Kentucky football fans should keep a close watch on their mailboxes this August.
Season tickets for the 2013 season will be distributed in new "All-In Books." Also included in the books will be parking passes (if purchased) and information about game day at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Our goal was to condense everything season ticket holders need to know about coming to Commonwealth into one packet," said Joe Sharpe, UK's Associate Athletics Director for Tickets. "From tickets to parking passes to information about traffic and game day activities, it's all here."
The book's cover says "2013 University of Kentucky Season Tickets" (see above) and will come in spiral-bound books. Tickets and parking passes (if purchased) are located in the back of the book. All tickets are individually marked with barcodes and security foils that protect the holder's investment.
"The All-In Books are the result of a collaborative effort between the ticket office, K Fund, event management and marketing," Sharpe said. "I'd like to thank everyone involved for their work."
In addition, season tickets have been designed so that they can be kept as a commemorative piece at the conclusion of the season. Each ticket book can be arranged horizontally to form the artwork below.
Suite tickets will also be distributed in an All-In Book. Tickets will be larger and will feature menu options.
The All-In Books are expected to be shipped in mid-August. All season ticket holders who place their orders by July 14 will receive them, so make sure to buy your tickets before then if you haven't already.
After being picked in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Corey Peters has played his way into a regular role with the Falcons. The former standout defensive tackle at Kentucky has started all but three games in which he has played over the last three seasons and he's made just as big of an impact in the community.
Peters was nominated for the Wuerffel Trophy in 2009 in part due to his service. As a professional, he has continued the work he began at UK:
Peters said that his willingness to help others was strongly encouraged at UK. "Coach Rich Brooks really did a good job in providing us opportunities to get out visiting children's hospitals, going to schools, reading to kids, talking to high schoolers. For me, as an education major, that was something that I was really interested in, said Peters."
Since arriving in Atlanta, he's worked with the Atlanta Fire Department, with breast cancer survivors during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. However, his "soft spot" is working with kids.
"One of my big partnerships is with the Rally Foundation which is a childhood cancer research group. Their goal is to raise money to help childhood cancer. Childhood cancer is a completely different thing than adult cancer," Peters said. " And I'm still in the schools, I visit a lot of schools."
As did Kentucky, the Falcons encourage community, too. "Mr. (Arthur) Blank makes it a point to get everybody involved in the community. We have days where everybody in the organization from players, coaches, people from the front office, are all out in the community doing something, building houses, whatever that might be. I think that's incredibly important this organization just doesn't talk about it, they put a huge emphasis on getting out and improving the community," Peters said.
Frank Vogel, second from the left in the top row, was a student manager on the 1996 national championship UK men's basketball team. Vogel is now the head coach of the Indiana Pacers (UK Athletics)
The story below about former UK men's basketball student manager and current Indiana Pacers head Frank Vogel was originally published in July 2011 as part of Cat Scratches' "Where are they now" series. With Vogel coaching in the Eastern Conference finals this week (game four vs. the Miami Heat is at 8:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, we are republishing it.
Seventeen years ago, Frank Vogel was just a student at Juniata College in Pennsylvania playing Division III basketball. He knew that he wanted a future in the game as a coach, but he didn't know how he was going to get there.
Today, Vogel is the head coach of the NBA's Indiana Pacers. Fresh off of leading the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after taking over on an interim basis, Vogel earned the job on a permanent basis on July 6.
In between came a transfer to the University of Kentucky, where Vogel became a student manager and eventually a member of the junior varsity team, then a steady rise up the coaching ranks in the NBA. With memories of himself as a college student trying to figure out how to break into the coaching business still in his mind, Vogel can hardly believe where his career has taken him.
He knows, though, that it didn't happen by accident.
"It's completely surreal," Vogel said. "Since I've been in the NBA, I've had my sights set on this type of opportunity, but I was playing Division III basketball and hoping for a chance to be a student manager. I certainly never imagined reaching the NBA. If you work your tail off, focus on the task at hand and are good at what you do, pretty good things can happen."
Vogel's ascent up the coaching ladder was made possible by a series of opportunities. By approaching each of them with a willingness to work, a desire to learn and talent, Vogel has made the very best out of each of the opportunities he has been presented.
The first of them came in Lexington.
A native of Wildwood, N.J., and a lifelong basketball junkie, Vogel earned a spot on the basketball team at Juniata after high school. He never posted big numbers, but he was team captain during his junior year. Vogel enjoyed playing at Juniata but had his eyes on the future.
Vogel wanted to coach.
Since high school, Vogel had been watching the renaissance of Kentucky basketball from afar. He watched as Rick Pitino took over the program and guided the legendary "Unforgettables" to an Elite Eight berth in 1992. In terms of places to learn the coaching trade, Vogel saw none better than Lexington and no better coach to learn from than Pitino.
"He was the reason why I transferred to Kentucky to pursue this dream," Vogel said. "What he did with Richie Farmer, (John) Pelphrey and those guys (was amazing). I still remember watching one of the videos or something that they did after he had been there a couple years and it showed his initial press conference. (I remember seeing) the power of his message, his positive energy and his hard work."
Vogel took to writing Pitino and UK, but he didn't make much headway. It was then that Vogel met Pitino at a camp back home in New Jersey. Vogel didn't approach Pitino asking for an opportunity; he came explaining why he could be an asset to Kentucky basketball.
"I didn't beg for an opportunity for me," Vogel said. "I tried to show them that I am of value to them; that I can help them; that I have a good basketball mind; that I am a good person, a basketball junkie and a purist; I want to work; and I'm not looking for anything but the opportunity to learn."
Vogel firmly believed that a hungry aspiring coach like himself would be of value to a coaching staff with a reputation for outworking everyone else.
"Whatever they're doing in the film room and as hard as they work, I just knew they could use somebody behind the scenes that was going to burn the midnight oil and help them," Vogel said. "Any coach like those guys that works as hard as they do, they appreciate the value of somebody that can do that. I just tried to tell them, 'I'm an undergrad student, but every minute I spend outside the classroom I'll be with you guys helping and I won't ask for anything other than the chance to learn.' I just tried to present it that way."
Vogel's approach worked. UK took him on as a student manager and he enrolled for the 1994-95 school year. He immediately recognized that the decision he made would pay dividends.
During the 1990s, Lexington was a veritable breeding ground for coaches and Vogel got to be a part of that. On the staff when Vogel came to UK was Jim O'Brien, the coach that Vogel replaced with the Pacers, and the current head coach of Mid-Continent University, Winston Bennett. Vogel also got to work alongside Bill Keightley, the long-time equipment manager at UK affectionately known as "Mr. Wildcat".
"I'm so grateful that Mr. Bill Keightley gave me the opportunity and Coach O'Brien and Coach Pitino," Vogel said. "I was very fortunate to be a part of it."
That first year at UK was an amazing experience, but his second would present yet another opportunity. With an exceptionally deep roster and talented players that would likely not see the floor in 1995-96, Pitino decided to revive the junior varsity program at UK. Vogel was asked to be part of the team.
Not only did he get to suit up for games with players like Nazr Mohammed and Cameron Mills, but he also went through all the same drills, conditioning and preseason skill work as the varsity players did. Vogel believes that season is still paying dividends.
"It was awesome," Vogel said. "I always felt like you could only learn so much by watching. You have to learn by doing and that applies to everything in life."
Now, having to balance the schedule of a college athlete with taking 18 credit hours as a biology major, Vogel had to cut down on his responsibilities as a student manager, right?
Vogel set his alarm early every morning for JV practice from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m., followed by his classes. Before lunch, he would head back to Memorial Coliseum to wash uniforms if he had time and do individual workouts with the players as a student manager. From 2 to 6 p.m., Vogel was back at the gym for practice before sneaking in dinner and studying. Late night, he was often with the coaches again working on film projects.
In hindsight, Vogel probably could have found a less demanding major than biology.
"I'm the dumbest person on the planet, doing biology," Vogel joked. "There had to be some easier course loads I could have taken."
You often hear about the hectic life of an NBA coach, but Vogel says that nothing can come close to that 1995-96 season.
"It was a great year for learning to balance my time," Vogel said. "It was by far the busiest year of my life."
Vogel's work was rewarded in the short term by being a part of one of the greatest teams in college basketball history, but what does he most remember about that team?
"I remember denim uniforms," Vogel said, clearly remembering his duty washing the notorious uniforms.
All kidding aside, Vogel watched a team with nine players who would go on to the NBA play as an inseparable unit. As the 2011-12 UK basketball team heads into a season with potentially comparable talent, Vogel believes there is a great lesson to be learned.
"Guys on that team understood that they were going nowhere as individuals (if they didn't go as a team)," Vogel said.
After playing a role in winning a national title, Vogel's longer term reward was becoming Pitino's head video coordinator when he accepted the head coaching position with the Boston Celtics. It was a position that Vogel held for five years before the Celtics hired O'Brien, who promoted Vogel to assistant coach.
Vogel would spend eight years in Boston before he and his family would follow O'Brien in an assistant coach capacity with the Philadelphia 76ers (2004-05) and eventually the Pacers (2007-11). As the years passed by and Vogel remained an assistant, the idea of returning to the college game to earn some head coaching experience crossed his mind, but Vogel remained patient and kept the faith that another great opportunity would come along.
"After I left the Celtics, I was with Jim O'Brien all the way," Vogel said. "I was asked frequently whether I thought I should go back to college to get some head coaching experience. ... I always said that as long I was growing as a basketball coach and still working my way up that I wouldn't be in any rush to go back to the college scene. Hopefully I would find a long shot opportunity and I was fortunate enough that it happened."
That long-shot opportunity came in the form of an interim gig with the Pacers when O'Brien was dismissed on Jan. 31. Vogel took over for a team that was 17-27 and on the outside of the playoff race. Vogel guided his team to a 20-18 record and the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers lost a hard-fought five-game series to the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
"It was quite an experience taking over midseason and I was fortunate to take over a team that was really close to turning the corner," Vogel said. "We did some good things toward the end there and I was happy to be a part of it."
Vogel used the very same approach that compelled him to transfer to UK in the first place to help turn his team around and take advantage of his opportunity as interim coach.
"That sort of belief that you're going to outwork everybody in sight and do it in a positive way," Vogel said. "I just fell in love with that approach and it inspired me to get into coaching and to transfer down to UK and try to make something happen for myself and my career. I think I sort of carried over that approach that Coach P took to turn that team around."
Just over two weeks ago, Vogel was rewarded for his work when the
interim tag was taken away and he was officially named head coach
For some, coaching in a basketball-crazed state like Indiana would be a tall task, but it turns out that Vogel's first opportunity has prepared him for his latest.
"(Working and studying at UK) gave me a tremendous background," Vogel said. "It gave me a tremendous appreciation for what it means. When you think of basketball, you think of Kentucky and Indiana: the high school and the IU-UK rivalry. It's a special part of basketball in this country. Being at UK and experiencing the love and passion for UK basketball back then, that's what prepared me for basketball in this state."
Avery Williamson and two UK teammates spent a week in Ethiopia on a service trip. (Photo by Jeffrey Burns)
Jonathan George, Kevin Mitchell and Avery Williamson are representing the Kentucky football team on a weeklong service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, we will be posting travel logs featuring the thoughts of the student-athletes. Our final entry is from Williamson, UK's star linebacker.
UK football's service trip to Ethiopia is near its end.
The three football players who spend the week in the African nation will board a plane at 7 p.m. East Africa Time on Tuesday after a day of sightseeing atop a mountain near Addis Ababa and meetings to close the book on their memorable voyage. On the 17-hour flight, Avery Williamson will be spending much of his time thinking about the people he met and the relationships he formed with them.
First on that list is an 18-year-old young man named Girma.
Sponsored by a pastor who has helped guide the student-athletes over the last six days, Girma has spent the last half of the trip in the company of Williamson and his two teammates as saw lions at the zoo and visited local elementary schools on Monday.
"He's just the most humble kid that I've seen in a long time," Williamson said. "I just get a sense of trust from him that you usually get from a best friend that you've known for a long time. And I've only known him for two or three days."
Williamson has come to know his new friend's story well. When he was just nine and living on the streets, he and a number of other homeless were loaded onto buses by the military. They were then left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. Girma lost a couple of his friends, but was able to find his way back to a main road and Addis Ababa.
"I just think about that and it's crazy," Williamson said. "I was curious because I've never heard anything like that. There's probably not a nine-year-old kid in America that can say that story."
Williamson reports that Girma has become a good soccer player with a "bright future," but what sticks out about him is his kindness in spite of everything with which he has been faced in his short life.
"I guarantee you he'd probably give me clothes to wear even if it's the last thing he's got," Williamson said. "That's the type of guy he is."
Girma is hardly the only person the three Wildcats have encountered to show that kind of spirit. Williamson has been struck in particular by the children he has met. He thinks about himself as a child and can't help but be awed by what he's seen.
"When they receive things, they're really thankful for it - I can tell - because they don't know when the next gift or sometimes the next meal might come from," Williamson said. "I really do admire those kids."
Williamson had heard firsthand accounts about life in Ethiopia from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and his teammates that made the trip before him, but - continuing a theme from the accounts of Jonathan George and Kevin Mitchell - there's no substitute for seeing it yourself.
"You don't really think too much about it," Williamson said. "But then when you get over here, it's like, 'Wow, these people really are starving.' It's really a life-changing experience."
But as different as life may be in Ethiopia, there have been a few moments that have reminded Williamson that he has humanity in common with everyone he's met. Going to church on Sunday is an example.
"I was kind of nervous about walking in and being around different people, but actually it felt kind of similar to home," Williamson said. "It was good, just like home, a Christian service and it's amazing to go across the world and still people serving God. It was real cool to see that."
The same can be said about a couple chance meetings with people who noticed the student-athletes' blue Nike gear. Two different people approached them to say they used to live in Kentucky and the second was even a graduate of UK.
"He was from Louisville and his wife, she was undergrad at UK and she's from Ethiopia," Williamson said. "We talked to them for a while, took quite a few pictures and stuff. We were like celebrities in there."
Apparently, the Big Blue Nation really is everywhere.
As of Memorial Day, the Mark Stoops era is six months old.
The new Kentucky football coach is still waiting for his first game, but his first half-year has been quite eventful. Over that time, he and his staff have injected the program with energy and excited Wildcat fans both inside and outside the Bluegrass.
Today, we look back at the top six moments from Stoops' first six months on the job.
6. UK's Super Bowl ad
It had been more than two months since Stoops came on board. Fans were taking a break from following recruiting with Signing Day just days away to watch the Super Bowl. But just before the halftime show, viewers in Lexington were reminded of Kentucky football with this 30-second advertisement.
Those who didn't see it live quickly made their way online to see what all the buzz was about. In the three-plus months since it was posted, the Super Bowl ad - which features audio from Stoops' introductory press conference and Air Raid sirens - has accumulated more than 90,000 views.
5. Za'Darius Smith, Steven Borden make for early recruiting splash
Stoops wasted no time signaling that Kentucky is going to be a player on the national recruiting scene.
On Dec. 19, UK announced the signing of a pair of highly touted junior-college prospects: Za'Darius Smith and Steven Borden. Smith - the nation's top-ranked strongside junior-college defensive end - and Borden - a tight end with good speed and ball skills - fit UK's new defensive and offensive schemes perfectly.
Both enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. Smith, in particular, looks like a potential instant contributor. The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder could form a potent pass-rushing duo with Bud Dupree.
Giving fans yet another reason to get excited about the new coaching staff, former UK wide receiver Neal Brown signed on as offensive coordinator, bringing an evolved version of Hal Mumme's Air Raid back to Lexington. Brown - regarded as one of the top young offensive minds in the game - was a candidate for head coaching positions and offensive coordinator roles at other schools, but decided he wanted to return to his roots.
Within days of his introduction, two more former Wildcats joined Brown as offensive assistant coaches. SEC All-Freshman performer Chad Scott will coach running backs and All-SEC honoree John Schlarman will lead the offensive line.
The trio added familiar faces to the staff and bring important knowledge of the unique challenges of coaching at UK that has helped Stoops navigate his first months.
For five days after Stoops was named head coach, fans had to wait to meet him. As he prepared for Florida State's matchup with Georgia Tech in the Atlantic Coach Conference Championship Game, UK staffers were busy planning Stoops' official welcome.
When he finally was able to fly to Lexington for the first time on Dec. 2, a hero's welcome awaited him.
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart flew to Tallahassee, Fla., to pick up Stoops and his family. When they landed in Kentucky, Stoops was greeted by a crowd of well-wishers, but he hadn't seen anything yet.
At the Nutter Field House, hundreds of alumni, boosters, cheerleaders, dance team and band members and media gathered for an introduction that was more a celebration than a press conference. Flanked Barnhart and UK President Eli Capilouto, Stoops spelled out his vision for the UK program in a festive atmosphere.
2. Signing Day
On Signing Day, Stoops inked the highest-rated class in UK history - 29th - according to Rivals.com. He did it by following through on the recruiting mission he detailed when he has named coach.
UK protected its home territory, landing late commitments from in-state products Jason Hatcher and Ryan Timmons. Stoops established UK's presence in Ohio, securing pledges from Marcus McWilson, Jaleel Hytchye and Kyle Meadows. Finally, he plucked prospects from Florida, signing Jeff Badet, Javess Blue and Alex Montgomery, among others.
If this is what the new coaches can do in two months, it's incredible to think what they might do in a full year. 1. Record-setting spring game
Everyone had heard about the way fans were gobbling up tickets to the 2013 Blue/White Spring Game. It seemed a certainty that UK would set a school record for spring game attendance, but even the most optimistic experts could not have predicted the scene that evening in Commonwealth Stadium.
Fans came out early to tailgate, many of them taking advantage of a shuttle to and from Keeneland. When it was time for the Cat Walk, they lined up nine and 10 deep to cheer on the Wildcats as they walked into the stadium. Gates opened shortly after that and the stands were quickly full.
By the first quarter, an estimated 50,831 fans were in Commonwealth Stadium, shattering the previous school record for spring game attendance by more than 30,000. Just as impressively, the showing gave UK the sixth-largest attendance of any NCAA team that held a spring game.
They cheered as the Blue team held on for a 24-23 victory, watching as the likes of Jalen Whitlow, Smith and Dupree impressed and giving the Cats a taste of what the atmosphere at Commonwealth will be like on Saturdays this fall.
As great as those other five moments may have been, they pale in comparison to what happened on April 13.
Senior Kara Dill ends her career as one of the all-time greats in UK softball history. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Kentucky softball team's 2013 season came to a close on Sunday as the Wildcats fell to Arizona State. UK, who dropped game one on Saturday, was ousted in the best-of-three series.
The Wildcats battled until the end vs. ASU but just couldn't find the timely hits with runners on base to mount a third comeback in the game. Kentucky answered with a run each time ASU went ahead, but couldn't muster one final rally as fifth-seeded Arizona State won the super regional title in front of their home fans.
"I think we put up a good fight and that's all you can do," senior Kara Dill said. "ASU is a very good team and I think looking back, it just wasn't in the cards for us. We didn't get the big hits when we had runners on. That's all you can do: You put up the best fight you can and coming from behind is difficult but until that scoreboard says no outs you still have a chance."
That's exactly what the Cats did all season. They fought until the very last out of the game and showed the toughness that head coach Rachel Lawson praised since day one.
Kentucky's 2013 season was one for the ages and the Cats broke several school records along the way. Lawson became the program's all-time winningest coach, the team set the wins record for a single season, freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley surpassed the single-season wins mark and the Wildcats hosted their first NCAA Regional in their brand-new venue, just to name a few.
"Overall we had a very good season," Lawson said. "We have been very good, this is our fifth straight postseason and we have been to two super regionals. With that said, in order to get to the World Series your team usually has to figure out how to host and we did that from the beginning of the year on. I think that was a big step for our program and hopefully it will pay off in the future."
Dill will leave a mark on UK softball as she exits the program. She was an all-league performer in 2012 and led the Wildcats in hitting twice. She ends her career fifth all-time with a .330 average, sixth in stolen bases with 57, seventh with 119 runs, eighth with 201 hits and tied for eighth with nine triples.
It was a difficult season for Dill, who broke her hand back in March in a series against LSU. Her recovery timetable would allow her to return to the field only if UK were to make the postseason. She asked one thing of her team and they came through for her by punching a ticket into the NCAA Regional.
"Obviously it's not the way anyone wants their year to go but the team did a really good job and I told them, 'I need you to get me to postseason, I need to have a chance to play again.' They did that and I couldn't ask anymore of them. It is special we are one of the top-16 teams right now. You would like to be the top eight but to get to this point I think it was a great ending."
The Wildcats will also say farewell to senior Alice O'Brien, who set the single season sacrifice fly record with five in 2013.
It was a memorable year for UK softball and sets the stage a bright future. Just to put in perspective, Kentucky had five freshmen in the starting lineup against ASU this weekend, including sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner.
The Wildcats have a lot of youth to go with a core group of upperclassmen for next season. The experience UK will gain from hosting its first-ever regional and traveling to Tempe, Ariz., and taking the high-powered Sun Devils to the limit says a lot for a young team.
"If you would have said at the beginning of the year that we would have made it all the way to supers against ASU with five freshmen starting I would have said that's a tall order, but they responded," Lawson said. "I do feel like we have a solid foundation but we are going to have to figure out how to replace Kara Dill and we are going to have to figure out how to do better offensively."
