A.J. Reed threw a complete game and plated UK's first run of the game in the ninth inning against Kent State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- It took until the very last possible batter, but Kentucky finally got the better of Kent State on the diamond following a gutty 4-2 win in an elimination game of the Louisville Regional.
If it looked and felt like a familiar game, you weren't alone. The two teams have met now three times in the last two years in a regional with the three games being decided by a grand total of four runs. UK had been on the losing end of the first two meetings that came with its fair share of drama. Kent State outlasted UK in the opening game of the 2012 Gary Regional in 21 innings and then sent UK home for good in the regional championship game on a controversial home run in the eighth inning.
This time would be different, even if it didn't look like it for the first two hours of the game.
"It was nice to beat them," said junior starting pitcher and National Player of the Year A.J. Reed. "They gave us a little trouble in 2012, so it was good to come out here and get that win and have that ninth inning."
UK's offense was stagnant all afternoon, mustering just three hits until the ninth inning, but when the game was on the line the Wildcats staved off elimination for at least one more day. As the team has done all year long, Kentucky battled till the very end and the Wildcats showed their mettle with their backs against the wall.
After failing to get anything going offensively through the first eight innings, UK would not go down without a fight.
"I'm really proud of our guys," said UK head coach Gary Henderson. "I felt like we would come around like I always do. Sometimes it doesn't happen, but with this group most of the time it has, especially offensively. I think a very unbiased opinion would be A.J. was outstanding. It's cliche but big-time players step up when you need them and we need A.J. today and he gave it to us."
Following a one-out single from Max Kuhn to start the ninth inning, Reed drove him in from second, after a balk, with a double to the right-center gap for the first run of the game. The clutch hit from Reed was just what the Wildcats needed from their star player.
Not only was the hit big for the team, but for Reed as well. Entering today's game, Reed was in the midst of a minor slump that saw him going six games without an RBI and tally just three hits in his last 18 at-bats.
"It was kind of a surreal feeling when I walked up and Max was on first base with one out and everybody got a little bit louder," Reed said. "I'm sure running through everybody's mind was a home run, but I was just trying to get on base and extend the inning for us."
With two outs and the bases loaded, Thomas Bernal stepped into the box and delivered a soft liner down the left field line for the go-ahead two-run double. Matt Reida, the very next batter, would then give UK one more insurance run on a sharp grounder through the left side to score Storm Wilson, while Bernal was thrown out at the plate trying to score as well.
On the mound, Reed threw his first-career complete game in giving up only two runs and striking out three, while only throwing 107 pitches. In fact, Reed never got to a single three-ball count against any Kent State batter. After allowing two runs on four hits to the first four batters in the first inning, he would retire 14 straight batters, while giving up no more runs and only three hits the rest of the way.
The win now gives UK some much needed confidence entering another elimination game on Sunday.
"It definitely gives us a lot of momentum," Reed said. "Right now we just have to be able to ride the high that we're on and take that momentum into the next game whoever we're playing. Whoever we're pitching is going to throw well. I think they'll be able to feed off how I pitched today and we're going to be pretty confident at the plate after that inning. I think it's going to give us a lot of momentum."
Coming into today's contest, Kentucky was 0-21 when trailing after eight innings this season. Big wins that come late in ball games can have a carry-over effect. That's exactly what UK is banking on for the remainder of this regional.
"I think any time you win a game late, kids feel good," Henderson said. "Everybody feels good. Your fans feel good, the coaches and the players. Winning late or losing late has a greater impact. I think it does in all sports. We'll feel good tonight. We'll feel good going to the ballpark tomorrow morning and if we score early, then you start riding that thing out."
Kentucky will face another stiff challenge on Sunday against the loser of Louisville and Kansas for the right to go to the championship series of the regional and would have to beat the winner of Louisville or Kansas twice in that championship series. In UK's seven previous regional appearances, the Wildcats have bounced back to make the regional championship in five of those.
So, knowing UK's history in past regionals, don't count out the Wildcats just yet.
UK opened play in the CCLSKI Cup International Women's Volleyball tournament with a pair of defeats. Playing against professional opponents, the Wildcats would have to adjust.
Adjust they did.
It started against Hebei, the same team that downed the Cats on Tuesday, 3-1. On Friday, UK reversed that tally with a 3-1 victory. Sara Schwarzwalder and Shelby Workman led the way, with Workman tallying a team high in kills and hitting over .300.
UK sustained the momentum on Saturday. In spite of falling behind two sets to one, the Cats rallied to victory. Their coach was pleased with the way his team battled in Zhangjiakou, while the players couldn't help but notice a group of fans in attendance.
Good win for us today in 5 sets after being down 1-2. Mentally we wavered, but pushed through at the end. #UKVBtoChina
Kelsey Nunley allowed just three hits, but UK fell 2-0 to Alabama on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Rachel Lawson thought her eyes were playing tricks.
In the final moments before Kentucky's Women's College World Series matchup with Alabama, the video board listed the tale of the tape for the game's two starting pitchers.
If the names and school logos hadn't been there, Lawson wouldn't have been able to say which statistics belonged to UK ace Kelsey Nunley and Alabama's Jaclyn Traina.
"They had Traina next to Nunley and the stats were identical," Lawson said. "Like, identical. I thought that they had made a typo."
Entering the game, Nunley had 29 wins to Traina's 24. Their earned-run averages stood at 1.99 and 1.83, respectively. A battle, it seemed, was in store for the fans watching at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and at home on ESPN2.
A battle is what they got.
Just as the two sides of the video board were almost indistinguishable from one another pregame, the same was true for the two sides of the scoreboard afterward. UK had four hits to Alabama's three. Neither team committed an error.
The only real difference was in the most meaningful column, where Alabama came out on top 2-0 to send the Wildcat into the loser's bracket.
"Just an awesome game tonight," Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said. "I thought it was a made-for-TV sporting event, the way it ended, the way it played out. Two really good teams with two really good pitchers."
The drama, as Murphy referenced, came to a crescendo in the seventh and final inning.
Just an inning after Sylver Samuel finally broke up Traina's no-hit bit with an infield single, Nikki Sagermann -- reaching base for the third time in as many trips -- Lauren Cumbess and Griffin Joiner singled to lead off the frame and load the bases for Emily Gaines. The senior put together a seven-pitch at-bat, but looked at a changeup that was called strike three.
It was then Krystal Smith's turn to take a shot at being the hero. Smith smacked a grounder to shortstop that was hit just hard enough for Alabama to turn a game-ending double play.
"I just think the fact that they were able to turn the double play, that's the way it goes," Lawson said. "We have one missed pitch and they hit a home run and then the game ends on a double play. That's the way softball should be played."
In a matchup between two pitchers as dominant as Nunley and Traina -- Lawson called Traina the best pitcher in the country -- the separation between victory and defeat is always going to be razor thin. In this case, it came down to a double play and a homer.
Following a scoreless first inning, Peyton Grantham kept the Alabama second alive with a two-out single. When Nunley fell behind 2-0 and left a pitch just a little too high in the zone, Leona Lafaele made her pay with a shot over the fence in left center.
"My approach to the at-bat was just get my barrel there," Lafaele said. "Nunley is a great, fantastic pitcher and she's been mowing teams down and Kentucky definitely had momentum coming into the game."
"The girl definitely made a good swing," Nunley said. "The pitch was a little high, so she hit it right over. And, you know, it happens. So you just gotta flush it and move on to the next batter."
Nunley managed that just fine. She retired 16 of the final 18 batters she faced in going pitch for pitch with Traina, a senior who has two years' experience on Nunley.
"I love playing games that it's a good matchup," Nunley said.
Nunley won't have to wait long for another such matchup. The Cats now await the winner of No. 8 Florida State and No. 13 Baylor at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday in an elimination game.
Already this NCAA Tournament, the Cats have won three games in which their season was at stake. Most recently, UK advanced to its first-ever Women's College World Series by taking two Sunday games at UCLA to complete an unlikely comeback from a 1-0 Super Regional deficit.
"We're a tough team and I know we'll battle back from this," Samuel said. "It's just another bump in the road, but we like to play extra games so we'll come back from that."
The way UK closed Friday night's game is another reason to believe the Cats will bounce back.
Traina, for the first 5.2 innings, was literally unhittable. Sitting in the high 60s in terms of velocity and at times reach 70 miles per hour, Traina was difficult to prepare for. Add in the late start time and you have a recipe for a long night for hitters.
"Traina's outstanding and under the lights she's incredible," Lawson said. "I think that it took us that long to really adjust visually to it."
UK eventually did make the necessary adjustments, catching up with Traina's power arm for those three hits. The rally was eventually undone, but not the momentum and confidence built by it. That the Cats will carry forward.
"I definitely think that our team felt good in the seventh inning," Lawson said. "That was the fight that they've had this entire postseason and they know that they have more life in them. They know that they have at least one more game tomorrow."
UK fell to Kansas in its NCAA Regional opener on Friday, 10-6. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- For the fifth time in Kentucky's last five NCAA Regional appearances, the Wildcats came out on the wrong side of the scoreboard in the opening game of an NCAA Regional, following UK's 10-6 loss to Kansas in Louisville Friday night.
In a game that saw more than three hours' worth of weather delays, UK could never find a rhythm in Friday's matchup with the Jayhawks. Starting pitcher Kyle Cody lasted just one-third of an inning after allowing three runs in the first and then sitting through an hour weather delay.
UK head coach Gary Henderson was quick to dismiss the notion that the weather was the cause for his team's poor play vs. KU.
"Kansas had to go through the same thing," Henderson said. "They played much better than we did today. It's not ideal to have three delays, but it didn't affect our pitching in the first two innings. I wouldn't attribute anything that happened today to delays, lightning, rain, stops, none of it. We just didn't play well enough."
The 2014 NCAA Tournament marks Kentucky's eighth trip in program history to the tournament and Kentucky is now 1-7 all-time in the opening game of a regional. However, the Wildcats have shown resilience in bouncing back to make the final game of the regional in five of those appearances, but have not advanced to a Super Regional.
The situation facing Kentucky is familiar and not ideal, but one that can be conquered.
"It's hard," Henderson said. "The bottom line is it's hard. It's not impossible. It'll probably happen this year with somebody. There's 16 of these (regionals) going on right now, so somebody will probably go through the loser's bracket and win. It might as well be us."
The Wildcats' National Player of the Year A.J. Reed doesn't necessarily view his team as having a huge hill to climb.
"I don't think it's really a hole," Reed said. "We're a good team. We can go win four games in a row; we've done it before this season. It all starts with tomorrow, so we have to come out here and play well tomorrow and get a good feel back and get some momentum back. I think after that we'll get on a little roll."
The junior lefthander will get the start in game two Saturday vs. Kent State in the elimination game. The last time UK and Kent State took the field, the game went 21 innings, while drawing a lot of similarities to today's game, as both contests lasted more than six hours. Of course the two games were marathons for two different reasons.
"I think we just approach it the same way we approach every other game," Reed said. "Tomorrow's game is a little more important obviously because it's an elimination game, but we're going to come out here with the same energy and enthusiasm that we always do and we're going to attack the hitters and be aggressive at the plate. We're going to go out there and play our game."
One game at a time. That has been the theme all week in preparation of the Louisville Regional and though the Wildcats were trying to avoid the loser's bracket that is where they are once again.
"We have one thing in front of us and that's tomorrow's ball game," Henderson said. "That's it and that's all we need to be worried about, so we need to do a good job with that. If we're fortunate enough to play well tomorrow then we can talk about the next game."
Griffin Joiner celebrates after UK's 4-1 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Stack up the softball histories of Kentucky and Alabama and there's little comparison. The Crimson Tide, in fact, will best almost any school in the country in that department.
Since the program's first year in 1997 and before this season, Alabama had reached nine Women's College World Series. In its most recent trip to Oklahoma City, the Crimson Tide took home its first national championship in 2012.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are only just getting their feet wet on softball's biggest stage. Nonetheless, you needn't look any further than UK's Women's College World Series debut for evidence that the Cats aren't about to shrink in the spotlight at 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday.
And to give fans added reason to believe UK will be confident, the Cats played very well the last time they saw the Crimson Tide.
UK and Alabama haven't faced off in 2014, but the Cats traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the final regular-season series of 2013. Let's look back at what happened as UK claimed its first-ever series win over the Crimson Tide.
Game one -- Kelsey Nunley, as she has been all postseason, was dominant. She tossed a complete-game shutout, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out five in UK's 5-0 win in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader. Shortstop Christian Stokes, now a sophomore, went 2-for-3 with with a home run, two RBI and two runs as UK claimed a 3-0 lead in the second inning and never looked back.
Game two -- This one wasn't so memorable for UK, at least not for good reasons. Smarting from that game-one defeat, Alabama played 10 first-inning runs against three different Wildcat pitchers en route to a 14-0 run-rule win in five innings.
Game three -- If UK and Alabama play a game like this one on Friday, the primetime audience on ESPN2 is in for a treat. The Cats took a 5-0 lead into the sixth inning behind Nunley, who was once again cruising. Alabama, however, rallied to tie it and send the game to extra innings. Unfazed, the Cats responded with four in the top of the eighth to come away with a 9-5 win. Third baseman Nikki Sagermann struck the big blow -- a three-run homer -- to give her a school-record six RBI in the game.
These are obviously two different teams than a year ago -- both much better, clearly -- but there has to be some value for Kentucky's youngsters in the experience of taking two of three at Alabama. In that series, players on this year's roster accounted for all but two of UK's runs, all but one hit and every RBI and win on the mound.
For the first week of its cultural exchange trip to China, the Kentucky volleyball team bounced between bustling big cities. Thursday was different.
The Wildcats traveled six hours through the Yin Mountains to Zhangjiakou. The city is still home to nearly a million people, but Zhangjiakou is much more remote. Once the Cats arrived and got settled, they went for a hike on which they saw parts of the Great Wall and a garden with statues of all the Chinese zodiac signs.
For dinner, the Cats spent time with the three teams they'll be competing with in Zhangjiakou. It was a chilly night, so all four squads joined together for a post-dinner bonfire that featured dancing and karaoke.
Lauren Cumbess went 3-for-3 with a home run, a double and two RBI in UK's win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Rachel Lawson has seen her team accomplish unprecedented feats on big stages this season, but she still couldn't predict exactly how the Wildcats would respond on the biggest of stages.
An exchange with sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes illuminated that fact.
"I didn't know what to expect," Lawson said. "In the middle of the (second) inning, Stokes goes, 'Wow, look at all the people,' and she was on deck. And I'm like, 'Wow, look at the ball.' "
Stokes' response ended up being all Lawson needed to know.
"Don't worry, I got this, Coach," Stokes said.
Stokes would pop out to end the inning, but her attitude saying everything about how the Cats are approaching their first-ever Women's College World Series.
Are the Cats going to take time to soak in this experience? Of course. Are they going to let that derail them from the task at hand? No way.
"We just love being here and we talked about it amongst ourselves," Lauren Cumbess said. "We just want to enjoy every moment. No one plays well under pressure, so we're not playing with any pressure on ourselves."
UK certainly looked like a team free from pressure on Thursday night.
Attacking and playing with poise from the first inning on, the Cats dispatched No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette, 4-1. UK (50-17) played flawless defense behind a dominant Kelsey Nunley and capitalized on nearly every opportunity afforded them by Ragin' Cajun ace Christina Hamilton, looking like anything but a team content simply to have made it Oklahoma City.
"We're going out there just trusting what we've worked on practice," Cumbess said. "We think that we're prepared to face anybody, just like all the other teams here that have been preparing for this day at the World Series."
Cumbess, finally playing in the Women's College World Series as a senior after two Super Regional trips in her first two seasons, led the way.
After Louisiana-Lafayette committed an error to extend the first inning and Griffin Joiner walked with two outs, Cumbess stepped to the plate. Showing no signs of nerves, Cumbess doubled into the gap in right-center for the first Women's College World Series hit and RBI in school history.
"With two outs we put our heads down and try to make something happen with two outs," Cumbess said. "We always try to get a runner on. We scored so many times this season with two outs whether it's by a walk or hit."
Three innings later, she led off the top of the fourth inning and blasted an 0-2 pitch over the wall in left to stake UK to a 3-1 lead. Nunley surely appreciated the insurance, but she didn't need it.
Tossing her eighth complete game and winning for the sixth time in NCAA play, Nunley allowed just one run to the potent offense of Louisiana-Lafayette (49-9-1). It came on the Ragin' Cajuns' lone hit -- Lexie Elkins' first-inning home run traveled deep into the bleachers at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
"I kind of expected at least, them to hit at least one good ball," Nunley said. "I knew that they were a good hitting team and I know that home runs happen all the time. I just tried to stay calm and relax and kept throwing."
"If they hit it, it goes far," Lawson added.
From that point forward, Louisiana-Lafayette didn't hit it often. Taking special care not to give Elkins -- who now has 23 homers -- or any of her power-hitting teammates anything good to hit, Nunley walked five batters but protected the lead.
"We were able to come through that, so I can live with the five walks, and I'm glad we only gave up one home run," Lawson said. "They're pretty good."
Nunley struck out seven and at one point retired eight straight batters. Only twice did a Ragin' Cajun reach second base against the UK sophomore.
"I don't think we've really seen anybody like her," Louisiana-Lafayette third baseman Samantha Walsh said.
With her unique combination of electric stuff, toughness and durability, Nunley is all but certain to get the call again on Friday. The Cats will face No. 2 Alabama -- which defeated Oklahoma, 6-2, to move into the winner's bracket -- once again as the underdogs.
They'll pay about as much attention to that as the pressure they're supposed to be feeling.
"We're just trusting ourselves and what happens happens," Cumbess said." We're just going for it."
Kyle Cody will start UK's NCAA opener vs. Kansas at 2 p.m. on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- When the first pitch of the 2014 Louisville Regional is delivered Friday afternoon at Jim Patterson Stadium between Kansas and Kentucky, thoughts will be racing through the minds of everyone across the Bluegrass State about the potential matchup between Kentucky and Louisville.
However, the Wildcats have a more immediate -- and more important -- task at hand. It also happens to be one that has escaped UK in its NCAA Tournament history.
In UK's last four NCAA Tournament appearances, the Wildcats have lost the opening game of the regionals in all four games, including 2012 when UK fell in 21 innings to Kent State -- another potential matchup in game two of this regional. Kentucky is making its eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history, while looking to record only its second-ever opening game win in a regional. In the seven previous NCAA Regional opening-game appearances, UK's lone win came in 1988 vs. Rutgers.
For Kentucky to be successful, the Cats cannot afford to look past a team that enters its first NCAA Tournament since 2009, while riding a recent hot streak.
Kansas makes the trek to Louisville having won its last nine Big 12 conference regular-season games before entering postseason play, including 11 of its last 15 games overall. Prior to reeling off nine straight Big 12 regular season wins, the Jayhawks sat at 23-20 on the season with slim hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, but that's the funny thing about baseball: Any team can get hot at any time of the season.
For KU, it couldn't have happened at a better time.
"To win nine games in a row in any good league is hard, mathematically it's really hard if you just look at the statistics or percentages," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson. "They've got an older group. They got hot. They're playing well. They deserve to be here."
Friday's matchup on the diamond will mark the first between the two programs who have rich traditions on the hardwood. The two head coaches realize just how important that first game of the regional is. It can set the tone for the remainder of the regional or it can put you in a hole from the very beginning.
"I'm not sure I have a word other than, really important," said Henderson. "The only thing I can tell you is you have to win that game. Is it impossible if you lose? No, it's not impossible. As a coach, you know what you need to do to make that path as likely or as easy as you can, and it's winning the first game."
Two years ago the Wildcats were facing a similar situation in the Gary Regional with Purdue as the No. 1 seed. UK was matched up with Kent State in game one, while a potential Purdue tilt awaited if both teams took care of business. The unexpected happened in most people's eyes. Kent State outlasted the Wildcats in a marathon 21-inning contest that saw Kent State advancing to face the Boilermakers and UK already in a hole to face Valparaiso.
Henderson is making it a point to not let history repeat itself once again in 2014.
"Two years ago we're talking about Purdue," Henderson explained. "We don't need to talk about Purdue. We need to talk about Kent State and then the next day you're not playing Purdue anyway. You're playing Valpo. We need to do everything we can to play well tomorrow at 2 p.m. and then whoever we have is whoever we have."
Henderson's players have echoed the same statement. Current UK standouts Austin Cousino and just-named Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year A.J. Reed were freshmen on that 2012 team that fell in the opening game of the Gary Regional. They are determined to not let that happen as juniors.
"We have to win the first one and whoever it may be after (Kansas), I think you just have to go out and play regardless of who the team is and who they are pitching," Cousino said. "We just have to come out ready."
"The first game is obviously the most important one," Reed said. "We don't want to start out in a hole and have to work our way back and beat a team twice to win the regional, so the first game is the most important and we're confident having Kyle (Cody) out there. He's going to give us a good effort and we're going to come out and play good defense and swing the bats well and our bullpen guys are going to do well, so we feel good about it."
