be disappointed with their results. Is there disappointment? Sure. A losing coach and team should be disappointed after a loss if they are truly competitors. However, this is much more to be proud of than not.
So while the question remains, "when will Kentucky reach the Final Four?" The answer isn't a matter of if, but when.
Mark Stoops has never been quite sure of what to expect at spring practice. There are times his team looks good and times it's clear just how work he and his staff have ahead of them. There are times when the defense has its way and others when the offense is more effective.
The one thing he has come to expect, however, is a general upward trend with the spring game just a week and a half away.
"I don't know if there's anything that just jumps out at me, but just seeing better plays," Stoops said. "We're not interested in one side winning the drill because the other side is totally inept. You're seeing some good football, more good football now on both sides."
After Wednesday's practice was encouraged as Stoops has sounded since practice began. He's always found more positives than negatives, but that balance is shifting more and more in the right direction.
It was another indoor practice - UK's seventh in nine sessions this spring. With temperatures climbing into the 50s in the afternoon, Stoops fielded questions about why the Wildcats worked indoors once again.
"The field's real cold in the morning," Stoops said. "We can't go in there when they're frosted. So by the time we get out and start our walkthroughs, get it going, the fields are still frozen."
It's not that it presents a problem - because Stoops has said repeatedly that UK gets done what it needs to in the Nutter Field House - but cold morning temperatures are another reason why Stoops will move fall practices to the afternoon. The primary reason is so that players will have ample time to rest.
"I think we can all act like they're going to go to bed at 9 or 10 o'clock like we need them to," Stoops said, "but to get them up very early in the morning all season long on that grind, when you're going every single day for a whole season, I don't know how much sleep they're getting."
But for the remainder of the spring, the Cats will stick to the morning. For the latest on UK's such practice, check out video interviews with Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot below.
True freshman Kyle Cody allowed just two earned runs in 6.1 innings in UK's 5-4 win at Louisville on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky., -- For the first time since at least 2002, archrivals Kentucky and Louisville were set to meet as top-10 teams. Based on the environment at Jim Patterson Stadium, the matchup would be a big one.
But as fans of UK baseball know, the priority is Southeastern Conference play. The priority is the weekend. For that reason, Wildcat aces A.J. Reed, Jerad Grundy and Cory Littrell rested their arms and Gary Henderson turned to Kyle Cody.
It was a stage the likes of which Cody - a native of Chippewa Falls, Wis. - has never seen, let alone played on.
"This is the most people I've ever pitched in front of before," Cody said. "Coming from a small town, I've never been to a stadium this big before."
Based on the way he performed, Cody will be looking forward to another such chance.
He didn't factor in the decision, but the result would have been much different if not for Cody's quality start. Had he not stepped up with the UK pitching staff depleted by injury and illness, the No. 7 Cats (22-6) don't get anywhere close to posting a 5-4 extra-inning win over No. 9 Louisville (22-6) after Kyle Barrett's sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th to score J.T. Riddle against hard-throwing U of L closer Nick Burdi.
"I'm really proud of our kids," Henderson said. "I thought we brought it all night. I thought it was a really well-competed game on both sides. A lot of good pitching. Tough to get a hit tonight."
Cody figured prominently into that.
He had flashed his potential in his first seven outings - with his fastball sitting in the mid-90s and an impressive curve - but he had also had his share of freshman moments. Maybe all he needed was a taste of the battle of the Bluegrass.
Whatever the case, Cody grew up on Tuesday night, though there was a moment when it appeared the opposite might happen. Louisville scored an unearned run in the first when Zac Zellers misplayed a ball in left field and it all nearly fell apart two innings later.
Cody hit back-to-back batters to begin the third, then had back-to-back balks to score a run and move a runner to third with no outs. After a sacrifice fly by Ty Young, Louisville had a 3-2 lead.
"An absolute disaster there at the beginning of the third inning and we just flat out handed them two runs," Henderson said. "I was really interested in keeping him in the game at the point. I wanted to get him through that."
In response, Cody turned in his best extended stretch of his young career. He allowed just three base runners over his final 3.1 innings to finish with a line of 6.1 innings pitched - the longest outing of his career - and three runs (two earned), four hits and one walk allowed.