As for the freshmen, third baseman Nikki Sagermann likes where the program is headed and is ready to get back to work and hopefully play late in the postseason again this time next year.
"This experience has been amazing," Sagermann said. "It was pretty special for us freshmen because it's just going to prepare us even more for the future because we plan on being back here."
The Wildcats celebrate after freshman Christian Stokes connects for her second home run of the game against Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Game one of the Tempe Super Regional didn't go in Kentucky's favor, but the Wildcats showed plenty of signs of life.
The Sun Devils topped the Cats 5-4 on Saturday evening to take a 1-0 lead in the super regional final. The winner of the three-game set will earn a trip to the 2013 Women's College World Series.
ASU looked dominant early as junior pitcher Dallas Escobedo was dealing and the Sun Devils got on the board with a three-run shot be Cheyenne Coyle. The Wildcats couldn't help but be reminded of their 8-1 loss to ASU back on February 9 when Arizona State extended their lead to 5-1 in the bottom of the fifth.
However, the Wildcats never backed down.
Freshman Christian Stokes got the Cats on the board in the top of the fifth with a solo shot to dead center to cut ASU's lead to 3-1. After the Sun Devils extended their lead to four, junior Lauren Cumbess began UK's sixth with a solo shot to left field. Two batters later, O'Brien connected for her eighth home run on the year and Stokes would follow later in the inning with her second home run off Escobedo. The Wildcats hit four solo shots off ASU's junior ace and even made head coach Clint Meyers make a pitching change going into the top of the seventh.
UK seemed to have made some adjustments since the last time they had faced her and even tinkered with their approach during the game.
"My first at-bat wasn't too good so I knew I had to make and adjustment and I knew she was coming with a rise ball," Stokes said. "She had a really good jump on her rise ball and I just tried to look for something low that I could drive."
Escobedo hadn't given up a single run in 31 innings coming into Saturday and the Wildcats roughed her up to the tune of four runs and seven hits in six innings of work. The fact that Kentucky chased Escobedo and made ASU make a pitching change is a feat on its own.
"I thought our team did a nice job off of (Escobedo)," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "That's the best hitting performance we have had in a little while so I thought we did a nice job squaring up on some of her pitches. She has a couple different heights that she uses and luckily we didn't fish too often at the super-high ones. I thought we did a nice job putting the barrel on it and being on time for it."
The game could have very easily gotten out of hand. The sold out stadium with 2,001 fans in attendance was rocking when ASU took a commanding 5-1 advantage. Instead of putting their heads down and playing scared, the Wildcats stuck together and gave Arizona State all they could handle.
In the top of the seventh, the Sun Devils brought in junior Mackenzie Popescue for the save. After recording the first two outs in the frame, sophomore Griffin Joiner drew a walk to bring Cumbess to the plate as the potential go-ahead run
"I don't think it's over until it's over," Stokes said. "We just kind of ran out of time in the end but we were on (Escobedo) pretty good."
Maybe the Cats ran out of time tonight but they sure showed the Sun Devils they are in it to win it. Kentucky will come back Sunday at 5 p.m. ET with a mindset of winning two ballgames and there is no doubt in the Cats' minds that they can take games two and three.
"Our confidence level is always the same; that's one of the products of being in the SEC or Pac-12," Lawson said. "Every game is a new game and you know you can go out and get beat one day but you are a good enough team to come back the next day. That's the one thing that these power conferences prepare you for because every time you wake up you know you have to play an outstanding team. While ASU is certainly incredible, we have been through this before. I think more than anything we are steady and our confidence usually remains the same."
Avery Williamson, Jonathan George and Kevin Mitchell are on a weeklong service trip in Ethiopia. (Photo by Jeffrey Burns)
Jonathan George, Kevin Mitchell and Avery Williamson are representing the Kentucky football team on a week-long service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, we will be posting travel logs featuring the thoughts of the student-athletes. Today is George's turn.
This is the third summer in a row that a group of Kentucky football players have traveled to Ethiopia for a service trip. On Saturday, the latest bunch of Wildcats did something that none of their predecessors did, visiting two local prisons.
The day started with a drive of a little more than an hour from their guest house in Addis Ababa to Debre Zeit, a town approximately 30 miles southeast of the Ethiopian capital city. There, Jonathan George, Kevin Mitchell and Avery Williamson met an Indian family and helped prepare a meal. They cooked a goat, made injera - a yeast-risen flatbread - and boiled eggs to bring to the prisoners.
The two facilities they visited were small, housing between 20 and 30 inmates who are awaiting trial. Along with food, they took along soap, toothbrushes and Bibles.
"We really got a chance to interact with them because they let us actually hand the food to the prisoners," George said. "One of the guys even asked me for my phone number."
George said he went into the day more curious about the differences between American and Ethiopian prisons than nervous. After getting a first-person view of what daily life is like for the prisoners, George learned quite a bit.
"It was a great experience," George said. "Of course, their prisons were a lot different than our prisons. I looked at the inside of their cells and they were all laying on the floor."
The three student-athletes found out that inmates are not provided many basic necessities. Instead, they must rely on family members and friends to bring them what they need. Inmates also take care of each other, sharing what they receive from the outside with one another. That's an outgrowth of Ethiopian culture, something George has seen up close the last three days.
"They're really accepting of us," George said. "We interact with people everywhere we go. It's been a great experience with the people. They're really nice, generous people."
George has noticed that even extends to the roadways.
"There are no stoplights, no stop signs, none of that, so it's just like everybody's kind of driving over each other," George said. "You'd think there would be a lot of road rage and stuff, but everybody kindly lets other people pass."
The UK travel party has relied on Agenou to provide them safe passage on those roads. Since the Cats arrived on Thursday, Agenou has driven them anywhere they needed to go and played familiar music all along.
"We ride in the van and he's playing all the American music: Rihanna, Michael Jackson and all that," George said. "On the way back (from the prison), he was listening to Eminem and Snoop Dogg."
Agenou has driven Wildcat football players each of the three years they have made the trip and has a wardrobe full of UK gear given to him by Danny Trevathan and others.
"Every day he has different Kentucky apparel. Every day we've been here he's had on a different Kentucky football shirt," George said. "He's a big fan now and he's somebody you can really appreciate because, even though this is his job, as soon as you call he's on his way."
George is in Ethiopia to serve, but that doesn't mean he hasn't had any fun along the way. He's had some good laughs with Agenou as well as Mitchell and Williamson, getting to know two of his teammates and fellow rising seniors in a way he never has before.
"Of course I'm cool with Avery and Kevin, but I haven't talked to those guys as much in Lexington as I have here," George said. "It's been great spending time with those guys. I feel like we have built stronger relationships with this trip."
Jonathan George, Avery Williamson and Kevin Mitchell are participating in a service trip in Ethiopia this week. (Photo via Jeffrey Burns)
Jonathan George, Kevin Mitchell and Avery Williamson are representing the Kentucky football team on a week-long service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, we will be posting travel logs featuring the thoughts of the student-athletes on the experience. First up is Mitchell, UK's senior offensive lineman who spoke via FaceTime interview.
Kevin Mitchell had as much information as possible about the service trip he would be taking to Ethiopia without actually going on the trip.
He had two different sets of teammates who went on the trip the last two summers, so he had gotten plenty of advice on how to approach it. He even lived with former offensive line teammate Stuart Hines when Hines went to Ethiopia in the summer of 2011.
No matter who he talked to, there was one common message.
"All the guys I've talked to just said, 'Embrace it,' " Mitchell said.
Two days into his time in the Eastern African nation, that's what Mitchell is doing.
The voyage for Mitchell and his two teammates began with a quick stop in Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, Mitchell, Jonathan George and Avery Williamson toured their nation's capital, ate dinner and tried to get some rest before a long day of travel on Wednesday. They then boarded a plane bound for Ethiopia for a 13-hour flight.
"I've never even ridden in a car that long before," Mitchell said.
Due to the seven-hour time difference, the travel party arrived at 7:30 a.m. East Africa Time and wasted no time getting the life-changing experience started in Bole Bulbula, Ethiopia. There, the three UK football players distributed filters to residents without clean water and helped line the inside of homes with plastic for rain protection.
After eating dinner and getting settled into the place he would be staying for the night, Mitchell had no trouble getting to sleep.
"We were really tired because we got off the plane and had a full day," Mitchell said.
Following a night of rest, the three arose early the next morning to head to Korah. The community - located in Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa - is one of the poorest areas in the world. Mitchell and his teammates provided food and charcoal to approximately 25 families, touring homes along the way to get a feel for life in Korah.
Considering Mitchell stands at 6-foot-6 and the smallest of the three is George at 5-10, 221 pounds, it should come as no surprise that they attracted attention. But in spite of the language barrier and a little initial awkwardness, Mitchell could not have felt more welcome.
"The people here are super-friendly," Mitchell said. "At first I didn't really know because they kind of look at you weird, but they're super-friendly, very accepting people. Everywhere we've been, they've taken us in and accepted everything we've been able to provide them. They're real grateful."
After another packed day on Friday, the group returned to its hotel for dinner at 6:30 p.m. and to rest up for Saturday and reflect on their first two days. As much as Mitchell may have heard about what he was in for before he came to Ethiopia, he knows now there is no way anyone could know what to expect.
"I kind of knew what I was getting into, but it's a different world when you actually get here," Mitchell said. "Nobody can really describe how it really is. Once you see it with your own eyes, it's really unbelievable."
Saw today how people can be so happy but have nothing.
Freshman Sylver Samuel was 5-for-9 (.556) while patrolling centerfield for the Wildcats in the Lexington Regional. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Kentucky softball team got its first look at Arizona State three months ago.
The Wildcats traveled to Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 9, falling 8-1 in just their fourth game of the season. Sun Devil ace Dallas Escobedo was dominant and Arizona State pounded out 11 hits against a UK team heavily reliant on freshmen.
The second time around, Arizona State will see a very different Kentucky team, particularly the five first-year players who will start.
"Arizona State was one of the first teams that we played, so they didn't really understand the speed of the game when they first played it against Arizona State, who plays it very fast," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Their expectation level now is completely different and how fast we play is completely different. I think we won't be as star-struck as we were in the beginning of February."
However, the stakes this time are much higher.
The 12th-seeded Wildcats (41-19) will face off against the No. 5 seed Sun Devils (48-10) in a best-of-three series at the Tempe Super Regional, beginning with the first game on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET. But after playing 26 teams who are currently ranked or receiving votes in the top 25, not to mention they compete in the country's toughest league, Lawson doesn't expect the stage to be too much.
With such a young team, UK is gaining more and more confidence with every win. The Wildcats were bounced in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at John Cropp Stadium, which left a sour taste in their mouths heading into regionals. Kentucky got a chance for redemption in front of its home fans as they were selected to host their first regional in school history last weekend. This time, the Cats took care of business and advanced to their second super regional in the last three seasons.
After an unsatisfactory showing at the conference tournament, the regional victory gave UK a little bit of their swagger back going into this weekend.
"I still think we were a little bit tight in regionals and I think every step that we're taking is really helping," Lawson said. "The experience that we're gaining is really helping them understand what they need to do to go to the World Series."
En route to the regional title, Kentucky outlasted a pesky fourth-seeded Marshall squad, 2-1 in eight innings in the opening round. The Wildcats then prevailed over Virginia Tech to advance to Sunday's final. The Hokies would get their rematch with UK and won game one before the Cats ended their season with a 1-0 triumph in the nightcap.
Yes, UK accomplished a huge feat by taking care of business and winning the regional over some quality opponents, but Arizona State is a different animal. Lawson is well aware.
"I think they're going to be dramatically better (than the teams UK faced in the regional)," Lawson said. "I think that they do everything so well. I think Dallas Escobedo's one of the best pitchers in the country. Offensively, they hit a ton of home runs and I don't think very many home runs were hit this past weekend. I think it's going to be completely different. You're taking that next step up, but that's what you expect when you go to Supers."
Escobedo is expected to shoulder the load for the Sun Devils and she hasn't allowed an earned run in 28 innings of work. The senior is 28-4 on the year with a 2.10 ERA and is coming off a regional performance where she was 3-0 with a no-hitter.
Last time the two teams met, Escobedo tamed the Wildcats, allowing one earned run, scattering just five hits and striking out eight. Kentucky has seen high-caliber pitching in the SEC and are approaching the rematch with confidence.
"She has a lot of spin on the ball and she also has a really good rise ball," freshman centerfielder Sylver Samuel said. "We have learned from it and I think that's what's going to make us tough to get out this week."
Arizona State will be playing on its home turf at Farrington Stadium, where the Sun Devils are 38-3 on the year. The Sun Devils are hitting .334 on the year with 92 home runs and 403 runs scored, compared to the Cats who are posting .269, 57 and 277, respectively, in those categories. Along those lines, ASU has five batters with 10 or more home runs and four with 40 or more RBI, while junior Lauren Cumbess (12 HR, 42 RBI) and sophomore Griffin Joiner (10 HR, 40 RBI) are the only two Wildcats to reach those numbers.
Kentucky will once again turn to freshman sensation Kelsey Nunley to lead them to Oklahoma City, Okla. The right-hander faced ASU in the first meeting, surrendering five runs on seven hits in three innings of relief. The Sun Devils roughed up Nunley, but the freshman was making just her third-career appearance at the collegiate level.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native has made tremendous strides in her first season, breaking UK's all-time single season wins mark with 27 on the year and being named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.
On paper, Arizona State looks like the heavy favorite in this series, but the Wildcats will give the Sun Devils a different look from what they saw back in February. If one thing is for certain, UK has complete trust in Nunley and will give it their all this weekend to back her up.
"Kelsey is really strong," Samuel said. "When she is out there we know that she is competing and giving everything to win so we give everything we have behind her. She is a strong freshman and we are proud of her."
Like the rest of the country, Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart have kept close tabs on this week's tragic events in Oklahoma. The UK head coach and athletics director shared compassion for the victims of Monday's destructive tornado.
They also share personal ties to the area. Barnhart and Stoops each have family who lives within a few miles of Moore, Okla.: Barnhart's brother Eric, Stoops' brothers Bob and Mike and the families of all three.
Driven by sympathy and familiarity with the area and people affected, Stoops and Barnhart have decided to do something to help.
"I have kept a close eye on the tragic events in Oklahoma this week," Barnhart said. "My heart goes out to all those affected. My brother Eric lives three miles from where the tornado hit, so the devastation has hit close to home for me even though he is safe."
"I am so thankful my family and friends are alright after the storms in Oklahoma," Stoops said. "However, we are heartbroken for those affected by this tragedy."
Stoops, Barnhart and women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell will all donate to the American Red Cross's tornado relief efforts. John Calipari announced his foundation will donate to the cause earlier this week as well.
Now, the leaders of UK Athletics want Kentucky fans to join in.
"We hope the Big Blue Nation will once again show its giving spirit," Stoops said. "There's only so much any of us can do on our own, but we make a real impact together."
Those wishing to donate after may call 859-253-1331 or 1-800-REDCROSS. Fans can also donate money online at RedCross.org or by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999 (the text will automatically donate $10). In person donations can be made in-person at Fayette Mall (corner of Nicholasville Road and Reynolds Road) on Thursday, May 23 and Friday, May 24 from 3:00 p.m. ET to 7:00 p.m.
No matter how you donate, tweet with the hash tag #BBNcares to show that UK fans stand with the Oklahoma tornado victims.
Rachel Lawson and Kara Dill will lead the UK softball team into the Tempe Super Regional this weekend vs. Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It might be happening for the second time in three years, but Rachel Lawson isn't taking Kentucky's Super Regional berth for granted. She knows that even the best programs in the country are fortunate to be among the last 16 teams standing.
Be that as it may, this weekend is just another rung on UK's ladder to a place college softball's elite.
"To be in supers is special in the sport of softball and our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series," Lawson said.
As No. 12 UK (41-19) prepares for a three-game series with fifth-seeded Arizona State (48-10) that will begin Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, the experience of losing to California in a super regional in 2011 is fresh in Lawson's mind. In fact, she's been thinking about it all season as she tried to lead UK to its first-ever Women's College World Series.
Lawson, however, has a young team with five freshman starters. Among this year's regular contributors, only Kara Dill, Alice O'Brien and Emily Jolly saw significant time in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
"Me personally, yes, as a coach (she is approaching super regionals differently). We have prepared completely different than we did two years ago in terms of pitch selection and stuff like that, but that started in the fall," Lawson said. "But for our team, only a couple of these players were on that team and only a couple of starters."
Dill was one of them. She had five hits as UK upset Michigan to win that regional in 2011, but the Cats were a national seed and favored to reach this point this year.
"I think our team this year is better and there are more people that can do a more variety of things," Dill said. "We have more depth and are stronger as a team."
She has clear proof of that depth too.
On March 15, Dill sustained a hand injury against LSU. For the remainder of the regular season, the Cats would have to get the job done without their leading hitter from each of the past two years. Freshman Christian Stokes filled in at shortstop and UK finished 19-12 without Dill in the starting lineup.
She healed in time to return for the postseason, but if the Cats hadn't been able to hold it together in the senior's absence, she would never have gotten the chance.
"I couldn't ask for any more from them. If they wouldn't have made it this far I wouldn't have finished out the year," Dill said. "This is everything to us right now. They are incredible."
Stokes is still playing shortstop, but Dill - now at designated player - took over her customary role as UK's lead-off batter for the NCAA Tournament opener vs. Marshall. She promptly turned in two hits and a run batted in in four at-bats, providing stability at a lineup spot that had been in a state of flux since Dill's injury.
"She's an exceptional player," Lawson said after that game, a 2-1 win over Marshall. "She's also a captain, she's very steady, she's smart, she's everything you want in a student-athlete. So to get her back is cool. ... It makes me happy to know that she's going to be able to finish on a high note."
After the Cats won a regional the first time they ever hosted one, it's now just a matter of how high the finishing note will be for Dill and UK.
"This is the best time of the year and if I could pick anytime to get back out there and play it would be this time," Dill said. "The team got us here and that is all I could have asked of them."
Junior Kayla Parker set a PR and was .03 seconds off the school record in the 100-meter hurdles at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky track and field team travels to Greensboro, N.C., this weekend to compete at the NCAA East Regional, the Wildcats will look to improve on their Southeastern Conference Championships performance and send as many athletes to nationals as they can.
That's head coach Edrick Floreal's motto anyhow. The former Olympian (1988 and 1992), and 2012 U.S. Olympic Team jumps coach has tried to hammer home to his athletes that they can only compete to the best of their ability.
UK has a talented group of individuals, but it's the same team that finished near the bottom of the SEC Championships in 2012.
The Wildcats have grown immensely under Floreal. Kentucky finished seventh in both the men's and women's competitions at this year's SEC Championships, which was a major improvement from the previous season's results. UK may not have the caliber of athletes Floreal eventually wants across the board, but he is certainly getting every ounce of athletic ability out of his team in the meantime.
"I want them to step back up and do what they are capable of doing and if you do that and if that's not good enough then you have to get back to work and get better," Floreal said. "That's my expectation, that we are going to do what we think we can do and let the rest of the SEC and the region sort themselves out. If we do what we are capable of doing you can't really be disappointed with that."
The Cats met their head coach's goal of finishing in the top half of the conference with their seventh-place finishes at SECs. However, Floreal feels UK left a lot of points out on the table and could have finished even higher.
Despite battling the injury bug and some mental errors, Kentucky had a shot at finishing in the top five according to Floreal. Senior All-American hurdler Keith Hayes was a near guarantee to finish in the top three of his events before straining his hamstring in his first competition. UK's talented 4 x 100-meter relay team of Morganne Phillips, Tamyah Pipkin, Kayla Parker and Keilah Tyson was projected to score highly before being disqualified for passing the baton illegally.
"I felt like in several instances, we didn't do what we are capable of doing and that's where some of the frustrations are because we feel like we're so much better of a team and we want to prove that," Floreal said. "You have to earn your stripes like everybody else, especially in this conference. We are getting better, we're getting older, we're getting more mature and we will be able to handle difficult situations a little bit better."
Kentucky received several good performances from individuals who have provided them all year. Junior Chelsea Oswald took home the 10,000- and 5,000-meter titles, while Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand finished second in their respective events.
Those Cats have proven all year that they are ahead of the rest of the conference and Floreal expects them to compete hard and finish near the top of the field every time out. He admits he may take it for granted, but it's the borderline athletes with whom Floreal is working to get them to buy in and have the kind of breakthrough performances that really give him satisfaction as a coach.
Parker is one athlete who has bought into the system since day one and is now reaping the benefits of her hard work. The junior finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles final with a personal record time of 13.19 seconds, just 0.03 off the school record.
"Kayla is a role model and a team captain to make sure everyone buys in and has great leadership not just worrying about herself but worrying about everyone else," Floreal said. "You need people in there who are going to score 20 points and be leaders and you need people in there that are going to keep everyone in line and also be leaders. There are different leaders that you need to have a successful team."
UK will send 27 athletes to regionals this weekend (14 men and 13 women). While Floreal has searched for unique ways to motivate his team all season, his message for this weekend was simple and to the point.
"This weekend is more so advancing to the NCAA and less about a team competition," Floreal said. "Each individual has to take care of their own business. You can be first or you can be 12th it's the same thing. Just be top 12, let's move on and we'll do it again in two weeks at nationals."
HOOVER, Ala. -- The opportunities, as they have been for much of the season's second half, were there for Kentucky.
