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UK anxious to kick off 2014 campaign vs. top-ranked Virginia

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A.J. Reed will start UK's season opener vs. No. 1 Virginia at noon ET on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) A.J. Reed will start UK's season opener vs. No. 1 Virginia at noon ET on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
When he put together his team's 2014 schedule, Gary Henderson didn't know at first that UK would face the nation's top-ranked team to start the season.

What he did know was that the Wildcats would travel to Spartanburg, S.C., for the Hughes Brothers Baseball Challenge. He saw the event as an opportunity get the season started with "something different," so he called UNC Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf to commit to playing in it.

It wasn't until later that Henderson found out No. 1 Virginia would be UK's season-opening opponent at noon ET on Friday. It was a surprise, but not an unpleasant one.

"We kind of caught a break there," Henderson said.

In fact, Scalf made sure to run the possibility by Henderson before finalizing the plans. The conversation wasn't a long one.

"When Mark called me up and asked if I would be willing to (play Virginia) in the opener and I said, 'Absolutely,' " Henderson said. "I think that is great. It is win-win."

Opening day always brings excitement, but playing the team tabbed by Baseball America and Perfect Game as the best in the country adds a little extra edge.

"We've put in so much work in the offseason and continued to this spring," pitcher Chandler Shepherd said. "We're all just ready to go. That's all we're talking about and it's to the point now where we're just ready to let loose and have fun and play ball. It's that time."

With a constant onslaught of cold weather, ice and snow this winter, it hasn't always felt that way. For that reason, the Cats haven't gotten nearly as much outdoor work as they would like. That's a challenge -- and one teams throughout the country have shared these last two months -- but no excuse.

"Until we get those repetitions under our belt and we get that experience you'll expect that maybe the game is not quite as crisp in weeks one and two as you'd like, but you'll grow from it," Henderson said.

Henderson anticipates the biggest learning curve happening in the field, while UK's star junior center fielder expects to use a simplified approach at the plate.

"When you're growing up, you go out there your first two times and it's like riding a bike," Austin Cousino said. "You see the ball and hit it and you don't try to get too complicated with it."

After a scorching start to 2013, UK struggled to put together enough offense to back a solid pitching staff. The Cats scored just 3.8 runs per game last season in narrowly falling short of the NCAA Tournament.

In 2014, Cousino doesn't expect UK to be the kind of offensive juggernaut the 2012 squad was in slugging 56 home runs. He does believe, however, that the Cats will be more than capable of putting enough runs on the board to win.

"Our lineup's not going to have as much bang as it did freshman year, but we're going to play to our strengths a lot better," Cousino said.

If Cousino is right, the Cats could be the kind of team they thought they would be a season ago.

UK has a three-man weekend rotation that could be among the nation's best. Shepherd, a junior, will move from the bullpen, where he excelled, into a Saturday role, while sophomore Kyle Cody will occupy a Sunday spot after pitching his way into the rotation late in his freshman season. On Fridays, Henderson will hand the ball to two-way star and preseason first-team All-American A.J. Reed.

"We are going to have three starting pitchers that are good, if not very good on any given date," Henderson said. "We'll be able to match up with starting pitching every weekend."

Reed enters the season as the staff ace for the second year in a row, but could be poised for an even better junior season.

"In the offseason and the fall we really worked on changing my body so I can last throughout the season longer," Reed said. "I dropped about 20 pounds, which was a big thing for us being able to work the whole field hitting wise and going the other way using the gaps. Also really enhancing my pitches by making them better, sharper and I got a better curveball."

But as much as Reed's transformation will help him at the plate and on the mound, it could be an even biggest boost in the way it sets the tone for his younger teammates.

"I think any time a college kid makes a commitment like that and changes how he goes about his business, I think it's a really positive thing," Henderson said. "I think everybody appreciates it. I think everybody respects it and appreciates it and I think we are going to benefit by the fact that A.J. has taken his physical condition to a new level."

Henderson has already seen that pay dividends.

"The maturity of our group is at a different level than it was at any time last spring, so that's really a positive," Henderson said. "The team culture is good to this point and obviously I'm well aware we haven't played a game yet, but I am proud of what the kids have done."

Now, UK has its first chance to show what that work means on the field.

On opening day a season ago, UK-Virginia would have been a matchup of highly ranked teams. This year, the Cats are the underdogs.

"There are less expectations for us out there," Cousino said. "I don't think there's any shortage of that in our locker room. I think we know what we're capable of, I think we know what kind of squad we have and I think it'll be a good game."

Regardless of how good of a game it is or even the outcome, UK's will still have work ahead this weekend. The Cats will face host UNC Wilmington on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, VMI at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday and USC Upstate at 1 p.m. ET on Monday.

The way UK handles that will be the first measure of what Cousino expects to define this season.

"I think we just have to get back in the process, the approach of playing a game one pitch at a time, one weekend, one game," Cousino said. "I think year's club is a lot better at that."

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