Sophomore righthander Kyle Cody has the task of taking the mound in game one in hopes of starting Kentucky on a positive note. The Chippewa Falls, Wis., native enters Friday's start at 4-0 on the season with a 2.65 ERA, while coming off an impressive 4-2 win in the SEC Tournament vs. the top-seeded Florida Gators.
"I've been pitching well since Georgia and Hoover (for the SEC Tournament) was a big confidence-booster for me and I just want to keep things rolling for the team," Cody said. "I just have to go do my part. We have to win game one because it's a big deal to get here in the first place. I just have to have full confidence in myself and go up there and give a good start for the team."
UK's season won't end after Friday's game either way, but a win will go a long way in determining just how far the Wildcats can go, and if you didn't get the hint: Game one is a pretty big deal.
UK is down two spots from 14th when final winter standings were released, but is soon to get a boost from remaining spring sports.
Standings will next be tabulated on June 10 to include softball and men's golf with men's and women's track and field set to be factored in on June 19 and baseball on June 26 or 27. Men's golf posted its best finish (18th) since 2006 earlier this week, while softball is one of eight teams competing in the Women's College World Series. Baseball will play for its first-ever Super Regional bid this weekend, while the UK track and field team -- women ranked fifth, men 19th -- is in Jacksonville, Fla., for the NCAA East Preliminary Championships.
Whether UK reaches Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of a top-15 finish remains to be seen, but an all-time record performance is all but assured at this point. UK was 25th in last year's final Directors' Cup standings, the school's best finish in the 20-year history of the national all-sports standings.
Kelsey Nunley conducts a video interview with ESPN on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics -- photo used with permission from ESPN).
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Suffice it to say, Kelsey Nunley has been a workhorse these last two weeks.
In leading UK to its first ever Women's College World Series, Nunley has thrown all 48.1 innings of the Wildcats' seven NCAA Tournament games.
With how effective it's been, Lawson has little reason to deviate from her all-Nunley-all-the-time strategy.
"As long as she pitches well, she will pitch," Lawson said on the eve of UK's Oklahoma City opener against No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette.
Nunley has certainly pitched well to this point. In allowing just six earned runs in NCAA play, the Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native has seen her earned-run average dip from 2.07 to 1.85 and her record move to 29-9.
The only concern, it would seem, is how Nunley's electric right arm is handling all the stress. The sophomore says she's doing just fine. In fact, responding to a question about how she feels, Nunley didn't even sound as if she thought there would be a reason for her to be tired.
"I feel good, especially with how we've been playing lately," Nunley said. "It gives me a ton of confidence when I know my team is behind me and we're producing a lot of runs. It lets me relax a little bit on the mound and it really gives me confidence."
The way she herself has performed doesn't hurt either.
Nunley has been a standout since she made her collegiate debut, but Lawson says she took her game to the next level starting at the Southeastern Conference Tournament earlier this month.
"When she went into the SEC Tournament, I felt like she really matured as a pitcher overnight. She was incredible," Lawson said. "She puts the ball exactly where she wants to put the ball. She doesn't shy away from much. She's very even-keeled. As those games continued to go and as she continued to masterfully put the ball and command where she wanted to, we continued to pitch her and pitch her."
The last time Nunley wasn't on the mound for UK was in the finals of the SEC Tournament. UK lost to Georgia in that game with freshman Meagan Prince and senior Lauren Cumbess on the mound, but Lawson is confident in her staff, which also includes freshman Shannon Smith.
"We actually have a very good pitching staff," Lawson said. "We've used all four of our pitchers all year and all four of our pitchers have gotten key wins against very good teams."
The importance of that given the nature of this week's double-elimination tournament cannot be overstated.
"I don't think that any team can win the World Series with one pitcher anymore," Lawson said. "I think that those days are probably over. I think that if we want to go deep in the tournament we are definitely going to have to go into our pitching staff."
True as that may be, it all starts with Nunley.
"She keeps her velocity up," Lawson said. "She's strong. She does what she needs to do. So as long as those things are happening, I imagine she'll get the ball."
ULL coach: Lawson didn't need WCWS to prove herself
Any time she has spoken publicly in the last 48 hours, Lawson has referred to reaching the Women's College World Series as "validation" of everything that has helped Kentucky become a softball power.
Lawson repeated the message again as she sat next to Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Michael Lotief at a joint press conference on Wednesday. Lotief, who knows Lawson well from coaching against her Western Kentucky teams in the Sun Belt Conference, took issue.
In his estimation, Lawson didn't need to reach this level to prove what kind of coach she is.
"The fact you get to take the final hurdle and get over it is a good thing," Lotief said, speaking directly to Lawson rather than the dozens of media members in attendance. "But you don't have to do that to be validated in my judgment."
Lotief, who has faced Lawson at UK in 2009 and 2012, has watched her program transform. The result has been three Super Regional trips in the last four seasons.
"What she's done the last (four) years should have given everybody an inkling that the culture at Kentucky has changed," Lotief said. "To finish in the finals of Super Regionals every year, I would take that as a successful year every year."
Barnhart 'one of the family'
After UK took down UCLA to advance to the Women's College World Series, Lawson admits she was surprised by just how much her phone "blew up" with calls, text messages and emails.
The call from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, however, was no surprise.
"It's interesting because they're not out of the norm," Lawson said. "Mitch is always proud of his sports teams. He calls us after every big game."
Barnhart calls because he cares.
"He knows all the players," Lawson said. "He knows all of them not just by number, not just because they're players at Kentucky, but he knows them all as people. He's more like one of us. He's more like one of the family. Yes, he's the boss and he makes everything happen. But at the same time, he's been there every step of the way."
Bows no big deal
Wednesday's press conference with coaches from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana-Lafayette and Kentucky took somewhat of an unexpected turn.
A reporter asked the four coaches about how to balance between the fun players have on the field and the focus needed to compete at the highest level. The first three answered along the same lines, saying dugout cheers and face paint are what make softball unique as a sport and don't detract from the competitiveness of the game.
Lawson had a different take, specifically when it came to the bows players wear. Citing the beards many male athletes grow, she said sees no difference between baseball and softball players.
"You know they're spending as much time in that mirror checking out their beard and making sure it's long as the girls do with their bows," Lawson said. "Nobody can really tell me there's a difference between a big nasty beard and a bow. I think they're all accessories and it's really just what they're comfortable with."
UK will play in its first Women's College World Series game on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET against Louisiana-Lafayette. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Reaching the Women's College World Series has been the goal for Kentucky softball for years now.
For good reason, the Wildcats celebrated when they reached it with a Super Regional victory over UCLA on Sunday.
It only took one moment at the Tuesday night banquet honoring the schools that reached Oklahoma City to officially put an end to the celebration. It only took one look at what the eight best softball teams in the country will be playing for this week for the Cats to go right back to intense focus.
"When you see the trophy it reminds you that there's more games to play and we're here to win," senior Lauren Cumbess said.
If you thought the Cats would be happy just seeing their names on the scoreboard at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, playing on national television for a couple nights and going home, think again. As momentous as merely making it this far for the first time may be, UK is here to win.
"We have to know that we're here not to just be here but to actually compete and try to win a national championship," senior Krystal Smith said.
That's an attitude the Cats have already displayed this postseason.
Less than three weeks ago, UK accomplished another program first in advancing to the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Cats would see their remarkable run fall short of a title with a 5-2 loss to Georgia, but Lawson saw everything she needed to in that moment to be convinced her team won't be content reaching the World Series.
"What I noticed was the team wasn't excited just to be there," Lawson said. "I noticed that they were disappointed that we didn't win it. I didn't know that I necessarily expected that, but I was really happy to see that when we got into the team huddle and those long faces."
Those long faces, of course, turned happy again with UK's impressive effort in winning a Regional and Super Regional. Along the way, the Cats dispatched No. 25 James Madison, bested a solid DePaul team and rallied for two Sunday victories against No. 3 UCLA and player of the year finalist Ally Carda.
Add that to the fact that the Cats were competitive all season in the SEC -- a league represented by three teams in Oklahoma City -- and you have a group that's proven itself time and time again.
"As a team, we always have a ton of confidence," Jolly said. "We all think that we can beat anyone on any given day."
In spite of that confidence, No. 14 UK (49-17) will be the on-paper underdog in any game this week, starting Thursday at 7 p.m. ET against No. 6 Louisiana Lafayette (49-8-1). The Cats are the highest-seeded team still standing and one of just two teams -- along with No. 13 Baylor -- not among the top eight national seeds to advance to the Women's College World Series.
"We're more than (happy) to accept the Cinderella label," said Smith, who is riding a four-game hitting streak. "Everyone loves a great story and what better story than for the first team of the Kentucky program to make it to the World Series and make a run and how amazing that would be."
The Cats might be willing to play the role of Cinderella, but that doesn't mean they see themselves that way. They know what they've done reach this point. They know what they're capable of.
"I think we all know we're just as good as all the other teams in this playing field," Smith said. "So we don't look at ourselves as a higher seed than the others, but someone that we're all on the same level with, competing for the same goal."
Louisiana-Lafayette, however, is undisputedly good.
Making their sixth trip to the Women's College World Series, the Ragin' Cajuns haven't lost in the NCAA Tournament and have only dropped two games since March 14. Louisiana-Lafayette -- led by Lexie Elkins and her 22 home runs -- ranks second nationally in homers per game and boasts a team earned-run average of 2.77 behind ace Christina Hamilton (29-2, 1.53 ERA).
"I know they've always had a really good program and they have a great pitcher this year," Cumbess said. "We know that she's tough, that she moves the ball around a lot.
"We just know they're a great ball club and they're tough just like we are, so it should be fun."
As much respect as the Cats have from their opponent, their thought process won't change from the moment they glimpsed that hardware.
"I think our team understands that the World Series is great," Lawson said. "It doesn't get any better than that. But with that said, they're all winners. They were all picked to be at the University of Kentucky because they were champions where they come from."
The Kentucky volleyball team got a firsthand look at history on Wednesday.
As the Wildcats continue their cultural exchange trip to China, they went to a small town outside of Baoding to visit a museum. The museum was entirely dedicated to the tunnel system the Chinese built to avoid Japan's invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which took place before and eventually as part of World War II.
The museum even afforded the Cats the opportunity to walk through one of the tunnels for more than a half-mile. With the majority of players and coaches standing over six feet tall, they all learned the tunnel system was not built for a volleyball team.
Later on Wednesday evening, the Cats returned to more familiar surroundings for a match against Hebei, another team from the Chinese Volleyball League. In an environment similar to Tuesday's, UK fell, 3-1, in spite of playing well. Lauren O'Conner was the headliner, tallying 19 kills and 23 total points, but the experience of Hebei was too much to overcome even as Jackie Napper and Alyssa Gergins turned in solid matches.
On Thursday, more travel is in store for the team as the Cats will depart Baoding for Zhangjiakou. Continue to check in on UKVBtoChina.com for updates.
Got an early morning tomorrow headed to Zhangjiako, our last city before we go to Beijing! 🏯🇨🇳🉐 #UKVBtoChina
As Kentucky's cultural exchange trip to China wears on, the volleyball is getting more intense.
On Tuesday, the Wildcats took on the Henan team from the Chinese Volleyball League. The result -- a 3-1 loss -- didn't end up going their way, but the match was extremely competitive.
Lauren O'Conner and Morgan Bergren were standouts, thriving in a loud environment for the evening match. UK and Henan played on campus at a local university in Baoding in front of a loud, volleyball-savvy crowd comprised of nearly all students. Check out the two videos below to get a glimpse of the environment.
The rest of the day, the Cats took it easy, relaxing at their hotel and making a quick walk to a nearby mall in Baoding.
We've had limited access to Twitter, but the trip to China has been incredible so far. Truly a once in a lifetime experience! #UKVBtoChina
Understandably, the Kentucky volleyball team hasn't been its sharpest on the court so far during a cultural exchange trip to China.
On Monday, the Wildcats took a big step in the right direction.
Before a lengthy afternoon of traveling, UK took on the Jiangsu Junior Team on Monday morning. Led by Kayla Tronick and Emily Franklin, the Cats found the form that has established them among the nation's elite in Craig Skinner's tenure as head coach.
"I thought my performance was good but not great," Emily Franklin wrote. "There are things I need to improve on and that will take time while adjusting to the different style of play. Overall, I felt like I did give it to my team!"
UK is adjusting to a new pregame ritual while in China that features meditation, as well as the lighter balls used there.
After the match and lunch, it was off to Baoding, a smaller city of about two million people, via bullet train and bus. In transit for the better part of the afternoon, the Cats didn't have time for much more than a short walk around a bright downtown area and dinner.
The team did, however, take time to write their thoughts about their time in China so far for a blog dedicated to their trip. Here are a few thoughts from the student-athletes themselves:
So far this China trip for me has been interesting in a good way. I have learned so much and a lot of the questions I had about China I have been able to answer myself just by observing the cities and the people around me. The sightseeing has been incredible. There is so much more in our world that we do not know about and I am enjoying the opportunity we have right now to experience it. Besides the food (which is not horrible, just different) my time in China has been a blast.
I have been surprised by the differences in our lifestyles compared to those living here. Not necessarily the lifestyles but the differences in the environment, the food, everything really. I was shocked by the way people drive idiotically through the streets and the food has been a huge challenge for me because I have not been able to eat much at all. I really enjoyed visiting the temple, but I would also like to visit other places that are interesting but not necessarily dealing with their religion.
China has been interesting so far. I am really enjoying seeing the city and the culture. I am disappointed in the food and wish that it were more appealing to me. However, I really am having a good time learning and observing the Chinese way of life and seeing the things that we were taught in class firsthand. So far I have had a great time bargaining for souvenirs and trying the exotic foods! I would like to learn more about the history of the temples that we visit. I wish there was more English at the temple so that I could understand more of what I am seeing.
The experts had it pegged and the Wildcats had an idea it might be happening.
They still couldn't help but react with cheers when it became official that Kentucky would head to Louisville to open the NCAA Tournament with Kansas and Kent State joining the two rivals.
"I think we all kind of expected it," Austin Cousino said. "It'll be a tough one. I know Kansas has got a good team and Kent State has won the MAC I don't know how many years in a row. Louisville's a good club, impressive resume. But it'll be fun. It'll be a good weekend of baseball."
The Cats (35-23) earned their eighth all-time NCAA bid on Monday when they were tabbed the No. 2 seed in the Louisville Regional. UK's tournament run will begin on Friday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU against the third-seeded Jayhawks.
The Louisville Regional is rife with juicy plotlines. Beyond a potential in-state showdown on Saturday, familiar foe Kent State will also play at Jim Patterson Stadium this weekend. Two years ago, the Cats and Golden Flashes played an unforgettable 21-inning game in both team's NCAA opener.
"It kind of seems like it always sets up like that," Cousino said of the intrigue.
UK enters the tournament riding a wave of momentum. The Cats took two of three games in each of their final two weekend series before winning three games in three days over ranked opponents to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. They would fall to No. 2 national seed Florida there, but UK had already established itself as a threat.
"Our last conference weekend against Georgia we played really well and we played really well in the conference tournament," A.J. Reed said. "So we're ready to go out there and play hard and we feel like we can play with anybody in the country and we feel like we're one of those teams that nobody wants to play in the regionals."
Solidifying UK's status as a feared tournament team are Chandler Shepherd and Kyle Cody. The two pitchers battled injury this season, but returned to form at the SEC Tournament.
"I'm not sure you could say there's anything more important," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Obviously we're playing well. That's good, but those two guys are important. They have to pitch, and they have to pitch well."
As further evidence of the Cats' ability to make noise in the NCAA Tournament, UK boasts a 4-3 record against teams that received top eight national seeds, 11 wins over top-25 RPI teams and a two-game sweep of Louisville all while playing in the SEC, a league that set a record with 10 teams receiving tourney bids.
A potential rematch of UK and U of L, clearly, jumps off the page. The Cats don't dispute that.
"We always look forward to playing Louisville in the regular season and now to get to play them in the postseason is going to be a lot of fun and we're going to be ready for it and play a really good game," Reed said.
For that game to happen, both teams have to take care of business. And as UK vies for its first Super Regional appearance ever, Henderson knows the importance of winning on Friday.
"I can guarantee you that we will not be looking past Kansas, yeah. Our last three regionals we won six games of the three, and we're 0-3 in the first game," he said. "So I'm well aware of where we are. ... We need to worry about Kansas and do everything that we can to play well on Friday."
Whether that means Reed -- the presumptive national player of the year -- will start against Kansas remains to be seen.
"To be honest I don't know anything about Kansas offensively," Henderson said. "So, I think right now you'd anticipate that would be the way we would go: A.J. in the first game. But I'll sit down and I'll look at it, to be honest, and I'll just see what makes sense. I'll make a good decision."
On paper, the Jayhawks are solid. Kansas has a team batting average of .284 and scores 5.6 runs per game. On the mound, Kansas has an earned-run average of 3.51 playing in the tough Big 12.
"They're going to be a solid team," Reed said. "They're in the tournament for a reason so you can't take that for (granted) and, you know, we gotta come out there and play well against them and put up runs and throw well and play good defense."
No matter they opponent, the Cats feel good about their chances of doing just that.
"I think our offense is hitting its stride," Henderson said. "I think we pitched very well in the SEC Tournament. Defense is good and we seemed to get a lot of key hits over the course of the tourney. When you go to Hoover and win games like that, it gives you the confidence to pretty much go anywhere and know you're good enough to win. So I think right now it's get a couple days of practice in and stay hot."
The UK softball team advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOS ANGELES -- The Kentucky softball team has made history all season, and Sunday against college softball's elite, it reached its peak.
The No. 14 Wildcats upended third-ranked UCLA with 7-3 and 7-1 wins Sunday to win their NCAA Super Regional and advance to the program's first Women's College World Series.
It took head coach Rachel Lawson just seven years to establish UK among the nation's best programs and book a trip to Oklahoma City and the World Series.
"This is a special day for us," Lawson said. "We're going into a place that we've never been before, I feel really excited. It's a dream come true for all the girls on our team and our staff, we've worked incredibly hard. This particular senior class, this is our third Super Regional, so we've been close enough to taste it, but for it to actually be a reality is very special."
The way the Wildcats got to the World Series is the perfect example of what the team is all about. Heavy underdogs coming into the Super Regional, UK knew it belonged on the big stage and wanted to prove it against the Bruins.
The Cats didn't care they were facing a team that had won 12 national titles and is widely recognized as the gold standard of college softball. They didn't care that they had to go on the road in a hostile environment for three games at UCLA's sold-out Easton Stadium.
The Wildcats believed they could win, and they got it done.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet," senior captain Lauren Cumbess said. "We set a goal at the beginning of the year. We've always had that goal all four years that I've been here, but particularly this year, it was 'Women's College World Series or bust,' and we've really stuck to that and reminded each other what our goal was.
"It's just amazing, I can't believe that we did it. I can, but it hasn't sunk in yet. I think once we get to Oklahoma, it'll really feel like, 'Wow, I'm here on the biggest stage for softball.' "
UK found itself in a deep hole after Saturday night's game one, when UCLA scored four runs in the sixth inning to come back for a 6-4 victory. The Cats' backs were against the wall, but they weren't out.
As they have done all season, they kept on fighting. The offense had scored more than four runs just three times in the last month, but that didn't matter Sunday.
The UK offense exploded for seven runs in the first of two win-or-go-home games Sunday. The next game, Kentucky continued the offensive onslaught and scored another seven runs to give starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley some much-needed run support.
The last time UK scored seven or more runs in consecutive games was on April 8-9 against two non-conference foes. The Wildcats never achieved the feat in SEC competition, but that didn't stop them Sunday against a pitcher that is one of three national player of the year candidates.
"UCLA is one of the best teams in the country and I thought that we played well this weekend," Lawson said. "I watched our team grow up at the SEC Tournament, and I saw us continue to be strong through regionals and then I felt like we definitely got some lucky breaks, but I also thought we played well this weekend. The field of eight is incredible, but we're going out there, we're in the SEC, so we compete against good teams all the time. We're hoping to play our game and hopefully things will work out for us."
UK's rise to the Women's College World Series has not taken a long time. Lawson has been at the helm for seven seasons, and has taken the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six years. Three of the last four years, Kentucky advanced to the Super Regional.
Making the College World Series for the first time in program history wasn't a matter of 'if,' it was simply a matter of 'when.' The rate at which UK rose in the national rankings suggested it wouldn't be any other way.
It took a combination of a great coaching staff, unparalleled support from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and the UK administration and a great group of players.
"We have incredible support, we have one of the best venues in the country to play out of, we have fans come in droves," Lawson said. "Because of that, we're getting incredible recruits, as you can see. You can't advance without the athletes. It says a lot about the character of our team, our team does things the right way. The not only work incredibly hard all year, but they're also incredible students, they're great people. I'm very happy for our team because this is a dream for all of them come true. It says we're doing things the right way."
Of course, having a group of 19 players with a never-say-die attitude that doesn't care about rankings and what is "supposed to happen" certainly doesn't hurt.
It's a group of 19 players with a toughness, grit and passion, combined with an immense amount of talent and a never-quit attitude.
Just ask Cumbess, who watched as her starting pitcher fired 375 pitches in the span of just 24 hours and five minutes.