After a 4-1 loss to Ole Miss in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday, those opportunities are what the Wildcats were thinking about.
"The biggest issue the last seven weeks has just been getting the hit at a key moment," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.
The seventh inning was particularly frustrating. After chasing Ole Miss starter Mike Mayers, UK loaded the bases with one out on an infield single by Zack Storm. Micheal Thomas followed with a pop-up to second and Kyle Barrett grounded out to end the threat, accounting for three of the eight runners the Cats left on base as they were eliminated in the conference tournament.
The story has been all-too-familiar since UK (30-25) sprinted to a 22-6 start. Since then, the bats have fallen silent at all the wrong times and the Cats are 8-19 during that stretch. Most of the fans in attendance at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium were watching Kentucky for the first time, but they got a pretty clear picture of what the last two months have been like.
"You kind of saw a large part of the second half of the season for us today," Henderson said. "That's kind of what it is and has been unfortunately. They fought well. At times, we pitched extremely well. ... But we just didn't have enough offense. We couldn't sustain anything offensively over a period of time to really get out of where we were."
Because of that, UK will be reduced to hoping when they watch the selection show next Monday. UK is ranked No. 38 in the RPI and boasts 12 wins over fellow top-40 teams, but its 11 SEC wins and uneven finish leave the Cats in perilous NCAA Tournament position.
Jerad Grundy will start for Kentucky in the first of the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Gary Henderson doesn't think anything even needs to be said.
His team already knows it has a lot of work ahead to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. Henderson agrees with the experts that the Wildcats (30-24, 11-19 Southeastern Conference) need a "significant run" in this week's conference tournament to make their case.
That doesn't mean he will dramatically alter his approach or the message he delivers to his team.
"We'll go about it the same way we always do," Henderson said.
What that means is the only thing Henderson wants the Cats thinking about is their SEC Tournament opener on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. ET against sixth-seeded Ole Miss (36-20, 15-15 SEC). The first round - which features teams seeded fifth through 12th - is single-elimination, so UK needs a victory in the "breakfast game" (borrow a phrase from Rebel head coach Mike Bianco) just to keep playing.
"We need to win tomorrow morning and then we can worry about what we're doing on Wednesday," Henderson said. "And as opposed to sitting down and telling them that we gotta bite off four wins or five wins or whatever it is, I won't do that."
Coming off two losses in three games over the weekend at Missouri, UK will call on Jerad Grundy (6-5, 4.75 ERA) to start Tuesday. The senior lefthander is 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA in two starts since moving to a midweek role.
"Grundy is a great kid and a very good competitor, but he ran into a rough four-game stretch there in the middle so we took him off of the Saturday games and put him on the Tuesday games," Henderson said. "And he was able to relax and get back to his old self that he'd been for a year and half."
Grundy has made a start against Ole Miss each of the last two seasons, struggling to an 0-2 record with a 13.06 ERA. To improve, Henderson is looking only for Grundy to do the simple things.
"What we've seen is the ability to throw strikes at the knees and command his two secondary pitches, work ahead in the count - the absolute basics that allow you to be successful," Henderson said. "He's pitched much, much better the last two or three times out than he had the previous four."
Ole Miss has not yet named a starting pitcher, but UK is likely to be familiar with whomever Bianco tabs to take the mound. The Cats have faced the Rebels seven times over the last two seasons, taking two games in two three-game sets and winning their SEC Tournament opener over Ole Miss last season, 2-0.
"I would think that there's plenty of familiarity between the Rebels and the Wildcats as many times as we've played in the last two years," Henderson said.
Familiarity or no familiarity, the task remains the same from this game on for the Wildcats as they play with the season on the line.
"We need to play well, we need to pitch well," Henderson said. "All the coaching cliches that are absolutely true, we need to do those tomorrow morning and when that's over we'll worry about (Wednesday)."
UK defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday to clinch a berth in a Super Regional for the second time in three seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After Kentucky defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday, Rachel Lawson showed a side or herself rarely seen, particularly by her team. Fielding questions, Lawson was overcome by emotion.
UK had just fulfilled Lawson's goal of clinching a second Super Regional trip in three seasons in its brand-new venue. Sitting in the back of the room was the stadium's namesake, the man who helped bring Lawson to Lexington and build the program to what it's become: John Cropp.
Given the circumstances, it's difficult to blame her for struggling to compose herself.
"I always yell at everybody, and they don't see me like this," Lawson said. "It's the only time."
In Lawson's sixth season, the progress of the Kentucky program is remarkable, as is the resulting list of accomplishments: the first five NCAA Tournament berths in school history, two Super Regional berths in three years, state-of-the-art venue, a school-record 41 wins in 2013.
Just a couple hours prior, the circumstances - and the audience - were quite different.
After taking the first two games of the regional on Friday and Saturday, UK found that its season was on the brink following a game one loss to the Hokies. Virginia Tech had just blanked the Cats, 2-0, forcing a winner-take-all showdown approximately 45 minutes later, and Lawson wasn't particularly happy with the way her team hit or played defense.
"It was the exact opposite of the one I gave (that was) all sentimental about John Cropp and our athletic department," Lawson said of her between-game message. "That's why I hate that this one's on camera. I'd rather the other one be on camera."
No one outside the locker room got to see Lawson's speech, but the fans in John Cropp Stadium got to see the results. Even though the Cats managed just one run, they were much more effective in attacking the outside pitches Virginia Tech consistently threw.
In the field, UK was nothing short of amazing. The Cats did not commit an error, turned a pair of double plays in the game and made three plays that could all be candidates for the SportsCenter Top 10.
First was a diving catch by left fielder Ginny Carroll in foul territory for the final out of the bottom of the first. Two innings later, Sylver Samuel robbed Betty Rose of extra bases with a jumping grab against the wall in center. But perhaps the best and most important of the afternoon was by Christian Stokes.
After Tech led off the fourth inning with a single, the freshman shortstop sprinted into shallow left field, dove and caught what appeared to be a sure single by Courtney Liddle. The Hokies would go on to load the bases with two outs in the inning even after Stokes' play.
"I thought Christian Stokes play, when she dove and got the play behind her, that was big," Lawson said. "Because in game one we didn't make that catch, and that's why they ran off two runs. So the fact that she made that catch and really stepped up today on her birthday was really cool."
UK pitchers Lauren Cumbess and Kelsey Nunley were the beneficiaries of all the defensive help.
After Nunley had pitched the first 22 innings of the weekend, Lawson turned to Cumbess to start the elimination game. The junior didn't allow a run in 3.2 innings of work.
"I was ready," Cumbess said. "I wanted to do whatever it took to help our team win. So to give Kelsey that little break, that's what we needed for the win."
In Lawson's mind, starting Cumbess was about a lot more than giving Nunley a few innings of rest.
"Actually when I was preparing for Virginia Tech prior to the weekend, I actually thought Lauren was the exact matchup for them because she has such a good drop ball," Lawson said. "I think Virginia Tech is a great hitting team, and I wanted to keep the ball in the infield."
Though Cumbess was effective, Lawson had to turn to her star freshman in the game's biggest spot. When Virginia Tech loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, Nunley emerged from the dugout and needed only a few warm-up pitches to coax a pop out for the third out, ending the threat.
"I was just thinking that we need an out," Nunley said. "That's all that matters."
Nunley finished the game, picking up the win to move to 27-9 and lowering her earned-run average to 1.97, second-lowest in single-season UK history. But without Cumbess, Nunley may not have been able to get the job done.
Not only did Cumbess deliver the game-winning hit - a fifth-inning infield single to score Sylver Samuel - but she also gave her fellow pitcher frequent advice after moving over to first base.
"I have to say that Lauren really encourages me," Nunley said. "She helps me just stay positive all the time and also gives me little triggers to get past batters."
In the sixth inning, Nunley seemed to begin to lose her rhythm. She allowed a pair of hits and a walk as her control faltered, a possible sign of fatigue. Cumbess, however, noticed another cause and ran to the dugout to request a towel. Nunley was simply having trouble gripping the ball as the temperature rose.
"This is the first time we've played in hot weather," Lawson said.
UK's equipment staff better make sure to replenish the towels, because the Cats could be playing in more hot weather next weekend. Kentucky will play the winner of No. 5 seed Arizona State and Georgia with the Sun Devils needing just one win in two games.
"I'm going to watch it," Cumbess said. "I bet everybody else will too. We were all out here last night seeing who we were going to play. Most of us stayed the entire extra-inning game between Marshall and Virginia Tech. So we're going to be excited to see who we play and I think it's anybody's game. Both teams are really good."
Kelsey Nunley allowed two runs - both unearned - on one hit in UK's 6-2 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kelsey Nunley is nervous every game she plays. She admitted as much after she pitched UK to victory in her first-career NCAA Tournament start on Friday.
Even so, she had little trouble dealing with the uneasiness against Marshall. Nunley tossed eight innings - allowing just one run - without once stepping into the circle with a lead.
After she pitched into extra innings with her back against the wall the night before, Nunley's teammates gave her and her nerves a reprieve on Saturday, pounding out seven hits and two home runs against Virginia Tech.
"I'm more confident in myself when we have runs," Nunley said. "That helps."
Nunley looked the part.
The freshman tossed her second complete game in less than 24 hours, carrying UK to a 6-2 victory over Virginia Tech at John Cropp Stadium. With the win - a school-record-tying 40th of the year - the Wildcats move into Sunday's final in the Lexington Regional. UK will face Notre Dame, Virginia Tech or Marshall at 1 p.m. ET with a chance to advance to a second Super Regional in three years with a win.
It's close to a lock that Nunley (26-8) will toe the rubber in that game. Considering she has allowed just one earned run on seven hits and three walks against 10 strikeouts in 15 innings of work on Friday and Saturday, it certainly makes sense for Rachel Lawson to ride her workhorse.
"We've been using and I feel confident with both Kelsey and (Lauren) Cumbess going in there and then Katie Henderson's given us some really good innings," Lawson said. "But with that said, Kelsey's won so many games for us it would be nice to see her finish the tournament tomorrow."
If not for a play in the second inning that was initially called an error but eventually changed to a hit, Nunley would enter Sunday looking for her second no-hitter in a row.
Nunley started the frame with a 2-0 lead after Lauren Cumbess hit a two-run first-inning home run, but walked the lead-off batter. The next at-bat resulted in a tapper back to the pitcher that Nunley charged. As she reached for the ball, she tweaked her left ankle and could not make the play, committing an error.
If not for the fact that Nunley is from a small town called Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and played basketball and volleyball growing up, Lawson would likely have been much more concerned about her star pitcher when she came up lame.
"The one good thing about having a country girl on your team is their parents usually just strap 'em up," Lawson said. "They don't have athletic trainers out there or anything, so they don't know any different. They just get back out there."
That's exactly what Nunley did, taking one warm-up pitch to test the ankle beforehand.
She retired the next two batters on a strikeout and groundout before hitting Kiara Ota with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. Nunley then coaxed a grounder to shortstop that looked like would end the inning, but the hard-hit ball took a big hop that Christian Stokes could not corral. After a scoring change, the play would cost Nunley a no-hitter.
"One hit, we won," Nunley said. "It doesn't matter."
Nunley is thinking much more about the way UK's ascendant offense performed.
After the Wildcats were handcuffed in a loss to South Carolina in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Lawson made it clear to her hitters that they would need to improve for UK to advance in the postseason. After pounding out 10 hits against Marshall star Andi Williamson on Friday and showing some power against three different Virginia Tech pitchers, the Cats have proven the were listening.
"I think we came out knowing that this is our time, this our stadium and we have to make sure that we own it," said Krystal Smith.
Entering the matchup with Virginia Tech, the UK second baseman had not homered in a month and a day. But on Saturday, Smith counted a two-run home run among her two hits. The blast landed on top of the batting cage over the fence in left field and provided Kentucky's final 6-2 margin.
"We've been practicing all week on the pitches that we were going to be expecting to see," Smith said. "So I think I went up there with a lot of confidence in my swing."
Confidence is a word that comes up a lot in talking to the Cats right now. If they can sustain it, UK could make a lot more noise in this NCAA Tournament.
"The fact that we came out and hit the ball hard against such a good pitcher and then today to be able to have so many different looks and to hit a couple home runs, hit the ball hard, do that is really encouraging as we move forward," Lawson said.
Nikki Sagermann had two hits and the walk-off RBI in UK's 2-1 win over Marshall on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Heading to the eighth inning, Nikki Sagermann was due up fourth as the Kentucky softball team looked to break a 1-1 extra-inning tie against Marshall at John Cropp Stadium.
She watched from the dugout as Griffin Joiner led off with a double and Lauren Cumbess was intentionally walked. Sagermann was in the on-deck circle when runners advanced to second and third on an Andi Williamson wild pitch and she quickly realized it would all come down to her.
When Marshall opted to load the bases with a second straight intentional walk, the freshman third baseman was left pondering how she would approach her potential game-winning at-bat.
"I was just thinking, 'Get a sac fly,' " Sagermann said. "Because if they catch it, they can run home easily."
But just before she strode to the plate, her head coach pulled her aside. Rachel Lawson wanted her to think in even simpler terms.
"Coach told me to get behind the ball and get the ball on my barrel," Sagermann said.
Sagermann did exactly that, delivering a clean single up the middle to score pinch runner Sarah Frazer and give UK its first-ever postseason extra-inning win and school-record-tying seventh on the season.
"I got a hit, so it's even better," Sagermann said.
Sagermann - who went 2-for-3 in her NCAA Tournament debut - did a lot more than just hit on Friday. Against a Marshall team intent on keeping the ball on the ground and capitalizing on its speed, Sagermann's glove was put to the test. She responded with a team-high six assists and three more putouts, the last of which - a leaping catch of an Alexandra Bayne line drive - preserved a tie in the top of the eighth and stranded runners on second and third.
"That was crazy," Sagermann said. "That was a lot of emotions going on. I was really happy, still am."
Sagermann's happiness was clear as she fielded questions from reporters with a nearly constant smile, though she was a bit uncomfortable talking nonstop about what an excellent game she had just played.
"She's so used to me yelling at her all the time, she doesn't know how to take all this," Lawson said.
Through the first half of the season, most of that yelling was about Sagermann's defense. Her role was mostly limited to a role as designated hitter early in the year due to defensive limitations, but Lawson believed she was capable of more. One practice, Lawson told her that she could be UK's regular third baseman by simply being consistent with the glove.
"Since then, she's been making the plays," Lawson said. "And so as a coach it was really cool for me to see her - not just that last catch that she had - she made a lot of catches in that game. To see how far she's come in such a short amount of time has really been something special."
Sagermann was joined in the postgame press conference by fellow freshman Kelsey Nunley, who pitched all eight innings to move to 25-8 on the season. Three more classmates were also in the starting lineup: shortstop Christian Stokes, centerfielder Sylver Samuel and leftfielder Maisie Steed.
"I love our freshman class," Sagermann said. "We're a big family. We love each other and our team is really accepting of us. They had really had to teach us and make us adapt to be better."
But without the commitment by the freshmen to improve, none of the five would be in this position and their team likely wouldn't either.
"It's nice to see all their hard work pay off in the postseason and win their first game," Lawson said.
A victory in their first game now sets up an opportunity for their second on short rest. UK will take on Virginia Tech - which defeated Notre Dame 4-3 - at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday. But for at least a short while, Sagermann is going to enjoy this first one.
"I just lived the dream, and I'm still living it and I have three more years of it," Sagermann said.
So how does a college freshman celebrate one of the best nights of her career?
"I usually just hang out with my family and eat," Sagermann said.
Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin are both participating in the NBA Draft Combine this week in Chicago. On Thursday, Draft Express posted a video interview with Noel - the potential No. 1 overall pick. Watch it below.
Kentucky will host an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history at John Cropp Stadium this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the University of Kentucky softball team will get back in action as the Wildcats host their first NCAA Regional in school history. UK earned the No. 12 national seed in the tournament and will square off with Marshall on Friday evening at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium. No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Virginia Tech will kick off the four-team regional at 5:00 p.m. on Friday.
Kentucky (38-18) played a tough non-conference schedule to go along with its difficult Southeastern Conference slate of games. To put in perspective how competitive the league is, the SEC had a NCAA-record 11 teams make the field of 64.
After wrapping up the regular season and SEC Tournament last weekend, the Wildcats are ecstatic to get the postseason underway and be rewarded for a year of hard work.
"It's huge for us, we've never hosted a regional and we have never been a national seed here at UK," junior Lauren Cumbess said. "It's great for the program and we have worked really hard for it so it's exciting."
For UK, it's a shot at redemption after being ousted in the first round of the SEC Tournament by South Carolina last Wednesday. The Wildcats had high hopes going into the weekend as they were hosting their first conference tourney in school history.
Kentucky came out a little slow and found itself in a hole, trailing the Gamecocks, 6-1. UK made an attempted rally in the seventh but the deficit was too much to overcome in a 6-3 defeat. The Wildcats didn't swing the bats well and freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley wasn't as dominant as she had been in the second half of the season. Having five freshman starters playing for the first time on a postseason stage didn't help matters.
The result didn't go in the Cats' favor, but UK has a rare chance to make up for the loss and give the Big Blue Nation a more deserving performance.
"I think they were shocked," Lawson said. "Last week was the first time we had played in that setting here so I think that was a great experience for our younger kids and I don't think they knew what to expect. I think they understood and I think they were very disappointed in their performance last week and they are looking for another opportunity to prove that they are one of the best teams in the country."
UK has had all week to prepare for the regional this weekend and players can go through several mood changes in a week's time. Coming off the loss to USC, one might think the Wildcats are questioning themselves, but Cumbess in confident that's no issue.
"We were all real excited when we found out we were going to host," Cumbess said. "Practice has been really upbeat and everybody is trying to get better and improve the little things each day. Everybody has been in a really good mood and we are having fun. We play our best when we are having fun."
The Lexington Regional is regarded as one of the toughest regions in the country. Marshall, the Conference USA Tournament champion, is no slouch as the No. 4 seed. The Thundering Herd gave the Cats all they could handle back on April 4 in Lexington in a game UK would rally to win, 4-3, on a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll. It starts in the circle for Marshall, where senior Andi Williamson (32-16) has a 2.01 earned-run average with an astonishing 344 strikeouts in 296 innings pitched.
If UK is fortunate enough to get past Marshall, the Cats will face the winner of Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. The Fighting Irish are making their 18th NCAA appearance and enter the game having won 17 of 20 games. Virginia Tech is also an experienced bunch that is playing in its sixth NCAA Tournament and second straight.
With such a tough region, it's going to be very important for Kentucky to play as few games as possible this weekend by staying in the winner's bracket of the double-elimination tournament.
"It's crucial to come out strong," Lawson said. "Certainly teams can come from behind, that has definitely happened before, but anytime you can stay in the winner's bracket, that means your pitchers are fresh and that keeps the crowd coming back and that's more of a confidence booster."
Senior Kara Dill has played sparingly for Kentucky due to a broken hand, but has seen at bats in the last two games, delivering a pinch hit against Alabama and filling in as designated player vs. South Carolina. Dill, who has been UK's leading hitter over the last couple of seasons, batted in the eight-hole against the Gamecocks and Lawson says with more repetitions this week she is considering inserting her back into the top of the order, which would help jumpstart Kentucky's offense.
The Wildcats' want to make a different impression on their fans this time around and as the host and the favorite of the regional, their goal is to make it to super regionals. The recipe for success for the Cats is simple.
"We are going to have to do a good job offensively and we are going to have to attack good pitches," Lawson said. "We have to execute, put the ball in play, hit behind runners, bunt and do all those things you need to do because every pitcher is good. Then I think we have to have a strong showing on the mound by both Nunley and Cumbess. I think in order for us to go further it has to start with those two things."
Kevin Lai (left) and Tom Jomby (right) will look to get UK off to a strong start in doubles Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Classes are out for summer, but the Kentucky men's tennis team has continued schooling its opponents thus far in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have outclassed both Western Michigan and Virginia Tech en route to yet another Sweet 16, the first under first-year head coach Cedric Kauffmann.
With the spring semester in the rear view mirror, Kauffmann's players have been able to put their sole focus on the game of tennis and making a deep run into the postseason.
"I think they're a little bit more relaxed. They're done with their exams," said Kauffmann. "We had an excellent semester in the classroom (men's tennis scholarship student athletes combined for a 3.12 grade-point average). It was kind of a busy spring with both tennis and school, so I think they're a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more smiles, but we have a tough task ahead."
That tough task goes by the name of a familiar heated rival: Duke.
The UK vs. Duke rivalry is always a heated matchup on the hardwood and this Sweet 16 matchup between No. 8 Kentucky and No. 9 Duke at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., should live up to those standards.
The Blue Devils, perceived as one of the nation's top teams in the preseason, have won 18 matches this year in which they did not surrender a point to their opponents. The Wildcats, by comparison, have only managed eight such victories, although they play the Southeastern Conference, a tennis powerhouse.
"They're a very, very talented team," said Kauffmann. "I think at the beginning of the year they were kind of projected to be a top-three, top-four team. I think of all the matches they've played, 16 or 17 have not gotten a point off them. It's going to be a tough match."
Kauffmann says the key will be taking the first point up for grabs in doubles. From there, it will make the task of bringing Duke down and advancing to the Elite Eight much easier. So far in the NCAA Tournament, that's been the first part of UK's lesson plan
In each of the first two rounds, Kentucky has jumped out to a quick one-point advantage with doubles victories thanks to the play of duos Tom Jomby and Kevin Lai; Beck Pennington and Ryuji Hirooka; and Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra. Each tandem has been instrumental in either the first or second rounds in helping UK achieve the doubles point.