"I had to calm myself down before the game," Cody said. "The main thing when I was on the mound: I had to breathe. That was the biggest thing. When you start getting base runners on, you just gotta breathe and relax and throw the ball where you want it."
Cody didn't find out until the night before the game he would be making the start. Henderson didn't spend much time talking to his freshman starter about what to expect and Cody took his coach's cue. He didn't treat Tuesday night like anything more than a regular start.
"I just took it one stage at a time," Cody said. "I tried to get good rest. Coming up to the game, I tried not to think about it too much and then I just tried to do my normal routine before every start."
Cody's ultimate aim is to pitch his way into a role in the postseason and Henderson has been trying to develop trust in his young arms. But after a step forward on Tuesday, Cody and Henderson have a start on April 16 at Cliff Hagan Stadium against these same Cardinals on their minds.
"This is my first time playing these guys, but it was a lot of fun," Cody said. "I've never had such a strong rivalry between two teams. I like the competition. It was a lot of fun. It was good to get a win."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, March 31:
Basbeall: Kyle Barrett
Outfielder Kyle Barrett helped lead the Wildcats to a series win over Georgia and a midweek win over Marshall ... Batted .429 (6-for-14) during the four-game stretch, stealing his third base of the year ... The Douglasville, Ga., native leads the team with his .364 average, owning three doubles and a .444 on-base percentage.
Baseball: Austin Cousino
Notes: Austin Cousino had a dynamic week in leading Kentucky to a 3-1 mark and a series win over Georgia, its third straight SEC series win to open the year ... The sophomore hit .500 (7-for-14) during the four-game week, with four doubles, a triple, four RBI and five walks, sporting a .929 slugging and a .632 on-base percentage ... Reached base safely in 12 of 19 trips to the plate during the week ... In the series-deciding win vs. Georgia on Sunday, went 3-for-4, finishing a homer shy of hitting for the cycle ... Became the first UK player to lead off the first inning with a triple since Antone DeJesus tripled to lead off the 2007 season lidlifter at Furman ... Started the week with a double and a walk during a midweek win over Marshall ... Opened the series vs. Georgia with a 2-for-3 game, reaching base in four of five trips to the plate with a pair of walks and a two-RBI double ... Saturday vs. Georgia, doubled in a run in the eighth inning, drawing two walks ... Was 6-for-10 in the series with Georgia, with four of his hits going for extra bases and drawing four walks ... In 2013, has hit .315 with eight doubles, one triple, four homers and 20 RBI, stealing eight bases.
Baseball: Corey Littrell
Corey Littrell twirled one of his best career starts in a win over Georgia on Sunday, tossing seven shutout innings with a career high 12 strikeouts ... Allowed only three singles and two walks ... Win marked the fourth of the season for Littrell and the 19th of his three-year career, moving him into sole possession of ninth place in UK career history ... Littrell's series-deciding win marked his 11th rubber-match start in the last two years, with the southpaw leading UK to wins in each game ... Has an 8-0 record and a 1.68 ERA in those 11 starts in 2012-13 rubber-match games ... On the year, Littrell has a 4-0 record and a 2.17 ERA, tossing 45.2 innings and striking out a team-high 47 ... Littrell ranks fourth in the SEC in strikeouts, 13th in ERA, fourth in innings pitched and ninth in wins ... In SEC games, Littrell leads the league with 23 strikeouts, with a 0.82 ERA in his three starts.
Vince Marrow is in his first season coaching tight ends at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Vince Marrow arrived at Kentucky to coach tight ends, he wasn't sure what to expect.
He knew the position he was taking over had multiple veterans with playing experience, but how they would fit in with the new offensive scheme being installed by Mark Stoops and Neal Brown remained to be seen.
Eight practices into the spring, much of that mystery is gone.
"The surprise to me is Jordan Aumiller," Marrow said. "He looks like a guy that you can really line up with and do some things with. He's a big 6(-foot-)5, 6-6 guy that can run with soft hands."
After seeing his playing time dwindle since an impressive freshman season, Aumiller - a senior - began the spring playing on the third string. Now, he's played his way onto the first string.
And Aumiller isn't the only one who has impressed.