"I've always thought we are a really tough team, and it's shown throughout our season that we don't give up, we're always fighting back," she said.
Griffin Joiner blasted a grand slam in UK's 6-4 loss at UCLA on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The NCAA Softball Super Regional is a best-of-three series for a reason. The series is not won or lost in just one game.
After a 6-4 loss at No. 3 UCLA on Saturday, the No. 14 Kentucky softball team gets the chance to come back Sunday in game two and force a third game with a trip to the Women's College World Series on the line.
The Wildcats pride themselves on their ability to bounce back and keep on fighting. It's a team that doesn't give up, no matter the situation, whether it's coming back after a loss or continuing to battle at the plate.
They'll get another opportunity to respond Sunday and keep their season alive, and it will be a situation the Wildcats have experienced before, twice in SEC play this season.
UK lost the series opener at No. 16 Missouri before it rebounded to win the final two contests in mid-March, while Kentucky also fell in the opener to No. 18 Texas A&M only to answer with two wins to claim the series in early April.
"We're a team that fights," junior captain Griffin Joiner said. "We've fought all year. We're just going to have to come out tomorrow and fight as long as we can."
Despite the loss, there are positives to build on.
Sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley allowed just four hits and did not allow an earned run. After UCLA scored two in the bottom of the second, the UK offense responded with four runs in the third, courtesy of Joiner's grand slam.
Another positive was the play from the Kentucky infield, which turned two double plays to extinguish several Bruin scoring opportunities.
"Our infield was awesome," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The double plays turned were great, so I think that really showed that we were ready to play. They were playing loose. To be able to turn as many double plays as we did with the number of free passes that we gave up on the mound really shows that the infield came to play."
The key on Sunday will be UK's ability to shake off Saturday's loss and focus on the next game.
Lawson has stressed to her team all season that the most important pitch is the next one. Sunday, that will have to be the focus.
"I think it's important to remember that the next pitch is the most important pitch," Lawson said. "What happened later in the game was we weren't looking forward to the next pitch. It was a tremendous crowd, they showed up great for Super Regionals, and I think we let the whole environment make us a little bit tentative."
Last weekend, Kentucky took advantage of the home crowd at John Cropp Stadium to win its Regional and advance to its third Super Regional in the last four years. Saturday, a crowd of 1,328 at Easton Stadium gave UCLA its spark. Sunday, UK will have to feed off the hostile road environment.
The Wildcats are in a hole and must win the next two games, but that's nothing that can't be done. It's already been done once in this season's Super Regional, by Florida State. Michigan claimed a 1-0 series lead Thursday before FSU won the final two games Friday to advance to the World Series.
Keep fighting, that's what Kentucky will have to do Sunday in game two, which begins at 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU. If the Cats do that, as they have so many times in a record-setting 2014, they will earn a third and deciding game, at 6 p.m.
The itinerary for the Kentucky volleyball team's trip to China said "all day free" on Sunday, but the Wildcats hardly sat around.
It began with practice at a training center in Nanjing before a lunch the team very much enjoyed. After four days of trying authentic Chinese food, the Cats ate at a Western-style restaurant. Burgers, fries, pasta cheesecake and coffee never tasted so good.
Well fed, the team then went to a museum in Nanjing for an educational tour. In the first picture at the bottom of the post, you can see the jade suits put together gold thread in which some members of the upper class were buried.
For dinner, it was back to authentic Chinese cuisine. The Cats ate with the heads of the training center where they are staying in Nanjing and exchanged gifts. The final second photo below shows Craig Skinner giving a UK volleyball t-shirt to one of the Cats' hosts.
Monday is set to be another busy day for UK. The Cats will play a match in the morning before traveling by train from Nanjing to Beijing and then by bus to Baoding. Check back in on Monday for an update on UKVBtoChina.com.
UK fell to Florida in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday, 6-5. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Not long ago -- three weeks, to be exact -- the Kentucky baseball team appeared headed south.
Losing five times in six games to end April and begin May, the Wildcats suddenly found themselves in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament after a hot start to 2014.
"The thing that's so great about athletics is that you can't hide," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "You are what you are and we did what we did. We went 1-5 in two weeks and that puts you on the bubble."
Now, try and include UK in a bubble conversation with any expert and laughter is sure to follow.
The Cats closed the regular season by taking four of six games in their final two weekends of the regular season against Auburn and Georgia. They followed that with three victories in three days over top-25 teams to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament before falling just shy of a title-game trip in a 6-5 loss to top-seeded Florida.
"We were just a run short," Henderson said. "I'm really proud of our kids."
Henderson has good reason to be proud. Responding in the face adversity, the Cats came together when they easily could have fallen apart.
"Our kids, they bought in," Henderson said. "They bought in to themselves. They bought in to the coaches. They bought in to each other. It's been awesome. Anybody that's watched us, you can feel it, you can see it."
Even in defeat, that was on display Saturday. Facing the Gators -- the league's regular-season champion -- just three days removed from beating them, the Cats never gave in even though arms were in short supply.
They raced out to a 3-0 lead, but Florida scored two runs in both the third and fifth innings to take a lead. But in the sixth, a single by Austin Cousino and a double by Max Kuhn put UK ahead, 5-4. The Gators, however, would score runs in the seventh and eighth against Andrew Nelson and Chandler Shepherd -- both of whom pitched for the second time this week -- for the final tally.
All told, Henderson called on 10 pitchers in four games this week. Seven were pitching for the first time in the postseason, making the fact that UK combined to allow just 15 runs all the more impressive.
"We've also really, really improved in poise overall in the program and the poise, especially on the mound, over the last month has been tremendous," Henderson said. "That piece of it's really gratifying because you pound it. Since August 25th you pound that."
After all that pounding, it seems to have finally sunk in. That makes for a confident team.
"Right now we're swinging the bats really well and our pitching's coming around, so it's looking good for us," A.J. Reed said. "Our last conference series at Georgia and our four games here, we played really well."
Because of that, UK is safely in the tournament and potentially a No. 2 seed when the bracket is unveiled at noon ET on Monday. How Henderson will set up his pitching staff and where UK will play remain up the air, but the Cats' mentality isn't changing.
"I think we've got some momentum going into regionals and we're excited to see where we go," Reed said. "We feel like we're a team that nobody wants to face right now."
LOS ANGELES -- The Kentucky softball team is in Los Angeles for an NCAA Super Regional. The Wildcats, who went 3-1 last weekend to win their Regional, are making their second consecutive Super Regional and third in the last four years.
UK is seeded 14th in the 64-field NCAA Tournament and is 47-16 on the season, while No. 3 UCLA is 51-6. Kentucky is looking for its first-ever trip to the Women's College World Series and the Bruins, who have won 11 NCAA titles, are looking to make their first World Series appearance since they won it all in 2010.
Kentucky is 0-4 all-time against UCLA, with the last meeting in 2012. The first meeting came in an early season tournament in Las Vegas, while the two teams also played a three-game series in Los Angeles to open the 2012 campaign.
Tonight's first game, which begins at 8 p.m. ET, along with tomorrow's second game at 3 p.m. and third game, if necessary, at 6 p.m. will be broadcast on ESPNU. Updates and more can also be found on Twitter at @UKsoftball.
As the Wildcats prepare for tonight's first game against the Bruins, here are some links to look at before tonight's first pitch:
Internet issues persist, keeping the Cats from posting any thoughts of their own, but continue to check in on UKVBtoChina.com to stay updated. A big day of sightseeing is ahead of Sunday, so we hope to have plenty of good stuff to share.
It was another busy day in China for the Kentucky volleyball team, as the Wildcats moved to a hotel in downtown Shanghai during a packed day of activities.
Friday began with 90 minutes of study on campus at Shanghai University followed by lunch. It was then off to Shanghai Training Center to play with the Shanghai Juniors, the team the Cats beat in their first match on Thursday. Afterward, the Cats took a riverbank tour of Shanghai and saw the Chenghuang Temple, as well as the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Spotty Internet kept the Cats from posting any thoughts about the day, but they did manage to sneak a few posts out on Twitter and Instagram.
Some internet issues here in our hotel today.The blog may not get updates until tomorrow. Great day at the Pearl Tower #UKVBtoChina
UK advanced to the SEC Tournament semifinals with a walk-off win over Mississippi Sate on Thursday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. -- UK had plenty of reasons to pack it in on Thursday night.
With true freshman Zack Brown starting opposite Mississippi State ace Ross Mitchell, the Bulldogs had a clear advantage on paper, an advantage the Wildcats paid little attention to.
Falling behind on three separate occasions and relying on a depleted pitching staff throwing for the third time in three days, a UK victory seemed unlikely to most anyone at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
But inside the UK dugout, it was another story entirely.
"The fight was outstanding," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "It wasn't terribly clean there a few different times, but I thought the fight and the competitiveness and the spirit was outstanding."
Ever the perfectionist, Henderson was likely still thinking about some of those miscues as he fell asleep in the wee hours of Friday morning. Everyone else, however, was surely too busy reliving the way the Cats had, against all odds, just advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 7-6 win in 12 innings.
"The game was an absolute war," UK shortstop Matt Reida said. "Mississippi State played an incredible game and so did we and we just kept coming at each other. It could have gone either way."
At various points, it very nearly did go the Bulldogs' way.
Mississippi State jumped out to a 4-1 lead and it was that narrow only because Brown, Sam Mahar and Zack Strecker were effective in damage control. Had Mahar not escaped a two-out, bases-loaded jam when he relieved Brown in the fourth, the Bulldogs may have run away and hidden.
"What it really came down to was our pitching staff today," Reida said.
Instead of it becoming a runaway, UK and an offense coming on strong late in the season remained within striking distance.
"It really says a lot about our guys and the belief we have," Reida said. "We think that we have a really good team and there's a lot of belief, especially with our offense."
That belief first manifested itself in the form of a Micheal Thomas home run that briefly tied the game at 1-all. After MSU answered with two runs in the fifth and another in the sixth, UK had an answer of its own with an RBI double by Ka'ai Tom, a sacrifice fly by Storm Wilson and an RBI single by Thomas Bernal.
"I thought the quality of our at-bats was really good," Henderson said. "You gotta be really, really pleased with Reida offensively, Micheal Thomas. Those guys came through in a big way."
Reida was in the middle of a UK rally in the eighth to tie it at 5-apiece with the first of his two doubles in a 4-for-6 performance. Thomas, the other senior in the Wildcat lineup, was 3-for-5.
"There's some production, there's some energy, there's some vocal leadership, there's some words in the dugout," Henderson said. "All of it. Those two guys did a great job."
They were far from the only ones to contribute to the win.
Austin Cousino may have gone hitless in six at-bats, but he had the play most likely to make a few appearances on SportsCenter on Friday. Runners on first and third with only one out, C.T. Bradford sent a fly ball into center that seemed poised to plate the go-ahead run.
Cousino had other ideas, uncorking laser of a throw.
"I've seen him do it every now and then," Reida said. "It seems like every big spot Cousi will just kind of pull one out of nowhere. I was right behind second base when he threw it and as soon as he let it go out of his hand I saw the trajectory and I thought, 'Oh wow, it has a chance.' "
More than a chance, because Thomas caught the ball on the fly and slapped a tag on the speedy Derrick Armstrong to complete a double play and end the inning.
It wasn't the last time UK gunned down the potential go-ahead run at home either.
Two innings later, Cody Brown took advantage of a throwing error after a single and advanced to third with one out. The infield came in as Armstrong stepped to the plate and Reida fielded a grounder just to his left. He delivered a perfect throw home, Thomas blocked the plate and the Cats escaped again.
Spencer Jack was the beneficiary of both plays at home, but he deserves plenty of credit for UK's win too.
"The story, pitching wise, is Spencer Jack," Henderson said. "That was a phenomenal effort in this environment against that club."
Jack (4-1) came on in the ninth, allowing an unearned run right off the bat. He followed it up with three straight scoreless innings and only looked better as his pitch count climbed.
"Early on I worked off my slider a lot and I was struggling with it early," Jack said. "After I think the first or second inning I just said, 'I've just gotta let the thing go, trust it.' "
He had to place similar trust in his offense and the Wildcat batters rewarded him in the 12th.
Reida, of course, started the proceedings with an opposite-field double. He then moved to third on a wild pitch before Dorian Hairston drew a walk. Opting to load the bases, Mississippi State next intentionally walked Cousino. Kuhn struck out, forcing Henderson to make the last in a series of tough coaching decisions.
With star A.J. Reed on the bench after he was lifted for pinch runner Marcus Carson, who came around to score the game-tying run in the ninth inning, Henderson called on Zach Arnold to bat in the No. 3 spot. With the bases loaded and one out, Arnold took a simple approach to his at-bat.
"Put the ball in play," Arnold said.
The sophomore backstop did just that, singling to shortstop to score Reida and trigger a raucous celebration in foul territory near first base.
"There's nothing like it, getting to enjoy the satisfaction of a big win like that with your teammates," Jack said. "You fight so hard with them, they're like brothers at that point. I can't describe that."
Arnold was at the middle of it all.
"There's just a really good feel to the team and that's really all it was," Arnold said. "It could have been anybody up to bat and that celebration would have come out no matter what."
The joy of coming out on top in a game as competitive as Thursday's was the reason for the celebration, but the Cats will enjoy the fruits of the victory all day on Friday. Instead of playing for a spot in the semifinal, UK will enjoy a day off and await the winner of Florida and Mississippi State.
"You know how bad we need it off," Henderson said. "It'll be nice to get a day off and give the pitching a rest."
The Kentucky volleyball team spent its first full day in China on Thursday and the Wildcats have already been exposed to a brand-new world.
After a much-needed night of rest, the team met in the morning to ride a bus to a Buddhist temple in Shanghai. Touring the grounds for two-and-a-half hours, the Cats learned about the traditions of Buddhism and took plenty of pictures along the way.
They then returned to their hotel near Shanghai University for lunch. The culinary adventures continued.
Continuing the educational portion of the trip, the team spent three hours studying at Shanghai University before dinner and the first volleyball match of the trip against Shangai Juniors. The Cats got the win in a performance that pleased head coach Craig Skinner.
Good to get off to a solid start in our 1st match beating Shanghai Jrs. #UKVBtoChina
Griffin Joiner has caught every game for Kentucky in 2014 as the Wildcats prepare for a Super Regional showdown with UCLA. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
One of the most physically demanding positions in the sport, it takes a certain amount of toughness to be a catcher. Add to it the fact that your head coach is a former catcher and the position gets even more demanding.
Kentucky's Griffin Joiner fits the mold perfectly.
"Griffin is everything to the program," head coach Rachel Lawson said.
"When I went out recruiting, I'm very picky about who my catcher is, and
Griffin fit the bill in every way possible. Most importantly because the way she is. Her blue-collar work ethic,
how tough she is and the person she is on and off the field."
One of two captains for the UK softball team, Joiner has caught every pitch of every game this season for the Wildcats. The junior has started all 185 games in her career, including 178 straight behind the plate. Just two of Joiner's starts, both within the first eight games of her freshman campaign, have not come as catcher.
No one has played that many games in that timeframe, much less started behind the plate. Only sophomore Christian Stokes has played in every game in each of the past two seasons.
Joiner is Kentucky's own Iron Man.
"When everyone is looking at Griffin, she gives them a sense of confidence and toughness that, if there were another catcher behind the plate, I'm not sure the same thing would be happening right now," Lawson said.
Ask Joiner about her physical and mental toughness -- which her teammates and coaches laud her for -- and she responds like it's no big deal. She got her toughness over time through experience. After all, it's what being a catcher is. There isn't any other way.
"I'm used to it," Joiner said. "With my position I'm used to being tough. It's all I'm used to. My parents were tough on me, my coaches have always been tough on me. It's like a point guard in basketball. When you're in a leadership position, you take the heat because you're expected to be the leader and do well in those situations."
Joiner's work ethic has rubbed off on her teammates, especially sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley. Nunley has started 30 games in 2014, including seven of the last eight games.
"I think she's the biggest leader on the team," Nunley said. "She's really important to the team because she plays such a big role as leader. The past few weeks I've pitched a lot and my body's been through that, so I kind of have an idea of what she's going through. It rubs off on me, to stay strong like her. I hope it rubs off on everyone else because she's so tough."
Joiner doesn't let the physical aspect of her position get in the way of making plays and contributing.
She is second on the team with 53 hits and fourth with a .301 batting average. Her slugging percentage of .517 is also fourth and she has drawn a team-high 46 walks for a .451 on-base percentage, second-best among UK players.
Her numbers with the glove are even better. Joiner has made 412 putouts, which broke the school record she set in 2012. She hasn't committed an error and has thrown out 12 of 32 base runners.
When it comes to handling the pitching staff, Joiner has been able to adjust to each of UK's four pitchers this season.
In addition to Nunley's 30 starts, senior Lauren Cumbess has started 18 times and made 21 appearances, while freshmen Meagan Prince has eight starts in 21 appearances and Shannon Smith has pitched in 13 contests with seven starts.
"She makes me a better pitcher just by the comments she makes to me before, during and after the game," Nunley said. "She always tries to keep me positive, get my mind on the right track and to me, she's the most important person on the team."
While Lawson calls each pitch from the dugout, it is Joiner who is responsible for talking to the pitcher and fielders during the game. Whether its to get on the same page or to provide a word of encouragement, Joiner makes frequent visits to the circle to talk with the pitcher during a game.
Joiner's role as a captain and Lawson's background as a catcher put that much more pressure and responsibility on Joiner.
Lawson knows exactly what Joiner is going through, but that also intensifies the expectations. Especially since Lawson knows Joiner can handle the demands.
"It's the toughest position in college athletics, I think, because she happens to be my catcher and I'm pretty demanding on her," Lawson said. "She has to be mentally strong. She's also had to catch four completely different pitchers this year and she's able to give them all her best game. I think that says a lot about how intelligent she is and just how tough she is behind the plate."
For Joiner, Lawson's demands and expectations are just another aspect of the position, both as a catcher and as a captain. It's a relationship built on trust, and Joiner knows her coach knows what's best for her and her team.
"It's one of those things, you can't take it personally," Joiner said. "You have to take it and make the best of it. Find something within yourself that makes you have good results. I know she's been there and understands what its like and what it takes to be good. You just have to trust her."
While Joiner's mental and physical toughness has been something that has been built throughout her career as a catcher, Lawson has seen it in her since she first began recruiting the Hopkinsville, Ky., native.
Lawson went to see her play, and a throw from the infield went through Joiner's glove. At that point, she thought she wasn't going to recruit Joiner. Thankfully, she stayed until the end of the workout and saw the full story.
"After that outing, she came back and she had a big hole in her glove," Lawson recalled. "She had finished catching the entire workout before doing it so I knew when she did that and she buckled in and caught the ball with absolutely no pocket in her glove, I knew she was the right catcher for us."
Joiner's mental and physical toughness was apparent on that day, well before she arrived in Lexington, and it has gotten stronger years later, as UK prepares to make its second consecutive trip to the NCAA Super Regional.
With a team that prides itself on toughness, grit and the ability to bounce back easily, it's no wonder where a lot of that came from.
Look no further than the player wearing No. 13 behind the plate.
Kyle Cody allowed two runs over 5.1 innings in UK's upset of top-seeded Florida on Wednesday at the SEC Tournament. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Kyle Cody's numbers on the season look solid enough.
His earned-run average has hovered under 3 throughout 2014. Cody sported a perfect 3-0 record with five saves in the regular season to boot, but his sophomore year -- in his eyes at least -- was frustrating nonetheless.
After emerging as a rotation mainstay late as a freshman, Cody expected to lock down a starting spot behind ace A.J. Reed. Instead, forearm tightness forced him to miss three weeks after his first three starts and relegated him to a relief role.
"I wanted to do more for the team, obviously, but I stuck with it and kept getting better every day, every week and just kept feeling better," Cody said.
If Wednesday is any indication, Cody could be poised to make his stint in the bullpen a distant memory.
Pitching UK to a 4-2 win over top-seeded Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Cody tossed 5.1 innings -- his longest outing since February -- and allowed just two runs on four hits to move to 4-0. The 6-foot-7 right hander struck out four and yielded just one walk as Max Kuhn's 2-for-5 outing at the plate with a home run led a UK offense that scored enough to make Cody's performance stand up.
"Back to doing what we thought he was going to do at the beginning of the year, I think that's a shot of adrenaline for the kids, for the program," Henderson said. "That's the type of outing that Kyle is capable of having against that type of a team."
Cody sat comfortably in the mid-90s with his fastball, but that's been the case all season. The difference for Cody was his restored confidence in the pitch he all but abandoned for six weeks.
"Probably a month ago we started getting back into it and week by week it just kept getting better and better," Cody said. "By last week, it started to look really good."
Until Cody became comfortable again with the pitch, he wasn't going to be capable of anything more than short relief.
"It was quite the tiptoe getting him back," Henderson said. "It's just been very cautious, a day at a time, don't throw any breaking balls for six weeks. All of it. For him to be able to go out today and one inning getting three outs with off-speed stuff is just fantastic."
When Cody departed in the sixth with runners on first and second and one out, it was a pitcher who's dealt with similar frustrations this season who replaced him and escaped the jam.
