Avery Williamson, Jonathan George and Kevin Mitchell are on a weeklong service trip in Ethiopia. (Photo by Jeffrey Burns)
Jonathan George, Kevin Mitchell and Avery Williamson are representing the Kentucky football team on a week-long service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, we will be posting travel logs featuring the thoughts of the student-athletes. Today is George's turn.
This is the third summer in a row that a group of Kentucky football players have traveled to Ethiopia for a service trip. On Saturday, the latest bunch of Wildcats did something that none of their predecessors did, visiting two local prisons.
The day started with a drive of a little more than an hour from their guest house in Addis Ababa to Debre Zeit, a town approximately 30 miles southeast of the Ethiopian capital city. There, Jonathan George, Kevin Mitchell and Avery Williamson met an Indian family and helped prepare a meal. They cooked a goat, made injera - a yeast-risen flatbread - and boiled eggs to bring to the prisoners.
The two facilities they visited were small, housing between 20 and 30 inmates who are awaiting trial. Along with food, they took along soap, toothbrushes and Bibles.
"We really got a chance to interact with them because they let us actually hand the food to the prisoners," George said. "One of the guys even asked me for my phone number."
George said he went into the day more curious about the differences between American and Ethiopian prisons than nervous. After getting a first-person view of what daily life is like for the prisoners, George learned quite a bit.
"It was a great experience," George said. "Of course, their prisons were a lot different than our prisons. I looked at the inside of their cells and they were all laying on the floor."
The three student-athletes found out that inmates are not provided many basic necessities. Instead, they must rely on family members and friends to bring them what they need. Inmates also take care of each other, sharing what they receive from the outside with one another. That's an outgrowth of Ethiopian culture, something George has seen up close the last three days.
"They're really accepting of us," George said. "We interact with people everywhere we go. It's been a great experience with the people. They're really nice, generous people."
George has noticed that even extends to the roadways.
"There are no stoplights, no stop signs, none of that, so it's just like everybody's kind of driving over each other," George said. "You'd think there would be a lot of road rage and stuff, but everybody kindly lets other people pass."
The UK travel party has relied on Agenou to provide them safe passage on those roads. Since the Cats arrived on Thursday, Agenou has driven them anywhere they needed to go and played familiar music all along.
"We ride in the van and he's playing all the American music: Rihanna, Michael Jackson and all that," George said. "On the way back (from the prison), he was listening to Eminem and Snoop Dogg."
Agenou has driven Wildcat football players each of the three years they have made the trip and has a wardrobe full of UK gear given to him by Danny Trevathan and others.
"Every day he has different Kentucky apparel. Every day we've been here he's had on a different Kentucky football shirt," George said. "He's a big fan now and he's somebody you can really appreciate because, even though this is his job, as soon as you call he's on his way."
George is in Ethiopia to serve, but that doesn't mean he hasn't had any fun along the way. He's had some good laughs with Agenou as well as Mitchell and Williamson, getting to know two of his teammates and fellow rising seniors in a way he never has before.
"Of course I'm cool with Avery and Kevin, but I haven't talked to those guys as much in Lexington as I have here," George said. "It's been great spending time with those guys. I feel like we have built stronger relationships with this trip."
Jonathan George, Avery Williamson and Kevin Mitchell are participating in a service trip in Ethiopia this week. (Photo via Jeffrey Burns)
Jonathan George, Kevin Mitchell and Avery Williamson are representing the Kentucky football team on a week-long service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, we will be posting travel logs featuring the thoughts of the student-athletes on the experience. First up is Mitchell, UK's senior offensive lineman who spoke via FaceTime interview.
Kevin Mitchell had as much information as possible about the service trip he would be taking to Ethiopia without actually going on the trip.
He had two different sets of teammates who went on the trip the last two summers, so he had gotten plenty of advice on how to approach it. He even lived with former offensive line teammate Stuart Hines when Hines went to Ethiopia in the summer of 2011.
No matter who he talked to, there was one common message.
"All the guys I've talked to just said, 'Embrace it,' " Mitchell said.
Two days into his time in the Eastern African nation, that's what Mitchell is doing.
The voyage for Mitchell and his two teammates began with a quick stop in Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, Mitchell, Jonathan George and Avery Williamson toured their nation's capital, ate dinner and tried to get some rest before a long day of travel on Wednesday. They then boarded a plane bound for Ethiopia for a 13-hour flight.
"I've never even ridden in a car that long before," Mitchell said.