"(Aumiller) and Tyler Robinson (who has dropped 15 pounds this offseason) were supposed to just be blockers," Marrow said. "Those guys have established themselves as some good pass-receiving tight ends."
UK's tight ends combined for just 18 catches for 165 yards last season, but the arrival of a new offense meant that production was likely to increase significantly. After all, Texas Tech's top tight end in 2012 - Jace Amaro - caught 25 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns in just seven games. However, it's not as if UK's tight ends will be completely eschewing their roles in the running game.
"I evaluate my guys like I was coaching pro guys," Marrow said. "I want a guy that can do both. You want to start off making him a blocker, but in this offense you want a guy who can catch."
The need for UK's tight ends to be threats in the passing lane has only grown this spring as it's become clear just how much work the wide receivers have ahead of them. For that reason and the nature of Brown's offense, a few players listed as tight ends are playing hybrid roles in practice. Returning junior Ronnie Shields and junior-college transfer Steven Borden have the size and versatility needed to create matchup problems no matter where they line up. Senior Anthony Kendrick could do the same when he returns from injury.
"Ronnie Shields has done a good job," Brown said. "We are playing him a little more standing up. Steven Borden has done a nice job. He has a good skillset that will match well with what we want to do."
Borden was the first player of the Stoops era to commit to UK, so it makes sense that he fits so well in Brown's system. The Waxahachie, Texas native has played anywhere from tight end to the slot to fullback, but the two seasons he spent at Kilgore College helped him prepare for that.
"At my last junior college, I moved around a bunch too," Borden said. "So I knew in this offense the tight end and slot receivers can be similar sometimes. I knew coming in there was a chance I was going to be flopping around a little bit. I didn't know I was going to be in at fullback."
Considering he's only just learning a brand new offense, moving around so much has put a lot on Borden's plate this spring. He doesn't mind.
"I like it," Borden said. "I like being challenged."
Borden hasn't even played a Division I down yet, but he might already be the most high-profile tight end on UK's roster. His visit to campus and eventual commitment generated interest among fans because of his father and namesake, Steve Borden. Borden is better known as his professional wrestling persona - Sting.
"I always tell people he's been a wrestler since I was born, so I don't know anything different," Borden said. "To me, I feel like I had a fairly normal childhood. He came and watched me play football and went to school, did things that pretty much every other kid does. I don't know anything different."
For many offspring in the wrestling community, it becomes a family business, but not for the UK tight end. Borden has always been encouraged to make his own name.
"For me, I want to do my own thing," Borden said. "I'm proud of my dad and I think he supports me in what I do."
What Borden is doing now is going to school and competing for playing time at tight end. Along with quarterback, Brown said the position was the most crowded on the offense. The good news, however, is that there's nothing in the rulebook that says only one can play at a time.
"We are going to figure out - and I am in the process and it might take until we get into fall camp a week or two in - but we have to figure out who we are, who are our best 11 and then who are next best skill guys are," Brown said. "It is a work in progress. Right now, I would say, you may see one or more of those guys on the field a lot."
A'dia Mathies finishes her career with 2,014 points, second most in school history. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky women's basketball will never be the same. It may get better, or it might get worse, but Matthew Mitchell's UK team will never again have A'dia Mathies.
The No. 2 seeded Wildcats fell to the top-seeded Connecticut Huskies in the Elite Eight Monday night, 83-53, in a game that never really went as planned.
It certainly wasn't the way that Matthew Mitchell hoped to see his senior and the two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year walk off the court for the final time.
"I just hate we performed the way we did tonight and sent her out this way," said Mitchell of Mathies. "I have to make sure that the contribution that she made and the tremendous impact she made doesn't get lost on a real tough 40 minutes for us."
The contributions are countless.
Mathies was the 2013 AP SEC Player of the Year and Co-Player of the Year as voted by the coaches as the first player to earn the honor in back-to-back seasons in the conference since 2006. She is the first UK basketball player (men or women) to accumulate 2,000 points, 600 rebounds, 300 steals and 300 assists in a career. She is the program's all-time leader in steals with 317. She ranks in the top 10 on 13 different UK career lists.