Chandler Shepherd missed three weeks himself with a forearm laceration and allowed 11 combined runs in three outings after his return on April 26. Including the 3.2 shutout innings he tossed to pick up his first save against Florida, Shepherd has now thrown 9.1 scoreless frames over his last three appearances.
"Had a couple of opportunities there to fold and didn't," Henderson said. "Made big pitches when it mattered. Clearly not as sharp early on in the performance as he has been, but he really showed tremendous poise and just got it done when it really mattered."
Shepherd, like Cody, views the postseason as his opportunity to put a spring that didn't go as planned squarely in the past.
"All the incidents that have happened, whatever it may be, it's over with," Shepherd said. "We gotta move forward. We're playing really well together, obviously, right now and it just says a lot about our program to overcome stuff like that and come back and play baseball the way we know we can."
Based on the way the Wildcats have played over the last three weeks, they have reason to be confident.
UK took two of three in its final two SEC series against Auburn and Georgia and now has a pair of wins over top-25 wins in two days to advance to face the winner of South Carolina and Mississippi State on Thursday night.
"Now we're into week three of turning it around," Henderson said. "It's been really positive and good and it's like anything in life that's like that. Your thoughts change, your self-talk changes and you start to view yourself a little bit different.
"Once you start that synergy or that good karma, it's a positive thing."
The University of Kentucky Athletics Department has obviously enjoyed one of its best seasons in history across all sports. Recent news has confirmed that the Wildcats are also enjoying tremendous success in the classroom.
At the heart of that success has been UK's innovative and nationally renowned Center for Academic and Tutorial Services.
One staff member at CATS has recently raked in a number of prestigious honors for his hard work, and the Wildcats' subsequent academic success.
The awards have gone to someone staff members across the UK Athletics Department couldn't consider more deserving.
With the renown, the praise for Mike Pirrman has now extended beyond UK to multiple academic advising professional organizations.
"Mike Pirrman is an incredibly caring person who puts the well-being of the student-athletes he advises above all else," Associate Athletics Director for Student Services Bob Bradley said. "Mike realizes that someday their athletic exploits will come to an end and that the quality of their educational experience will be of utmost importance to their future success. He takes their post-college quality of life very serious."
Pirrman, who serves as academic advisor for six teams within the cross country/track and field program, was honored earlier this semester as the recipient of the 20th annual University of Kentucky Ken Freedman Outstanding Professional Advisor Award.
The award recognizes outstanding service in the field of academic advising.
In addition, Pirrman was awarded the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Region 3 Excellence in Advising Award.
His accolades did not extend to just regional and state honors; he received a Certificate of Merit from the national division of NACADA.
The awards come as recognition for the hard work Pirrman has put in, which extends far beyond normal 9-5 hours. Such commitments come with the territory of advising college students, but still his efforts -- which go above and beyond those expected of an everyday professional -- have not go unnoticed by UK track and field and cross country head coach Edrick Floreal.
Floreal is known as a demanding coach when it comes to athletes' training, but his high standards also extend to the classroom. Thus he brings Pirrman on many of the team's road trips, which often occur at key points during the academic year.
Pirrman holds study halls in team hotels throughout those trips, sacrificing many a weekend during the year on behalf of the student-athletes he advises.
That sacrifice of possible personal time, and the positive results that time has had on many multiple Wildcats it not lost on Floreal.
But the influence of Pirrman's time and effort on the well-being of UK student-athletes are just beginning to be adequately documented.
"Mike's impact on the teams are supported by numbers that stand on their own," Floreal said. "Just look at the women's cross country team's perfect 1000 score in Academic Progress Rate. The women's indoor and outdoor track and field, and men's cross country all exceeded the national average in terms of APR. Also our women's cross country team's GPA was 3.667 GPA, which helped the entire athletic department to its best academic semester since 2002-03.
"His commitment to our team, student athletes and staff is always evident in the numbers that reach far beyond our student-athletes' four years at UK. It is something they will carry for a lifetime."
Other examples Pirrman's commitments are reflected in academic successes by the likes Chelsea Oswald.
Oswald graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the 2012-13 Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award as the Southeastern Conference's top student-athlete achieving success in the classroom and in competition. Oswald won the SEC 5,000 and 10,000-meter Championships in the 2012-13 year, also claiming three All-America honors.
"I've been given a great opportunity here at UK and I've just tried my hardest every day to make the most of it," Oswald said upon receiving the McWhorter award. "This award recognizes not only my achievements, but also all the great people, like Mike Pirrman, who have helped me along the way."
Luis Orta, meanwhile, was selected to give the commencement address at the University's 2012 December Graduation Ceremony. The Caracas, Venezuela native graduated with a dual degree in international studies and Hispanic studies.
Orta's journey to graduation was one of the greatest testaments to Pirrman's role in guiding student-athletes from enrollment to graduation.
In his first semester at UK, Orta successfully navigated a full
course load even though he was only just learning English. Along the way, he broke three freshman records in competition. During his four years, Orta developed academically, so much so that he was the commencement speaker.
At graduation as well as during an acceptance speech for the "Mr. Wildcat" award at the 2013 CATSPY Awards, Orta expressed his gratitude for the guidance Pirrman had provided, and in fluent English to boot.
"Last year I got this award and I forgot to mention Mike Pirrman," Orta said in 2013. "I have to thank him so much. Four years ago, I had the great fortune to come to this country and pursue my dreams. It's thanks to him and my teammates that I was able to get through my first year even though I didn't speak English. I ended up graduating with honors and a double SEC Champion, and it's just been a blessing."
In the midst of a record-setting athletic season, Wildcat student-athletes combined for their best academic semester since 2002-03, the first year for which complete grade information is available.
Continuing to raise the bar in the classroom, scholarship Wildcats combined for a remarkable 3.218 cumulative grade-point average for the spring semester. UK Athletics has now posted GPAs of at least 3.0 in four consecutive semesters.
"We have great expectations for our student-athletes, but to get to this spot is special," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "I know how hard our kids work every day and I'm so proud to see it pay off like this. This semester is proof of the commitment they have made in the classroom." **SEE BELOW FOR COMPLETE GRADE INFORMATION BY SPORT**
Of UK's 20 teams, 18 posted GPAs of better than 3.0. The women's swimming and diving team led the way with a 3.728 GPA, closely followed by women's cross country (3.667), softball (3.599), women's tennis (3.546) and rifle (3.517). Men's tennis (3.401) led all UK men's teams.
Women's swimming and diving, softball and men's and women's tennis were among 13 teams to attain 3.0 GPAs while also competing in the championship portions of their schedule. Included in that group was the men's basketball team, which posted a 3.050 cumulative scholarship student-athlete GPA -- 3.111 including non-scholarship players -- and reached the national championship game in April.
"Balancing schoolwork and competition is not easy," Barnhart said. "Excelling in both is an incredible achievement and the fact that some of our top performers on the field are some of our best students is really special."
In total, 325 Wildcats -- scholarship and non-scholarship -- earned GPAs of 3.0 or better, accounting for more than 60 percent of UK's student-athlete population of 508. Seventy-one of those student-athletes had perfect 4.0 GPAs this spring.
"Our student-athletes get the work done, but our coaches and the staff at CATS (Center for Academic and Tutorial Services) are important pieces of the puzzle," Barnhart said. "I want to thank them for everything they do."
With the streak of four straight semesters of GPAs of 3.0 or better, the Wildcats continue to make progress toward the goals set forth in Barnhart's 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. UK ranks No. 14 in the latest national all-sports standings, on pace for the best finish in the 20-year history of the Directors' Cup, and has 11 conference or national championships since November of 2008.
After almost 18 hours of travel, the Kentucky volleyball team landed in China on Wednesday.
The Wildcats arrived in Shanghai around 2 p.m. local time (2 a.m. ET) and took a 90-minute bus ride to their hotel at Shanghai University. They then settled in their rooms, ate dinner at their hotel and took in some of the sights around the world's most populous city.
Still adjusting to the time change, the team was surely in need of some sleep before a busy Thursday when the Cats will study at Shanghai University and train at the school's gym. But before bedtime, they took to social media to update their followers on their first hours in China (and their culinary adventures).
A.J. Reed allowed one run over five innings of UK's 7-1 SEC Tournament-opening win over Alabama on Tuesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Coaches from around the league spent much of Monday's pre-Southeastern Conference Tournament teleconference heaping praise on A.J. Reed.
They called him the clear-cut favorite for national player of the year awards. They gushed over his power at the plate. They marveled at his excellence on the mound.
Anyone who listened and had not seen the junior lefthander in action surely expected a show with Reed set to pitch UK's postseason opener on Tuesday. What they got instead was a workmanlike effort.
Reed was far from dominant against Alabama after starting on Thursday at Georgia, but the result was just the same as in any of Reed's headline-grabbing performances this season: a win for Kentucky and a win for Reed.
"He's on four days' rest, he goes 92 pitches and he clearly didn't have his best stuff, but he competed really well," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.
UK's two-way star battled through five innings pitched, with the Crimson Tide reaching base eight times. Only once did Reed retire the side in order, but only once did Alabama cross the plate against him.
"I could definitely feel that I was on short rest," Reed said. "I definitely got tired more quickly that I normally would on a full week. I was just going out there planning on throwing up zeroes for five or six innings and hopefully we would have a lead at that time."
UK (33-22) had that lead and kept it en route to a 7-1 victory over Alabama (34-22).
Reed repeatedly worked around trouble to pick up his 11th win, most notably in the second through fourth innings.
In the second, Alabama loaded the bases with one out after a walk, a single and an error by UK first baseman Thomas Bernal. Reed, however, coaxed a harmless fly ball to right from Daniel Cucjen and an inning-ending groundout from Crimson Tide leadoff man Mikey White. In the process, he protected a 2-0 lead UK built in the top half of the frame on a sacrifice fly by Matt Reida and run-scoring fielder's choice off the bat of Austin Cousino.
The following inning, Alabama seemed to have a beat on Reed. Georgie Salem singled to right and Wade Wass scored him two batters later with a double into the gap in left-center. Two groundball outs with a walk sandwiched in between ended the threat.
"The key was those two innings right there because they had guys left on all over the place when it's all said and done they got one run in," Henderson said.
In the fourth, Reed allowed back-to-back one-out singles before coaxing an inning-ending double play.
"I think it was just going out there and making pitches," Reed said. "They got some runners on, but just keep the ball down and keep attacking hitters and making a pitch when you need to."
Reed's numbers at the dish -- 1-for-3 with and two walks -- weren't eye-popping considering he's the nation's home-run leader, but he did smash two balls deep into right-center in cavernous Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The first was caught and the second bounced off the wall for a double.
"A.J.'s the best player in the country and that's pretty well-established," Henderson said.
When Henderson lifted Reed before the sixth inning, he called on first-year junior-college transfer Andrew Nelson. The junior responded and picked up his first save, tossing four shutout innings and allowing two hits and no walks.
"I think I was effective today because I did a good job of getting on top of the ball, on top of the fastball and throwing it down," Nelson said. "I did a good job of letting the ball sink."
By doing so, Nelson positioned his team ideally for the rest of the week. UK advances to face top-seeded Florida in the double-elimination portion of the tournament on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET with a stable of arms as fresh as Henderson could have hoped for.
"Anytime you can split a game up, you get five out of the starter and you can finish it with one guy out of the pen, it's a tremendous lift," Henderson said. "But we'll have to wait and see just how much it helps us tomorrow."
A special two weeks are ahead for the Kentucky volleyball team.
Before sunrise on Monday morning, UK student-athletes and coaches began the first leg of a journey to China for a cultural exchange trip. After a long day of travel, the Wildcats will arrive in Shanghai around 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
From there, the team has a packed schedule, combining learning, competition and sightseeing.
The Cats will study at Shanghai University, learning about Chinese culture and sharing some of their own as well. They will also play six matches over the course of two weeks against some of the top volleyball teams in the world. And when they aren't in the classroom or on the court, the Cats will be taking in some of China's most famous landmarks, from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square.
Traveling with the team is UK's Andrew Maske, an art history professor who specializes in the arts of Asia. Professor Maske spent time with the team for the week leading up to the trip, teaching the team some basics about Chinese philosophy. The team also practiced tai chi and brush calligraphy to prepare to head to the Far East.
Throughout the trip, the Cats will be chronicling their experience through a series of blogs. We will be sharing them here -- as well as other social-media, photo and video content -- on Cat Scratches. We've also created a special URL -- UKVBtoChina.com -- so you can find all of the entries in one place.
To get it started, here are some tweets from right before the team departed and the week of preparation for the trip.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The Southeastern Conference on Monday announced a 12-year rotation of non-division opponents for SEC football schedules through 2025.
The athletic directors re-confirmed the rotation at their May meeting following the decision to continue playing an eight-game conference schedule, to include six games against division opponents and two games against non-division opponents. One of the non-division opponents will be a permanent annual opponent and the other non-division opponent will rotate each season.
Monday's announcement pertains to the rotating non-division opponents. The rotation begins with the 2014 season and concludes with the 2025 season. Schools will play all permanent opponents on a home and away basis beginning in 2014.
Schools will not play their non-divisional rotating opponents in back-to-back seasons to allow for schools to play all conference members on a more frequent basis. Also, the rotation of teams in the first six years of the 12-year cycle is not identical to the rotation in the second six years in order to maintain four home games and four road games per season for each school.
Following are the rotating opponents for SEC schools from 2014-25 ("vs." indicates a home game and "at" indicates an away game):
KENTUCKY - 2014 at LSU; 2015 vs. Auburn; 2016 at Alabama; 2017
vs. Ole Miss; 2018 at Texas A&M; 2019 vs. Arkansas; 2020 at Auburn;
2021 vs. LSU; 2022 at Ole Miss; 2023 vs. Alabama; 2024 at Arkansas; 2025
vs. Texas A&M. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Georgia,
South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State; Away - Florida, Missouri,
Tennessee. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
ALABAMA - 2014 vs. Florida; 2015 at Georgia; 2016 vs. Kentucky; 2017 at Vanderbilt; 2018 vs. Missouri; 2019 at South Carolina; 2020 vs. Georgia; 2021 at Florida; 2022 vs. Vanderbilt; 2023 at Kentucky; 2024 vs. South Carolina; 2025 at Missouri. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Auburn, Mississippi State, Texas A&M; Away - Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.) ARKANSAS - 2014 vs. Georgia; 2015 at Tennessee; 2016 vs. Florida; 2017 at South Carolina; 2018 vs. Vanderbilt; 2019 at Kentucky; 2020 vs. Tennessee; 2021 at Georgia; 2022 vs. South Carolina; 2023 at Florida; 2024 vs. Kentucky, 2025 at Vanderbilt. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss; Away - Auburn, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Missouri. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
AUBURN - 2014 vs. South Carolina; 2015 at Kentucky; 2016 vs. Vanderbilt; 2017 at Missouri; 2018 vs. Tennessee; 2019 at Florida; 2020 vs. Kentucky; 2021 at South Carolina; 2022 vs. Missouri; 2023 at Vanderbilt; 2024 vs. Florida; 2025 at Tennessee. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M; Away - Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.) FLORIDA - 2014 at Alabama; 2015 vs. Ole Miss; 2016 at Arkansas; 2017 vs. Texas A&M; 2018 at Mississippi State; 2019 vs. Auburn; 2020 at Ole Miss; 2021 vs. Alabama; 2022 at Texas A&M; 2023 vs. Arkansas; 2024 at Auburn; 2025 vs. Mississippi State. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, LSU; Away - Georgia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
GEORGIA - 2014 at Arkansas; 2015 vs. Alabama; 2016 at Ole Miss; 2017 vs. Mississippi State; 2018 at LSU; 2019 vs. Texas A&M; 2020 at Alabama; 2021 vs. Arkansas; 2022 at Mississippi State; 2023 vs. Ole Miss; 2024 at Texas A&M; 2025 vs. LSU. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn; Away - Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
LSU - 2014 vs. Kentucky; 2015 at South Carolina; 2016 vs. Missouri; 2017 at Tennessee; 2018 vs. Georgia; 2019 at Vanderbilt; 2020 vs. South Carolina; 2021 at Kentucky; 2022 vs. Tennessee; 2023 at Missouri; 2024 vs. Vanderbilt; 2025 at Georgia. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State; Away - Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M, Florida. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
OLE MISS - 2014 vs. Tennessee; 2015 at Florida; 2016 vs. Georgia; 2017 at Kentucky; 2018 vs. South Carolina; 2019 at Missouri; 2020 vs. Florida; 2021 at Tennessee; 2022 vs. Kentucky; 2023 at Georgia; 2024 vs. Missouri; 2025 at South Carolina. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State; Away - Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
MISSISSIPPI STATE - 2014 vs. Vanderbilt; 2015 at Missouri; 2016 vs. South Carolina; 2017 at Georgia; 2018 vs. Florida; 2019 at Tennessee; 2020 vs. Missouri; 2021 at Vanderbilt; 2022 vs. Georgia; 2023 at South Carolina; 2024 vs. Tennessee; 2025 at Florida. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M; Away - Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Kentucky. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
MISSOURI - 2014 at Texas A&M; 2015 vs. Mississippi State; 2016 at LSU; 2017 vs. Auburn; 2018 at Alabama; 2019 vs. Ole Miss; 2020 at Mississippi State; 2021 vs. Texas A&M; 2022 at Auburn; 2023 vs. LSU; 2024 at Ole Miss; 2025 vs. Alabama. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Georgia, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Arkansas; Away - Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.) SOUTH CAROLINA - 2014 at Auburn; 2015 vs. LSU; 2016 at Mississippi State; 2017 vs. Arkansas; 2018 at Ole Miss; 2019 vs. Alabama; 2020 at LSU; 2021 vs. Auburn; 2022 at Arkansas; 2023 vs. Mississippi State; 2024 at Alabama; 2025 vs. Ole Miss. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M; Away - Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
TEXAS A&M - 2014 vs. Missouri; 2015 at Vanderbilt; 2016 vs. Tennessee; 2017 at Florida; 2018 vs. Kentucky; 2019 at Georgia; 2020 vs. Vanderbilt; 2021 at Missouri; 2022 vs. Florida; 2023 at Tennessee; 2024 vs. Georgia; 2025 at Kentucky. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss; Away - Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, South Carolina. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.) TENNESSEE - 2014 at Ole Miss; 2015 vs. Arkansas; 2016 at Texas A&M; 2017 vs. LSU; 2018 at Auburn; 2019 vs. Mississippi State; 2020 at Arkansas; 2021 vs. Ole Miss; 2022 at LSU; 2023 vs. Texas A&M; 2024 at Mississippi State; 2025 vs. Auburn. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama; Away - Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
VANDERBILT - 2014 at Mississippi State; 2015 vs. Texas A&M; 2016 at Auburn; 2017 vs. Alabama; 2018 at Arkansas; 2019 vs. LSU; 2020 at Texas A&M; 2021 vs. Mississippi State; 2022 at Alabama; 2023 vs. Auburn; 2024 at LSU; 2025 vs. Arkansas. (Permanent opponents in 2014: Home - Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Ole Miss; Away - Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri. Sites alternate home and away through 2025.)
Overall Record: 32-22, 14-16 SEC Record Last Week: 2-2, 2-1 SEC Recent Results Tuesday, May 13 - lost at Murray State, 3-4 (12 innings) Thursday, May 15 - won at Georgia, 13-0 Friday, May 16 - won at Georgia, 10-0 Saturday, May 17 - lost at Georgia 10-11
Player of the week nominee Max Kuhn 6-1 - Jr. - 3B - Zionsville, Ind. Week Stats: .526 (10-for-19), 6 R, 3 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1.000 SLG, .591 OB%, 1.000 FLD%
Notes: Junior third baseman Max Kuhn had a prolific week in leading Kentucky to a series win at Georgia to conclude the regular season, batting .526 (10-for-19), with two homers and 10 RBI ... Kuhn added six runs, three doubles, a 1.000 slugging and a .591 on-base percentage ... Kuhn came to the plate 22 times during the week and he reached base safely in 13 appearances ... In the series at Georgia, Kuhn hit .643 (9-for-14) with three doubles, a homer and seven RBI, scoring five runs ... Kuhn started off the week by belting a three-run, two-out, game-tying homer in the seventh inning at Murray State on Tuesday ... In the series opener at UGA, Kuhn went a career-high 4-for-5 with four RBI and a pair of doubles, scoring three runs ... He followed that with a 3-for-4 game with a homer, double, walk and two RBI ... In the series finale on Saturday, Kuhn was 2-for-5 with a RBI ... On the year, Kuhn has hit .327 with 16 doubles, seven homers and 50 RBI, drawing 38 walks with a .441 on-base percentage.