Due to the seven-hour time difference, the travel party arrived at 7:30 a.m. East Africa Time and wasted no time getting the life-changing experience started in Bole Bulbula, Ethiopia. There, the three UK football players distributed filters to residents without clean water and helped line the inside of homes with plastic for rain protection.
After eating dinner and getting settled into the place he would be staying for the night, Mitchell had no trouble getting to sleep.
"We were really tired because we got off the plane and had a full day," Mitchell said.
Following a night of rest, the three arose early the next morning to head to Korah. The community - located in Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa - is one of the poorest areas in the world. Mitchell and his teammates provided food and charcoal to approximately 25 families, touring homes along the way to get a feel for life in Korah.
Considering Mitchell stands at 6-foot-6 and the smallest of the three is George at 5-10, 221 pounds, it should come as no surprise that they attracted attention. But in spite of the language barrier and a little initial awkwardness, Mitchell could not have felt more welcome.
"The people here are super-friendly," Mitchell said. "At first I didn't really know because they kind of look at you weird, but they're super-friendly, very accepting people. Everywhere we've been, they've taken us in and accepted everything we've been able to provide them. They're real grateful."
After another packed day on Friday, the group returned to its hotel for dinner at 6:30 p.m. and to rest up for Saturday and reflect on their first two days. As much as Mitchell may have heard about what he was in for before he came to Ethiopia, he knows now there is no way anyone could know what to expect.
"I kind of knew what I was getting into, but it's a different world when you actually get here," Mitchell said. "Nobody can really describe how it really is. Once you see it with your own eyes, it's really unbelievable."
Saw today how people can be so happy but have nothing.
Freshman Sylver Samuel was 5-for-9 (.556) while patrolling centerfield for the Wildcats in the Lexington Regional. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Kentucky softball team got its first look at Arizona State three months ago.
The Wildcats traveled to Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 9, falling 8-1 in just their fourth game of the season. Sun Devil ace Dallas Escobedo was dominant and Arizona State pounded out 11 hits against a UK team heavily reliant on freshmen.
The second time around, Arizona State will see a very different Kentucky team, particularly the five first-year players who will start.
"Arizona State was one of the first teams that we played, so they didn't really understand the speed of the game when they first played it against Arizona State, who plays it very fast," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Their expectation level now is completely different and how fast we play is completely different. I think we won't be as star-struck as we were in the beginning of February."
However, the stakes this time are much higher.
The 12th-seeded Wildcats (41-19) will face off against the No. 5 seed Sun Devils (48-10) in a best-of-three series at the Tempe Super Regional, beginning with the first game on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET. But after playing 26 teams who are currently ranked or receiving votes in the top 25, not to mention they compete in the country's toughest league, Lawson doesn't expect the stage to be too much.
With such a young team, UK is gaining more and more confidence with every win. The Wildcats were bounced in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at John Cropp Stadium, which left a sour taste in their mouths heading into regionals. Kentucky got a chance for redemption in front of its home fans as they were selected to host their first regional in school history last weekend. This time, the Cats took care of business and advanced to their second super regional in the last three seasons.
After an unsatisfactory showing at the conference tournament, the regional victory gave UK a little bit of their swagger back going into this weekend.
"I still think we were a little bit tight in regionals and I think every step that we're taking is really helping," Lawson said. "The experience that we're gaining is really helping them understand what they need to do to go to the World Series."
En route to the regional title, Kentucky outlasted a pesky fourth-seeded Marshall squad, 2-1 in eight innings in the opening round. The Wildcats then prevailed over Virginia Tech to advance to Sunday's final. The Hokies would get their rematch with UK and won game one before the Cats ended their season with a 1-0 triumph in the nightcap.
Yes, UK accomplished a huge feat by taking care of business and winning the regional over some quality opponents, but Arizona State is a different animal. Lawson is well aware.
"I think they're going to be dramatically better (than the teams UK faced in the regional)," Lawson said. "I think that they do everything so well. I think Dallas Escobedo's one of the best pitchers in the country. Offensively, they hit a ton of home runs and I don't think very many home runs were hit this past weekend. I think it's going to be completely different. You're taking that next step up, but that's what you expect when you go to Supers."
Escobedo is expected to shoulder the load for the Sun Devils and she hasn't allowed an earned run in 28 innings of work. The senior is 28-4 on the year with a 2.10 ERA and is coming off a regional performance where she was 3-0 with a no-hitter.