Her arrival at Kentucky marked the beginning of a monumental turnaround of the program. After being picked last in the SEC before her freshman season, the Wildcats have gone 111-30 (.730), including a 64-3 mark at home, during her time wearing UK blue. She helped lead the Wildcats to their first SEC regular-season championships in 30 years, advanced to the Wildcats to a school-record four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and along with fellow senior Brittany Henderson is part of the winningest class in program history.
Those are just the highlights. The list goes on much longer.
To make a long story short, Kentucky is not the Kentucky of today without her.
"Just for Kentucky women's basketball, we have an opportunity to be disappointed on a night like tonight," said Mitchell of Mathies. "Not too very long ago we wouldn't even have had a chance to be in a game like this. The disappointment is great and we're really, really upset to have played this way and to have been beaten this way, but A'dia's been a major factor in the resurgence of our program, so we're grateful to her."
Mitchell's gratitude to Mathies can probably never properly be fully expressed.
Since Mathies came to Kentucky, Mitchell has seen his program rise to national prominence as UK reached three Elite Eights in Mathies' four years. During that time, Mitchell has received a contract extension that has brought great financial security to him and his family and great support to his program.
Mathies has deeply affected Mitchell's life and his program for years to come.
"Being able to coach her clearly changed my wife Jenna's and my life," said Mitchell. "We've been real successful at Kentucky from the standpoint of having some stability and having a chance coach there, and you only get to do that if you win games. A'dia's helped us win a bunch of games, so I'm grateful to her."
Mathies fought hard to fight back emotion, and as usual, being the tough competitor that she is, she was stone-faced after her last game as a Wildcat. Though the loss and the taste of defeat was fresh in her mind, she still was able to sense her pride in all that she's been able to accomplish while wearing the Blue and White.
She also knows that she helped change the program into a better place than when she first arrived.
"I feel like it's been a great turnaround," said Mathies. "I'm glad that I can leave here and look back that Kentucky is a national powerhouse now. You know, we've got McDonald's All-Americans coming in left and right and just great people who care about you. I'm just glad that I came here and I'm glad that I didn't go anywhere else."
Mathies didn't go down quietly in her final game, although she saw fewer minutes than she would have liked. Early foul trouble gave her fewer opportunities on the floor and limited her ability to be aggressive on the offensive end. Yet she rallied to finish with 14 points - 11 after halftime - to lead her team as she has done so many times throughout her career.
Now, Mathies looks forward to a career in the WNBA where she will likely be a first-round draft pick. Whatever she chooses to do for the rest of her life, Mitchell just wants her to be happy.
"I hope she has much success like my hope is for everyone," said Mitchell. "I hope she's very successful in whatever she chooses to do, and at some point all of these players will not be able to play basketball and it be very meaningful in their lives as far as how they are defined as basketball players. A lot of times, we look at these kids as what their value is as a player.
"I hope she has a very good career as long as she wants to play basketball, but I really hope she's benefited from her time at Kentucky. I hope she is able to have a really successful life in whatever she chooses to do."
The night was tough all the way around on Monday, and there wasn't much success to be found. Mitchell said the UConn whipped Kentucky in every way imaginable in the Elite Eight, and the score suggests that was true. He also said that he wouldn't let one loss define his program and that going forward the future is still bright, though the Cats will have to fill a major void.
"We will not be deterred because of one tough, tough game that we played tonight and didn't do well in," said Mitchell. "We will march forward and we have some good kids right now and we'll keep working at it and keep showing up. I believe at some point it will happen, or I don't need to be sitting up here if I don't."
But Mathies never will again.
She finishes her career with 2,014 points, giving her the second most in program history. She is just the second player in the history of the program to reach the 2,000-point plateau. But in terms of impact on Kentucky women's basketball and the team that she'll walk away from with her head held high, her contributions are second to none.
Collin Cowgill has been waiting a long time for his first full-time opportunity in the big leagues.
The former Kentucky All-American spent his first four professional seasons with Arizona, earning a spot on the Diamondbacks' postseason roster after a dominant season in Triple-A. The next year, he appeared poised to start after being traded to Oakland, but was squeezed out of a starting role by other offseason acquisitions.
Before 2013, he was acquired by the New York Mets, who named him their starter in center field early this spring. Leading off for the Mets on opening day, he did not disappoint.
