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Set to host SECs, UK track ready for primetime

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Edrick Floreal and the Kentucky track and field program will host the SEC Championships this weekend. (Photo by Nick Agro) 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."

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