"I think it's good because we won the doubles in both, so we have a little bit of momentum," said Kauffmann. "Only one player lost and Beck (Pennington) was hurt, so nobody in the singles round lost a match. If we had anyone playing in the lineup that had lost two matches, it might hurt us a little bit just because there may be doubts, but everyone is playing pretty good."
Most importantly, Kentucky's No. 1 and No. 2 players in Rossi and Jomby have answered the bell in the first two rounds. Rossi battled WMU's No. 1 in a match that was eventually abandoned when junior Grant Roberts clinched the first-round match on the court beside Rossi. He then went on to dominate Virginia Tech's No. 1 player, making quick work in straight sets. Jomby has overwhelmed each of his opponents playing No. 2.
The Wildcats' one-two punch will give them a chance against anyone they play in this tournament.
"They have one of the best No. 1s in the country, but on our end we have one of the best No. 1s in the country," said Kauffmann. "We believe in Rossi. We believe our one-two punch can play with anyone in the country like I said in the first couple rounds."
As UK advances deeper and deeper into the tournament, the pressure will mount. That's OK according to Kauffmann because they've been preparing for pressure moments like this all season.
"I hope it mounts a little bit because I think they understand it's the end of the year and if we lose, we're going to go home," said Kauffmann. "We try to put pressure on every match through the year through the fall and the spring.
"I hope because we've done that, there's not going to be a big gap in the difference of pressure between September, January, until now. I hope there's a small jump, but not a big jump. If it was a big jump, I'd tell you my guys will play really tight. We kind of stress that every match."
Kentucky doesn't expect to be able to roll over its opponent Thursday night. While the Cats have been able to put strong matches together and win 4-0 and 4-1, Kauffmann is still looking for his team to play strong across the board for all seven points. Going up against an opponent like Duke, there would be no better time than now for his team to put together a complete match.
"We've got to be ready and we've got to play seven points," said Kauffmann. "If we're only going to play four or five points against a team like Duke then we're not going to get through."
For that to happen, it's all going to come down to just how much his freshmen gained from their first two matches in the NCAA Tournament and their first collegiate season. With three freshmen in the starting lineup, it's going to be up to them if Kentucky is going to maximize its potential.
"I think our youngsters have gone through the first and second rounds and know what it's about," said Kauffmann. "I'm still waiting for our seven points to be played and I hope it comes Thursday."
The true key for success will come down to if Kentucky continues to play its brand of tennis. The Wildcats have done that so far in the tournament, and it will be crucial for UK to continue to impose its will on its opponents the rest of the way.
When the Wildcats take the court against Duke, they'll look to play the role of professor and let the summer schooling continue.
"If we're playing our game, we're going to be fine and have a chance to win," said Kauffmann. "If we're playing someone else's game, it's going to be very tough. We're going to have to execute our game plan that we have given them for their game."
The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fifth as Kentucky head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The timing of John Calipari's Wednesday press conference was a bit strange.
It had been nearly two months since the end of the 2012-13 season, so there wasn't a lot to talk about on that front. Kentucky's underclassmen made their NBA Draft decisions well over a month ago, so those stories were a bit stale. As for Coach Cal's latest top-rated recruiting class, they all signed nearly four weeks ago and won't arrive on campus for another two or three.
Nonetheless, dozens of reporters packed the Memorial Coliseum media room to hear what Coach Cal had to say on a mid-May morning in a scene that would likely only happen in the Bluegrass.
"I don't even know what this is," said an amazed and unsurprised Calipari.
In effect, it was a mini-media day. Calipari was previewing a season of sorts similar to what he'll do during the real thing in about five months, but there weren't any games or even Big Blue Madness to discuss just yet. Instead, the summer - during which the Wildcats will lay the foundation for the team they'll become - was a primary topic of conversation.
The first step will be for Calipari to determine exactly how he will handle the Cats when they return to/arrive in Lexington in June. With that in mind, Coach Cal is taking the entire basketball staff on a retreat beginning next Monday.
"We're going to have a two-day retreat and what we're primarily going to be doing is (figuring out), 'What do each of these kids need from us?' " Calipari said. "Because every one of these kids we're bringing in need to be coached and they need something from us."
Molding his coaching strategy to each of his players will be a particular challenge this season, if only due to simple arithmetic. With eight newcomers and five returnees on scholarship, Calipari will have the deepest team of his UK tenure. That means the message of unselfishness he delivers every year will be even more important.
"More than any team I've had, shared sacrifice is going to matter in this group," Calipari said. "And they knew that coming here. I told every one of them, 'If you want to shoot 30 balls a game, you don't come here. If you want to be the only guy that's playing - the one guy that everybody's talking about - you wouldn't come here.' "
As well as every Cat might understand that in theory, putting into practice is another matter entirely.
"To bring that many together, really going to be a challenge," Calipari said. "The galvanizing part of this will start this summer."
That's why Coach Cal is so committed to pursuing every means to that end, even if he has to do things differently than he's used to.
"We have some other things that we're going to do as a team that I have not done in the past that I think will help this team come together," Calipari said. "Some of it is we will watch some movies together of some teams coming together, of what they had to do to sacrifice for each other."
Movies aside, he didn't reveal many details about his plans just yet, but you can rest assured they are informed in part by this past year. Calipari made sure to point out there were elements of UK's NIT season he is proud of, including one thing he believes could pay dividends in 2013-14.
"It's not just 'Did they get better?' It's 'Did they learn about themselves?' " Calipari said. "Because sometimes you learn about yourself in a season - Are you ready? Marquis Teague - and you change it in the season. Sometimes you can't. You're just too young.
"They learn about themselves in a season, know that this isn't going to work, they change and they get better. So part of last season was the beginnings of success for the coming year."
Calipari also did his share of learning during a trying year. He's not about to abandon his players-first philosophy, but Coach Cal has also come to understand shielding players too much can do harm.
"What you learn is you can't protect the players," Calipari said. "You can't protect them from competition. You bring in your group, and the guys that understand competition, that brings out the best. They strive and they get better."
He didn't say the exact phrase as he so often does, but it's clear Coach Cal "likes his team" once more. That begins with the personality he expects it to have.
He was asked on Wednesday about UK's signees saying at the McDonald's All-American Game - where six future Wildcats played - there would be fights at practices next season and Calipari said he likes that mentality, so long as those fights are forgotten outside the Joe Craft Center gym.
"It will drag us to where we're trying to go," Calipari said. "I'm going to tell you: Two years ago we did not have a bad practice. Not one. So that led us to building a swagger and a confidence level that we knew we could win every game we play, we just, let's be at our best and if we weren't and someone got us, fine, next game."
The first reason Calipari cited for his national title team's consistent practice habits was the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Now, Coach Cal believes he has at least a couple players - Julius Randle, to name one - who will bring similar effort and a willingness to demand it out of their teammates.
"When you don't have that alpha male at all, you have to do things to try to lead yourself as a coach, and your team can never have the type of success you want," Calipari said. "You try to figure out who that could be or who could step up. A lot of times they are who they are in that regard - those guys who will step up and hold and push the group and not be afraid. That's what you're looking for when you have a good team."
Because he sees that potential, Calipari isn't exactly running away and hiding from the 40-0 buzz surrounding his team. He won't be talking about an undefeated record directly to his team, but the fact that the notion and is out there doesn't scare him even though UK's first loss won't destroy all hope of a successful season.
"Pressure brings out the best," Calipari said. " 'You're going to be fired if you don't get this done. You're not going to make it if you don't get this.' It wakes you up earlier in the morning. I don't mind a little pressure. I've had it my whole career. I've had a gun to my head for 20-something years, and you know what? I'm at my best when the gun is to my head versus where I can kick back and I'm not as good. And you know what? Players are the same."
English transfer Ben Stow and UK look to break through at NCAA Regionals in Fayetteville, Ark., this week. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Expectations were high for Ben Stow when crossed the Atlantic Ocean to join the Kentucky men's golf team. The former No. 2 ranked player according to the European Ranking System and a native of Salisbury, England, Stow was perceived as the missing link in Kentucky's lineup.
Those expectations, though lofty and perhaps unrealistic, are yet to be realized, and the transition from links-style golf in Europe to the American game has taken longer than expected.
While Stow hoped to hit the ground running after being able to train with his teammates in the fall season, he believed his game would translate in the U.S. with a little bit of tweaking. What he found was that he was perhaps a bit overzealous in his outlook.
"It has been a little difficult because you have to hit the ball so much higher over here and chipping on the different grass you have over here is very different," said Stow. "Certainly the first three or four tournaments I played I wasn't ready for the change."
Stow says that the physical conditions of the courses have been the hardest to get used to. The differences in grass have forced him to adjust his game and change his overall approach. In England, there are harder fairways that allow low, line-drive tee shots to roll. In the rough, "meadow" grass allows for easier chipping situations around the green.
Each of those factors has played a role in keeping Stow from being the player he's used to being.
The physical game of golf hasn't been the only hindrance to Stow's success, however.
After spending a great deal of his career with swing coach Gordon Brand, Jr., Stow separated himself from his greatest golf influence. Not only that, but Brand took time off and was completely off the grid for Stow as he experienced his struggles in America.
Stow had to take this challenge on by himself.
"I was one of the best players in Europe," said Stow. "But when I came over here, I kept finishing 20th and 15th and stuff, it kind of made me step back and think, 'What am I doing differently and what do I need to improve on?' I think that process took me longer than it would have if I was at home because of the fact that I didn't have instant correspondence with my coach.
"Overall, I think it's been a really good learning experience for me because every golfer goes through a period when they're struggling and it really shows your character on how you come out on the other side of it."
After experiencing so much success as an individual on the European circuit, Stow was in for a brand-new experience at Kentucky playing golf as a member of a team for the first time in his life.
Having always focused on himself, playing for others and not having the sole attention of the coaches has been as big of a challenge as any he's faced during his time in the States. Add to that the additional amount of pressure he felt to produce and be make the instant impact his coaches and teammates were hoping for, it's no wonder why things haven't gone as planned for the English native.
"I've never played team golf like they do in the States, so that was very different," said Stow. "The fact that the coach structures everything around the team rather than the individual and everything is set up for the team. Kind of at the end of the day, you look at how the team did and not how you did. It was different.
"I did feel a little pressure to help the team along because I played very well in qualifying when I first got here and I've got pretty good world rankings, so I expected to play well."
While there were outside expectations, Stow's confidence and internal expectations were just as high when, in reality, producing under such conditions wouldn't be easy.
"For the first couple of months I was here, I thought I was going to go out and shoot 65 every time I went out, when realistically no one does that in the world," said Stow. "I'm not going to say it's been easy because it's been tough. Who likes playing bad? But I'm glad I've been through it and I definitely feel like I'm out the other side of it now because even when I'm playing badly I'm making pretty good scores."
With an NCAA Regional ahead, Stow believes he's finally ready to be the contributor this team needs him to be. He's learned from his mistakes and still managed to earn several top-20 finishes along the way. He has altered his game and is starting to understand American-style golf more than at any point during his time in the country.
Though he and his teammates have not delivered on the hopes and expectations they set for themselves at the beginning on the spring, there is still one last opportunity to make their mark when they head to Fayetteville, Ark., for regional play beginning Thursday.
"We always thought that we'd get it going and start playing better, but we never really did," said Stow. "I think since postseason, some guys have shot really well. Some of the guys have put some really good rounds together. We've spent a lot of time together, which kind of brought the team to easing up a bit. I think the morale of the team is definitely up since the end of the regular season, but I think there's still room to work on that."
Some strong early results out of the gate tomorrow could go a long way in helping the Wildcats reach their goal of Nationals with a strong finish at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville. With morale trending upward and Stow finally feeling ready to be the player he knows he can be, the NCAA Regional serves as the last chance for Stow and Co. to realize their preseason expectations when they tee off Thursday at 9 a.m. ET.
"I would just say to them, 'Guys, we need to do the easy stuff well. We need to do the simple stuff well,' " said Stow. "We have got the ability to play great golf on this UK golf team. We've got the ability, we just need to go out there and believe in ourselves and do the simple things well. At the end of the week, add them up, and I'm sure we'll be at the top of the leader board."
Micheal Thomas hit his third home run of the season in UK's 5-3 win over No. 15 Indiana on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The way things have gone lately for the Kentucky baseball team, it was natural to wonder whether the Wildcats would let a little doubt creep in during the seventh inning.
After leading throughout in its home finale, UK surrendered two runs in the top of the inning as No. 15 Indiana took a 3-2 lead. But before the Cats could even ask themselves the question of whether they would respond, Micheal Thomas led off the home half by putting a charge into an 0-1 pitch.
"Micheal came up and ran that ball out of the yard and got everybody excited," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Now you're tied, you've got the right part of the lineup coming up."
Thomas drove Luke Harrison's pitch over the wall in left field, changing the dynamic all over again. Matt Reida singled next and Zach Storm bunted him to second. Leadoff man Kyle Barrett followed with a walk before Zac Zellers flew out, setting up A.J. Reed - who had already homered on the evening - for a two-out at-bat with a pair of runners on.
Reed delivered a single and the go-ahead run. An inning later, Reida added an insurance run with a single that scored Austin Cousino, giving the Cats a 5-3 lead that would be more than enough for their star closer. Trevor Gott struck out two of the three batters he faced en route to his 12th save and UK (29-22) picked up an important win with just three regular-season games remaining.
"This was definitely a huge game for us for our regional purposes," Reed said. "Them being 15th in the country, that win on paper looks really good for us. So I think this really increases our chances of getting into a regional and we gotta go take care of business in Missouri."
Reed opined that UK needs two wins in Columbia, Mo., to ensure its place in the NCAA Tournament while some experts say a sweep is needed, but the Cats aren't spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about all that.
"Our coaches try not to talk about it a lot because they want us to just go out there and relax," Reed said. "But we know what we need to do so we just do our best to go out here and take care of business."
A victory over a team leading the Big Ten is certainly a plus for a team looking to solidify its tourney resume, but the confidence built through earning it could be even more important.
Indiana came in ranked seventh nationally in earned-run average, but the Cats pounded out 10 hits and those two home runs. The performance comes on the heels of a weekend during which UK didn't pick up a win, but did pound out a pair of double-digit hit games.
"We started off really well at the beginning of the year and then when conference started we kind started dropping off a little bit and then we faced the two best pitching staffs in the country two weeks in a row with Arkansas and Vandy," Reed said. "We outhit the expectations of those two pitching staffs. So we're putting really good at-bats together, I think our hitters are starting to get confidence and it should be a really good weekend for us in Missouri."
The confidence is translating into a better approach at the plate.
"It's aggressive," Henderson said. "You guys see it. The body language is different. The presence is different."
That goes for the pitcher who started for UK on Tuesday as well.
For the second Tuesday in a row, Jerad Grundy excelled as UK's midweek starter. The win escaped him, but he allowed just one run over six innings and Henderson said the senior lefthander was in "complete control" outside of a Dustin DeMuth home run.
"It was huge for my confidence tonight to come out and have success again the second week in a row," Grundy said.
In all likelihood, Grundy will be an observer only this weekend in anticipation of next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament. But if his teammates can replicate the approach they all took on Tuesday, it will serve them well against Missouri.
"The only thing I told them is they need to go down there with the expectation that they need to take the wins," Henderson said. "You can't go down hoping. I don't know that we've done a lot of hoping this year. We certainly haven't played up to our expectations at times, but we need to go down with the right attitude."
Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, UK Athletics operates as one of the only self-sufficient departments in the nation. Each day, we work to prove ourselves worthy of that support.
This year, we are proud of our efforts. We are on pace for the best Directors' Cup finish in school history - we rank 20th after the conclusion of the winter sports season - and our student-athletes have excelled in the classroom and the community as well.
But at the annual CATSPY Awards in April, Mitch Barnhart challenged everyone involved with UK Athletics to do more. He challenged student-athletes, coaches and staff to become the nation's best overall athletic department.
It is with that in mind that the K Fund introduces the "Big Blue Initiative."
From May 1 through June 30, the program - which is entirely philanthropic - will offer the opportunity to impact the lives of our student-athletes and Invest In Blue once more. Each dollar will go into our annual fund, which ensures the success of the student-athletes, providing everything from scholarships to athletic equipment to books to meals. We will be sending more information about the Big Blue Initiative to current donors in the coming days and weeks.
To join, donors need only increase their annual giving by 15 percent. If you gave $100 in 2012-13, we are asking that you give an additional $15 before June 30. If you gave $1,000 in 2012-13, that means an additional $150.
Beyond helping UK push toward our athletics director's bold vision, participants will receive the added benefit of a tax deduction and five bonus K Fund points on top of the regular three points per $100 donation.
To become the country's top athletic department, it will take tireless effort and determination on the part of our coaches, but it won't be possible at all without your support. Please consider taking this important step with us.
If you have any questions about the Big Blue Initiative, feel free to contact the K Fund at 859-257-6300 or visit KFundonline.com.
With competition in NCAA-sanctioned winter sports in the books, UK Athletics is on pace for the best Directors' Cup finish in school history. UK ranks 20th in the latest standings, one of the key metrics used by Mitch Barnhart to evaluate the program's progress in competition.
With spring sports still in action on the field, a historic 2012-13 is already secure for UK Athletics in the classroom.
UK's competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a cumulative grade-point average of 3.14 this spring, the highest for a single semester during Barnhart's tenure. The record academic semester comes on the heels of a fall semester during which competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a 3.030 GPA.
"When I established the goal of a 3.0 overall GPA for our department, I knew I was setting the bar high," Barnhart said. "To reach it for an entire athletic year for the first time is an accomplishment our student-athletes should be very proud of. I commend and thank them for their hard work."
***See below for complete grade information for each sport***
Sixteen of UK's 20 teams had GPAs of 3.0 or better, led by women's tennis at 3.69. Four teams joined women's tennis in posting GPAs higher than 3.5: women's soccer (3.62), women's swimming and diving (3.60), women's cross country (3.59) and women's golf (3.53). Leading the way for the Wildcat men's teams was men's basketball at 3.39.
"I am continually impressed by the way our student-athletes, coaches and staff embrace academics as an important part of our mission," Barnhart said. "We are identified first by what we do in competition, but we are out to prove an athletic department can excel in all facets."
The collective achievement this spring has been matched by numerous individual accomplishments as well, as 47 scholarship student-athletes earned a 4.0 this spring semester. In addition, 39 percent of scholarship athletes had GPAs of 3.5 or better and 70 percent were at 3.0 or better. UK also led all Southeastern Conference schools with 57 student-athletes on the league's Winter Sports Academic Honor Roll.
Not included in that group because her sport is not played in the winter is Chelsea Oswald (women's cross country/track), but she was named the SEC's H. Boyd McWhorter Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year in April. Megan Moir (women's golf) also was named the Brad Davis SEC Female Community Service Leader of the Year, marking the first time since 1999 UK student-athletes have won both prestigious conference awards.
Note: All GPAs listed above are for competing scholarship student-athletes only. GPAs including non-scholarship athletes are listed in the chart below.
Softball - For the fifth consecutive season the University of Kentucky softball team has received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament with the selection committee naming Kentucky as the No. 12 national seed and one of 16 regional host locations for the first time in program history. - This is the fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in school history for Kentucky, who made its first showing in the tournament in 2009. The Wildcats hosted a NCAA Super Regional in 2011, dropping a best-of-three set to highly ranked Cal. All-time, UK is 8-8 in the NCAA Tournament. All tournament appearances have come under head coach Rachel Lawson. UK is one of 23 schools nationally to advance to five straight NCAA Tournaments. - Kentucky has earned 38 wins this season - the second most in school history - against some of the best teams in the nation, posting a 13-11 record in SEC action. Before falling in the first round of the SEC Tournament last week, Lawson and Co., had a historic weekend in Tuscaloosa, Ala., taking two of three games from top-10 ranked and defending national champion Alabama. The wins in Tuscaloosa were the first in school history for UK and its first-ever series win against the Tide.
Men's tennis - Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-straight season, a program first. UK collected wins over Western Michigan (4-0) and No. 41 Virginia Tech (4-1) to book its spot in Champaign, Ill. - Kentucky won the doubles point for the third straight match as the newly-formed tandem of Juan Pablo Murra and Anthony Rossi went 2-0 on the weekend with an 8-1 win on Friday and an 8-3 victory on Saturday afternoon. - Kentucky will take on the Duke Blue Devils, ranked No. 9 in the country, in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m. ET. The match against the Blue Devils will be the Wildcats unprecedented 11th contest this season against teams that currently comprise the ITA top 10.
Track and field - Both the UK men's and women's teams finished seventh overall with 46 points each at the SEC Outdoor Championships. - The women's team earned its highest finish and point total since 2009 (sixth and 56th). - The Wildcat men's team had its highest finish and point total since 2011 (seventh and 54th). - Kentucky finished the 2013 SEC Championships with eight medals, two gold, three silver and three bronze. - Chelsea Oswald became the first ever Wildcat to win at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the same SEC Championships. - Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand all earned silver medals in the discus, javelin and 1,500 meters respectively.