In an 11-2 win, Cowgill had a pair of hits in five at-bats. The first was a fourth-inning double (he later scored) and the second was a grand slam to left that turned the Mets' game against the San Diego Padres into a laugher. Here's video of his third-career major-league home run.
More Cowgill!!! WOW!!!!!!! @ccowgill12 first career grand slam and second by a Met on Opening Day. Todd Hundley in '95 was the other.
Women's basketball - The Wildcats earned their second straight and third trip to the Elite Eight in the last four years after an impressive team effort over one of the nation's best players in senior Elena Delle Donne and the No. 15/16 Blue Hens. - Ten players scored at least two points, led by redshirt sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill with 19 points and senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies with 16 points and season-high tying nine rebounds. - The Wildcats have won a school-record 30 games and have advanced to the NCAA Tournament for a school-record fourth consecutive season. - For the second straight season, the second-seeded Wildcats will meet the top-seeded Huskies with a trip to the Final Four on the line. - Mathies charted her 2,000th-career point against the Blue Hens, becoming just the fifth men's or women's basketball player at Kentucky to reach the accomplishment.
Gymnastics - No. 19 UK earned a NCAA Gymnastics Championship bid last Monday. - The Wildcats will compete at the Morgantown, W.Va. regional on Saturday, April 6. - Kentucky is making its ninth consecutive and 25th overall NCAA Regional appearance. - UK will join top-seeded Michigan, No. 2-seed Nebraska, No. 3-seed Illinois, as well as host West Virginia and North Carolina seeded fifth and sixth respectively.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team posted a road win over Lipscomb last week before falling in a non-conference tilt to No. 5 Tennessee last Friday. The game against Tennessee did not count towards Southeastern Conference team standings. UK took down Lipscomb 8-1 before falling to UT 6-0. - UK got a strong performance offensively against Lipscomb. Griffin Joiner led Kentucky, going 2-for-3 with a solo home run and a RBI double. The homer was Joiner's team-leading eighth home run of the season. Ginny Carroll and Lauren Cumbess also had strong nights at the dish with Carroll posting a 3-for-4 night with two RBI and Cumbess blasting her fourth roundtripper of the season. Cumbess ended the game 2-for-4 with two RBI, while Christian Stokes also had two hits. - Ellen Weaver and Kelsey Nunley combined for a strong effort in the circle against Lipscomb. Weaver threw the first two innings of the game, allowing one unearned run on one hit with two strikeouts. Nunley came in to start the third inning, keeping the Bisons scoreless the rest of the game on just two hits with five strikeouts.
Baseball - Kentucky posted a midweek 8-2 win over Marshall, before opening the series with Georgia in a 10-inning thriller. UK got a rally in the bottom of the 10th inning that resulted in a two-out walk from Max Kuhn with the bases loaded to give UK a 3-2 win. - On Saturday, Georgia took a 7-3 lead before UK mounted a furious rally that fell short in a 7-6 loss. UK rebounded on Sunday in its third straight rubber-match win in 2013, 5-0, behind a dominating clutch performance from Corey Littrell. - During the four-game week, UK had a 2.19 ERA in its 37 innings, with Austin Cousino pacing the club with a .500 average (7-for-14), with four doubles, a triple and four RBI. - Freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett leads the team with a .364 average, owning three doubles and four RBI. Junior J.T. Riddle has a .359 mark with six doubles, one triple, one homer and 17 RBI, with a 14-4 walk-strikeout ratio and four steals. A.J. Reed has hit .340 with four doubles, two triples, six homers and 28 RBI, with Cousino batting .315 with eight doubles, one triple, four homers and 20 RBI, stealing four bases.
Men's tennis - Kentucky went 2-0 on the weekend, collecting wins in its final SEC home matches of the season over No. 31 Alabama (7-0) and No. 32 Auburn (4-1). - Senior Anthony Rossi became just the 15th player in Kentucky tennis history to collect 100-career wins as he won both of his weekend matches in straight sets. - Tom Jomby and Kevin Lai knocked off the fifth-ranked doubles team in the nation 8-6, on Sunday as the Wildcats improved to 18-6 overall, and 6-3 in SEC play. - UK welcomes No. 7 Ohio State to Lexington on Wednesday afternoon for another top-10 match at the Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center, the third top-10 showdown this season in Lexington.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team lost 6-1 at No. 8 Alabama on Friday and 4-0 on Sunday at No. 22 Auburn. - On Friday, 24th-ranked Nadia Ravita defeated No. 26 Mary Anne Macfarlane of Alabama in straight sets, 6-4, 7-5. - Kentucky will return home on Friday to host No. 19 Vanderbilt.