Notes: Junior two-way star A.J. Reed continued to engrave his name on the national player of the year awards, concluding his regular season as the SEC leader in wins, homers, RBI, slugging and OPS and falling .0002 percentage points shy of the lead in average, narrowly missing the triple crown ... He worked eight shutout, three-hit innings on Thursday at Georgia to clinch a SEC Tournament berth for the Wildcats, their third consecutive trip to Hoover ... Reed also went 4-for-5 at the plate in the pitching performance, driving in three runs ... A native of Terre Haute, Ind., Reed allowed just a two-out walk in the second and eighth innings, and one-out singles in the third and fourth innings, also working around a two-out single in the sixth ... Reed retired 14 of the final 16 hitters he faced, starting the game by retiring five consecutive hitters ... With 10 wins, Reed became the fifth player in school history to reach double-digit wins and the first since Greg Dombrowski went 10-2 during UK's 2006 SEC Championship season ... Reed is now tied with Dombrowski and Matthew Coleman (1987) for third in UK single-season history in wins ... On the year, Reed leads the SEC with his 10-2 mark, owning a 2.11 ERA in 14 innings, working 98 innings and striking out 66 ... In his three-year career, Reed has 17 wins and a 2.88 ERA - the fourth-best in UK history - working 234 innings and striking out 169.
The Kentucky baseball team completed its regular season with a four-game road swing, traveling to Murray State on Tuesday, before concluding the stretch at Georgia. UK suffered a 4-3 loss at Murray State in Paducah in 12 innings on Tuesday, before posting a 13-0 win at UGA in the opener and a 10-0 win on Friday to clinch the series, with Georgia avoiding UK's first sweep in Athens in 38 years with a 11-10 win on Saturday.
Kentucky (32-22, 14-16 Southeastern Conference) will return to action in the SEC Tournament, facing No. 19 Alabama, the No. 8 seed, with UK earning the No. 9 seed in its third consecutive berth in the league tourney. First pitch on Tuesday in Hoover, Ala., and the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium is slated for 5:30 p.m. ET. It marks UK's first trip to three consecutive SEC Tournaments since 1991-94, a school-record four straight berths.
The Wildcats suffered a 4-3 loss in 12 innings on Tuesday at Murray State, as the Breds jumped out to a 3-0 lead before Max Kuhn tied up the game with a two-out, three-run homer in the seventh inning. The two teams then traded shutout innings, with UK's Chandler Shepherd, Andrew Nelson and Spencer Jack shining in relief, before the Breds got a two-out walk-off single under the diving glove of UK's rightfielder Storm Wilson.
Kentucky then traveled to Athens and rode another dominating performance on the mound from A.J. Reed in a 13-0 win in the series opener, clinching an SEC Tournament berth. UK got four-hit games from Reed and Kuhn, with Reed working eight shutout, three-hit innings to improve his league-leading wins total to 10. On Friday, UK posted another shutout win (10-0), getting a combined shutout from Kyle Cody and Nelson, with Nelson earning his first career SEC win with the final 4.2 innings. Reed hit another homer in a three-hit game, also adding to his SEC walk total. The series clinching win marked the fourth consecutive series win over Georgia for the Wildcats, with UK's back-to-back shutouts markings its first in two straight league games since 1976. Georgia then jumped out to an 11-3 lead after the seventh inning in the finale, riding a strong start from power-armed freshman Robert Tyler. UK then stormed back with six runs in the eighth inning, including a leadoff homer from Reed and a grand slam from Matt Reida. The Wildcats rallied with a run in the ninth inning and got the tying run to second base with one out, but Reida's 11-pitch at-bat ended in a lineout to centerfield to salvage the series for the Bulldogs.
UK will be facing Alabama for the fourth time in 2014 on Tuesday, with UK suffering a series loss in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to open league play from March 14-16 at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. UK suffered a quirky loss in the opener of the series, with the Tide getting a strong start from Spencer Turnbull. Reed, who suffered the hard luck loss on the mound, had his game-tying homer robbed by outfielder Ben Moore - his Cape Cod League teammate - before coming up with the bases loaded and no outs in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game. Reed lined into a triple play to end the threat, keeping the Tide in front for the series-opening win. In the middle game of the series, Chandler Shepherd pitched a gem as UK posted a 7-2 win, with Cousino and Micheal Thomas belting homers. In the rubber match, UK took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning, getting two outs and owning a runner on first base, before Austen Smith belted a game-tying homer over the leftfield fence and Nelson was going for a complete game in his first career SEC start. UK worked into the 10th inning before shortstop Mikey White hit a walk-off homer to give the Tide a 5-3 win and the series victory.
Alabama leads the all-time series with Kentucky, 59-37, including a 4-2 mark in neutral site games.
In the last meeting, UK swept the Tide in Lexington in 2012. UK got a 4-2 win in the series opener, with two runs in the second and third innings and a strong outing from Taylor Rogers and Alex Phillips for the win and save, respectively. Thomas McCarthy led UK at the plate with a two-RBI double in the second inning. The Wildcats then swept a doubleheader on Saturday vs. Alabama, with UK posting a 7-6 comeback win in the first game, rallying from down 5-1 with a five-run bottom of the seventh inning. After Bama got the run back in the eighth, UK answered the winning run, with Austin Cousino getting hit by a leadoff pitch and scoring on a bases-loaded walk from Michael Williams. Jerad Grundy worked five innings and allowed just one run, with Trevor Gott getting the fin in relief. In the series finale, UK posted an 8-1 win to sweep the Tide, getting homers from Cousino, Williams and Brian Adams. Corey Littrell worked 6.2 innings for the win in the finale, with Sam Mahar getting a save - his second of that week - with 2.1 innings, allowing just two singles. In the 2011 meeting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama swept UK with a 4-0 win in the opener, a 6-5 win in the middle game and a 8-3 win in the finale that saw UK standout righty Alex Meyer take a line drive off the shin that forced him to miss several weeks.
The Wildcats have hit .304 as a team in 2014, with a .457 slugging and a .402 on-base percentage. UK has belted 104 doubles, 10 triples, 47 homers and scored 430 runs, stealing 60 bases. On the mound, UK has a 4.04 team ERA in 54 games, owning nine saves in 481.2 innings, allowing 509 hits and 167 walks, striking out 335. Defensively, UK has a .968 fielding percentage, turning 51 double plays and allowing 60 steals.
Individually, UK has been led by A.J. Reed, who came up .0002 percentage points in batting average shy of winning the SEC triple crown in the 2014 regular season. Reed finished with a .359 mark in 54 games, with 14 doubles, one triple, 23 homers and 70 RBI, leading the nation in homers, slugging (.788) and (1.280) OPS. Leftfielder Ka'ai Tom has hit .339 with 11 doubles, two homers and 33 RBI, stealing 13 bases. Third baseman Max Kuhn has batted .327 with 16 doubles, seven homers and 50 RBI, with first baseman Thomas Bernal owning a .320 average with eight doubles, one homer and 26 RBI. Rightfielder Storm Wilson has a .316 average with six doubles, four homers and 19 RBI, with centerfielder Austin Cousino hitting .305 with 14 doubles, four triples, four homers, 33 RBI and 15 steals. Catcher Micheal Thomas owns a .303 average with eight doubles, one triple, seven homers and 43 RBI. Second baseman JaVon Shelby has a .259 average with six doubles, two triples, four homers and 21 RBI, with outfielder Kyle Barrett hitting .259 with five doubles, one homer, 18 RBI and 10 steals. Shortstop Matt Reida has a .235 average with seven doubles, four homers and 33 RBI, stealing five bases and sporting a .346 on-base percentage.
Last weekend, UK used the rotation of Reed (10-2, 2.11 ERA), Kyle Cody (3-0, 2.53 ERA) and Zack Brown (0-1, 5.85 ERA). Reed has worked 14 series openers, tossing 98 innings, allowing 27 walks and 66 strikeouts. Cody owns 16 games and four starts, tossing 32 innings with five saves, striking out 15. Brown made his first career SEC start on Saturday and has appeared in 17 games with three starts, tossing 20 innings. Junior Chandler Shepherd (5-3, 3.55 ERA) has worked in 13 games with nine starts, with Dylan Dwyer (5-3, 5.46 ERA) appearing in 14 games with 10 starts.
In relief, UK has been paced by Spencer Jack (3-1, 1.34 ERA) who has three saves in a staff-high 24 relief outings. He has worked 33.2 innings, allowing 24 hits and seven walks, striking out 28. Zach Strecker (0-1, 4.11 ERA), Logan Salow (2-3, 5.16 ERA), Taylor Martin (0-0, 6.00 ERA), Ryne Combs (1-2, 6.55 ERA) and Sam Mahar (1-0, 7.53 ERA) have each appeared in double-digit games in relief.
Sylver Samuel's inside-the-park home run resulted in UK's first run of a 10-1 win that clinched a Super Regional berth. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team's bats had been held at bay for much of the weekend at the NCAA Regional, including in a 2-1 loss in the first game of Sunday's regional final.
That all changed in a win-or-go-home game two.
The Wildcats exploded for 10 runs in the first three innings, including six in the second to down DePaul, 10-1, and advance to their third NCAA Super Regional in the last four seasons.
DePaul had already lost once in the double-elimination tournament, so the Wildcats needed just one win Sunday in two chances. The Blue Demons prevailed in game one, 2-1 in 10 innings, to force a second game, and that's when the UK bats came up bigger than ever.
"Our hitters decided to put the team on their back and go out and score runs," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "In the other games, I think (Kelsey) Nunley did a good job of putting the team on her back and I thought we had good defensive play but I think that the mindset of the team offensively was we need to get this done."
UK advanced to the regional final with an unblemished 2-0 record, with a 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday and a 2-1 win over James Madison on Saturday. In the two victories, Kentucky rode Nunley's stellar pitching arm while scoring just enough runs to win.
After game one's 10-inning loss, the Wildcats had their backs against the wall and knew the offense had to come through in order to earn a ticket to Super Regionals.
"Coach just basically talked to us and said it was time to get it done," sophomore Christian Stokes said. "This is make-it-or-break-it, this is your opportunity right here, just go out here and have fun and take hard cuts."
In the bottom of the first inning of game two, Sylver Samuel got things going for the UK offense with an inside the park home run. The first homer of Samuel's career was a grounder up the middle through a drawn-in outfield that rolled all the way to the center field wall.
By the time the DePaul center fielder, who was playing in shallow left center, could get to the ball, Samuel was nearing third and thinking of home. Samuel circled the bases and a throw was never made to try and get her out at home plate.
"There were a lot of holes and a lot of people had shifted so I was just trying to get something started," Samuel said. "I was thinking more about making sure my timing was right and everything and finding a hole. I saw people still running when I was going to second. I saw that they hadn't gotten to the ball yet so I saw (Kristine) Himes running and I was like, 'Well, she's waving me,' so I just went for it."
Samuel's home run was the only run of the first inning, but it sent momentum and confidence into Kentucky's dugout.
"That was huge for our team," Stokes said. "We needed something that would get our momentum going and I think that was a huge at-bat. We scored a run on one hit, so that is huge. I think that got it started and then hits were going all around."
Nunley retired the side in order in the top of the second inning, and it was time for the UK bats to get back to work in a big way.
With two outs and the bases empty, the big inning almost didn't happen, but senior Emily Jolly reached on an error. Krystal Smith followed with a single and sophomore Ansley Smith walked to set up Stokes with the bases loaded.
Stokes sent a ball deep to left field that bounced off the top of the wall for a double. Just a foot short of clearing the fence, the bases emptied and gave UK a 4-0 lead.
"I didn't feel too much pressure," Stokes said. "When I got up there and I was on deck I knew that we had to get it done right here because this was a huge opportunity for us. I came up in the first game and didn't get the job done so I knew I wanted to help out my team and get it done on the second chance."
The runs didn't stop, however, as Samuel tripled to score Stokes and, after sophomore Nikki Sagermann walked, junior Griffin Joiner doubled down the left field line to score two more.
After UK scored a total of five runs in the previous 24 innings, the offense had just rattled off seven in the span of two innings.
With the hits, five of them in the first two innings, came momentum for both the offense and Nunley in the circle.
"I think the momentum definitely shifted towards us once we started getting hits," Samuel said. "That picked us up a lot and I think it just got our offense rolling and I think it gave Kelsey (Nunley) confidence that she didn't have to put the team on her back as much."
Along with the Wildcats' ability to make adjustments at the plate in the second game, the key to their offensive success in the second game was the fact that they moved on quickly from the first game's loss.
A team with four sophomores in the starting lineup, including the first three in the order, was able to forget about game one and quickly shift its focus to getting key hits in game two.
"You just have to move on," Lawson said. "You have to bounce back if you want to keep going. The nice thing about our team is that they love softball. They are able to adapt, adjust and move on. What we lack in certain offensive numbers, I think we make up for in terms of mental toughness and sure grit."
That mental toughness and grit is what has helped UK to a school-record 47 wins in 2014, the program's first-ever trip to the SEC Tournament Championship game and now a second consecutive NCAA Super Regional appearance.
The Wildcats, seeded 14th in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, head to Los Angeles next weekend to face third-seeded UCLA in a best-of-three series.
To advance to its first Women's College World Series in team history, Kentucky will need the hot bats that came to life in Sunday's second game. That, and more of the toughness and grit that got them there in the first place.
Only one Wildcat, however, did something that Edrick Floreal simply couldn't explain.
"What Ally Peare did, that's just unheard of," Floreal said.
Within 90 minutes, Peare in ran in the finals of both the 1500m and 800m. To make things even more difficult, she had to qualify for the two grueling races in the preceding 48 hours.
The challenge is so great, in fact, that Floreal hesitates to even ask a student-athlete to face it.
"That's one of my greatest fears, to put somebody in the eight and 15, because the second one is always kind of god awful," Floreal said. "The kid is so lactic acid loaded up."
Defying biology, Peare managed second-place finishes in both. She tallied 16 points for her team, playing an important role as the UK women placed fourth, their best finish at SECs since 1983.
"It was a really great weekend for me," Peare said. "It's been really exciting and I'm just glad I was able to score a lot of points for the team."
Knowing the nature of the double, the coaching staff adjusted their projections for Peare's point-scoring down a bit entering the weekend. The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.
"I was only expected to score nine points," Peare said. "I even talked to Coach and I was like, 'I think I can score more than that.' "
She nearly eclipsed nine in her first race, finishing with a school-record time of 4:15.14 in the 1500. Afterward, women's distance coach Hakon DeVries pulled her aside to strategize for the 800.
"I had a lot of confidence in myself from Coach DeVries," Peare said. "He told me beforehand, that going into the 800, five other girls were coming back from the double of the 15. He said, 'I believe you can run 2:04.' "
Her time? 2:04.13.
Peare surged to the finish, nipping Georgia's Megan Malasarte by a mere tenth of a second.
"I thought, 'Man, no way you can come back after that 15 and do that.' " Floreal said. "And then when they took off in 57 (seconds through 400 meters), I thought, 'So much for us.' And then all of a sudden this little gal kept coming and then kept coming and then kicked in the home stretch. You're not supposed to be able to kick after running a 15. Your legs are not supposed to respond. I'm just so impressed."
For a little added perspective on Peare's feat, you needn't look any further than her UK teammate Keffri Neal. The junior won the 1500 and attempted the same double Peare pulled off, but finished eighth to account for 11 points. It was a more than respectable effort, but only makes Peare's all the more impressive.
"It takes a strong physical body and a strong personality as well," Neal said. "Maybe I'm not at that level yet but I'm trying to get there. She's a very good runner and I'm happy that she could run that fast."
Her coach, clearly, felt the same way.
With the women finishing fourth and the men coming in sixth -- their best SEC outdoor finish since 1996 -- the Cats turned in the clearest proof yet of the program's progress under Floreal. True to his nature, Floreal had already moved on to the next step when asked about it.
"Obviously the biggest trophy you get is the one you get at the NCAA," Floreal said. "We want to get ready for that and then position ourselves to do as best as we can and hopefully be a podium team at the NCAA. That's the goal of a program. That's what's going to define us."
Peare is on board, but she has so more immediate concerns to tend to first.
"I'm going to sleep very well tonight after I get a very good meal," she said.
Andrew Evans won his second SEC discus title in three years on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Before the Southeastern Conference Championships, Edrick Floreal and his Kentucky coaching staff sketched out how they expected the meet to go. They went event by event, assigning points based on how they thought each athlete would perform.
Then the athletes had a choice. They could either hear how many points they were expected to score or go into the weekend blind.
The former option, in Floreal's eyes, was the better one.
"You've gotta be able to embrace that pressure," Floreal said. "When somebody tells me, 'I don't want to know what you expect from me,' that's not very good. I want them to make the decision."
For senior discus thrower Andrew Evans, the decision was easy.
"The team has expectations of us," Evans said. "They asked us if we wanted to know what expectations they had for us in points and discus was (to score) 10 (points). So I knew they wanted me to get it done."
And get it done he did. Evans won the second SEC title of his career, turning in a throw of 64.09 meters/210-3 on his final attempt in front of a large crowd there to watch a loaded discus final.
"We initially had the throwing set up on the infield, which is kind of absent the crowd right on top of you," Evans said. "Then we moved it to the outside throwing facility where everybody's right on top of you and expectations are right on top of you as well."
His coach's expectations were far from the only ones Evans had to shoulder competing Saturday in front of his home fans.
Just two weeks ago, Evans won National Athlete of the Week honors after his throw of 66.37m/217-9 at the Tennessee Challenge. The mark is the best in the NCAA this season and third best in the world this year, but brought with it the pressure to back up that "magical moment," as Floreal called it.
"You have to be able to perform when people expect you to do it," Floreal said. "I'm really happy that Andrew was able to get it done with all the pressure. Everybody that was over there, they expected one thing: Andrew Evans to win the discus. And he fought off the demons and delivered the goods in a big way."
Emerging atop a field that featured three of the top four throwers in the country, Evans received his gold medal from former discus national champion and UK alum Rashaud Scott. With his nation-leading throw two weeks ago, Evans took over the school record from Scott, who graduated in 2009.
"Rashaud and I are good pals," Evans said. "He let me have it when I took his record, so we just kind of go back and forth."
Scott started a streak of five consecutive SEC discus titles for UK athletes in 2008, a streak Evans continued in 2012 but ended a year ago when he finished second. In his final home meet, Evans is happy to restart the streak and continue a Wildcat tradition.
"It feels good to win again and bring it back to Kentucky, because Kentucky is such a storied discus school," Evans said. "Hopefully we can use my results to bring in big discus recruits to keep making the program better."
If his younger teammates can mimic the way Evans handles the weight of expectations, UK track and field will continue to blossom under Floreal.
"Being counted on, that's good," Floreal said. "You don't want to not exist. Nobody expects anything from you, who wants to live that life? I want a life where I know that people expect stuff from me. We expect you to do something here."
"My interest is having people around me that they are OK with that, they can live with that, they can stand up under it and be OK with the outcome."
Delivering when he was supposed to, Evans became UK's first 2014 SEC outdoor champion. Behind him, UK is fifth with 21 points in men's standings through three days, while the women are currently in ninth with 13.
It wasn't an ideal day -- Floreal said Saturday started without the "zeal" the Wildcats had on Friday -- but it was another step in the growth of a program.
"Like I always say, character is not what happens, but it's what happens after you get your butt kicked," Floreal said. "We lost some points, but we're going to be OK. In the end, we're still in a building stage trying to put ourselves in position. And I think we're a contender, but we're not there yet. We've still got some stuff we've gotta figure out. We still gotta get a little bit tougher, a little bit grittier."
Nikki Sagermann had the game-tying RBI and scored the game-winning run in UK's sixth inning rally. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
A staple of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to keep fighting and battle back, and it was never more prevalent than in UK's 2-1, comeback win Saturday over James Madison on the second day of the NCAA Regional.
The Wildcats were trailing 1-0 and being no-hit through four innings, but in the fifth, everything started to change.
All it took was a leadoff flyout from senior Emily Gaines -- the first ball from the UK bats to leave the infield -- and the offense and the Big Blue Nation responded.
Senior Lauren Cumbess followed with a single for UK's first hit of the game, and fellow senior Emily Jolly also notched a double. While UK would not score a run in the frame, the rally was officially in effect.
Credit goes to sophomore Nikki Sagermann and junior Griffin Joiner, who recorded the game-tying and game-winning hits, but the crowd certainly played a factor.
John Cropp Stadium was close to capacity for the second consecutive day, but the Wildcat faithful didn't have a lot to cheer about until Gaines' flyout in the fifth inning. That's when the momentum shifted, and the Big Blue Nation could be heard, loud and clear.
"I thought a lot of our adjustment the third time through the order was due to the fact the crowd really got into it, chanting 'blue' and 'white,' " UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "You could hear them really cheering when Sylver Samuel got that hit up the middle and everybody went crazy. I actually think the crowd was a lot of the reason why we adjusted. The crowd was the big difference, I thought they were tremendous and a lot of the reasons why we scored the runs at the end of the game."
The Kentucky runs came in the sixth inning, but it unofficially got started in the fifth with Gaines' fly ball to center.
"Gaines has sparked us all year, so that got us going, everybody got fired up," Joiner said. "The rest of the lineup started battling better in their at-bat."
"We finally saw someone get some solid contact on her, and we were like, 'Alright, we can hit it,' " Sagermann added.
In the sixth inning, the Wildcats sent the top of the order to the plate for their third time. Sophomore Christian Stokes led off with a strikeout, but Samuel followed with a single up the middle to set up Sagermann.
The third baseman doubled to right center to score Samuel and tie the game. Joiner kept the hot hitting going with a single to left to score Sagermann and give Kentucky a 2-1 lead.