Last time the two teams met, Escobedo tamed the Wildcats, allowing one earned run, scattering just five hits and striking out eight. Kentucky has seen high-caliber pitching in the SEC and are approaching the rematch with confidence.
"She has a lot of spin on the ball and she also has a really good rise ball," freshman centerfielder Sylver Samuel said. "We have learned from it and I think that's what's going to make us tough to get out this week."
Arizona State will be playing on its home turf at Farrington Stadium, where the Sun Devils are 38-3 on the year. The Sun Devils are hitting .334 on the year with 92 home runs and 403 runs scored, compared to the Cats who are posting .269, 57 and 277, respectively, in those categories. Along those lines, ASU has five batters with 10 or more home runs and four with 40 or more RBI, while junior Lauren Cumbess (12 HR, 42 RBI) and sophomore Griffin Joiner (10 HR, 40 RBI) are the only two Wildcats to reach those numbers.
Kentucky will once again turn to freshman sensation Kelsey Nunley to lead them to Oklahoma City, Okla. The right-hander faced ASU in the first meeting, surrendering five runs on seven hits in three innings of relief. The Sun Devils roughed up Nunley, but the freshman was making just her third-career appearance at the collegiate level.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native has made tremendous strides in her first season, breaking UK's all-time single season wins mark with 27 on the year and being named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.
On paper, Arizona State looks like the heavy favorite in this series, but the Wildcats will give the Sun Devils a different look from what they saw back in February. If one thing is for certain, UK has complete trust in Nunley and will give it their all this weekend to back her up.
"Kelsey is really strong," Samuel said. "When she is out there we know that she is competing and giving everything to win so we give everything we have behind her. She is a strong freshman and we are proud of her."
Like the rest of the country, Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart have kept close tabs on this week's tragic events in Oklahoma. The UK head coach and athletics director shared compassion for the victims of Monday's destructive tornado.
They also share personal ties to the area. Barnhart and Stoops each have family who lives within a few miles of Moore, Okla.: Barnhart's brother Eric, Stoops' brothers Bob and Mike and the families of all three.
Driven by sympathy and familiarity with the area and people affected, Stoops and Barnhart have decided to do something to help.
"I have kept a close eye on the tragic events in Oklahoma this week," Barnhart said. "My heart goes out to all those affected. My brother Eric lives three miles from where the tornado hit, so the devastation has hit close to home for me even though he is safe."
"I am so thankful my family and friends are alright after the storms in Oklahoma," Stoops said. "However, we are heartbroken for those affected by this tragedy."
Stoops, Barnhart and women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell will all donate to the American Red Cross's tornado relief efforts. John Calipari announced his foundation will donate to the cause earlier this week as well.
Now, the leaders of UK Athletics want Kentucky fans to join in.
"We hope the Big Blue Nation will once again show its giving spirit," Stoops said. "There's only so much any of us can do on our own, but we make a real impact together."
Those wishing to donate after may call 859-253-1331 or 1-800-REDCROSS. Fans can also donate money online at RedCross.org or by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999 (the text will automatically donate $10). In person donations can be made in-person at Fayette Mall (corner of Nicholasville Road and Reynolds Road) on Thursday, May 23 and Friday, May 24 from 3:00 p.m. ET to 7:00 p.m.
No matter how you donate, tweet with the hash tag #BBNcares to show that UK fans stand with the Oklahoma tornado victims.
Rachel Lawson and Kara Dill will lead the UK softball team into the Tempe Super Regional this weekend vs. Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It might be happening for the second time in three years, but Rachel Lawson isn't taking Kentucky's Super Regional berth for granted. She knows that even the best programs in the country are fortunate to be among the last 16 teams standing.
Be that as it may, this weekend is just another rung on UK's ladder to a place college softball's elite.
"To be in supers is special in the sport of softball and our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series," Lawson said.
As No. 12 UK (41-19) prepares for a three-game series with fifth-seeded Arizona State (48-10) that will begin Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, the experience of losing to California in a super regional in 2011 is fresh in Lawson's mind. In fact, she's been thinking about it all season as she tried to lead UK to its first-ever Women's College World Series.
Lawson, however, has a young team with five freshman starters. Among this year's regular contributors, only Kara Dill, Alice O'Brien and Emily Jolly saw significant time in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
"Me personally, yes, as a coach (she is approaching super regionals differently). We have prepared completely different than we did two years ago in terms of pitch selection and stuff like that, but that started in the fall," Lawson said. "But for our team, only a couple of these players were on that team and only a couple of starters."