Swimming and diving - Kentucky junior diver Greg Ferrucci earned three top-five finishes at the 2013 NCAA Men's Swimming and Diving Championships last weekend, accounting for all 45 points scored by Kentucky to pace UK to a 22nd place finish. - Ferrucci earned career-best finishes at the NCAA in all three diving events, finishing fourth place on the 1-meter springboard (403.05), 3-meter springboard (423.15) and platform (418.30). - John Fox made his NCAA debut this weekend, finishing 22nd, 23rd and 27th in those same events respectively.
Men's golf - The UK men's golf team placed tied for 10th in the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate in Awendaw, S.C., shooting 44-over-par for the tournament. - Junior Stephen Powers led the way for the Wildcats, fining 2-over-par for the invitational and recording his highest finish of the year, tying for fifth. The top-10 finish marked the fourth of the year for the Naperville, Ill., native and the third of the spring. - Kentucky returns to the links April 8-9 at the Gary Koch Invitational in Tampa, Fla.
Track and field - Rebecca Famurewa set the UK freshman record with a mark of 53.22 meters/ 174 feet 7 inches to win the Texas Relays. Famurewa's mark was also fourth best in school history. - Hiruni Wijayaratne won the women's 1500 meters with a PR 4:34.94 at the Oliver Nikoloff Invitational. - Sean Keane won the Nikoloff 800 meters with a time of 1:51.52. - Michelle Canterna missed the school record pole vault by half an inch as she cleared 3.85 meters/ 12'07.50" to take fourth at the Nikoloff. - Kayla Parker's PR 110H time of 13.20 was good for fifth place at the Texas Relays, and was the second fastest time in UK history. - Keith Hayes claimed fifth in the 110H with a time of 13.66, which was also good for No 2 in the school record book. - Chelsea Oswald and Cally Macumber ran two of the four fastest 5,000-meter times in Kentucky history on Friday at the Stanford Invitational.
Monday, April 1 Women's basketball vs. Connecticut - 7:30 p.m. (Bridgeport, Connecticut)
Tuesday, April 2 Baseball at Louisville - 6:00 p.m.
Wednesday, April 3 Men's tennis hosts Ohio State - 2:00 p.m. Softball at Louisville - 6:00 p.m. Men's tennis hosts Murray State - 7:00 p.m. Friday, April 5 Track and field at Florida Relays - 10:00 a.m. (Gainesville, Fla.) Women's tennis hosts Vanderbilt - 12:00 p.m. Softball at South Carolina - 7:00 p.m. Baseball at LSU - 8:00 p.m. Track and field at Bellarmine Invitational (Louisville, Ky.) Women's golf at Rebel Intercollegiate (Oxford, Miss.) Saturday, April 6 Track and field at Florida Relays - 10:00 a.m. (Gainesville, Fla.) Track and field at Crimson Tide Invite - 11:30 a.m. (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) Men's tennis at Vanderbilt - 12:00 p.m. Softball at South Carolina - 4:00 p.m. Gymnastics at NCAA Regional - 6:00 p.m. (Morgantown, W. Va.) Baseball at LSU - 7:30 p.m. Volleyball at KIVA Collegiate Tournament (Louisville, Ky.) Track and field at Bellarmine Invitational (Louisville, Ky.) Women's golf at Rebel Intercollegiate (Oxford, Miss.)
Sunday, April 7 Softball at South Carolina - 1:00 p.m. Baseball at LSU - 2:00 p.m. Women's golf at Rebel Intercollegiate (Oxford, Miss.)
Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein will both return to UK next season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In 2012-13, Kentucky had arguable as little depth as any season during the John Calipari era, and there is no argument about the Wildcats of last year being his least experienced team to date. Those two areas created challenges all year.
It's already clear those two areas won't present nearly the same problems in 2013-14.