Baseball - The Kentucky baseball team completed a grueling stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes with a three-game series sweep at the hands of No. 1 Vanderbilt. The Wildcats picked up a midweek win over Wright State, before falling in the three-game set at the hands of the record-breaking Dores. - The Wildcats picked up a 4-1 midweek win over Wright State on Tuesday behind a strong start from senior Jerad Grundy, in his midweek debut, and a three-hit game from freshman Kyle Barrett. - UK has been led at the plate by Barrett, who owns a .351 mark with four doubles, one triple, 14 RBI and four steals. - On the mound, UK has used the weekend rotation of Reed (2-7, 3.81 ERA), freshman righthander Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.82 ERA) and Littrell (5-5, 3.92 ERA) for two consecutive weeks. Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) has also made 12 starts with 71.2 innings and 58 strikeouts.
Women's golf - The women's golf team wrapped up its season at the NCAA East Regional last week at the Auburn University Club, May 9-11. UK finished in 12th place in the 24-team regional, shooting 33-over-par for the tournament. - With the top-eight teams from the regional advancing to the NCAA Championships, the Wildcats' 12th place finish concluded their season but was their highest finish at the regionals in head coach Golda Borst's three-year tenure. Cylia Damerau, Sarah Harris and Betsie Johnson all tied for 60th at 9-over-par. - Kentucky broke the single-season record with a team stroke average of 301.1, shattering the previous school-record of 304.73 set last season. - Senior Ashleigh Albrecht wrapped up her career as one of the most decorative women's golfers in UK history. Her season stroke average of 75.07 was the lowest all-time at Kentucky, surpassing Mallory Blackwelder's mark of 75.34 set during the 2007-08 campaign. She also tied her own record with eight par or better rounds in 2012-13 and finished her career with the most par or better rounds in school history with 26.
Tuesday, May 14 Baseball hosts Indiana - 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, May 16 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Men's tennis vs. Duke - 8:00 p.m. (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Friday, May 17 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball hosts Marshall - 7:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis vs. UCLA/Vanderbilt (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Saturday, May 18 Softball hosts Notre Dame/Michigan - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 6:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Sunday, May 19 Softball championship series - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Head coach Rachel Lawson has guided the Wildcats to hosting their first NCAA Regional in school history. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team gathered together Sunday night at a local restaurant to watch the 2013 NCAA Division I Softball Selection Show. With players, coaches and a large portion of the UK athletics department in attendance, there was a feel that the night would be special for the softball program.
As each regional was being revealed, eyes throughout the restaurant were glued to the big-screen televisions. With anticipation rising, the Wildcats popped on the screen as the No. 12 overall seed and the host of the Lexington Regional.
The selection marks the first time UK has been awarded a host site in school history and is another example of how far the program has come under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson.
"It's great to see in such a short time how Kentucky has improved in softball," Lawson said. "To be able to be one of the 16 teams to host a regional is really an honor."
The moment was extra special for senior Alice O'Brien, who has another chance to play at home in front of the Big Blue Nation.
"I don't think I have ever been more excited," O'Brien said. "This is awesome. We have worked really hard for this and we are really excited to play at home and in front of our fans."
The regional will begin on Friday at John Cropp Stadium with No. 2 seeded Notre Dame (43-13) taking on No. 3 seeded Virginia Tech (35-19) at 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, with the nightcap featuring the No. 1 seeded Wildcats (38-18) vs. No. 4 seeded Marshall (35-20) at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN3.com will televise all games played at the regional.
Marshall is a familiar foe for UK with the Wildcats having played the Thundering Herd back on April 9. The game was a tight one as the Cats used a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll in comeback fashion in Lexington, 4-3. Notre Dame and Virginia Tech will be new opponents for UK to prepare for this season but offer strong competition for what is regarded as a tough overall regional.
"I think we have a good regional and I think the teams in it are excellent," Lawson said. "We played Marshall before and it was a good game and both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame have had good seasons. It's going to be a tough region and I think it's going to be a really exciting time in Lexington."
Kentucky played one of the most strenuous schedules in the entire country this year and a large part of that has to do with the conference in which the Wildcats compete. The SEC had an incredible 11 of its 13 teams selected into the NCAA Tournament last night, including seven as regional hosts.
The season has been a grind for the Cats and it will be a breath of fresh air to see a few new teams and face some different pitchers.
"Anytime you are out of SEC play its fun for a short amount of time because they know you so well and they have played you so many times," Lawson said. "With that said, I think all the teams I the region are outstanding so we are going to have to play as well against them as we would against any top-notch SEC team."
Last weekend UK hosted its first ever SEC Tournament. The event set an attendance record with more than 12,000 fans making their way to John Cropp Stadium over the weekend. The Wildcats are hoping for more of that same love from the Big Blue Nation this weekend. With the Cats losing to South Carolina in the first round of the conference tournament last Wednesday, they are glad they get to experience the true atmosphere of what they missed out on last week.
"I hope they come out like they did at the SEC Tournament," O'Brien said. "I'm sure they will and we are looking forward to playing in front of our fans. We didn't really get the chance to last weekend so we are really excited about it."
Overall Record: 28-22, 10-17 SEC Record Last Week: 1-3, 0-3 SEC
Recent Results Tuesday, May 7 - won vs. Wright State, 4-1 Saturday, May 11 - lost vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, 3-11 Saturday, May 11 - lost vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, 3-5 Sunday, May 11 - lost vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, 5-10
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Tuesday, May 14 - vs. No. 14 Indiana - 6:30 p.m. [HOME FINALE] (Fox Sports South) Thursday, May 16 - at Missouri - 7 p.m. Friday, May 17 - at Missouri - 7 p.m. Saturday, May 18 - at Missouri - 2 p.m.
Team notes The Kentucky baseball team completed a grueling stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes with a three-game series sweep at the hands of No. 1 Vanderbilt. The Wildcats picked up a midweek win over Wright State, before falling in the three-game set at the hands of the record-breaking Dores.
Kentucky (28-22, 10-17 Southeastern Conference) will host No. 14 Indiana on Tuesday in the home finale at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then conclude the regular-season with a three-game series at Missouri, with the first pitch of the lidlifter in Columbia, Mo., slated for 7 p.m. ET on Thursday.
The Wildcats picked up a 4-1 midweek win over Wright State on Tuesday behind a strong start from senior Jerad Grundy, in his midweek debut, and a three-hit game from freshman Kyle Barrett. After Friday's game with the powerhouse Dores was pushed to a Saturday doubleheader, VU jumped on UK standout starter A.J. Reed in the opener for 10 runs en route to an 11-3 win. In the finale of the doubleheader, VU posted a 5-3 win, as the Wildcats stranded the game-tying run on second base. On Sunday, Vandy got eight runs off UK starter Corey Littrell en route to a 10-5 win, with UK getting a monster homer from Reed and a two-run bomb from Max Kuhn - his second home run of the weekend.
UK has been led at the plate by Barrett, who owns a .351 mark with four doubles, one triple, 14 RBI and four steals. J.T. Riddle has hit .292 with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 19 RBI, stealing six bags. Reed owns a .286 mark with eight doubles, two triples, 12 homers and 49 RBI, while Austin Cousino has hit .257 with 12 doubles, one triple, six homers and 25 RBI, swiping 12 bases. Kuhn has hit .246 with eight doubles, one triple, five homers and 29 RBI. Senior Zac Zellers has hit .244 with three homers, 25 RBI and seven steals.
On the mound, UK has used the weekend rotation of Reed (2-7, 3.81 ERA), freshman right-hander Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.82 ERA) and Littrell (5-5, 3.92 ERA) for two consecutive weeks. Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) has also made 12 starts with 71.2 innings and 58 strikeouts.
In relief, senior Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.98 ERA) has a staff-best 25 outings, with junior Trevor Gott (4-1, 1.29 ERA) saving 11 games in 28 innings. Righty Chandler Shepherd (4-0, 3.26 ERA) has appeared in 22 games and hurled 47.1 frames, with UK also getting strong collegiate debuts from freshmen Ryne Combs (0-0, 2.01 ERA), Zach Strecker (1-1, 2.35 ERA) and Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 3.86 ERA).
UK's No. 1 Anthony Rossi won in straight sets to help UK advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The first round of the NCAA Tournament served as a warm-up for the Wildcats. They handled Western Michigan and knocked off some rust after having three weeks off from competition.
The win gave the Cats the chance to advance to the second round but also see how they would respond to such a short layoff between matches. And then rain moved in to the Lexington area and forced all four teams to play indoors at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex.
On Saturday, UK was matched with the region's No. 3 seed in Virginia Tech, a team that had been hot and just pulled off an upset over No. 2 seed Michigan. The Wildcats looked even sharper after getting a match under their belts and getting back outside.
"The first day was pretty tough," said senior Anthony Rossi. "We've practiced for the last two weeks outside, so it was tough to adjust. I think today everybody played much better, so that was a good day."
Rossi, Kentucky's No. 1 singles player and No. 5 nationally, looked the part Saturday after defeating Virginia Tech's Amerigo Contin in straight sets (6-0, 6-2). Getting back outside was key to his success.
"I was struggling a little bit yesterday inside," said Rossi. "It was tough to adjust. I have to give credit to (Western Michigan's Nadin Indre). He played a good match."
Rossi and Indre were still in the middle of their second set when junior Grant Roberts clinched the match Friday for the Wildcats. Saturday, Rossi finished up early and had a chance to watch Roberts perform the same task to send Kentucky to its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
Next to Rossi on the main courts, junior Tom Jomby continued his dominance and made quick work of Tech's Andreas Bjerrehus (6-1, 6-2).
With Rossi and Jomby singles victories paired with their doubles point they earned, Kentucky led 3-1 and needed one more point for the victory. And once again, it was Roberts with a chance to clinch an NCAA Tournament victory for the second consecutive day.
"I'm just playing with a lot of confidence right now," said Roberts. "I've just been working on my game and being more aggressive. It's just been paying off."
In the most crucial time of the season, Kentucky's upperclassmen are taking the reins. With three freshmen in the singles lineup and key components of the doubles lineups, the postseason is the time for the veterans to step up and lead their team to victory. They're doing just that.
"It's important because we have to show the example every day," said Rossi. "We have to show them that even if we won the doubles today the match was not over."
But for all intents and purposes, it wasn't long after Kentucky won that doubles point that the match would end. Kentucky appears to be playing some of its best tennis of the year and peaking at the right moment.
"Our one-two punch is very tough," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "Grant is back into shape, Beck (Pennington) has been playing really, really well. He's turning into a leader. Kevin (Lai)'s been playing really good."
Though Kentucky came up short of its goal of winning a championship during the season, there is still one out there to be had. Going to its fourth straight Sweet 16 - the first under Kauffmann - gives the Cats validation that they are one of the best tennis programs in the country.
"We're one of the elites for sure, and it's only getting better," said Roberts. "We've had some great years, but I think Cedric's definitely going to keep building and getting this program better and better until we're top five and making Final Fours, finals and hopefully winning championships."
Kentucky now has an opportunity to move one step closer to that coveted championship: the NCAA Tournament title. That can only happen, however, if their next match in the round of 16 is the most important one on their schedule.
"We're going to put all of our eggs in one basket," said Kauffmann. "Our championship is against the team that we're going to play. I don't care about the other 14 teams in the draw. We'll just look at who we play and we'll try to knock them out."
No. 8 Kentucky will play the tournament's No. 9 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 in Urbana, Ill., on the campus of the University of Illinois on May 16 at 7 p.m. With Kentucky missing out on its championship so far this season, the Cats will have to get through the Blue Devils to win their coveted title. But after missing out on all three, the Wildcats are more than motivated to rectify that situation before all is said and done.
"It definitely fuels our fire," said Roberts. "This is our last one. We're really hungry. We really want to go out on top especially for our senior, for Rossi who has been such a big part of this program for four years. We definitely want to send him out on a good note."
Freshman Kevin Lai picked up a point in singles to help UK advance to the NCAA Tournament second round. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Rainy spring weather moved the first round of the NCAA Men's Tennis Tournament indoors on Friday afternoon, but that didn't keep the Wildcats from handling Western Michigan and advancing to face Virginia Tech in the second round Saturday afternoon.
Looking to start a deep tournament run, the Wildcats came out blazing, earning the doubles point on the strength of not their No. 1 doubles team comprised of junior Tom Jomby and freshman Kevin Lai, but due to the performances on courts two and three.
The tandems of Ryuji Hirooka and Beck Pennington combined with the duo of Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra gave Kentucky two quick decisive match victories, winning 8-3 and 8-1 respectively.
After having nearly two weeks off, it was important to grab that doubles point and strike quickly against a scrappy Western Michigan squad.
"I thought the intensity was really, really good," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "I think it's going to hopefully carry on to tomorrow, but I thought we played some of our best doubles today."
Though Jomby was unable to make a mark in the doubles point, he and Lai were well on their way to winning their doubles match point, he was the first off the court Friday with a dominating performance over his first-round opponent Ross VanderPloeg. Jomby made quick work of his foe, taking set one 6-0 before discarding VanderPloeg 6-4 in the second set.
Jomby's running mate in doubles, Lai, was busy making noise of his own on court No. 4, and quite literally.
From the other side of the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center indoor facility, Lai could be heard yelling in celebration, point after point as he drew nearer and nearer to a victory for his team with the Cats leading 2-0. Lai got off to a great start in doubles with Jomby, playing a great match which was ultimately abandoned due to UK's clinch, and he carried his play over to singles.
He took the first set with relative ease, taking it 6-2. He was in for a battle in the second set, however, from his opponent Ruben Greiner.
That's when the intensity and his inner Jomby -known for his on-court energy and enthusiasm - began to manifest themselves.
"I think he's taking it from Tom. I think he's looking at Rossi. He's looking at the upperclassmen," said Kauffmann. "I think it's a little bit from him too. That's just the way he is."
Lai had to battle back in set two, trailing 3-1, before knotting things up at 3-3. Then Lai had a chance to put the match away with 6-5 lead, but the back and forth continued as Greiner forced a tiebreaker at 6-6.
It was all Lai from there, however, as he jumped out to a 3-0 lead that turned into a 7-3 victory to take the match in straight sets
It was a sign that the freshman has continued his season-long maturing process.
"Today I tried to work on every single point during the match," said Lai. "I'm all the way back (on court four) so I don't have to worry about what the crowd's doing and like with these three courts what they're doing because I couldn't see the score, so I just focused on my court and tried to finish for the team."
With Lai's point, the Cats had pulled ahead to a commanding 3-0 lead with three matches still in play. Rossi was battling on court No. 1 against WMU's No. 1 Nadin Indre. Indre gave Rossi all he could handle, though Rossi took the first set.
Meanwhile, after completion of Jomby's victory, the final match of the day got underway as junior Grant Roberts took the court. While the other matches grinded out point after point, Roberts made quick work of his opponent.
After getting a later start due to the weather and moving the tournament inside with fewer courts, Roberts still managed to finish before two of the other matches, disposing of Andrew Cahn in a hasty fashion to clinch the first round victory for his team and fulfilling a role that he relishes in.
"It felt pretty good," said Roberts. "I'm used to playing on the last two, so being in the pressure situation I guess you'd say, so I'm pretty used to that. It felt pretty good to get out there and get a match and take care of business."
Roberts took both sets by the score of 6-1 and propelled the No. 1 Wildcats into a second-round matchup with No. 3 seed Virginia Tech, which defeated No. 2 Michigan. After playing several matches outside over the course of the last couple months, getting back inside today was a good change of pace for the Wildcats.
"This is what's maybe is good if it does rain," said Kauffmann. "If we play inside (Saturday) I think it helps us, and if we play out, we've been playing some really good tennis outside."
No matter the venue, Kentucky will have to continue to bring the intensity Saturday if the Cats want to advance to the Sweet 16 and knock off a surging Virginia Tech bunch.
"I think over the last month they've been playing pretty well," Kauffmann said. "They just knocked off Michigan who's been kind of hot through the year, so I think we're going to have a pretty tough match. We're at home so we hope the Big Blue Nation will help us out."
Cedric Kauffmann leads UK into the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a head coach starting on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Since the moment he took over 10 months ago, Cedric Kauffmann has been planning for this moment. All along, the first-year Kentucky head coach has been trying to position his team to play its best tennis in the NCAA Tournament.
That doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like though.
The Wildcats aren't going to paint the line with every shot. Not everything will go their way now that every match could be the last one of the season. What Kauffmann has been working toward is his team understanding that and knowing how to best deal with it.
"I never have six guys playing their best tennis in one match, but what I mean by 'best tennis' is knowing what to do when you're not playing your best," Kauffmann said.
On Friday, No. 8 UK (20-11) will open the NCAA Tournament at home - the fifth straight time the Wildcats have hosted to open NCAA play - against Western Michigan (19-9). When the first ball is served in doubles play at around 3 p.m. ET, Kauffmann knows it's unlikely all of his players will be at their peak; the goal is to grind through whatever happens.
"Am I going to have two, three guys that play very good tennis? Yeah, we're going to have to." Kauffmann said. "But I know I'm going to have one or two or three guys that are not going to play their best tennis and they're going to have to get through it."
During the fall, Anthony Rossi was having trouble with that. He looked around and saw that he was the only senior on the roster, that former stars Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek were no longer there to fill the top two spots in the lineup. Sensing that void, Rossi tried to step up, bearing the responsibility for an inexperienced group.
It wasn't working.
An inconsistent fall caused Rossi to drop from a No. 12 all the way to No. 94 in national singles rankings. By thinking first about his team, Rossi neglected himself and his own game. With the help of his coach, Rossi has found the right balance during the spring.
"I'm doing much better than the beginning of the season," Rossi said. "During the fall I was maybe focusing too much on the team and not on myself and that's why I dropped from 12 to 94. Now I'm doing first a better job on myself and then taking care of the team."
In turn, Rossi has excelled, running up a 22-5 spring record and ascending to No. 5 in the rankings. No. 2 singles player Tom Jomby has followed suit and joined Rossi as a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree.
"I think we have one of the strongest one-two punches in the country when they're ready to play," Kauffmann said.
Entering the postseason, Rossi and Jomby will look to raise their game once more. With a freshmen-laden back of the rotation behind them, UK's two veterans will need to set the tone, particularly with unfamiliar opponents coming to Lexington for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week. After Western Michigan, UK faces a possible Saturday matchup with either No. 23 Michigan (16-9) or No. 42 Virginia Tech (15-9), neither of which the Cats have played in the recent past.
With that in mind, the Cats plan to think about themselves more than their opponents.
"Focusing on your game because we don't know much about them, they don't know much about us," Rossi said. "So just focus on your game one point at a time and that's about it."
Though Western Michigan, Michigan and Virginia Tech are all unknown, none of them figure to be able to throw anything at the Cats that they haven't already seen. UK has played an incredible 17 matches in 2013 against teams currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's top 20.
"That's something that Coach (Dennis) Emery kind of taught me a little bit," Kauffmann said. "If you really want to be good, you gotta play a strong schedule that gets you ready for the end of the year."
It's now time for the Wildcats to find out exactly how well prepared they are.
"There is a little bit of pressure, but it's a really good pressure," Jomby said.
A.J. Reed will start Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET series opening against No. 1 Vanderbilt's Kevin Ziomek. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In preparing for Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede - the Friday and Saturday starters for No. 1 Vanderbilt - Gary Henderson is reminded of a player familiar to Kentucky baseball fans.
It's not so much their style, delivery or even their handedness - Ziomek is a lefty and a Beede a righty - but Henderson sees a lot of Alex Meyer in what the dominant Commodore duo does to opponents.
Meyer - now pitching in the Minnesota Twins organization after being picked in the first round in 2011 - had stuff so electric and secondary pitches so good that batters were forced to attack early in counts. Now, with UK set to face Ziomek and Beede in the first two games of a weekend series beginning on Friday in Lexington, Henderson is asking his Wildcats to do the same.
"It's some of the same approach that you saw the opposition take when Alex Meyer was here and he was going well," Henderson said. "Once a guy gets in a rhythm and he's got a legitimate out pitch, the game becomes really hard."
Ziomek and Beede have been the anchors for a Commodore team off to a historic start in Southeastern Conference play (42-6 overall). The two have combined for a 21-2 record identical to Vandy's league record, a 1.89 earned-run average and 169 strikeouts in 166.2 innings pitched. Perhaps most remarkably, Beede has a perfect 12-0 record in his 12 starts.
Though that last number may suggest otherwise, they are not unbeatable. Kentucky has faced incredible pitching all season long, so Henderson knows the Cats need a good game plan and need to follow it to have their best chance at success.
"What you really want is confidence and aggressiveness," Henderson said. "If you're passive against these guys, it's going to be really tough when you get to two strikes. Really tough."
As deserving of praise as Ziomek and Beede may be, Henderson knows he has a strong pitching staff of his own. With UK's offense scoring more than five runs just once over the past 11 games, Wildcat pitchers have responded - from Friday night starter A.J. Reed (2-6, 2.84 ERA) to a bullpen that has allowed one run over Kentucky's last five games.
"I'm really pleased with our pitching," Henderson said. "Those guys have held on. It's been tough for us for a stretch to score runs and we've been about as tough as you can be on the mound and certainly in that bullpen."
This weekend, the pitchers will have the challenge of limiting a Vandy offense that is averaging 7.2 runs per game and hitting .315 on the season to lead the SEC in both categories. In other words, the Commodores are about a lot more than a couple starting pitchers.
"It's the best eight-week record in the history of the conference, so that's about as impressive as you could ask for," Henderson said. "It's a complete team and it'll be on this weekend."