It was the adjustments that Samuel, Sagermann and Joiner made in their third time at the plate that proved to be the key for the UK offense to score two and take the lead.
After the second time through the batting order, Lawson knew the top of the order needed to adjust and get in attack mode if the Wildcats were to mount a rally.
"By the time the second at-bat comes around, if they're not in attack mode, you know you can be in big trouble," Lawson said. "You'd better straighten them out and get them in attack mode, so hopefully their third at-bat through, they're ready to get after the pitcher, which is what happened today."
The Wildcats have scored more than two runs just twice in their last six games, but have managed to notch five wins in that span, in large part to their ability to make adjustments at the plate and get the key hit at the perfect moment.
The fact that pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who has won all five games in the circle for Kentucky, is the school-record holder with eight postseason wins, certainly doesn't hurt either.
UK will look to advance to its third NCAA Super Regional in the past four years Sunday at 1 p.m. at John Cropp Stadium against either James Madison or DePaul.
Senior Lauren Cumbess had two RBI in UK's 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday night at the Lexington Regional. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
On an unseasonably cool evening at John Cropp Stadium, Lauren Cumbess' bat heated up to fuel the Kentucky softball team to a 2-0 victory over Ohio in the first game of the NCAA Regional.
Cumbess, who went 0-for-11 at the SEC Tournament last weekend, but went 1-for-2 Friday with a home run and drove in both UK runs.
"There was no secret," Cumbess said. "We practiced hard all week and worked on hitting different pitches in the zone and it was all about the right place at the right time."
The junior captain got things started in the bottom of the second with a home run to give UK an early 1-0 lead. Cumbess sent an 0-1 pitch over the right-field wall for the Wildcats' first hit of the game.
"I was just looking for my pitch and on that count it happened to be it," Cumbess said. "I swung at the first pitch, so I wanted to be aggressive and make something happen as the leadoff batter in that inning. I swung at the first one and missed it, and the second pitch looked like it was even more in my zone. I just went for it. It felt pretty good coming off the bat."
The homer was Cumbess' ninth of the season and third in NCAA Tournament play.
It came at the perfect time for the Wildcats, after starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley labored through the first two innings and allowed an Ohio baserunner to reach in the first two frames, each via walk.
Nunley allowed two runners to reach base in the third and one in the fourth, but she didn't allow a runner to score. As the sophomore continued to warm up, her pitches got even more effective and the Bobcat batters were retired in order in the fifth and sixth inning.
Three outs away from an opening-game victory, Cumbess once again helped plate a valuable insurance run in the sixth. Senior Emily Gaines led off with a double down the right field line. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner and stole third to set up Cumbess.
Cumbess flied out to right field, but it was enough to score Steed and put the Wildcats ahead 2-0.
"Especially after Maisie's delayed steal, I knew I had to get something, really stay behind it," Cumbess said. "It was either go up the middle or somewhere in the outfield and I knew she would score. Maisie is a smart baserunner, so I knew if I did my job and put it anywhere relative to where she could score, she could do it."
The 2-0 lead was all Nunley needed to secure the win and her seventh shutout of the year, good for second most in a season in program history. The win also gave Nunley seven postseason victories in her career, which extended her program-record mark.
The first win is always important, and puts the Wildcats in a good position going into Saturday's winner's bracket game with James Madison.
"It's important that you always get the first win in the tournament," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "That way you can kick the tires a little bit and get a little bit looser. Anytime you can get the first win in a postseason tournament I think that helps. It helps your pitching, it helps your defense relax a little bit and it helps the girls sleep a little bit better."
Going forward, the road doesn't get any easier. Kentucky will face James Madison on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. JMU downed DePaul in the regional's first game, 6-1.
The winner advances to Sunday, while the loser will play at 6 p.m. against the winner of Saturday's second game, between Ohio and DePaul at 3 p.m.
At stake in the double elimination tournament is a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals. The Wildcats, seeded in the top 16 in the 64-team field for the second consecutive season, will look to make their third trip to the Super Regionals in the last four years.
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart embraces Cally Macumber after her second-place finish in the 10k on Friday at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For a normal person, preparing to run more than six miles is a months-long undertaking.
Cally Macumber needed only a few days after she decided to run the 10,000-meter race at the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.
"It wasn't originally the plan to run the 10," Macumber said. "Kind of a last-minute decision to try and get some points for the team."
The decision paid off for both Macumber and her Kentucky team. She ran the 10k in 34:01.52, finishing second behind Arkansas' Dominique Scott to pick up eight important points for the Wildcats.
"Anytime you gotta be crazy or courageous enough to volunteer to run a 10k, you're a special athlete," UK head coach Edrick Floreal said. "She performed very special."
The performance was even more special considering Macumber's history in the 10k. A year ago, she finished seventh at SECs in the same race.
"It was a hard decision to make not having the best track record with it," Macumber said. "But I knew it would really help my team and once you think about that, it's worth it, the 25 laps."
It's that willingness to sacrifice for her team, in fact, that paved the way for her record effort.
"Getting them to the point where it's their idea is so important," Floreal said. "Had I forced her to do it, it would have been a different story. But she wanted to do it."
Macumber has always been a good teammate, but her attitude has undergone a change that represents the culture shift brought on by Floreal's arrival two summers ago. A promising, albeit inconsistent, performer in her first three years at UK, Macumber has transformed into an All-American under Floreal and women's distance coach Hakon DeVries.
"It's been crazy to watch," Macumber said. "Everyone, just as soon as Coach Flo stepped on campus, it was like a transformation with everybody, everyone's attitudes. It's been so exciting and without them I wouldn't have seen the improvements I've seen and I know the other kids on the team wouldn't have seen as big of improvements either."
Ibn Short and Nathan Donnellon joined Macumber as Friday point-scorers for UK, finishing fifth and seventh in the decathlon, respectively. Dezerea Bryant, Keilah Tyson, Kendra Harrison, Keffri Neal and Allison Peare, meanwhile, advanced to finals to put Kentucky in good position -- third on the women's side with 13 points, sixth on the men's with six -- entering Saturday and Sunday of a loaded SEC meet.
"All that stuff is good," Floreal said. "It's momentum. The kids in the locker room were very excited about where we are and about what their chances are of doing well. That's all I want. I just want them to give it their absolute best shot and where the chips fall, they fall."
All those laps behind her, Macumber will play a role in deciding where a few more of those chips fall. She will run as one of the favorites in the 5k late Sunday afternoon.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Macumber said. "I think I've got a little bit left in the tank. I have a day tomorrow to just cheer on my team, relax, chill out and then be ready to go Sunday."
The idea of running another three-plus miles in less than 48 hours might sound unpleasant, but it's exactly where Macumber wants to be.
"I love it," Macumber said. "I couldn't ask it for it to be in a better place my last year, going out on the home course with all my teammates and people supporting me. I'm just really happy to be here."
For the sixth consecutive season, the Kentucky softball team will compete in the NCAA Regionals and it will host the regional for the second year in a row.
But this year, it's different.
For the first time in program history, the Wildcats have momentum on their side as they open the 64-team NCAA Tournament Friday night at John Cropp Stadium.
UK won three games at the SEC Tournament last weekend in Columbia, S.C., and made it to the championship game for the first time in team history. Before this season, the Wildcats were 1-9 all-time at the conference tournament.
In two of the past three seasons, the Wildcats have gone 0-1 at the SEC Tournament only to turn around and advance to the NCAA Super Regionals the following weekend.
This year, coming off a 3-1 weekend at the SEC Tournament has proven beneficial as UK prepares for the Regional.
"Last week, playing four games against the toughest competition in our conference, and in the nation too, was really productive for us," junior captain Griffin Joiner said. "We could have been here practicing every day, so it was a really good opportunity for us to play in the SEC Tournament. When we got back, school has been out, so it's been all softball. We wake up every day and come out here and try to get the job done, getting ready for this weekend."
Even after a loss Saturday in the championship game to Georgia after a record-breaking run, the Wildcats are hungry for more.
The momentum from the tournament's three wins, combined with the disappointment from Saturday's loss has fueled UK in practice this week.
"After we got beat Saturday night, that was disappointing," sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley said. "We've come out this week and made adjustments and worked hard in practice. I think we're ready to go, we just have to bring our A game."
Sunday night, just hours after the Wildcats returned from Columbia, UK learned it would host the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. Lexington hosted the Super Regionals in 2011, the first time NCAA competition was ever played at John Cropp Stadium. Last season, Kentucky also hosted the NCAA Regional.
Earning a host bid is a big advantage. Not only does it mean the Wildcats are the highest seed among the four teams, but they will have the Big Blue Nation behind them.
"Over the past three or four years the Big Blue Nation has really shown up, and it's helped us in ball games," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "When we played Tennessee at home and beat them, I felt like the crowd gave us a big push. We've had record-breaking crowds every year, and I Kentucky fans are such good fans, it really helps us, especially in later games against opponents that aren't used to playing with that type of crowd."
The three-game series against Tennessee, the final home series of the regular season, drew a school-record 4,664 fans. The final two games of the series drew more than 1,600 fans, both standing-room only crowds.
Playing in front of packed stadiums is nothing new for the Wildcats in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. Seven of Kentucky's road contests in SEC play drew at least 1,000 fans, including every game of the SEC Tournament.
"It's awesome, it's what you want as a player," Nunley said. "I think the fans can really make the game more exciting. I think it's great to have a lot of fans here supporting us.
The good crowds no doubt will come to cheer on Kentucky, as they have all season.
Fans will see three great teams, in addition the hometown Wildcats. UK, James Madison and DePaul all won at least 40 games this season, while Ohio and James Madison each won its respective conference tournaments. DePaul is making its 18th NCAA Tournament appearance.
The action gets underway Friday at 5 p.m. ET with James Madison and DePaul, followed by UK's matchup with Ohio at 7:30 p.m. That's when the Wildcats look to keep the momentum going as they look for a third Super Regional berth in the past four seasons.
Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The importance of the leadoff hitter has never been more obvious than in the Kentucky softball team's Southeastern Conference Tournament run this past weekend.
Going into last week's SEC Tournament, Kentucky was coming off a three-game sweep suffered at Georgia. The Wildcats scored just one run in each game, and Rachel Lawson was looking for a spark at the top of the order.
Enter sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes.
"What happened after the Georgia series was I thought we needed a change in tone, a different way to start off the game," the UK head coach said. "So we put her in the leadoff position and just her presence alone, I believe she set the tone for the entire tournament. She set the tone in all of our wins in her first at-bat of every game. It's the ability to be able to put everyone on your back and have great presence in the box from the get-go."
On the third pitch of the bottom of the first inning in UK's opening-round win over Mississippi State, Stokes sent a shot over the right field wall to give UK an early 1-0 lead. As her teammates poured out of the dugout to greet her at home plate, it was apparent the offensive spark that Lawson was looking for had been found.
In four games leading off at the SEC Tournament, Stokes' numbers were beyond impressive. She hit .429 with six hits, two home runs and three RBI. She scored a run in each of Kentucky's three wins and reached base a total of nine times for an on base percentage of .529.
The Chesterfield. S.C., native had a 1.000 slugging percentage in her home state. She was rewarded by being named to the SEC All-Tournament Team.
"Coach Lawson really wants me to work on my presence in the box, that's been a huge thing," Stokes said. "Starting off the game, showing a presence from the first swing is the main thing I've been thinking about. Just being confident, getting up there and doing my thing."
Stokes was 3-for-4 in that first game against Mississippi State, with another RBI and a double in the ninth inning to set up fellow sophomore Nikki Sagermann's game-winning hit.
The following day against Tennessee, Stokes was 3-of-4 again. She led off the game with a double, and her home run in the fifth inning put UK ahead 2-0 and gave sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley all the insurance runs she would need.
In Kentucky's win over LSU to send the Wildcats to their first SEC Tournament Championship Game in program history, Stokes was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning and scored the first of two runs in the final frame.
As the Wildcats prepare for NCAA Regionals this weekend at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Stokes hopes to continue her hot hitting. It will help that the confidence from the SEC Tournament can carry over into this weekend.
"Once you're confident, your confidence keeps on carrying for a few games or even the rest of the season," Stokes said. "It will help with my approach and all the things I'm doing well in the box right now. I think the presence is a big thing too, my presence will maybe help my teammates' presence as well."
The leadoff position was one of inconsistency in the regular season. Stokes led off 14 times and is one of six Wildcats to have hit in the No. 1 spot this season. None of them led off more than 16 times in UK's 55 regular season contests, and no one did it for more than six games in a row.
Going into the postseason, Lawson knew it was essential to have a leadoff hitter who could get things going for the rest of the offense.
"You look at all the dominant teams in the country, they all have a strong batter in the leadoff position," Lawson said. "Christian's strength alone helped match what all the other teams did. In fact, this past weekend, she surpassed that. I couldn't be happier with it, and in my opinion, she and Kelsey Nunley were the MVPs this past weekend."
Stokes has started all 59 games at shortstop this season, but has batted in nearly every spot in the order. In addition to the 14 times she has led off, she has batted ninth 20 times, sixth nine times and second, fifth, seventh and eighth at least once.
Despite her spot in the batting order changing, Stokes doesn't find any added pressure with having to set the tone at the top of the lineup.
"I think it's easy, because everyone on our team steps up at different times, which is great," Stokes said. "I always know my teammates have my back, and they know I have their back, so it's easy to be a leader on our team."
It isn't hard to see that Lawson has been impressed with Stokes as a hitter, no matter her spot in the lineup.
"Her overall competitive spirit, and her presence in the box is something that really impresses me," Lawson said. "I love it, I think she does a really good job, she competes, she swings the bat hard, she runs hard. Just that overall attitude really helps the team get ready to hit. She's quietly been a leader. She's been getting big hits when we needed her to."
That competitive spirit and attitude will help lead Kentucky into the NCAA Tournament opener Friday against Ohio. Kentucky has made the NCAA Regionals in six consecutive seasons and advanced to the Super Regionals in two of the past three years.
After a grueling SEC schedule, things won't get any easier in the postseason, but Stokes presence and ability to get things started at the top of the order should help alleviate some of that pressure brought on by the NCAA Tournament.
Edrick Floreal and the Kentucky track and field program will host the SEC Championships this weekend. (Photo by Nick Agro)
The plan, initially, was for Cally Macumber to run only the 5,000-meter race at the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.
The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.
Sensing an opportunity to score important points, Macumber said she wanted to run the 10,000 as well.
"That's 25 laps," Edrick Floreal said. "I don't even know if I'm that courageous to volunteer for that."
Macumber has only recently gotten healthy, running in two races in April after coping with "dings and dangs," in the words of her head coach. It would have been understandable for Macumber to want to focus solely on the 5,000 with the end of her collegiate career fast approaching.
Instead, she abandoned self-interest for the sake of her Kentucky team.
"That's kind of the character of this team: People are beginning to volunteer," Floreal said. "That's what I want. I want the kids to come to my office and say, 'Hey, I think I can do this event and get a couple points for you.' That's kind of what we've got going on right now."
The timing couldn't be better.
UK -- its women's team ranked sixth nationally and the men ranked No. 19 -- is set to host one of the nation's best track meets Thursday through Sunday. It's a big moment in the growth of a program only just beginning to tap into the vast potential Floreal sees in it.
"We planted the seed and it just broke ground a little bit," Floreal said. "I know we're excited about that but in my wildest dreams, I want to run out of trophy space."
Floreal, from the moment he left his head-coaching post at perennial power Stanford to come to Lexington, has preached the importance of hosting elite meets. There's a caveat though.
"There's nothing worse than hosting it and not to be so good," Floreal said. "It sort of exposes you to the fans that, 'Oh, we're not very good.' But the fact that we're pretty good and we're a contender and having it home, it makes it even more special. That's really what I'm excited about, that the fans are going to get a chance to see some quality kids compete against the toughest conference in the country."
There's no disputing the strength of the SEC.
On both the men's and women's side, eight of the teams ranked in the nation's top 20 will compete this weekend. Three 2012 Olympians will be in action with many more sure to join them in 2016.
"It's a tough conference to be good but that's sort of the signature: If you can be good here, you're truly good," Floreal said. "You can go in another conference and be a winner and that won't be good enough to be top eight here at the SEC, and that's what I wanted. I want to challenge myself and know that I'm good enough to compete at this level."
Not even two full years in, Floreal and the Cats are proving just that.
UK's men and women each finished in the top five at SEC Indoors a little more than two months ago, a first for the program since 1988. Since then, numerous individuals have established themselves among the nation's elite.
"I think we're moving in the right direction with the bodies we have and the way our kids are performing, having the fastest woman in the world on the team is not a bad deal at all and having kids lead the nation in multiple events," Floreal said. "I guess for me the cool thing is that we're good a little bit all over."
Not only has Dezerea Bryant posted the best all-conditions 100m time in the world this season, but Andrew Evans has the top discus throw in the United States in 2014, Kendra Harrison the top 100m hurdles time and Raymond Dykstra the second-best javelin throw. Hurdlers Kayla Parker and Leah Nugent, distance runners Matt Hillenbrand and Allison Peare are expected to contend for medals as well, but UK is even deeper than that.
"There's a bunch of kids of the team that you've probably never heard about that you're going to see this weekend that are going to shock the crap out of you," Floreal said.
Floreal says home-field advantage will help on that front. With a sense of comfort and family and friends in the stands, he expects many of athletes to reach another level.
"You know the track like the back of your hand, and that's good," Floreal said. "You go to somebody else's facility and the turns might be a little tight or the sand might be a different texture. But when you line up here, every day you train here so the nervousness kind of goes out of the way."
Some nervousness has been reintroduced by the cooler, rainy forecast for this weekend. At practice on Tuesday, Floreal overheard some such talk. He quickly put an end to it.
"I told the kids yesterday, they were kind of hoping that it doesn't rain, and I said, 'Stop,' " Floreal said. "We're not going to hope nothing. We're not going to hope that it doesn't rain or that it's sunny. We're going to hope that the race goes off on time and when it does go we're going to perform and compete.
"The No. 1 thing you have to do is represent your university and your teammates, whatever the weather is."
Floreal will accept no excuses. In fact, he wants the Cats to use the weather as another advantage.
"For me, I hope it rains cats and dogs. I hope everybody in the conference gets so tickled, so nervous because it's not perfect weather that our kids go out there and shine."
When we launched BBN First, we knew your feedback was going to play an important role as we committed to putting you, the fans, first in all we do. I don't think we knew exactly how important it would be until your suggestions started rolling in.
Three weeks after I introduced BBN First and asked for your help, you have responded in a way only Kentucky fans could. We have received hundreds of emails and comments on our new website and they keep coming.
The volume of feedback is one thing, but the quality has been another entirely. Almost without exception, your suggestions have been constructive. You have told us some things that are hard to hear, but you want to help us get better. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback immensely.
To fill you in on how we are handling your feedback, members of my staff are reading and responding to everything and keeping me updated along the way. If you have sent in a suggestion and haven't heard back yet, you will. Once we read an email, we categorize and sort it for discussion in our Fan Experience Committee meetings. Already, you have helped us identify important trends.
A few things stick out to me about what we've heard so far.
First of all, your pride in this university is incredible. The sense of ownership you take in all of our programs is one of the most special things I've witnessed in my three decades working in college athletics.
But even more importantly to BBN First, your feedback has given us insight into what matters to you and what we can do better. Some of the topics we are hearing most about are music selections; parking, traffic and tailgating; and concessions. We expected that, but some of the specific feedback we have gotten has changed our perspective.
To give you just one of many examples, we already knew fans want better food with more variety at our venues. What we didn't realize until we began this process was how many of you want more local Kentucky flavor at our concessions stands.
You are giving us so much valuable information, but it's on us to turn that into action. We are hard at work reviewing your feedback, prioritizing and planning our next steps. In the coming weeks and months, we will communicate details to you. We have some cool stuff in the works.
Programming for the SEC Network continues to take shape.
Exactly three months before the new network launches on Aug. 14, the league announced television schedules for SEC volleyball and women's soccer. In the SEC Network's first season, the SEC - and by extension, UK - will enjoy unmatched national exposure.
In total 80 games - 50 volleyball, 30 women's soccer - will air on either the SEC Network or ESPNU.
"These schedules reflect the breadth of exposure that our student-athletes will receive in the SEC's Olympic sports on the SEC Network," said Commissioner Mike Slive. "It's indicative of the full array of sports and unprecedented number of televised events SEC fans will enjoy throughout the athletic year."
UK's volleyball and women's soccer teams will be featured prominently. Craig Skinner's Wildcats will make at least eight national television appearances. Here's their complete SEC Network/ESPNU schedule.
Wed, Sept. 24 9 p.m. KENTUCKY at LSU (ESPNU) Sun, Oct. 5 6 p.m. TEXAS A&M at KENTUCKY Sun, Oct. 12 Noon AUBURN at KENTUCKY Sun, Oct. 26 Noon KENTUCKY at TEXAS A&M Wed, Oct. 29 8 p.m. TENNESSEE at KENTUCKY (ESPNU) Sun, Nov. 9 Noon MISSOURI at KENTUCKY Sun, Nov. 16 Noon FLORIDA at KENTUCKY Sun, Nov. 23 2 p.m. KENTUCKY at MISSISSIPPI STATE
Jon Lipsitz's Cats, meanwhile, will appear three times on the SEC Network or ESPNU.