On Monday, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer announced they will return next season. Their decisions mean that Coach Cal will have two players who started games the previous year and played meaningful minutes all season, something he lacked as the Cats missed the NCAA Tournament just weeks ago.
"I'm excited that Willie and Kyle have decided to return for next season," Calipari said. "When we talk about a players-first program, our goal is for each player to reach his dreams. Willie and Kyle believe it is in their best interest to return to Kentucky next season to achieve those dreams, and I fully support their decisions."
Cauley-Stein impressed in his first season and was named to the All-Southeastern Conference freshman team after averaging 8.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and blocking 57 shots. He started 14 games, most of which came after a season-ending injury to frontcourt mate Nerlens Noel. Wiltjer was named SEC Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13, averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
In discussing their decisions, Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer expressed similar sentiments and a common theme was a desire to pursue a title.
"I'm looking forward to continuing to develop as an all-around player," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm also excited for the opportunity to try and win a national championship."
Wiltjer was a part of UK's championship team in 2011-12, averaging 5.0 points in 11.6 minutes of reserve duty, so he has an idea of the work it takes to win at the highest level. He also remembers the veteran presence provided by Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, who all played in the Final Four the previous season. Just like when UK won number eight, the nation's top-ranked recruiting class will join the team in the offseason.
"I'm so excited about the possibilities of next season," Wiltjer said. "I
love Coach Cal and the staff, the University of Kentucky and the Big
Blue Nation. After talking with Coach and the staff, I understand what I
need to do. I want to be a part of another championship. This summer
I'm going to work the hardest I've ever worked to come back next season
better and stronger to help my team fight for number nine."
With Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer, UK already returns 17.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 44.5 minutes per game (adjusted for the four games Cauley-Stein missed due to injury). Last season, UK returned just 5.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 15.0 minutes per game.
Not returning next year will be freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who opted to enter the NBA Draft. He has not yet hired an agent.
"This is something I've dreamed about my entire life and I feel like the opportunity is there for me to play at the next level," Goodwin said. "I will stay in Lexington to finish my schoolwork this semester before continuing to pursue my dream. I've loved my time at UK and want to thank Coach Cal, the staff and my teammates for helping me get where I am. I especially want to thank the Big Blue Nation for all their support."
Excluded from Monday's announcement were Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson. According to a release from UK, additional announcements about remaining players will be made at a later date.
Overall Record: 21-6, 6-3 SEC Record Last Week: 3-1, 2-1 SEC
Recent Results Wednesday, March 27 - defeated Marshall, 8-2 Friday, March 29 - defeated Georgia, 4-3 (10 innings) Saturday, March 30 - lost vs. Georgia, 6-7 Sunday, March 31 - defeated Georgia, 5-0
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Tuesday, April 2 - at No. 10 Louisville - 6 p.m. Friday, April 5 - at No. 2 LSU - 8 p.m. Saturday, April 6 - at No. 2 LSU - 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 7 - at No. 2 LSU - 2 p.m. Player of the week nominee Austin Cousino 5-10 - So. - CF - Dublin, Ohio (Dublin Coffman) Week Stats: .500 (7-for-14), 4 2B, 3B, 4 RBI, 5 BB, 2 SO, .929 SLG%, .632 OB%
Notes: Austin Cousino had a dynamic week in leading Kentucky to a 3-1 mark and a series win over Georgia, its third straight SEC series win to open the year ... The sophomore hit .500 (7-for-14) during the four-game week, with four doubles, a triple, four RBI and five walks, sporting a .929 slugging and a .632 on-base percentage ... Reached base safely in 12 of 19 trips to the plate during the week ... In the series-deciding win vs. Georgia on Sunday, went 3-for-4, finishing a homer shy of hitting for the cycle ... Became the first UK player to lead off the first inning with a triple since Antone DeJesus tripled to lead off the 2007 season lidlifter at Furman ... Started the week with a double and a walk during a midweek win over Marshall ... Opened the series vs. Georgia with a 2-for-3 game, reaching base in four of five trips to the plate with a pair of walks and a two-RBI double ... Saturday vs. Georgia, doubled in a run in the eighth inning, drawing two walks ... Was 6-for-10 in the series with Georgia, with four of his hits going for extra bases and drawing four walks ... In 2013, has hit .315 with eight doubles, one triple, four homers and 20 RBI, stealing eight bases. Pitcher of the week nominee Corey Littrell 6-3 - Jr. - LHP - Louisville, Ky. (Trinity) Week Stats: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 SO, .120 opp. avg.