With the top-ranked team coming to town, Henderson has found himself doing some balancing this week.
On one hand, taking on a nationally elite team with stellar pitching and a dangerous lineup is essentially a weekly proposition in SEC play. On the other, facing a team with that No. 1 next to its name offers a chance at a little extra motivation, motivation that could be used to create just the kind of edge the Cats need.
He's taken both perspectives into account this week.
"Every year at some point it seems we get to play the number one team, the number two team, the number four team and so it's not that unusual," Henderson said. "It's new for this season. It's another SEC weekend. You're gonna see really good pitching, which we've seen plenty of in the last month and it's an opportunity do something you're going to remember for the rest of your life if you're a kid."
An estimated 50,381 fans attended UK's Blue/White Spring Game on April 13. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
All fans who were at Saturday's Blue/White Scrimmage knew they were part of a special event.
The estimated attendance of 50,831 obliterated the old UK spring game record by nearly 30,000 and stacks up with the crowds attracted by college football's perennial powers.
With the last spring game being played last weekend, Kentucky ranks sixth in attendance among those schools, trailing only four Southeastern Conference schools and Nebraska. In 2012, UK's crowd would have ranked fourth in the nation behind only Ohio State, Alabama and Penn State.
Below is a complete list of schools that have held spring games sorted by attendance:
Note: Ben Jones of CatsIllustrated.com posted a similar list here. All information below was compiled separately and expanded to include non-BCS conference schools.
Auburn - 83,401 (April 20) Alabama - 78,135 (April 20) Tennessee - 61,076 (April 20) Nebraska - 60,174 (April 6) Arkansas - 51,088 (April 20) Kentucky - 50,831 (April 13) Texas - 46,000 (March 30) Texas A&M - 45,212 (April 13) Georgia (April 6) - 45,113 Ohio State - 37,643 (April 13 in Cincinnati) Oregon - 36,588 (April 27) South Carolina - 35,218 (April 13) Louisville - 33,000 (April 13) Notre Dame - 31,652 (April 20) Clemson - 30,000 (April 13) Florida State - "nearly 30,000" (April 13) Oklahoma - 29,200 (April 13) LSU - 28,000 (April 20) Ole Miss - 28,000 (April 13) Penn State - 28,000 (April 20) Michigan State - 22,500 (April 20) Mississippi State -21,000 (Capacity limited due to stadium construction - April 20) Rutgers - 21,000 (April 27) UCLA - 20,000 (April 27) Missouri - 18,234 (April 20) Michigan - "nearly 18,000" (April 13) Iowa - 16,500 (April 27) Kansas State - 16,383 (April 27) Texas Tech - 16,116 (April 20) USC - 15,284 (April 13) Iowa State - 15,000 (April 20) North Carolina - 15,000 (April 13) Oklahoma State - 15,000 (April 21) Vanderbilt - 14,000 (April 13) Wisconsin - 12,050 (April 20) Colorado - 10,244 (April 13) Minnesota - 10,106 (April 27) Boise State - 9,146 (April 13) Utah - 8,633 (April 20) Washington State - 8,340 (April 20) Oregon State - 8,263 (April 26) Maryland - 8,200 (April 12) Miami - 8,000 (April 13) West Virginia - 8,000 (April 20) WKU - 6,500 (April 20) Purdue - 6,427 (April 13) Arizona State - 6,300 (April 13) East Carolina - 6,294 (April 20) Louisiana Tech - 5,700 (April 13) California - 5,831 (March 23) Duke - 5,213 (April 13) Middle Tennessee State - 5,000 (April 20) Nevada - "nearly 5,000" (April 20) Texas State - 4,608 (April 6) South Florida - 4,606 (April 6) Stanford - 4,350 (April 13) Wake Forest - 4,200 (April 20) Arizona - 4,095 (April 13) Pittsburgh - 3,642 (April 12) Temple - 3,530 (April 20) Baylor - 3,500 (April 6) Colorado State - "a little over 3,000" (April 20) Utah State - "approximately 3,000" (April 20) UTEP - 2,581 (April 12) UTSA - 2,506 (April 14) South Alabama - 2,281 (April 6) Illinois - 2,100 (April 12) Western Michigan - 2,045 (April 20) Cincinnati - "over 2,000" (April 6) Georgia State - "more than 1,800" New Mexico State - 1,200 (May 4) UNLV - 1,200 (April 12) Tulsa - 1,200 (April 6) Hawaii - 900 (April 27) Eastern Michigan - "Hundreds" (April 14) Northern Illinois - "Hundreds" (April 13)
The following schools did not release attendance figures for their spring games:
Air Force (April 13) Akron (April 27) Arkansas State (April 13) Ball State (April 20) Bowling Green (April 12) Buffalo (April 20) Central Michigan (April 13) Connecticut (April 20) Florida (April 6) Florida Atlantic (April 20) Florida International (April 20) Fresno State (March 23) Georgia Tech (April 19) Houston (April 12) Idaho (April 19) Indiana (April 13) Kansas (April 13) Kent State (April 27) Louisiana-Lafayette (April 20) Louisiana-Monroe (March 23) Marshall (April 27) Massachusetts (April 20) Memphis (April 6) Miami (Ohio) (April 20) North Carolina State (April 20) North Texas (April 13) Ohio (April 13) Rice (April 6) San Diego State (March 23) San Jose State (March 23) Southern Miss (April 20) Syracuse (April 20) Toledo (April 12) Troy (April 20) Tulane (March 2) UAB (April 27) UCF (April 13) Virginia (April 6) Virginia Tech (April 20) Washington (April 20) Wyoming (April 27)
The following schools did not hold official spring games or did not open their spring games to the public:
Army - "Limited viewing opportunities" to the public (March 8) Boston College - Cancelled due to events in Boston (April 20) BYU - "Nearly 1,000" attended Alumni Day scrimmage (April 5) Navy - No spring game New Mexico - No spring game Northwestern - No spring game SMU - No attendance released for "Fan Fair" (April 20) TCU - "A couple of thousand" attended Spring Frog Fest (April 6)
The following schools have not yet held their spring games:
The UK softball team fell to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, 6-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team couldn't recover from a four-run third inning and a dominant pitching performance from South Carolina hurler Julie Sarratt, as UK was ousted in the first round of the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday evening, 6-3.
The evening kicked off what was supposed to be a memorable event for UK as the SEC Tournament made its way to Lexington for the first time in school history in the newly renovated John Cropp Statdium. However, the Wildcats seventh-inning rally fell short after scoring two in the frame and bringing the tying run at the plate before Sarratt ended the game on a strikeout.
The result wasn't what the Cats wanted, but it wasn't enough to make them look past what this weekend means to UK and its softball program.
"I would like to thank the SEC and the University of Kentucky for putting on this venue right now," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I think the SEC is a special tournament because all the teams who come here, all 10 of them are exceptional teams. I think it's a great venue and barring the rain everything else has turned out really nice, both from the SEC side and from our side."
UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team earlier in the week and had been reliable for the Cats all season, especially down the stretch. Wednesday just wasn't her night either, as South Carolina had a good game plan adjusting to her attack.
Nunley had been on fire for Kentucky, winning two games over perennial powerhouse and defending champion Alabama last weekend. It turned out she just didn't have it tonight and Lawson gives credit to the Gamecocks for having a good scouting report on her freshman.
UK came off one of its biggest series wins over Alabama last weekend and figured to carry that momentum into this weekend's tournament. That series win may have bit them in the rear-end as the Cats seemed to have locked themselves into good position as far as seeding goes in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has essentially clinched an at-large bid into the postseason and are hoping to host a regional tournament, while South Carolina had a little more to play for being considered on the bubble.
"I think at times, especially when you are dealing with a team so youthful with five freshmen and a sophomore behind the plate, I think sometimes their focus is a little misguided," Lawson said. "I think beating Alabama was a big deal to them and beating South Carolina three times earlier in the year, offensively we didn't start strong and they came out and seemed a little hungrier than us."
Looking forward the Wildcats can learn from their mistakes and will have some time off to shake this loss off and look ahead to achieving their ultimate goal of making it to the Women's College World Series.
"We need a day off so tomorrow we will take off and watch the teams who are playing," Lawson said. "Obviously we have good pitching, we have won a lot of games. Offensively, I think we are going to have to do a better job of mixing things up. I think we have a good game plan we just didn't execute them this weekend. We have a lot of big wins and a lot of experience going into postseason I just think it depends on if it's a good matchup for us or not."
Freshman Sarah Harris looks to build on her second-place finish at SECs in the NCAA Regional at Auburn. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Fresh off the best finish in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in 20 years, the Kentucky women's golf team is headed to Auburn, Ala., for NCAA Regionals in pursuit of more history and a trip to nationals.
As the Wildcats have done all season long, they will have to fight through adversity to realize that goal.
The Wildcats had a great week of preparation heading into the SEC Tournament two weeks ago with fantastic weather in the Lexington area and plenty of time out on the golf course. The preparation and a renewed focus helped vault UK into a top-five finish at SECs and put the Cats in contention for a strong seed in the NCAAs.
With confidence soaring for the Wildcats heading to Auburn, Mother Nature has done her best to rain on the parade - literally.
The Kentucky spring weather has been unkind to leisurely casual golfers and collegiate golfers alike this spring season, whether it's been a chill in the air or moisture on the ground. With no end in sight to the less-than-ideal golf conditions, head coach Golda Borst went into improvisational mode to prepare for this weekend.
The Wildcats took to the range and visualized the Auburn golf course to the best of their abilities. With all of the distances and dimensions at their disposal, they created a virtual course and played it at the range.
Players estimated their shots, used a range finder, aimed at the "green" or flag or a different target on the range. They would imagine their shot, execute and estimate whether or not they were close to their target.
"The girls did a really good job and got really into it and tried to make the best of the situation," said Borst. "For me, that's what it's about .We're going to have tough conditions, and this time it was extra tough."
Preparing in that fashion will at least give the older players a refresher on a course that the seniors have already played in their career, but this week's preparation is particularly important for the freshmen who have never seen it.
"The more mentally you can prepare, the better because when you get there, it's like, 'Oh, I've played this before. I kind of had an idea of what this looks like,' " said Borst. "Then I would walk around and help them remember some of the holes."
And having the experience of Auburn's University Club golf course should not only give the upperclassmen an edge, but they will also be able to pass along their wisdom - as they've done all season - to the freshmen.
"Three of the girls have been there. They know what's coming," said Borst. "They know emotionally how to prepare for it. They can talk to the two freshmen about it and kind of give them an idea about the golf course.
"I think the golf course sets up for us well and I think they'll do a good job. We just have to make sure that we stay focused on us and play within ourselves and play the game we know that we can play, and we'll do a good job."
Kentucky's preparations aren't limited to the Bluegrass, however, as Borst got her team ready to go a couple of days earlier to head to Atlanta, Ga., and get an extra round in before heading to Auburn for the NCAA Tournament as she continues to try and find any additional edge she can provide her players.
Despite the distractions of early travel and a rainy day - or week - Kentucky has remained cool, calm and collected, much like the Cats were heading into the SEC Tournament.
"They've been very calm and very focused," said Borst. "They know what they need to do and they're ready to do it. I must say, there's a different mindset this year than there was the last two years."
Freshman Sarah Harris, who recently took second place individually at the SEC Tournament, might be able to continue to carry the Wildcats as they look for a top-eight finish to advance to nationals, but she's going to need some help.
While junior Liz Breed has been very consistent this season, Kentucky will need seniors Betsie Johnson and Ashleigh Albrecht to continue to battle the emotions of their senior season and put up a solid tournament. Albrecht carried the Cats for much of last year much like Harris is doing now late in the season, but she's yet to find her consistent stroke.
There would be no better time and place for Albrecht to rediscover it than this weekend at Auburn.
"It would mean a lot to me as a coach," said Borst. "Not necessarily because it would help us advance, but it would help her with her game as she moves on to be a professional golfer because it would help her confidence. I think that would be really big to know that she has it in her, and she does, it's just the more rounds you can get around par and under par, it will validate her."
At the end of the day, the Wildcats will need to bridle their emotions for this event and remaining as relaxed as possible, knowing that they don't have to do anything special to achieve a top-eight score.
Though Borst is confident that the Auburn course sets up well for her team, it's all going to come down to the short game, which has been the story of the season.
"You have to make the big putts on every single day because a lot of times it comes down to the last hole on the last day, missing it or making it by one shot," said Borst. "We worked a ton on putting here in the last week and a half because I know how important it is. As you prepare, I want the girls to know that they gave it their all and they are fully prepared for whatever comes their way this week."
It hasn't been perfect, but Borst has done her part to get her team ready for just that. If she has it her way, which has been tough for her to come by in her never-ending battle with Mother Nature, Kentucky will be standing in the sunshine having clinched a trip to nationals.
Head coach Edrick Floreal (left) with senior sprinter Shiara Robinson (right). (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When the Kentucky track and field team gets ready to compete in the 2013 Outdoor Southeastern Conference Championships this weekend, the Wildcats will look very different from their conference counterparts. The blue and white uniforms, of course, will distinguish the Wildcats, but the real contrast won't begin to show itself until competition begins.
The SEC allows each university to bring 30 male and female student-athletes to compete at the conference championships. Instead of piling in 60 members from the UK track and field team and busing to Columbia, Mo., this week, first-year head coach Edrick Floreal chose to take a different approach.
Floreal made the decision to send just 35 athletes, 18 males and 17 females, to compete at SECs. This might seem to put the Cats at an immediate disadvantage, but Floreal knows his team better than anyone else. He has a clear picture of what a UK track and field athlete looks like, and the Wildcats he'll bring with him to Missouri have grown to fit that vision.
The biggest difference he has seen in this group over the course of the year hasn't necessarily been a boost in athletic ability or skill, but a change in their mentality.
"I just think it's been self-belief," Floreal said. "They believe they actually belong and I actually heard it from some of the coaches in the SEC that the kids that we have now act like they belong in the SEC and they can be competitive. That was a goal for the kids to feel like they belong instead of just letting them participate in the event.
"That's kind of why we took a smaller group of people that actually feel comfortable competing at that level as opposed to taking a large group that might not be ready when it comes to competing at that level yet."
One of the meets this year that has stood out to Floreal on that front was the Kentuckiana Border Battle in mid-April, when UK teamed up with Louisville in a meet against Indiana and Notre Dame. UK and U of L ended up winning both the men's and women's meets but more importantly, Floreal saw belief and determination out of his athletes.
Coaches from the three neighbor schools who were familiar with Kentucky and how the Wildcats compete were caught off guard by the Wildcats' new sense of self-confidence.
Creating that attitude has been one of Floreal's main goals since he arrived in the Bluegrass. He hopes for a similar reaction from UK's SEC brethren this weekend.
"I'm hoping for a little shock factor for the rest of the conference to exceed their expectation," Floreal said. "Not so much exceed their expectation in winning events but just from watching how hard our kids fight and how confident they are at that level more importantly than anything else.
"It is one thing when you are used to seeing Kentucky on the back and now they are next to you being competitive. That's what we are aiming for in every event. Whether somebody is fighting for next-to-last or fighting to make the final, I just want them to fight as hard as they can all the way to the finish."
What this week does for the Cats is give them an opportunity to compete at the highest level and gain experience for the 2014 SEC Championships, which will be held at the UK Track and Field Complex. Floreal is hoping that his athletes take this experience and develop some leadership for next year as well.
Kentucky has a large recruiting class coming in next year, with 25 male and 12 female athletes set to arrive in Lexington for the 2013-14 season. With such a massive group of newcomers, UK needs some leaders to step up so the freshmen have an example to follow.
"We just need to establish a group of leaders now so when the freshmen come they already know, 'Hey these people have gotten it done, we need to learn from them on what it takes to compete in the SEC,' " Floreal said. "You don't want the freshmen to come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely lost. You want them to come in and feel like they can talk to the All-SEC members and All-Americans on the team and learn from them."
Another goal of Floreal's is to improve on last year's performance - eighth for the men, 12th for the women - and see if the Cats can crack the top half. With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M this season, the Wildcats will need to place at least seventh to achieve Floreal's goal.
Last year junior Andrew Evans won the discus throw, while senior Luis Orta and sophomore Raymond Dykstra were runners-up in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and javelin throw, respectively. Floreal wouldn't mind seeing a few more of his athletes up on the stage accepting awards this year.
"We didn't have an exceptionally good showing last year and the No. 1 thing is to improve on that," Floreal said. "Anytime you can be in the top half of the SEC that's a big accomplishment. We want to see some people in that top five and top three and see some people on the podium. We just want the kids to compete hard and be competitive so it should be fairly clear who are the stars and who are not."
Baseball - Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning. - The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of nonleague play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action. - UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team recently completed one of the most successful weekends in school history, taking two of three games against No. 7 Alabama - the defending national championships - in Tuscaloosa. The series win was the first for Kentucky against the Tide in school history and also marked the first time UK had won in Tuscaloosa. - The wins moved UK to 13-11 in SEC play, earning the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has now posted three straight winning conference seasons under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson, advancing to five straight SEC Tournaments. The two wins over Alabama give UK nine against ranked foes this season and 40 against ranked foes under Lawson, including 24 against top-10 teams. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend, winning both games she started, throwing 15 innings, allowing only four earned runs with 11 strikeouts and a 1.87 ERA. Nunley shutout the Tide Saturday, marking the first time a pitcher had shutout Alabama at home since 2010. Fellow freshman Nikki Sagermann went 3-for-5 in the series finale with a school-record tying six RBI. Sagermann blasted a three-run home run in the eighth inning, giving Kentucky the win.
Track and field - Matt Hillenbrand finished as top collegiate finisher in the IU Billy Hayes Invitational 1,500 meters on Friday. - Hillenbrand ran a personal best time 3:44.66. - Adam Kahleifeh finished the same race fifth in 3:45.99. - Hillenbrand's time is second-fastest in the SEC this season. - Kahleifeh's time ranks No. 8 in the conference. - Keffri Neal posted No. 3 SEC time over 1,500 meters at the Stanford Invitational earlier this season. - Friday's race was Kentucky's final tune-up for the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin Thursday, May 9. - The conference championships will be held at the Audrey J. Walton Track Stadium at the University of Missouri in Columbia from May 9-12. - Kentucky will enter the SEC Championships defending one individual championship, as Andrew Evans claimed the event title last season in Baton Rouge, La. Upcoming schedule
Tuesday, May 7 Baseball def. Wright State, 4-1
Wednesday, May 8 Softball hosts South Carolina - 6:30 p.m. (SEC Tournament)
Thursday, May 9 Track at SEC Championships - 12:30 p.m. (Columbia, Mo.) Softball hosts Tennessee - 4:00 p.m. (SEC Tournament) Women's golf at NCAA Regionals (Auburn, Ala.)
Jerad Grundy allowed just one run over five innings in UK's 4-1 win over Wright State on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jerad Grundy had a lot of time to ponder his recent struggles.
The senior left-hander was replaced in his usual role as Kentucky's Saturday starter last weekend, meaning he had to wait a week and a half between outings. But in returning to the mound on Tuesday against Wright State, the worst four-start stretch of his UK career was the last thing on his mind.
"When you're a baseball player, you've got to have a short-term memory," Grundy said. "You don't want to be worrying about what you did last week and all of a sudden you're not focused on what you can do this week. You've just got to go out there and play one game at a time."
Using that approach, Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) returned to form against the Raiders, looking much more like the pitcher who allowed didn't allow more than three earned runs in any start over the first seven weeks of the season. He turned in five innings of one-run ball, yielding five hits and no walks while striking out five as the Wildcats (28-19) defeated visiting Wright State (20-24), 4-1.
"I'm really happy with Jerad's performance tonight," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Command of all three pitches, he stayed down for the most part, briefly lost a little bit of rhythm there in the fourth and got it back and had a clean fifth inning."
It wasn't his most dominant outing or even long enough to make it a quality start, but Grundy put into practice the work he had logged over the last week. Hitters had been making him pay for pitches he left up, but Grundy kept the ball in the lower half of the zone on Tuesday, particularly during the first three innings when he didn't allow a base runner.
"His pen work has been good all year," Henderson said. "Through the starts where he's struggled with fastball command it came up a little bit, it was not indicative of what he's been doing between starts. It's a thought process issue, a relaxation issue and I thought tonight he was able to go out there and relax."
By relaxing, Grundy proved to himself once again that he can get the job done. And in addition to buoying his own confidence, Grundy's performance was positive for the postseason prospects of a team that has just two weekends left in the regular season. As well as true freshman Kyle Cody pitched in his first Southeastern Conference start last Saturday, UK will need Grundy's experience and veteran presence.
"It definitely doesn't hurt to have another starter, especially with the stuff Kyle has," Grundy said. "That's going to be huge for us once we get in the SEC Tournament and the regionals."
That's a ways off though.
"I think anytime you've got four guys, you've got something," Henderson said. "But to be honest with you, I haven't looked that far ahead. We've got a couple weekends first."
In the meantime, Grundy is taking the short-term view, no matter whether he's pitching on a weekend or a weekday.
"We're just taking it day by day," Grundy said. "To me it doesn't really matter what my role. I just want to have a role on the team and help us win."
Kentucky will host its first SEC Tournament this week at John Cropp Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the Kentucky softball program will host the most prestigious conference softball tournament in the nation. The Southeastern Conference tournament features the top-10 schools in the 14-team league based on the standings after a grueling 24-game schedule.