Thu, Oct. 2 7 p.m. KENTUCKY at MISSOURI Sun, Oct. 5 Noon KENTUCKY at TEXAS A&M (ESPNU) Sun, Oct. 19 4 p.m. FLORIDA at KENTUCKY
In addition, the first round, quarterfinals and semifinals of the SEC Soccer Tournament will air on the SEC Network.
All this is yet another reason to visit GetSECNetwork.com and demand the SEC Network if your cable/satellite provider has not yet signed on to carry it. So far, only AT&T U-Verse, DISH, Google Fiber and National Rural Telecommunications cooperative (NRTC) have agreed to carry the SEC Network.
Ka'ai Tom's walk-off single in the 10th inning gave UK a 6-5 victory over Auburn on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Ka'ai Tom wasn't even up to bat yet, but he knew the outcome of Sunday's rubber match would come down to him.
After Max Kuhn's fly ball moved JaVon Shelby to third with two outs, Tom stepped into the on-deck circle and started getting ready.
There was no way Auburn would pitch to A.J. Reed, the NCAA's home run leader.
"Everyone in the stadium knew that A.J. was going to get walked," Tom said. "So I just kept taking deep breaths and stuck to what I do."
Locked in a 5-5 game, a base hit by Tom would send UK to a win in its home finale. Even though the Wildcats hadn't won in walk-off fashion all season, they were confident the first such win was on the way as Tom stepped in following an intentional walk to Reed.
"I think everyone knew that he was going to walk us off there," Austin Cousino said. "It took - I don't know how many home games we had - until a walk-off. ... Kai's been hitting the ball well and you just kind of knew. I think everyone in the park knew it was over once they walked A.J."
Tom proved his teammate right, smacking Ryan Tella's first pitch through the hole between first and second. When Shelby stepped on home plate, UK (30-20, 12-15 Southeastern Conference) claimed the series against the Tigers (27-25, 10-17 SEC) with a 6-5 win.
"You just gotta not let the situation dictate and make you do more than what you want to do," Tom said. "Take deep breaths, just stick to what you do, stick to our approach of what we've been doing all year and don't try to do too much."
It's that approach that allowed the Cats to rally from a 5-0 deficit. After being shutout through five innings by Auburn ace Keegan Thompson, UK plated four runs in the sixth to make it a game again. An inning later the Cats failed to score after loading the bases with no outs, but they hung in.
"To be able to be down five going into the bottom of the sixth, we come back and chip away and then leave some base runners on there in the seventh, I believe it was," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "That showed some real resilience from our kids. Really proud of them."
Henderson had particular reason to be proud of his bullpen. After Dylan Dwyer allowed four runs in two innings of his start, Kyle Cody, Sam Mahar, Andrew Nelson, Logan Salow and Spencer Jack combined to give up just one run over eight innings of work.
"I think just getting ahead of batters, just forcing them to put it in play because we got a good defense behind us," said Jack, who earned the win on the mound. "If we can just pound the strike zone, we're pretty confident that we're going to come out with the W."
In spite of that confidence and the effort of the relievers, UK still trailed when Cousino stepped in with one out in the eighth. In perhaps the lone instance of the Cats abandoning their simple approach, the junior hooked a home run that just stayed fair down the right-field line.
"(Brad) Bohannon actually talked to me right before that and said, 'Why don't you get back to slapping some stuff up the middle?' " Cousino said. "I was like, 'Nah, we're going to get one out here. I haven't hit one in a while.' I told A.J. I was going to get one today."
Cousino was one of the first to hit a ball hard off Auburn's Tella, who pitched for just the second time in his college career on Sunday. Normally the Tigers' center fielder, Tella kept the Cats off balance with a fastball and a slow curveball and allowed just two runs over 3.2 innings.
"When your only scouting report is the eight warm-up pitches that the guy takes, that's a little bit different than what we're usually working with," Henderson said.
Eventually, UK was able to adjust. It happened just in time too, because the Cats were in desperate need of a victory.
"Huge," Jack said. "And the way we won it was huge because we definitely needed a boost of morale and we needed that. For us to put up a ton of zeroes and answer back at the same time, it's exactly what we needed."
But with the final week of the regular season upcoming, it's on to the next one for the Cats.
"Well, it was a big win, that's for sure," Cousino said. "I think everybody knew coming in that we needed to win this one. Now that's it's over, we're looking forward. Obviously a huge series win, but now we gotta go down to Paducah and beat Murray and finish this thing up."
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It wasn't the ending the Kentucky softball team was looking for, but its 2014 SEC Tournament run -- the longest in program history by two games -- had plenty of positives and was the perfect tuneup for the NCAA Tournament.
The seventh-seeded Wildcats won three games at the 2014 Tournament and made it to the championship game for the first time in program history. UK took downed No. 10 Mississippi State Wednesday and followed with upset wins over second-seeded Tennessee and sixth-seeded LSU Thursday and Friday before a 5-2 loss to No. 5 Georgia in Saturday's title game.
In the four days in Columbia, S.C., head coach Rachel Lawson saw her team change completely.
"I felt like my team grew up overnight," Lawson said. "I felt like we were a lot tougher. When we stepped on the field on Wednesday, it felt like a different team. There was a grit and a confidence about us, and I knew they knew they belonged here, and that's not really happened in the past.
"Before, we were happy to be in the tournament, grateful that we were able to survive the SEC conference. Now, we're in the next step in our program, where we believe we belong at least in the discussion of the elite."
The Wildcats found a sense of fearlessness, grit and determination in four games at Carolina Softball Stadium. They never trailed in their first three contests and continued to battle back, even when Mississippi State and LSU tied the game in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, to send it into extra innings.
Coming into the tournament, Kentucky had won one game in the event's history. In 2014, the Cats won three.
The Wildcats made it to the semifinals once, in 2009, when they won one game in an eight-team field. This year, it was all the way to the championship game.
"I think this was a great showing for Kentucky," Lawson said. "Playing the extra game put us in a little bit of a deficit to the teams that didn't, but the fact that we were able to grind through the tournament shows how tough our team is. Especially in a lot of spots we had a lot of really young athletes at some key positions, I felt like they did a nice job."
Kentucky's SEC Tournament makes the Cats that much more prepared for next weekend's NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats have made the NCAA Super Regional in two of the past three seasons, and as they hope for a second consecutive bid to host the NCAA Regional, they can have a positive SEC Tournament run to build off of for the first time.
Saturday in front of a sold-out, record crowd of 1,480, sophomores Kelsey Nunley, Nikki Sagermann and Christian Stokes all were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Nunley pitched 25 innings in three games and earned wins in every contest. She had a 1.63 ERA, struck out 17 and walked just five. The winningest pitcher in program history in the postseason with six career victories, she led the charge each day with her ability to shake off adversity.
Stokes, a South Carolina native, went 6-for-8 in the first two games of the tournament with two home runs. In four games, she led UK with a .429 batting average, six hits and a .529 on base percentage. The shortstop added a number of spectacular plays in the infield to extinguish opponents' scoring chances.
Sagermann drove in the winning run in Wednesday's nine-inning affair before a solo home run gave UK its first run in Saturday's title game. The third baseman was second on the team with a .333 batting average, five hits and a .533 slugging percentage in addition to tying Stokes with a team-best three RBI.
Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET, the 64-team NCAA Tournament field will be announced. The Wildcats are hoping to be a top-16 seed and Regional host for the second consecutive season. This season though, Kentucky will enter the tournament after a program-record SEC Championship run.
UK rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Clemson to clinch a sixth straight Sweet 16 trip. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's streak of five consecutive Sweet 16 trips was very much in jeopardy.
After the Wildcats dropped a hotly contested doubles point, action was underway in singles when Tom Jomby came up lame. Favoring his left foot, UK's star senior tried to play on.
It only took him a few points to realize he simply could not.
"Just the way it happened, I think we lost some air," UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann said. "We saw Tom kind of get hurt a little bit, go back in the curtain, came back to the chair and he said, 'Listen, I felt something snap.' "
Jomby made the only decision he could, retiring from match against Clemson's Hunter Harrington that was tied two games apiece in the second set. Just like that, UK was down 2-0.
Beck Pennington would get UK on the board soon after on court three, but No. 2 singles player Alejandro Gomez then quickly lost to put the Cats in a 3-1 hole. Jerry Lopez was cruising to a straight-set victory on court four, but UK still appeared in trouble with Kevin Lai down a set at No. 5.
Lai sensed it.
"I was really nervous," Lai said. "After he took the first set and I saw Gomez, our second singles, lost, I was just thinking--I know our number six is going to play faster than me so I know I have no choice. I have to win. That's what I was thinking because if I lose that means the whole team loses. I tried to step up for the team."
Knowing the burden was on his shoulders, Lai could have folded. The sophomore could have let the responsibility become too much for him.
But steadied by Kauffmann -- who spent most of the latter half of Saturday's match coaching Lai -- the Taiwan native stepped up just as he tried to do.
"I think he was down on himself a little bit after the first set and he doesn't want to let his whole team down and we're a family," Kauffmann said. "So I think he takes it maybe a little harder than if it's just him. But we told him, 'Settle down. Let's have this game plan. Let's keep it going. No matter what the score is, you're going to do this, do that.'
"I thought he did a good job. At times he gave us some heart attacks because he didn't listen, but overall I think he did a great job."
Lai was a different player in the final two sets, wearing down Clemson's Luke Johnson with an array of shot-making that made him look much bigger than his 5-foot-9 frame. He rallied to win his match 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, but technique wasn't the reason why.
"It's not really about tennis today for me," Lai said. "It's about mental toughness. If I want to stay and play or if I want to let it go."
It was that attitude that defined the Cats in their remarkable 4-3 comeback victory. Even though the doubles point didn't go their way and senior stalwarts Jomby and Gomez lost on courts one and two, precocious sophomores Lai and Pennington and freshman Jerry Lopez would not go away.
"Those seniors take a lot of responsibility to carry the youngsters," Lai said. "But when the seniors have a rough day like this then the youngters gotta help them too."
Then senior Grant Roberts finished it off on court six as he has so many times throughout his career.
"We trust Grant with our lives at six," Kauffmann said.
When Roberts finished off his 6-2, 6-1 win, it touched off a celebration befitting a Sweet 16 berth, though Jomby's injury dampened the enthusiasm just a bit.
"We were very happy in the locker room," Kauffmann said. "We told them how proud we were, but we were very sad for him."
In the coming days, Jomby's injury will be evaluated. It's too soon to tell whether he will be available when UK faces either No. 2 Oklahoma or Harvard on May 16 in Athens, Ga.
Should the Cats be without their top player, they know what they have to do.
"If we lose Tom, which I hope we don't, then somebody's going to have to step up," Kauffmann said. "That's just the way it is."
A.J. Reed hit his nation-leading 21st home run on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed leads the nation and home runs and the Southeastern Conference in wins.
Like he had done eight times previously this season, he contributed in a big way to UK's 6-3 win over Auburn on Friday night.
Reed hit a home run and earned the win on the mound for the fourth time this year, but his two-way contributions this have extended far beyond just the stat sheet.
In fact for as well as Reed has pitched in his SEC-leading nine wins, he's had to work at maintaining his poise through the first few signs of adversity. How far he's come in that endeavor was on full display on Friday.
After UK drew first blood with a run in the second inning, Reed conceded one in the fourth and two more in the sixth.
When he stepped to the plate with a runner on base in the bottom of the sixth he was feeling frustrated that having been staked to a lead -- slim as it may have been -- his team was now trailing 3-1. The negative feelings didn't last long as he slugged his nation-leading 21st home run of the year, which he destroyed to right field.
"Honestly I was surprised he threw a fastball," Reed said of his sixth-inning bomb. "I was a little frustrated because I had just given up some runs that inning. I just swung as hard as I could on one and I connected. Luckily for us it was a home run. It's just fun when you go out there and hit the ball hard."
Reed's simple approach was the perfect response to his minor struggles on the mound in the middle of the game. And taking out his frustration in the form of a home run seemed to settle him for the remainder of his eight-inning, 119-pitch outing.
His ability to settle down through rough stretches is exactly what his coach feels has helped the junior emerge as one of the nation's best players, as both an everyday player and a pitcher.
"He's learned how to pitch at a much higher level," Gary Henderson. "He lets go of the frustration much quicker than he used to. Kind of the basic maturation of all really top-level kids is they figure out what it takes to be successful and then they hunt it down and they go get it. That's what he's done. I'm really proud of A.J. and the improvements that he's made."
Reed's resilience was just what the doctor ordered for a UK team that was coming off two straight series losses in SEC competition.
As the team's ace, Friday-night performances like the one displayed vs. Auburn will be vital to set UK on the right track, and more importantly boost its confidence through the final two weeks of the regular season and beyond.
"It's a big win," Reed said. "Any time you can win on Friday night it's huge. It gives you two chances to win the series. We just have to come out tomorrow and win the series then. Not leave it until Sunday, not worry about the sweep or anything. Just come out here and win the series. Keep swinging the bat well, throw strikes and not give them extra outs and things will go our way."
With the win on the mound out of the way and his 21st home run of the season, Reed can focus on his duties as an everyday player with emphasis on production at the plate.
He moved into third place alone in terms of single-season home runs by a Wildcat (two from tying the record) with his no-doubter on Friday.
While he's taking a modest approach in not worrying about the school home run record -- or that he's now four wins from the single season wins mark at 13 -- producing at a level that would attain the records could go a long way toward securing a NCAA Tournament berth.
"If I hit that many then that's cool, but I'm just trying to come out here and give us a chance to win," Reed said. "Putting runs up on the board is what's were going to try to do. We're going to try to keep winning to make a good strong push toward postseason."
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the first time in program history, the Kentucky softball team is headed for the SEC Tournament championship game. And for the third consecutive game, it was clutch hitting at the most opportune time and the arm of Kelsey Nunley that got them there.
It took nine innings for the second time in three days, but seventh-seeded UK continued its record run with a 4-3 win over sixth-seeded LSU on Friday.
The win was Kentucky's 44th of the season -- adding to a school-record total -- and gave the Cats three wins in the 2014 tournament after the Wildcats entered the 10-team event with one win in the championship in program history.
"I thought today was a great game," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I thought both pitchers threw great games. To be able to hold LSU's offense down for nine innings is a really big deal, they're a great offensive team and really playing well right now. Offensively we did a good job of putting people on base. I'd like to see us score a few more but overall I really like the fight in our team and how persistent we were, and then we ended up with the win in the end."
Kentucky mustered just two hits Friday, but they came at the perfect times.
It was a double through the gap in left field from sophomore Sylver Samuel that was the game's biggest hit.
LSU pitcher Baylee Corbello had retired 16 straight UK batters before she issued a two-out walk to senior Ginny Carroll. Sophomore Christian Stokes was then hit by a pitch to put two runners on with two outs for Samuel.
Samuel found a pitch she liked and sent it rolling to the left-field fence to score Darington Richardson, who was running for Carroll, and Stokes, the eventual winning run.
"I was trying to let go of a lot of things and not think too much while I was in there," Samuel said. "Just clear my mind and make sure my timing was on, because that was the main thing that's been getting me lately. I was trying to be slow through the box and not think as much. I think it worked out for me."
For Lawson, it was Carroll's two-out walk that was the turning point that sparked the two-run rally for the Wildcats.
"I always tell the team that you never know when the game-winning play is going to happen, and today we had several," Lawson said. "Offensively, Ginny Carroll walking was the game-winning play for us because the floodgates opened up when she did that."
In the third inning, UK's two runs came via an error, a hit batsman, two walks and a single. The second walk, to junior Griffin Joiner with the bases loaded, brought in the game's first run. Senior Krystal Smith then sent a single to center to plate the Wildcats' second run.
Four runs is all the offense that Nunley needed to get her school-record sixth career postseason win.
Just like Wednesday in the first round and Thursday in the quarterfinals, Nunley was dominant with the bases empty and equally effective with runners on base.
"I just try and forget about runners," Nunley said. "The SEC teams are good and they're going to get on base. You just have to focus and worry about what's in front of you. You can't worry about what you've done in the past, you have to worry about the batter that's at the plate at the time."
In Friday's semifinal, she gave up just three runs on six hits. The Tigers stranded seven base runners, including three in the fourth when they scored one run and two in the sixth.
Three games, 25 innings and 404 total pitches. That's what got the Wildcats to their first-ever championship game.
In Saturday's final against fifth-seeded Georgia, it will take more clutch hits and another strong pitching performance to bring home the program's first SEC Tournament trophy.
There's no reason to think it can't happen again on Saturday night.
With no matches to play, the Kentucky men's tennis team went to work.
Since they were ousted in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on April 19, the Wildcats have bounced between on-court training, intense conditioning and schoolwork.
"It was kind of weird," Tom Jomby said. "We haven't been playing for a while. So the past three weeks we've been grinding a lot, working on some doubles stuff with the coaches and we have five seniors so we all have to focus on school."
With the end of the semester coinciding with his team's week of preparation leading up the NCAA Tournament, Cedric Kauffmann admits he was concerned entering his team's first-round matchup with Denver on Friday.
"You're a little bit nervous after two-and-a-half weeks of not playing and exams through this week fell a little in a bad spot," Kauffmann said.
As play began against a Pioneer team that had only lost the doubles point three times all season, the anxiety intensified. UK and Denver battled through tight matches on all three courts, with the Cats winning on No. 1 and falling on No. 2. Attention then shifted to court three, where Ryuji Hirooka and Nils Ellefsen eked out an 8-6 win.
Close as the doubles point was, it proved to be just an opportunity for UK to shake off some rust.
"I don't think we played great in the doubles, but I think we--it was an hour of tennis for us to get back with the nerves," Kauffmann said. "I think it just carried through the singles. I think our singles was good."
That might be an understatement.
The Cats (22-9) won the opening set on all six courts, with Alejandro Gomez, Jomby and Beck Pennington winning in straight sets to clinch a 4-0 sweep of Denver (12-11) and a spot in the round of 32. Gomez and Jomby -- UK's top two singles players -- were dominant. Both won 6-1, 6-2.
Jomby particularly enjoyed his performance, as his parents made the trip from his native France to Lexington to watch him play for just the second time. The first time was two years ago, and Jomby lost both his singles and doubles matches against Baylor that day.
"When I could see my dad next to the court, it was really fun," Jomby said. "He was taking pictures of me and it's really nice having them here. It gives you extra motivation and it's so special to be able to play here in front of my parents and all of my friends in America when I'm from France."
Jomby made his singles win look easier than it was.
"Even if the singles didn't seem really tough for us, it was a tough match," Jomby said. "We had to keep our focus, we had to keep the momentum and it's not really easy when you win 6-1 to stay focused in the second set."
The Cats will now look to duplicate that focus at 3 p.m. on Saturday, when they host Clemson (21-8). The Tigers handled Purdue earlier on Friday, 4-1, and were in contention to host an NCAA regional until the season's last match.
"Can they beat us?" Kauffmann said. "Yeah, if we don't come to play. If one or two of our players doesn't show up, it's going to be tough. But I think we'll show up tomorrow."
Kauffmann means that figuratively, but he'll also spend some time watching the door before the match to make sure Jomby shows up literally.
Jomby -- one singles victory shy of joining the prestigious 100-win club -- will walk across the stage and receive his degree at commencement at 1 p.m. on Saturday. He expects to finish by 1:30, race to the Boone Tennis Center and arrive by 1:45 on a day he's not likely to soon forget.
"I'll be wearing my cap and gown probably when I get here, but I'll go straight to the locker room," Jomby said. "It'll be funny."
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the first time in program history, the Kentucky softball team is headed to the SEC Tournament Semifinals, and for a second consecutive game, it was sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley leading the charge.
A day after a nine-inning, walk-off win over Mississippi State, the seventh-seeded Wildcats faced No. 2 seed Tennessee. UK squeaked out a 2-0 win over the Lady Vols in a pitcher's duel in the semifinal contest.
"I thought today was a good day for us," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "It was a great day on the mound for both pitchers. It was a real pitcher's duel and I felt pretty lucky to be on the winning end of it."
Nunley was once again a force in the circle for the Wildcats. She pitched a complete-game shutout to earn the win after throwing 142 pitches in Wednesday's victory. The shutout was Nunley's career-best sixth of the year, tied for the third most in a season in program history.
The Lady Vols were held scoreless for just the second time this season. Only 13 times have they been limited to five hits or fewer.
"I think Coach Lawson really did a good job at calling pitches and keeping Tennessee off balance," Nunley said. "Making them guess at what I was throwing and I think it really worked."
The sophomore showed no signs of wearing down in a second consecutive game with temperatures near 100 degrees. Nunley allowed just five hits and worked quickly. She gave up one extra-base hit -- a leadoff double in the fourth -- but proceeded to strike out the next three UT batters.
Nunley was making quick work of UT until the seventh inning. With two outs and the bases empty, Tennessee tallied back-to-back hits followed by a UK fielding error to load the bases. That's when leadoff hitter Haley Tobler came to the plate.