Notes: Corey Littrell twirled one of his best career starts in a win over Georgia on Sunday, tossing seven shutout innings with a career high 12 strikeouts ... Allowed only three singles and two walks ... Win marked the fourth of the season for Littrell and the 19th of his three-year career, moving him into sole possession of ninth place in UK career history ... Littrell's series-deciding win marked his 11th rubber-match start in the last two years, with the southpaw leading UK to wins in each game ... Has an 8-0 record and a 1.68 ERA in those 11 starts in 2012-13 rubber-match games ... On the year, Littrell has a 4-0 record and a 2.17 ERA, tossing 45.2 innings and striking out a team-high 47 ... Littrell ranks fourth in the SEC in strikeouts, 13th in ERA, fourth in innings pitched and ninth in wins ... In SEC games, Littrell leads the league with 23 strikeouts, with a 0.82 ERA in his three starts.
Freshman of the week nominee Kyle Barrett 5-11 - Fr. - OF - Douglasville, Ga. (Chapel Hill) Week Stats: .429 (6-for-14), .467 OB%, SB
Notes: Outfielder Kyle Barrett helped lead the Wildcats to a series win over Georgia and a midweek win over Marshall ... Batted .429 (6-for-14) during the four-game stretch, stealing his third base of the year ... The Douglasville, Ga., native leads the team with his .364 average, owning three doubles and a .444 on-base percentage.
Team notes Eighth-ranked Kentucky completed a four-game week with a series win over Georgia, UK's third consecutive series victory to open league action. UK will travel to No. 10 Louisville on Tuesday for a 6 p.m. ET first pitch at Jim Patterson Stadium, before traveling to defending Southeastern Conference champion, No. 2 LSU for a three-game series at Alex Box Stadium.
Kentucky (21-6, 6-3 SEC) posted a midweek 8-2 win over Marshall, before opening the series with Georgia in a 10-game thriller. UK got a rally in the bottom of the 10th inning that resulted in a two-out walk from Max Kuhn with the bases loaded to give UK a 3-2 win. On Saturday, Georgia took a 7-3 lead before UK mounted a furious rally that fell short in a 7-6 loss. UK rebounded on Sunday in its third straight rubber-match win in 2013, 5-0, behind a dominating clutch performance from Corey Littrell.
During the four-game week, UK had a 2.19 ERA in its 37 innings, with Austin Cousino pacing the club with a .500 average (7-for-14), with four doubles, a triple and four RBI.
The Wildcats have hit .292 as a team in 27 games, with a .411 slugging and a .401 on-base percentage, stealing 37 bases. On the mound, UK has a 2.49 ERA in 242 innings, walking only 66 and striking out 208.
Freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett leads the team with a .364 average, owning three doubles and four RBI. Junior J.T. Riddle has a .359 mark with six doubles, one triple, one homer and 17 RBI, with a 14-4 walk-strikeout ratio and four steals. A.J. Reed has hit .340 with four doubles, two triples, six homers and 28 RBI, with Cousino batting .315 with eight doubles, one triple, four homers and 20 RBI, stealing four bases. Catcher Micheal Thomas has hit .315 with two homers and 18 RBI, with third baseman Max Kuhn owning a .273 average with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 20 RBI, including a 24-16 walk-strikeout ratio.
UK's all-lefty rotation of Reed (2-3, 2.57 ERA), Jerad Grundy (5-2, 2.15 ERA), and Littrell (4-0, 2.17 ERA) have been dynamic on the weekends. In the bullpen, Trevor Gott (3-0, 1.20 ERA) has seven saves in eight chances, striking out 19 and walking only three in 15 innings. Senior Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.60 ERA) has appeared in 13 games and tossed 15 innings. Zach Strecker (1-0, 1.12 ERA), Ryne Combs (0-0, 1.23 ERA), Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 1.23 ERA), Chandler Shepherd (1-0, 4.07 ERA) and Kyle Cody (2-1, 6.48 ERA) have each appeared in at least seven games.