What makes the conference so dominant is that it includes several teams regarded as among best in the nation based on rankings. According to the RPI, which is the basis on who is selected into the NCAA Tournament, the SEC has six teams in the top 10 and 11 in the top 40.
The newly renovated John Cropp Stadium has come a long way since head coach Rachel Lawson arrived here six years ago. To think UK would be hosting the most highly anticipated and competitive softball tournament in the country is hard to imagine. Even for Lawson.
"When I got here six years ago, if you would have shown up to the softball field there was a small grandstand about the size of one row here and we have made drastic improvements," Lawson said. "It says a lot to the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be able to have ESPN here and hosting the SEC Tournament that they were able to put up such an amazing softball facility for a softball team and women's sports in general."
This weekend marks the first big tournament that Kentucky has hosted since a 2011 Super Regional, which was held here in Lexington.
Lawson remembers that weekend and how supportive the Big Blue Nation was well. The event staff had to add in additionally outfield bleachers in order to accommodate enough suitable seating for the fan base. The sixth-year head coach believes this weekend will offer a bit of the same flavor and is hoping to ride that home-field advantage.
"Everyone knows there is nothing better than Kentucky fans," Lawson said. "When the Big Blue Nation comes out it's pretty impressive as we showed two years ago when we hosted a Super Regional. Even when they are not softball fans, in general just being a Kentucky fan really helps us out a lot. It's nice to be able to have that crowd behind you when you are playing such awesome opponents."
UK (38-17, 13-11 SEC) is the No. 7 seed in the tournament and will face the No. 10 seed South Carolina (31-22, 8-16) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
When the two teams take the field on Wednesday, it will have been almost exactly a month ago since the Cats traveled to Columbia, S.C., and swept the Gamecocks. Even though Kentucky came away with a sweep, the series was a lot more difficult than it sounds with UK winning 3-1 in the opener and 4-3 in the final game of the three-game set.
"I think it gives them confidence knowing that they beat them but I think it was so far removed I think they are just looking to get back on the field and hopefully winning a SEC game," Lawson said.
If that series isn't enough to give UK a boost for their opening-round game then the Cats' performance last weekend most definitely will.
Kentucky went down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., last weekend having won just twice all-time against Alabama in 40 chances. Kentucky not only won for the first time at Alabama, but took two of three games to win its first series vs. the Crimson Tide in school history.
It was an emotional series for the Wildcats and something they can build on moving into postseason play.
"To be able to go into Alabama and get a win is huge," Lawson said. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence and it gives the younger players a lot of confidence. They went in there and hit two very awesome pitchers and I believe that shows them they can get it done.
"In order for us to get where we want, which is the World Series we're going to have to go through pitchers like the ones they have at Alabama. I think it gives them a lot of confidence and hopefully we will be able to take that momentum into our game tomorrow night against South Carolina."
One of the key cogs for Kentucky this season is freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley. She has been a workhorse for UK all season, setting the Kentucky single-season wins record earlier this year, was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team on Tuesday due to her efforts in the circle.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native, who was once a secret weapon for UK, now has the whole conference, or country for that matter, keeping an eye on her.
"I think everyone in the country knows we are going with her in game one," Lawson said. "It's not a secret. I love our other pitchers but she is the one that has gotten us here so I want to make sure she has that opportunity on national TV."
In order for the Wildcats to win their first SEC Tournament title, they must win four games in four days. Kentucky knows who its ace is and the Cats are going to ride her as long as they can. Nunley once pitched three straight games this season, firing over 300 pitches in a weekend series against Missouri.
After Nunley 2-0 against the defending national champions Alabama last weekend, Lawson is not going to be hesitant and just hopes she can see how long Nunley can go. So don't be surprised if you see Nunley out in the circle in Saturday's championship game, preparing to pitch her fourth game in as many days.
"Hopefully we will have the offense going so we have a chance to see that. I know she has pitched three in a row so four would be something she hasn't done but I believe she can do it," Lawson said.
Steve Meilinger was named first-team All-America in 1952 and 1953. (UK Athletics)
On Tuesday, the National Football Foundation announced the 2013 College Football Hall of Fame class. Included in the 12-member group is one of the best players in the history of Kentucky football: Steve Meilinger. The former UK star becomes the fourth Wildcat to be named to the College Football Hall of Fame.
STEVE MEILINGER University of Kentucky End, 1951-53
One of the most acclaimed two-way stars of the mid-20th century, Steve Meilinger gained fame as "Mr. Anywhere" for his versatility and value to the Kentucky football program. He becomes the fourth Wildcat to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The two-time First-Team All-America (1952, 1953) selection, under Hall of Fame head coach Bear Bryant, Meilinger led Kentucky to victory in the 1952 Cotton Bowl over TCU. The three-year All-Southeastern Conference honoree played end, halfback and quarterback on offense, while covering end, linebacker and defensive back on defense. He also served as the Wildcats' two-year starting punter while returning punts and kickoffs.
A first round selection by the Washington Redskins in the 1954 NFL Draft, Meilinger played six seasons in the league for the Redskins, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. He spent the entirety of his non-football life in military or public service. Immediately following his selection by the Redskins, Meilinger served two years as a tank commander in the U.S. Army's 100th Tank Battalion of the 1st Armored Division before embarking on his pro football career. From 1962-83, Meilinger was a United States Marshal, and he was one of the original six marshals who founded the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program. He also served two stints as a property valuation officer for the state of Kentucky.
The Bethlehem, Pa., native is a member of the State of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the University of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the Fork Union Military Academy Hall of Fame, the Lehigh Valley (Penn.) Hall of Fame and the Liberty High School Hall of Fame.
Michelle Canterna (left) broke UK's pole vault record at the RedHawk Invitational, while Matt Hillenbrand (right) was the 2013 Indoor SEC Mile Champion. (Britney McIntosh and Chet White, UK Athletics)
Watch a collegiate track and field meet in person for even a few minutes and it's difficult not to notice just how many different things are going on. It's one of the unique aspects of the sport, just how many different ways there are to win. Running faster, throwing and jumping farther or jumping higher.
Among the top programs in collegiate track and field, the mold for success varies just as much as the program of events at championship meets. Some top schools build winning team scores through excellence in field events, others in sprints and others again use a distance-based formula to go for titles.
Under first-year head coach Edrick Floreal, the Kentucky track and field program has yet to identify a singe group of athletes that stands out as the major point-earners at championship meets like the Southeastern Conference Championships, which take place this weekend.
UK boasts a balanced squad, with no group standing out particularly over the other. And under the new coaching staff, multiple athletes have taken huge steps forward this season.
For two of those Wildcats, that success has come in very different styles, an illustration of just how many ways there are to get the job done when it comes to finding a way to win at track and field.
Michelle Canterna's path to success has been long and winding, but given her recent string of results, it seems she's struck the right chord.
She was recruited and competed her freshman year at Kentucky as a long jumper. Being a former gymnast for 12 years of her life, Canterna would perform tumble routines in the field during her downtime after practice. The coaches joked with her and threw a pole vault in her hand, telling her to try it out. She went through drills and even competed in an event as a sophomore, clearing 11 feet before getting injured.
Then things changed over the summer for the redshirt sophomore.
Her previous jumps coach had never been a pole vaulter before and with the new coaching staff on board, assistant coach Will Thomas, responsible for the team's vertical jumpers, has been a major key to her success. Thomas, a former decathlete, has brought the experience of competing in multiple events at the highest levels of Division I to the Wildcats.
By Canterna's own estimation, the new training regime under Thomas has been the catalyst for her unprecedented success this season. As a former decathlete, Thomas can relate the experience of having been a long jumper and pole vaulter, something that may have seemed daunting when Canterna first made the switch in events.
"I like the fact that I can come in my first year vaulting and he was able to mold me," Canterna said. "It was really nice because I've never vaulted before so being able to be molded by a new coach is awesome and obviously he is doing a great job if I can hit heights that people haven't at UK before. It's just humbling because I had no idea that I could do it and he showed me that I can which was awesome."
Under Thomas' guidance, Canterna has been a force for the Wildcats this year, breaking the school's all-time pole vault record clearing 3.96 meters / 12'11.75" at the Miami RedHawk Invitational last Saturday. The height came a week after the Florence, Ky., native set the UK outdoor record at the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic, Kentucky's first home meet since 1996.
On the track side of things, distance runner Matt Hillenbrand's story is more along the lines of a normal track athlete. The junior had tremendous success in high school, winning state championships as a distance runner. He has kept it going at Kentucky.
His first two years at UK were good, but he has had a breakthrough junior season.
"It was a combination of a lot of hard work that finally paid off over the past three years," Hillenbrand said.
At the SEC Indoor Championships in February, Hillenbrand claimed the mile race with a time of 4:01.55. He has continued his excellence by posting a personal-record time of 3:44.66 at the IU Billy Hayes Invitational last Friday, finishing second in the heat. His PR time is currently good enough to qualify him for the NCAA Regional Preliminary Championships if the season ended today.
According to Hillenbrand, a greater sense of self-belief has been the biggest factor in his newfound success this season. While Canterna's background may contrast quite a bit with Hillenbrand's, the SEC champion believes his teammate's success stems from the same source.
"We have worked a lot of longer distances and a lot of aerobic workouts, but it's really just the perception of what being good is," Hillenbrand said. "That's really the change."
The Wildcats travel to Columbia, Mo., this week to compete at the SEC Outdoor Championships. The event is the final invitational on the Cats' schedule before NCAA Regionals May 23-25.
Canterna has high hopes for her future both short and long term. She has the 13-foot mark on her mind at the SECs after falling just short of the feat at Miami, but her primary goal is to be one of the top eight finishers at the SEC Championships, earning valuable points for the UK cause.
"Right now my main focus is scoring at SECs," Canterna said.
Looking past SECs and toward regionals, nationals and even next year, Canterna is aiming to vault in the upper 13s and possibly clear as high as 14 feet. With the 2014 SEC Championships set to be hosted at the UK track and field complex in 2014, Canterna feels like she can use this week's experience to prepare for a great performance a year from now.
"I really think the more I work at it and even over the summer I am going to get bigger, stronger, faster and I am going to utilize this facility more to my advantage knowing that it will be our home meet that hopefully I can dominate," Canterna said.
Hillenbrand is looking to defend his indoor mile crown at the comparable outdoor 1,500M and he likes his team's chances to perform well this weekend given UK's greater depth with the outdoor meet program compared to indoors. UK can utilize the help of senior Luis Orta - who finished second at last year's championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, but was out of eligibility during the 2013 indoor season - and UK's group of throwers, which features two returning outdoor All-Americans in the form of defending SEC Discus Champion Andrew Evans and 2012 All-American javelin thrower Raymond Dykstra.
Maybe the biggest goal for Kentucky this week is to show the rest of the conference that this team is ready to take the next step toward being elite again.
"I'd definitely like to repeat and our team is looking pretty good and now that we have Luis back for outdoors and a couple of the throwers, we are definitely trying to be in the top half of the conference and just change the mold of Kentucky track and field," Hillenbrand said.
Changing the mold of the program is well under way, as evidenced by success of Hillenbrand and Canterna. This weekend will be a major measuring stick for just how much the new mold is beginning to take shape
If you missed it, UK safety Ashely Lowery was in a single-car accident over the weekend. News of the accident spread quickly on Saturday and Sunday as Lowery was hospitalized in an intensive care unit near his hometown in Georgia. The accident was a major one, but every update to Lowery's condition since it happened has been positive.
On Monday, head coach Mark Stoops visited Lowery in the hospital and issued the following statement:
"I went to see Ashely today and was glad to see him and spend some time with him. We're thankful for the progress he's made and are hopeful he will continue that improvement. He's heard from a lot of teammates and is grateful for all the good wishes and prayers that so many people are offering on his behalf. We ask the Big Blue Nation to join Ashely's football family in continuing to pray for a speedy recovery."
The Lowery family also issued a statement on Monday:
"On behalf of the Lowery family, we'd like to thank everyone for their concerns and prayer. From Georgia to Lexington, we can't thank everyone enough. You are like family to us.
"The only official comment from the hospital is that his condition has been upgraded from stable to satisfactory and his injuries are no longer life threatening. We expect a full recovery. Again, thank you so much for all the prayers and support."
The University of Kentucky celebrated its 146th May Commencement on Sunday. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
During the University of Kentucky's 146 May Commencement on Sunday, 49 UK student-athletes received degrees. Forty-seven earned undergraduate diplomas and two received graduate degrees.
(Note: Includes student-athletes who received degrees after their completing eligibility.)
Baseball Thomas McCarthy Zac Zellers (Will complete coursework this summer)
Football Aaron Boyd La'Rod King Quentin McCord Craig McIntosh Kevin Mitchell Matt Smith Taylor Wyndham (Note: 2012 seniors Mikie Benton, Gabe Correll, Gene McCaskill, Morgan Newton, Cartier Rice, Collins Ukwu, Steven Duff and Sam Simpson graduated previously.)
Gymnastics Caitlyn Ciokajlo Storey Morris Whitney Rose
Men's basketball Twany Beckham Marquis Estill Jon Hood Jarrod Polson (Graduated in three years) (Note: Jamal Mashburn also received an honorary doctorate of humanities.)
Men's golf Joseph Barr
Men's soccer Pedro Andreoni Gabriel Conelian Barry Rice
Men's swimming and diving Jon Bullock Jon Keltner Ben Russell
Rifle Heather Greathouse
Softball Chanda Bell Kara Dill (Graduate degree in exercise science) Alice O'Brien Erika Silence
Track and field Katy Achtien Keith Hayes Ben Mason (Will complete coursework this summer) Chelsea Oswald Shiara Robinson Josh Nadzam (Masters of social work) Danielle Sampley Rashaud Scott Samantha Stenzel Hiruni Wijayaratne Megan Wright
Volleyball No graduates this weekend, but seniors Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann had already graduated.
On Sunday, 49 current and former student-athletes participated in the University of Kentucky's 146th May Commencement. If you were on Twitter, you likely saw many photos of the graduates floating around, but I figured I would collect them all below. Take a look:
A view of Rupp Arena during graduation ceremonies. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
UK president Eli Capilouto addresses the crowd at Rupp Arena. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
Graduates Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood with John Calipari. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
Women's basketball graduate Crystal Riley with Matthew Mitchell, assistant coaches Danielle Santos (second from left) and Shalon Pillow (far right) and academic advisor Tiffany Hayden (far left). (photo posted by @ukhoopcats on Instagram)
Women's basketball graduate A'dia Mathies with academic advisor Tiffany Hayden (left) and assistant coach Shalon Pillow (right). (photo posted by @ukhoopcats on Instagram)
Baseball graduate Thomas McCarthy with academic advisor Michael Stone and John Calipari. (photo via @UKMichaelStone on Twitter)
Men's basketball graduate Twany Beckham with John Calipari (left) and academic advisor Michael Stone. (photo via @UKMichaelStone on Twitter)
John Calipari with UK graduates in the new Rupp Arena locker room. (photo via @UKCoachCalipari on Twitter)
Men's basketball great Jamal Mashburn received an honorary doctorate of humanities on Sunday. (photo via Kelley Bozeman)
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood with John Calipari and academic advisor Michael Stone. (photo via @UKCoachCalipari on Twitter)
Overall Record: 27-19, 10-14 SEC Record Last Week: 1-2, 1-2 SEC
Recent Results Friday, May 3 - lost vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 2-1 Saturday, May 4 - lost vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 5-3 Saturday, May 4 - won vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 4-3
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Tuesday, May 7 - vs. Wright State - 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 10 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 7 p.m. Sunday, May 12 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 1 p.m.
Team notes Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning.
Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) completed its finals week during the previous week, leading to no midweek tilts before the Arkansas series. The Wildcats welcomed the Razorbacks and their NCAA's leading pitching staff to Cliff Hagan Stadium on Friday. Arkansas won the opener, 2-1 with the impending weather forcing a doubleheader on Saturday. UK lost the middle game of the series and the opener of the doubleheader, 5-3, before rebounding with a 4-3 win in the finale on Zac Zellers walk-off single in the ninth.
The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of non-league play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action.
UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals. Slugger A.J. Reed has hit .302 with eight doubles, two triples, 11 homers and 47 RBI, owning a 2-6 record and a 2.84 ERA on the mound as the Friday-night starter. J.T. Riddle has hit .286 with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 19 RBI, stealing six bases, while outfielder Zac Zellers owns a .255 mark with three doubles, three homers and 25 RBI. Austin Cousino leads the team with 11 doubles and has hit .247, with one triple, six homers and 25 RBI, stealing 12 bases.
In relief for UK, senior righty Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.73 ERA) has appeared in 23 games, with Trevor Gott (4-1, 1.33 ERA) owning 10 saves in 20 outings. Sophomore righty Chandler Shepherd (4-0, 3.22 ERA) has appeared in 20 games and tossed 44.2 innings, with freshmen Ryne Combs (0-0, 1.37 ERA), Zach Strecker (1-1, 2.40 ERA), Kyle Cody (3-2, 4.86 ERA) and Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 4.38 ERA) each having impacts in their collegiate debuts.
UK scored three runs in the ninth inning to defeat Arkansas on Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader, 4-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When a reporter referred to the first 17 innings of a Saturday doubleheader as "disappointing" for the Kentucky baseball team, head coach Gary Henderson disagreed.
He thought "disgusting" was more appropriate.
Arkansas - boasting the nation's top earned-run average entering the series - had handcuffed the Wildcats for 51 outs. UK hitters managed 11 hits in dropping game one, 5-3, and trailing game two 3-1 heading to the ninth inning.
In an instant, it all changed.
"That's four balls hit hard in the bottom of the ninth and I'm not sure we had four balls hit hard the first eight innings, or the first 17 innings," Henderson said.
Those four hard-hit balls led to four singles, and Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) used those hits to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth to salvage the final game of a three-game set against the No. 14 Razorbacks (32-16, 15-8 SEC).
"To have those guys dial in and be as competitive as they were in the ninth inning, I was really glad to see that and hopefully that helps us moving forward," Henderson said.
Designated hitter Greg Fettes got it all started, leading off the ninth against an Arkansas bullpen that had allowed just one hit and no runs in 6.1 innings of Saturday work up to that point. J.T. Riddle followed with another single, creating an opportunity for Max Kuhn to lay down a bunt and put the potential tying run in scoring position. Kuhn, however, couldn't get it down, popping up the first pitch of his at-bat to the pitcher.
"We could have rolled over after we popped up a bunt, but we didn't," Henderson said. "We came back and obviously we got a little bit of help, but after that we took care of it ourselves."
The help to which Henderson is referring came two batters later. After Micheal Thomas flew out to center for the second out, Matt Reida grounded to second base. Particularly considering the Razorbacks hadn't made a single error in the series to that point, the Cats seemed on the verge of being swept as the ball bounded toward Jordan Farris. Instead, he misplayed it, allowing a run to score and cutting the Arkansas lead to 3-2.
The error, however, would have been rendered little more than an afterthought had the next two batters not delivered.
Lead-off hitter Kyle Barrett watched the play unfold from the on-deck circle, but was concerned Arkansas would bring in a left-hander to face him once Reida reached. Instead, Landon Simpson remained on the mound with runners on first and third.
"When they kept the righty in, I knew I was going to tie the game," Barrett said. "I had no doubt in my mind."
That type of confidence is uncharacteristic for a true freshman, and Barrett delivered on it. Sure a fastball was coming on the first pitch of his at-bat, Barrett swung away and singled up the middle to make it 3-3, setting up Zac Zellers with runners on first and second. In his mind, it was a no-pressure situation.
"I was pretty loose," Zellers said. "We were able to come back and tie the game, so it wasn't really a do-or-die situation."
On a 1-2 count, Zellers got the pitch up the zone he was looking for, stroking it into center and scoring Reida from second.
"I think it was really important, especially the win that we had," Zellers said. "Being able to come back, I think that's good for us. It's not the first time we've done it and it's probably not going to be the last."
The frenzied ninth inning and the celebration that followed might be the memories that stick from Saturday's second game, but they would not have happened had it not been for an impressive outing by the UK pitching staff.
Freshman Kyle Cody was set to make his first career SEC start on Saturday, but when it became a doubleheader and Corey Littrell started and lost game one, Cody was all of a sudden pitching to avoid a sweep. Very quickly, things went bad.
In a bit of first/ninth inning symmetry, the game started with an error on a grounder from second. From there, Arkansas would plate three runs on four hits and another fielding error by the Cats in the first, but Cody settled in. He worked around constant trouble over his final six innings, allowing no more damage and keeping his team within striking distance.
"It didn't go his way in the first," Henderson said. "A lot of ground balls got through and then obviously we kicked two in the top of the first, which was really disappointing and put him in a bad spot. And his rhythm was not great until probably the fourth inning."
Cody - filling in for struggling Saturday starter Jerad Grundy - has grown up quickly in his first season, so quickly in fact that he doesn't believe he could have pulled off this outing just a couple months ago.
"I didn't have the experience," Cody said. "It's good to get this under my belt for later years and I feel good where I'm at right now."
Walter Wijas, Ryne Combs and Chandler Shepherd kept it going after Cody departed, tossing two perfect innings. On the weekend, the UK bullpen worked 4.2 innings without allowing a run.
"That bullpen let us win a game 4-3," Henderson said. "Kyle Cody let us win a game 4-3."
As much of a relief as the victory may have been, it doesn't change the fact that UK has much to work on with two weeks left in the regular season.