Tobler worked the count full, and on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Nunley threw a changeup. Tobler's bat never left her shoulder, and with that, the final three of UT's seven base runners were stranded, the winning run on first base.
"When you look at it, [Madison] Shipman was on deck so it was going to be the end of the game either way," Lawson said of the pitch selection to Tobler. "Either Kelsey was going to look really good throwing a strikeout or Shipman was going to look really good hitting a grand slam. Whichever way you look at it, I felt like it was a win-win situation for us. It may have seemed pretty gutsy to everyone else but it felt like a no-brainer to me so either way it was made for TV."
Nunley's changeup was working all game long and helped her to seven strikeouts. Tennessee, one of the conference's best hitting teams, was never able to adjust.
The second win of the tournament for Nunley now gives her five postseason wins in less than two seasons, tied for the most in school history.
"She's awesome, she works so hard and she did great today," senior Emily Gaines said. "I'm so proud of her. It was really hot out and she was just mowing them down. She was awesome."
On the other side, Tennessee pitcher Ellen Renfroe was nearly as effective, but not quite enough. She limited the Wildcats to seven hits and left eight UK runners on base.
It was single runs in the fourth and fifth inning though that gave Nunley all the cushion she needed to send Kentucky to the semifinals.
Gaines got the offense going in the fourth with a single, the only hit of the inning. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner, advanced to second on a passed ball and was bunted to third. An Emily Jolly groundout scored the speedy sophomore to give the Wildcats a 1-0 advantage.
An inning later, it was South Carolina native Christian Stokes who sent a smash over the left field fence for a valuable insurance run. Stokes, who is 6-for-8 in the tournament, also had a homer to lead off Wednesday's game.
With two tournament wins and a semifinal berth secured, the history has been made for Kentucky. But with this team, they have no reason to stop now. They'll have another chance to make more history against sixth-seeded LSU on Friday. First pitch between the Wildcats and Tigers is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
Jodie Meeks will participate in UK's commencement ceremonies on Saturday. (UK Athletics)
Five years ago now, Jodie Meeks decided to forgo his final season of collegiate eligibility and enter the NBA Draft.
Kentucky fans, of course, would always have a special affinity for the sweet-shooting All-American guard, but they likely figured his days in Lexington -- save for an occasional visit -- were done.
Instead, Meeks has returned to campus every summer to attend classes. In that time, he's had more than his share of interactions with students surprised to the NBA millionaire lugging around a backpack.
"They usually recognize me right off the bat," Meeks said. "They look at me like what am I doing here. So I just look at them the same way. It's always fun. It's always fun seeing people's reactions. I'm a regular person just like them so when I'm trying to get my degree I just ask them, 'What are you doing here? I'm doing the same thing.' "
On Saturday, he'll don a cap and gown and realize that goal.
Meeks will be among 60 current and former UK student-athletes who will participate in commencement ceremonies, following the 30 who did the same in December. He still has a class to finish up this summer, but he will take a walk on Saturday that's been eight years in the making with his family in attendance.
As soon as he decided to declare for the draft, Meeks committed to complete his coursework and graduate. Even as his NBA career has blossomed and taken him from Milwaukee to Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Meeks has remained true to that commitment and will finally earn that degree in business marketing.
"Once I get my mind set on something, I usually do it 99 percent of the time," said Meeks, who memorably set UK's single-game scoring record with 54 points against Tennessee. "When I left school early -- I wasn't sure that I would leave early - but when I did, I made a commitment to myself and my family that I would do it. It just feels good to have it done now and just finally be done Saturday."
Well established as a professional after a career season with the Lakers, Meeks is likely to sign a lucrative deal this summer. Nonetheless, the degree he is about to receive gives him a sense of security no contract ever could.
"One thing I don't do in basketball but especially in life is take things for granted," Meeks said. "You never know how long your career will last, but once you have a degree, you can have it forever. You can do a lot of stuff with my degree. Once I get out of playing basketball I'll be able to do that."
Before then, Meeks has free agency to think about.
He just finished the final season of a two-year deal with the Lakers, posting career highs in scoring (15.7 points per game), rebounds (2.5), assists (1.8), steals (1.4), field-goal percentage (.463) and 3-point percentage (40.1). Meeks called the season "bittersweet" since the Lakers finished well outside the playoff picture with a record of 27-55, but there's mistaking the fact that his big season has given him options.
He'll start thinking about them later.
"It's still early," Meeks said. "It's only May, so I'm not officially allowed to talk to anyone until July. So right now just focusing on this last class and this degree and I'll think about basketball in July and August, September and things like that. But I should be in a pretty good situation. I had a pretty good year, put myself in a good predicament for next year. So just have to make the best decision for myself."
That's exactly what Meeks did when he declared for the draft in 2009. He never second-guessed his decision -- and why would he considering where he is today? -- but admits the what-if scenarios UK fans so often play out when they think about the 2009-10 season do cross his mind.
That team -- John Calipari's first at Kentucky -- was one of the most talented in recent college basketball memory. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe manned the backcourt, while DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson patrolled the paint. Along with those four established NBA players, the Cats had future draft picks Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller.
Perimeter shooting ultimately felled that group, as the Cats shot just 4 of 32 from 3 in a 73-66 Elite Eight loss. It's difficult to imagine West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone working nearly so well with Jodie Meeks -- who hit 117 3s in a record-setting junior season -- on the floor.
"I think about that too," Meeks said. "I don't think we would have lost a game, in my opinion. It would have been a fun team. Sometimes I think, 'What if I'd have stayed, would my life have been different here?' But I felt like it was the best decision for myself."
Things have worked out OK for Kentucky too.
As Meeks has flourished in the NBA, Calipari has led UK to three Final Four berths in the last four seasons, including a national title in 2012 and another trip to the championship game in April.
Meeks liked the idea of playing for a coach he missed by a season in Lexington, but it's hard for him to understand why Calipari would ever leave.
"I was excited maybe that he could coach me, but if I was him I wouldn't leave here," Meeks said. "You know, it's a great place to coach and play. He has it made here, you know. So that would be up to him, but I wouldn't go anywhere."
Makes sense, especially since Meeks keeps coming back.
Senior Tom Jomby will lead No. 15 overall seed Kentucky into a first-round matchup with Denver on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Ever since the 2013 season ended in the Sweet 16, the Kentucky men's tennis team has worked toward this point.
The Wildcats practiced and played for the right to host the first two rounds NCAA Tournament, ultimately realizing their goal when they were awarded the No. 15 overall seed.
Now set to open their NCAA run, the Cats plan to put the home-court edge they wanted so badly to good use.
"It helps us a lot," said senior Tom Jomby, who will be playing his final collegiate matches at the Boone Tennis Center. "When we have the momentum in here, I feel like we're really tough to beat. It's a big advantage so we're going to use it."
Of course, facing fourth-seeded Denver (12-10) in front of home fans at 3 p.m. ET on Friday will be a boost for UK. That's not the only way playing in Lexington helps.
"It's always better," head coach Cedric Kauffmann said. "Sleeping in your own bed, we know where to eat, we know our routines, we play in front of our fans and I think that helps us. I think this is a team that loves to play in front of people. We like it. We love to play in Lexington. You can see it in our record."
UK is 21-9 overall on the season, boasting a 15-3 record on its home court and 6-6 everywhere else. The Cats have home wins over No. 1 Ohio State, No. 8 Texas A&M, No. 17 Mississippi State and No. 21 Vanderbilt, a clear sign of the team's potential to make a deep tournament run.
The Cats will take the confidence built in those victories into the postseason and balance that with reminders of what can happen when they're not on their game. Barely a month ago, UK lost to an Alabama team that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.
"We said that in the locker room and I also said that we've lost to teams outside the (top) 30," Kauffmann said. "We lost to Alabama on the road. We know what we can do and we also know what we cannot do."
Just as the Cats must guard against another such performance, they must be sure to not rely too heavily on their home court. When doubles play begins on Friday, UK will just be playing tennis.
"We know that doesn't mean much, really," Kauffmann said. "It just makes us play on our home court and three teams are going to try to take us out."
Denver will be the first team to take a shot at UK and Clemson or Purdue will follow, should the Cats advance. The Pioneers will look to duplicate their first-round performance of a year ago when they won their first-ever NCAA Tournament match on the road at No. 15 Florida.
"I know Denver is a really good team," Jomby said. "They beat Florida in the first round last year, so we're extremely into the process to get ready."
The Cats have had to tweak their approach a bit this season, as finals week has coincided with their week to prepare for the tournament. The result has been, in Kauffmann's estimation, a "good, not great" set of practices, though he is unconcerned about his team being ready to play come Friday.
Whether UK will play inside or out is the next question. With rain in the forecast on both Friday and Saturday, there stands a chance that matches could be moved inside.
"I think we are ready for both," Kauffmann said. "I'll tell players, 'Make sure you don't want to play in or out because if that doesn't work out, mentally I think you're not going to be ready.' "
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A trademark of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to bounce back and never give up. That was never more apparent than in its 4-3, nine-inning win over Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday.
The never-say-die attitude has fueled UK to a perfect 7-0 record in extra inning contests, but the most recent win meant just a little bit more than the previous six.
The victory -- the Wildcats' first in the SEC Tournament since 2008 -- gave them a school-record 42 wins on the season.
Wednesday, it was sophomore Nikki Sagermann with a walk-off hit in the ninth inning after Kentucky lost a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning.
"That's one thing about our team, we don't give up," Sagermann said. "We're known for that. If we get behind, we're going to do anything we can to come back and have a good game. I was pretty confident actually. Our top of the lineup was coming through, I was confident we were still going to win, I wasn't worried too much."
UK jumped out to a 3-0 advantage in the first inning and sophomore right-hander Kelsey Nunley was dealing in the circle through the first five frames. Four outs away from a win, the Wildcats gave up three two-out runs in the sixth to let MSU tie the game.
The game was tied, and the UK offense had scored just one run since it chased starter Alison Owen in the first inning, but the confidence never wavered. The philosophy was simply to not give up.
The patience paid off in the ninth when a trio of sophomores, facing Mississippi State relief pitcher Alexis Silkwood for the fourth time, came through. Ansley Smith led off with a walk and sophomore Christian Stokes doubled her to third. After Sylver Samuel fouled out, Nikki Sagermann stepped to the plate in a situation she loves.
"I was pretty excited when I came up," Sagermann said. "I was seeing the ball pretty well. I know I was only 1-for-3 before it, but especially with one out and a runner on third, I knew I had to get it through the infield, a sacrifice fly or a base hit. I love situations like that. I was ready."
Sagermann sent a liner into center to give the Wildcats the win and set up a quarterfinal matchup with rival Tennessee on Thursday.
After the Bulldogs tied the game in the sixth, they had multiple chances to score the go-ahead run in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Seven of MSU's 12 runners left on base came in the final three frames.
Mississippi State had runners on second and third in the seventh, first and second with one out in the eighth and the bases loaded with two down in the ninth. Nunley and the UK defense did not allow a single runner to score.
"Just keep fighting," Nunley said of her mentality in the circle with runners on base. "They're going to get on. They're a good hitting team, they're going to find ways to get on. I had to just keep on battling, keep throwing hard."
Nunley kept battling. Even after she hit six batters in the final three innings, she kept battling and got those clutch outs. The righty threw 142 pitches, and while she might have had her best stuff in the first five innings, her ability to get the clutch out in the late innings was most important.
"My team told me they had my back," Nunley said. "I knew to just go out there and no matter what happened, just give it all I had and my team would be behind me. That's what I did."
Clutch pitching, timely hitting and a never-say-die attitude were the keys Wednesday. Thursday, it will take that and more to top second-seeded Tennessee. The seventh-seeded Wildcats have never advanced to the SEC Tournament's semifinals, but that won't stop this year's team from believing.
In a season of record-breaking wins and firsts, there's no time like the present to add another note to the long list of accomplishments for the 2014 season and the senior class. Especially for a team that will never give up.
The Kentucky softball team faces Mississippi State today at 4 p.m. in the first game of the 2014 SEC Tournament in Columbia, S.C. After this morning's practice session at Beckham Field, head coach Rachel Lawson talked about the tournament and previewed today's matchup with the Bulldogs. Additionally, photos from this morning's practice can be found here.
J.B. Holmes has faced a seemingly never-ending trail of challenges over the past three years.
First he had two brain surgeries in 2011 to relieve pressure caused by a Chiari malformation. Later, he broke his ankle in a roller-blading accident, using the time off to undergo surgery on an elbow injury sustained in a rush to return to the course.
The UK alumnus, however, persevered. On Sunday he was rewarded with his first PGA Tour win since 2008.
Holmes shot a final-round 1-under-par 71 and finished at 14-under, one shot ahead of Jim Furyk to claim the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C.
As you'd expect with a story as remarkable as this one, plenty of people are talking about Holmes. Here are a few of the best stories:
Baseball - The Kentucky baseball team traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to face off with Tennessee over the weekend, posting a 14-run win in the series opener on Thursday night, before suffering an 8-2 loss on Friday and a 5-1 setback in the rubber match on Saturday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. - The Wildcats will break for final exams and return to action on Friday with its final home series of the year, welcoming Auburn to Cliff Hagan Stadium at 6:30 p.m. ET. UK will then host the Tigers on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, with the series concluding on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. - Kentucky (28-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) concluded the week with its RPI at No. 16 and its strength of schedule up to No. 2 in the nation. The Wildcats rank third in the SEC with wins over top-25 teams and is second in the circuit with six top-10 wins. UK has series wins over No. 1 South Carolina, No. 12 Florida and at Texas A&M in 2014, also owning wins over No. 1 Virginia, No. 5 Vanderbilt, Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team suffered its first series sweep of the season over the weekend to highly ranked Georgia before claiming a midweek win at Louisville earlier in the week. The Wildcats earned the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament, clinching its fourth straight winning season in conference play. Kentucky started the week with a win at Louisville, marking its first win at Louisville since 2006 and the first season sweep of the Cardinals since 2003. The win over Louisville tied the school record for wins in a season. - Sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley went 1-1 on the week with a 2.10 ERA, striking out seven in 16.2 innings pitched. - Offensively, senior pitcher/infielder Lauren Cumbess went 4-for-11 at the plate with a double, while sophomore infielder Christian Stokes was 4-for-13 with a double, homer and three RBI. Fellow sophomore Nikki Sagermann had a double, homer and three RBI on the week.
Track and field - Two nation-leading times/marks will help give UK track and field momentum entering the postseason. - Andrew Evans recorded an American, and NCAA-leading, 66.37 meters/217-9, to win at the Tennessee Challenge. The mark leads the NCAA by 1.36m. The throw ranks No. 3 in the world this year. With the mark, he moved to fifth on the all-time collegiate list in the discus. - Dezerea Bryant ran a wind-aided 100m time of 10.96 (+4.0), which is the fastest in the world year. - Bryant also broke 11 seconds for the first time in her career, and the first time in school-history.
Wednesday, May 7 Softball vs. Mississippi State - 4 p.m. (SEC Tournament; Columbia, S.C.)
Thursday, May 8 Track & Field at Virginia Challenge - 2 p.m. (Charlottesville, Va.) Women's Golf at NCAA Regionals - All Day (Tallahassee, Fla.) Softball at SEC Tournament - 1:30 p.m.(Columbia, S.C.)
Friday, May 9 Women's Tennis vs. Columbia - 10 a.m. (NCAA Tournament; Charlottesville, Va.) Track & Field at Virginia Challenge - 1 p.m. (Charlottesville, Va.) Men's Tennis vs. Denver - 3 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Baseball vs. Auburn - 6:30 p.m. Softball at SEC Tournament - 3 p.m. (Columbia, S.C.) Women's Golf at NCAA Regionals - All Day (Tallahassee, Fla.)
Saturday, May, 10 Men's Tennis vs. TBA - 3 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Women's Tennis vs. TBA - 3 p.m. (NCAA Tournament; Charlottesville, Va.) Baseball vs. Auburn - 7 p.m. Women's Golf at NCAA Regionals - All Day (Tallahassee, Fla.) Softball at SEC Tournament - 8 p.m. (Columbia, S.C.)
Dr. James Jagger was named the SEC Team Physician of the Year in December. (UK Athletics)
For the second consecutive year, the University of Kentucky is home to the Southeastern Conference Team Physician of the Year. A year after Dr. Darren Johnson earned the prestigious honor, Dr. James Jagger joins the club.
Dr. Jagger is an assistant professor in the UK Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, while also serving as the UK chief of athletic medicine and head team physician for all UK sports. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Jagger is in his 14th year at Kentucky and has been a vital asset to the UK sports teams.
The Team Physician of the Year award is chosen by the athletic training staffs at SEC member institutions and is given annually to recognize a team physician who has contributed greatly to both his or her school's teams and to the SEC sports community. Jagger received the award this week at the annual SEC Sports Medicine Conference held in Opelika, Ala.
"It means a lot because they're the most important people we have," said Dr. Jagger about the league's athletic trainers. "They bridge the gap between us and the athletes and coaches and we can't do our job without the athletic trainers. To be recognized by the athletic trainers is really an honor."
After the award was created in 2003, Dr. Jagger's award this year makes back-to-back wins for UK physicians, following Dr. Johnson, chair of the UK Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, and head orthopaedic surgeon for UK Athletics.
"To have our physicians win back-to-back awards is extremely representative of the care that's being rendered to our student-athletes in all the sports, as both physicians tend to more sports than the high-profiled sports," said Jim Madaleno, who is the director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer at Kentucky. "Our student-athletes are getting excellent care and this award speaks for that."
Two UK athletes witnessed firsthand how lucky the university is to have Dr. Jagger on board. Caitlyn Ciokajlo, a former UK gymnast, and senior men's basketball guard Jon Hood, have both spent their fair share of time in Dr. Jagger's care.
Hood went through knee and head injuries during his time at UK, while Ciokajlo suffered from a broken neck that sidelined her for a season.
"Dr. Jagger has provided treatment and guidance over my long college career, assisting me in getting back to the playing surface as quickly as possible," Hood said. "He is an outstanding role model, physician and overall human being."
Ciokajlo and Hood had nothing but praise for Dr. Jagger as the two athletes endured setbacks that tested their spirits both physically and mentally.
"I'm grateful to have gotten to work with Dr. Jagger while recovering from my injury," Ciokajlo said. "His care and support were very appreciated during a time when I very much needed it and I'm honored to have gotten to work with such a compassionate doctor."
Madaleno described Dr. Jagger as being an extremely warm and cordial person that exudes an extremely professional atmosphere. He is more than just a doctor to the athletes, as students are encouraged to express any problems they might be having, on and off the court.
"Dr. Jagger presents a real warm atmosphere where he's very approachable should the athlete have any concerns," Madaleno said. "And they know that. He has the calming effect on each of them that everything's going to be OK. Let's work out a plan and figure out what's causing the problem."
Dr. Jagger has provided care and support to many athletes during his tenure and there will most certainly be more.
"This is coming into my 14th year here at Kentucky and I never in my wildest dreams thought I would win it at this point in my career or ever perhaps," Dr. Jagger said. "I've worked with just unbelievably great student-athletes over the last 14 years and they make my job easy too."
You've known about the launch of the new network, which will cover America's best sports conference in unprecedented fashion, for months now, but it became just a little more real on Thursday.
The SEC Network announced its television schedule for the first three weeks of the 2014 football season and Kentucky will be featured twice. The Wildcats will play two of their first three games on the SEC Network, hosting Tennessee-Martin for their season opener on Aug. 30 at noon ET and traveling to face Florida on Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. ET for both teams' SEC opener.
This is significant because the SEC Network will be the only place fans will be able to watch these two games, other than in person. So far, cable and satellite providers AT&T U-Verse, DISH, Google Fiber and National Rural Telecommunications cooperative (NRTC) have agreed to carry the SEC Network. If your provider has not yet signed on, visit GetSECNetwork.com to demand the SEC Network.
UK isn't the only SEC school that will play early-season games on the SEC Network. In fact, the SEC Network will air a home game for each of the league's 14 schools within the first four weeks of the season.
"The fact that the SEC Network will originate a game from every stadium in the conference in the first four weeks of the 2014 season is testament to the depth of coverage fans can expect from the network," said Mike Slive, SEC commissioner. "In just the first month of the season, fans that get the network will enjoy all the passion and pageantry of SEC football from 14 of the greatest venues in the world of sports. This is what the SEC Network is all about."
The SEC Network -- which launches on Aug. 14 -- will carry its first football games on the season's first night, with Texas A&M and South Carolina and Vanderbilt and Temple playing a doubleheader. In total, six games will air on the SEC Network in each of the season's first two weeks and three more in both weeks three and four.
"The network will have a terrific line-up of games over the first four weeks. The schedule includes quality and depth from across the conference," said Justin Connolly, ESPN senior vice president, college networks. "The full breadth of teams and stadiums showcased in the first month alone speaks volumes on the type of programming sports fans should expect on the SEC Network."
The complete SEC Network schedule for the first four weeks of the season can be found below. Kickoff times and television information for the remainder of SEC games will be announced later.
2014 SEC College Football Schedule (subject to