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UK Athletics celebrates year, looks to future at CATSPYs

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Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart addresses student-athletes, coaches and staff at the 2013 CATSPY Awards. (Chet White, UK Athletics) 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.

VIDEO FEATURES FROM THE CATSPY AWARDS

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).

COMPLETE LIST OF CATSPY WINNERS

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."

The goal, now, is to be the best.

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