"Obviously we've got some work to do offensively," Henderson said. "You can't deny that. We've got some things that we've got to get it figured out and we've got some kids that we need to have a much, much more competitive approach out of at the plate. Much more toughness is needed if we're going to get this thing turned around and finished strong."
Though not a cure-all, the win does make listening to Henderson's message and putting it into practice a little easier.
"We've been working on it all year," Zellers said. "It's just a matter of time before it clicks. Some guys are getting it, some aren't and we just haven't clicked at the same time. But once we do, we'll be a force."
Mark Stoops still has more than 7,000 fewer followers than fans who attended the Blue/White Spring Game, but he's doing well for himself nonetheless.
Barely six months into his tenure as Kentucky head coach, Stoops has more than 43,000 followers, enough to rank him 10th among all college football coaches. Stoops is sixth among Southeastern Conference coaches.
Senior captain Anthony Rossi looks to lead his Wildcats out of the first two rounds with a pair of wins to reach Champaign-Urbana, Ill., site of the 2013 NCAA Tennis Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the fifth straight season, the Kentucky men's tennis team will host the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament at the Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center. But for the first time in those five seasons, it will be Cedric Kauffmann leading his No. 8 Wildcats into battle.
Kauffmann, who took over for Kentucky tennis legend and former head coach Dennis Emery, has guided his team to a 20-11 record in his first season at the helm and has UK poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament beginning on May 10 after a strong regular season.
"It feels good. I'm excited about the body of work we've done through the season, and I guess that's why we're hosting," said Kauffmann. "We've done some good things and we've done some things that were just so-so. I look into the postseason to maybe play our best tennis because I think we have some better tennis to be played."
Kauffmann would categorize his first season as good but not great after Kentucky failed to meet its goals of winning the ITA Indoor Tournament, the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship or the SEC Tournament crown.
Just like every tournament his team competes in, however, Kauffmann has his team gunning for the championship. This one just happens to be the biggest of them all. All of those unmet goals would be forgotten with a national title, and Kauffmann sees no reason why UK can't be the last team standing at tournament's end.
"Our goal every tournament is to win it," said Kauffmann. "Everybody in the field has that in the back of their heads. It's a long tournament, a physical tournament. We're going to take it one match at a time, but everyone in the back of their mind wants to win it."
Before the Cats can get to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., for the next stage of the tournament, Kentucky will have to deal with a competitive regional in Lexington comprised of its first-round opponent Western Michigan and potential second-round foes Michigan and Virginia Tech.
Though Western Michigan (19-9, 3-2 MAC) is the four seed of the regional, the Broncos will pose a threat to the Wildcats riding the emotion and momentum of a Mid-American Conference tournament victory.
"We're playing Western Michigan who won their conference. They're feeling good and have confidence," said Kauffmann. "That's a dangerous round. If we're lucky enough to win that round, we'll play somebody that has enough talent to knock us out. It's very dangerous and it's going to be very tough."
The Wildcats will have to continue to rely on their No. 1 and No. 2 players in senior Anthony Rossi and junior Tom Jomby, who rank No. 5 and No. 23 in the nation, respectively. From there, Kauffmann will put the rest of their chances in the hands of four true freshmen.
The talent is there, now it's time for the youngsters to take ownership of this team with a full season under their belt and seize the opportunities in front of them.
"Our freshman class, since we've had some injuries, is going to have to step up," said Kauffmann. "I thought this team was going to become theirs in a year or two, but it's kind of become their team. I threw four freshmen out there in the SEC Tournament. I thought they competed well and gave us a chance."
What Kauffmann is hoping for, despite a packed sports weekend on the Kentucky campus with the NCAA Tournament coinciding with the SEC Softball Tournament and a crucial three-game set for Kentucky baseball versus Vanderbilt, is for all of their fans to come out and support his team to give them an edge. With all the fans and one area, fans can stop by heading from one venue to another to help the Wildcats pick up a couple of wins this weekend.
"It's clear that I would love for them to step by and check it out," said Kauffmann. "I know the fans that have been following us all season will come. I'd like to have some new fans, maybe come on over. I think they'll enjoy it. I think it will help our guys play a little bit better. I think our guys play good with a loud crowd, so I welcome everybody to come."
Freshman Kelsey Nunley has been a force in the circle for UK this year, breaking the single-season wins mark with 22 on the year. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky softball team travels south to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend, the Wildcats will be faced with a tall task.
They begin a three-game road set against Alabama, a team that has more than had UK's number over the years. The Crimson Tide leads the all-time series over the Cats, 38-2, and are vying to defend a national championship after being crowned at the 2012 Women's College World Series.
Playing the defending champs will always give you that little extra adrenaline when lacing up the cleats and emotions will no doubt be running high. UK freshman pitching sensation Kelsey Nunley admits she will be a little anxious before the game, but that doesn't mean she lacks confidence.
"I'm nervous I'm not going to lie about it, but I think if my team and I can play to our full potential we can beat them," Nunley said.
One of the biggest reasons for Alabama's success over the last few years has been their junior ace Jackie Traina. For the second straight weekend, the Cats will be stepping into the batter's box against a two-time All-American. Last weekend, UK lost two out of three games to Missouri, with the two losses coming to the hands of Chelsea Thomas. Kentucky will face Traina at least two times this weekend but may have an idea of what they are up against.
Head coach Rachel Lawson views the two All-Americans as fairly comparable pitchers with electric movement. The difference between the aces is the amount of pitches in their repertoire. Thomas uses one dominant pitch - her dropball - to baffle hitters, while Traina has a more diverse arsenal.
"Traina has more pitches to work with so she can go head-to-head when she needs to but she is unpredictable so that makes her scary," Lawson said. "She can throw the ball high and low and on both sides of the plate. They are different in that standpoint where I think Traina has more pitches but she is definitely comparable. She is as good as Thomas and I think they are two of the best pitchers in the country."
Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy - now in his 15th season at the helm - has done an exceptional job. Since Murphy has been in Tuscaloosa, UA has been known to hit the long ball. However, the Cats will be wary of Bama on the basepaths as the Tide has swiped 107 bags on the year compared to UK's 65.
To put it succinctly, the Crimson Tide have it all. They can hit, run, play defense and great pitching, but Kentucky may have just the answer to slowing down Alabama: Nunley.
She was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Week on Monday, racking in her second SEC weekly accolade of the year. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native leads all freshmen in the conference in strikeouts (156), earned-run average (2.02) and wins (22).
Unlike most aces in the SEC, Alabama will see a new face in the circle for the Wildcats and with Nunley likely getting the nod on Friday, the Cats could have a solid chance of containing the Tide's bats and knocking off the defending champs in the opening game on Friday.
Nunley has several qualities that make her a great pitcher, but one in particular stands out to Lawson.
"I always knew she was very good and what she's great at I can't teach," Lawson said. "She's very competitive and has great command of the zone so once she's figured out how to adjust to the college game she is able to do a nice job attacking batters where she wants to. I'm not surprised that she has been successful."
What has made Nunley so successful in her debut season at Kentucky has been her ability to paint the corners of the plate and be in control of the count. She consistently stays ahead of hitters and heavily uses the inside part of the plate to jam opponents.
Nunley hasn't always been a control pitcher growing up as she would blow hitters away at the high school level. However, this season she has had to change her style a bit in adjusting to the collegiate ranks.
While training in the preseason, she was throwing a bullpen and found a pitch and location that has helped carry her to UK's all-time single-season wins record.
"I remember it was one day in practice I threw a pitch on the wrong side of the plate and Coach was like, 'Wow that's a good pitch,' " Nunley said. "That's been one of my best pitches and we just figured it out two months before the season."
As the season winds down with the SEC Tournament to follow next weekend, the Cats could use a lift to ride the momentum into the league tournament and regionals. Whatever the result is in the showdown against Alabama, UK will likely receive a shot of energy with senior co-captain Kara Dill set to return in the coming weeks.
Dill, who has led Kentucky in hitting each of the last two seasons and was named an all-league performer in 2012, had her cast removed on Monday from her broken left hand. She is currently going through rehab and Lawson believes Dill will be ready come regionals.
Lawson has options to choose from when her all-conference player returns. If Dill isn't 100 percent on defense, freshman Christian Stokes has done a tremendous job filling in at shortstop. Lawson can use Dill at the designated player slot and insert her back into the leadoff position - a place in the lineup where UK hasn't been all that consistent.
Either way, Dill will provide the Wildcats with a boost coming at the right time during the postseason.
"I believe that offensively, if she is able to do what she can and see pitches she would do an outstanding job at DP and she would fill a major role for us," Lawson said. "She was our best hitter the last two seasons so to get her back in the lineup is our first priority, but if her body responds I feel very comfortable putting her out on defense as well."
Earlier this week, John Calipari wrote about the "untold story" of Kentucky basketball. Everyone knows about the success UK has had during Coach Cal's four-year tenure, but the way the Wildcats have excelled in the classroom hasn't gotten the same attention.
Not only have the Wildcats had a 3.0 cumulative grade-point average over the last three years, but all seven student-athletes who have been eligible to graduate at the end of his senior year have done so.
Three more names are about to be added to that list.
On Sunday in Rupp Arena, Twany Beckham, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson will receive their college degrees at UK's 146th May Commencement. UKnow has a story on the three. Here's what they had to say about graduating:
Beckham "My experience at UK has been great. I just want to thank all the coaches, especially Coach Cal (Calipari), for giving me the opportunity to come here."
"It's tough because basketball, especially at the University of Kentucky, requires a lot. You just have to stay focused. You have to put the same time that you put into basketball into the classroom if you really want to be successful."
"Just coming to UK humbled me a lot, and I feel like I grew up. It made me sit back and look at things from a whole different
perspective and just enjoy life and the college experience. Being at UK,
I've gotten to meet some really great people and have some really great
"It wasn't easy. The first two years, I had a hard time with managing my time, as far as schoolwork and separating it from basketball."
"Everyone supports you in basketball all over the state, but they also support you in the classroom and as a person. People here in the [UK athletics department], media relations department, coaches, fans ... want to see you succeed."
"I am very honored to be able to graduate in three years."
ATLANTA -- The Southeastern Conference and ESPN have signed a 20-year agreement through 2034 to create and operate a multiplatform network, which will launch in August 2014, it was announced today by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and ESPN President John Skipper. The new network and its accompanying digital platform will air SEC content 24/7 including more than 1,000 events in its first year.
The network will televise approximately 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games, 75 baseball games, and events from across the SEC's 21 sports annually. Programming will also include studio shows, original content such as SEC Storied, spring football games, signing day and pro days coverage. Hundreds of additional live events from various sports will be offered exclusively on the digital platform. The network and its digital extensions will connect with each SEC institution and create opportunities for each school to produce and develop content.
"The SEC Network will provide an unparalleled fan experience of top quality SEC content presented across the television network and its accompanying digital platforms," stated Slive. "We will increase exposure of SEC athletics programs at all 14 member institutions, as we showcase the incredible student-athletes in our league. The agreement for a network streamlines and completes an overall media rights package that will continue the SEC's leadership for the foreseeable future."
Each weekend throughout the season, the new network will air multiple top-tier matchups from the strongest conference in college football. Since 2006, the SEC has claimed seven consecutive football national championships. In 2011-12, SEC teams won eight national championships: football (Alabama), men's basketball (Kentucky), gymnastics (Alabama), men's indoor track and field (Florida), women's tennis (Florida), women's golf (Alabama), men's outdoor track and field (Florida), and softball (Alabama). Since 1990, the SEC has won 149 national team championships for an average of more than six per year.
Skipper said, "The SEC is unmatched in its success on the field and its popularity with fans nationwide. The new network's top-quality SEC matchups across a range of sports will serve all sports enthusiasts including the most passionate, die-hard SEC fans. Also, it will serve the needs of our multichannel distributors and advertisers by providing extremely attractive programming options across all platforms."
As part of the agreement, ESPN will now oversee the SEC's official Corporate Sponsor Program. In addition, ESPN and the SEC also agreed to extend their existing media rights agreement through 2034. ESPN has televised the SEC since 1982. ESPN's existing networks present more than 1,600 hours of SEC action each year. The new network will focus exclusively on the SEC and add another outlet to deliver sports fans more SEC content than ever.
AT&T U-verse® has been secured as the network's first national distributor. AT&T U-verse is the fastest growing TV provider in the U.S. and their subscribers will have access to an unprecedented amount of SEC content across all platforms. Subscribers receiving the live linear network via a multichannel subscription will also have access to the network on PCs, tablets, smartphones and select gaming devices like Xbox. Additional games and coverage will be available through an authenticated digital offering. Fans looking to learn more about how to get the SEC Network can visit GetSECNetwork.com for more information.
"We are pleased to be involved with the SEC and ESPN at the very beginning of this great alliance," said Jeff Weber, President of Content and Advertising Sales, AT&T. "As the fastest growing and most advanced pay TV service, we want to bring our customers the highest value and most compelling product that we possibly can. Access to the SEC Network, across multiple platforms, will only increase the demand for U-verse."
ESPN's Justin Connolly, formerly senior vice president, ESPN affiliate sales and marketing, will oversee the network's day-to-day operations. The network will originate from ESPN's Charlotte, N.C., offices with additional staff located at the company's Bristol, Conn., headquarters. Staff announcements and additional details will be made in the coming months.
Coming off a series win at Ole Miss, UK will host No. 14 Arkansas for a three-game series beginning Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last week was an eventful one for the Kentucky baseball team.
It began with an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky, where the Wildcats dropped a 2-1 decision on a walk-off home run. About 40 hours later, UK was in Oxford, Miss., for the first pitch of a three-game series against No. 16 Ole Miss with a break only to attend class back in Lexington on a couple hours sleep.
"Those are good memories," head coach Gary Henderson said with a wry smile.
Better memories awaited the Cats over the weekend.
On the heels of seven straight losses and 10 in 12 games, UK took two of three from the Rebels for only the third series victory at Ole Miss in school history.
After an exhausting but potentially crucial week, the Cats were due for a respite. Life in the Southeastern Conference, however, yields no such thing.
"It doesn't stop," Henderson said. "It's the same every year. You face really good players, really good pitching. It's just the nature of the deal. And you gotta play well. You can beat anybody, you can get beat by anybody and I think any coach in the league would tell you that."
Next up for No. 24 Kentucky is a three-game home set with No. 14 Arkansas. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 1 in the preseason and boast an impressive 1.78 staff earned-run average.
"They're very deep, they can match you up, they've got good starting pitching," Henderson said. "It'll be another one of those weekends you would anticipate - no crystal ball - but you would anticipate another weekend of close games: 3-2, 5-4, 2-1, those types of games. We've played plenty of them, but that's exactly what I would think that we're looking at."
On the season, UK has a 9-3 record in one-run decisions after adding to its SEC-leading total with two of them last weekend. That series victory led to inevitable questions about whether the Cats had saved their season. Henderson was hesitant to say that, mostly because of how much work he knows lies ahead.
"I think anytime you have a disappointing weekend, the next one's important," Henderson said. "And I've felt that way for a long time. It seems like you sit here and do the interviews and every weekend is the most important weekend of the year."
That's true again with the Razorbacks coming to town, though the Cats will likely be so happy to just being playing baseball again for nerves to have much of an effect. After returning to Lexington on Saturday, Henderson gave his players Sunday and Monday off to focus on final exams.
And for the first time this season, UK had no scheduled midweek game to help pass the time. Instead, Henderson pondered what to do with his weekend rotation.
Coming off a strong junior season and a hot start to 2013, Saturday starter Jerad Grundy has hit a rough patch in recent weeks.
"He's missing up in the strike zone," Henderson said. "There's no mystery. It's up, it's flat, he's doing it in very, very inopportune times. He's healthy, it's not a work ethic issue. He's a great kid. He throws good pitches, but he's not throwing near as many good pitches consistently as he was the first eight weekends."
Looking both to help Grundy get back on track and give his team the best chance to win in the short term, Henderson has tabbed freshman Kyle Cody (3-2, 5.49 ERA) to make his first-career weekend start and interrupt a 76-game streak of weekend games started by left-handers.
Grundy's struggles might not be ideal, but Henderson is thankful to be addressing them after a couple big wins. Confidence is maybe the first word that comes to mind when describing this Kentucky team, but even this bunch of Cats couldn't help but let a little self-doubt creep in after what they had been through. That's over now.
"Anytime you have a good weekend, it creates confidence and it gets you back to being optimistic about what you're doing," Henderson said. "We're always optimistic, but certainly the kids feel good after the win and glad to be home for a couple weekends."
The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fourth as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Every coach in America has a theory when it comes to scheduling. It's typically based on the nature of his program, the quality of the team he expects to return and a number of other factors.
As you'd expect, John Calipari has undergone quite the evolution over the years.
At Massachusetts and Memphis, he was tasked with rebuilding programs and scheduled as such. Whenever there was an opportunity to play on television, he took it, regardless of the time, place or opponent.
At Kentucky, he needs not worry about national exposure - that will take care of itself. Instead, Coach Cal has a primary goal in mind when seeking out non-conference opponents: getting his team ready for the NCAA Tournament.
With UK's 2013-14 out-of-conference slate now complete and released on Wednesday, Calipari seems to have exactly the kind of schedule to do just that.
It starts with the handful of marquee matchups that dot the schedule.
Games with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville await the Wildcats. In addition to facing Michigan State in Chicago's United Center as part of the State Farm Champions Classic, UK will take on Providence and Baylor at neutral sites, the second of which will be at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Every year, Calipari seeks to expose his team to the kind of domed stadium that hosts the latter rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Wildcats will do one better and take the floor in the building where the Final Four will be played.
This year's schedule - which will be finalized when the Southeastern Conference sets UK's 18-game schedule - is notable for more than just its marquee matchups.
In scheduling opponents from "mid-major" conferences, Calipari looks for teams that will contend for their leagues' automatic bids, and it appears he's found them. Of UK's eight opponents from outside the historic BCS conferences, six finished fourth or better in 2012-13 regular-season play and two finished first.
One of those is very familiar to the Wildcats.
After ending UK's season barely a month ago in the NIT, Robert Morris will come to Rupp Arena in the Keightley Classic - an event named after legendary equipment manager Bill Keightley. UK will also play host to Texas-Arlington, Cleveland State and Eastern Michigan as part of the inaugural event, but the game against the Colonials on Nov. 17 will draw the headlines.
But as anticipated as the opportunity for revenge against Robert Morris will be, two games against NCAA Tournament teams could make for the most compelling on-the-floor matchups with non-BCS opponents.
Within 11 days in December, Boise State (Dec. 10) and Belmont (Dec. 21) will come to Rupp Arena. Boise State - returning all but one member of last year's team that received an at-large bid - will be pushing for a preseason ranking in the fall, while Belmont will seek its seventh NCAA Tournament berth in nine years.
Comparing next season's schedule with the one from last year, it looks mostly the same on its face. North Carolina is back, but the mix of big names, neutral-site games and a true road game or two remains.
The difference, at least in theory, comes in the games against teams from non-power conferences.
When UK found itself on the bubble this season, its resume was weighed down by a mediocre strength of schedule. The average RPI of those eight opponents was 214.0 in 2012-13. Things obviously change from year to year, but UK's eight mid-major opponents this upcoming year had an average RPI of more than 60 spots higher.
The best comparison for the 2013-14 schedule is the one from two seasons ago.
That year, the Wildcats played three neutral-site games and one true road game against a perennial power (Indiana). Next year, UK will do exactly the same, trading North Carolina out for the Hoosiers. The Cats also played two Final Four teams that seasons (Kansas and Louisville) and another Elite Eight squad (UNC) in non-conference play and it wouldn't be a surprise for history to repeat itself with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville all potentially ranked top 10 in the preseason.
Considering UK won a title playing that schedule in 2011-12, that's likely no coincidence.
Anthony Davis averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in his rookie season with the New Orleans Hornets. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's that time of year when former Wildcats, with their NBA seasons wrapping up, return to Lexington to catch up with old friends and take advantage of John Calipari's open invitation to use the Joe Craft Center's world-class facilities.
The first of those Kentucky stars to return was Anthony Davis. Last year's consensus national player of the year and No. 1 overall pick was back in the Bluegrass last week and Eric Lindsey from CoachCal.com got a chance to spend some time with him to talk about his rookie season, reflect on the 2012 title and how his season at UK helped prepare him for the next level:
Although Davis was considered the top freshman in the country when he arrived at UK, there were questions about his game and his ability to make an immediate all-around impact.
Everyone knew Davis possessed the potential to block shots, but it took time for him to become a legitimate offensive threat. By the end of the season, as Kentucky dominated its competition in the NCAA Tournament, there was absolutely no doubt who the best player in the country was and who would be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Davis said he has John Calipari and UK to thank for his rapid development and preparation for the NBA.
"(UK) really prepared me a lot," Davis said. "I think the benefit of Kentucky is Coach Cal actually coached in the league. I think that helps with the way he runs things here in terms of getting guys prepared for the league. I think that was the biggest plus. He tells guys the truth. He keeps it real with you and tells you how he feels and what he thinks. If you can't take that, you really won't be able to take the league.
"The coaches in the NBA do the same thing. They try to get you better just like Coach Cal tries to get you better. Just going up and down, playing against each other here makes you better. Every practice (at UK) is physical and it gets you in shape. All that stuff helps because it leads you into the NBA. I think they do a great job here because it just makes the NBA a lot easier."