Dill was one of them. She had five hits as UK upset Michigan to win that regional in 2011, but the Cats were a national seed and favored to reach this point this year.
"I think our team this year is better and there are more people that can do a more variety of things," Dill said. "We have more depth and are stronger as a team."
She has clear proof of that depth too.
On March 15, Dill sustained a hand injury against LSU. For the remainder of the regular season, the Cats would have to get the job done without their leading hitter from each of the past two years. Freshman Christian Stokes filled in at shortstop and UK finished 19-12 without Dill in the starting lineup.
She healed in time to return for the postseason, but if the Cats hadn't been able to hold it together in the senior's absence, she would never have gotten the chance.
"I couldn't ask for any more from them. If they wouldn't have made it this far I wouldn't have finished out the year," Dill said. "This is everything to us right now. They are incredible."
Stokes is still playing shortstop, but Dill - now at designated player - took over her customary role as UK's lead-off batter for the NCAA Tournament opener vs. Marshall. She promptly turned in two hits and a run batted in in four at-bats, providing stability at a lineup spot that had been in a state of flux since Dill's injury.
"She's an exceptional player," Lawson said after that game, a 2-1 win over Marshall. "She's also a captain, she's very steady, she's smart, she's everything you want in a student-athlete. So to get her back is cool. ... It makes me happy to know that she's going to be able to finish on a high note."
After the Cats won a regional the first time they ever hosted one, it's now just a matter of how high the finishing note will be for Dill and UK.
"This is the best time of the year and if I could pick anytime to get back out there and play it would be this time," Dill said. "The team got us here and that is all I could have asked of them."
Junior Kayla Parker set a PR and was .03 seconds off the school record in the 100-meter hurdles at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky track and field team travels to Greensboro, N.C., this weekend to compete at the NCAA East Regional, the Wildcats will look to improve on their Southeastern Conference Championships performance and send as many athletes to nationals as they can.
That's head coach Edrick Floreal's motto anyhow. The former Olympian (1988 and 1992), and 2012 U.S. Olympic Team jumps coach has tried to hammer home to his athletes that they can only compete to the best of their ability.
UK has a talented group of individuals, but it's the same team that finished near the bottom of the SEC Championships in 2012.
The Wildcats have grown immensely under Floreal. Kentucky finished seventh in both the men's and women's competitions at this year's SEC Championships, which was a major improvement from the previous season's results. UK may not have the caliber of athletes Floreal eventually wants across the board, but he is certainly getting every ounce of athletic ability out of his team in the meantime.
"I want them to step back up and do what they are capable of doing and if you do that and if that's not good enough then you have to get back to work and get better," Floreal said. "That's my expectation, that we are going to do what we think we can do and let the rest of the SEC and the region sort themselves out. If we do what we are capable of doing you can't really be disappointed with that."
The Cats met their head coach's goal of finishing in the top half of the conference with their seventh-place finishes at SECs. However, Floreal feels UK left a lot of points out on the table and could have finished even higher.
Despite battling the injury bug and some mental errors, Kentucky had a shot at finishing in the top five according to Floreal. Senior All-American hurdler Keith Hayes was a near guarantee to finish in the top three of his events before straining his hamstring in his first competition. UK's talented 4 x 100-meter relay team of Morganne Phillips, Tamyah Pipkin, Kayla Parker and Keilah Tyson was projected to score highly before being disqualified for passing the baton illegally.
"I felt like in several instances, we didn't do what we are capable of doing and that's where some of the frustrations are because we feel like we're so much better of a team and we want to prove that," Floreal said. "You have to earn your stripes like everybody else, especially in this conference. We are getting better, we're getting older, we're getting more mature and we will be able to handle difficult situations a little bit better."
Kentucky received several good performances from individuals who have provided them all year. Junior Chelsea Oswald took home the 10,000- and 5,000-meter titles, while Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand finished second in their respective events.
Those Cats have proven all year that they are ahead of the rest of the conference and Floreal expects them to compete hard and finish near the top of the field every time out. He admits he may take it for granted, but it's the borderline athletes with whom Floreal is working to get them to buy in and have the kind of breakthrough performances that really give him satisfaction as a coach.
Parker is one athlete who has bought into the system since day one and is now reaping the benefits of her hard work. The junior finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles final with a personal record time of 13.19 seconds, just 0.03 off the school record.
"Kayla is a role model and a team captain to make sure everyone buys in and has great leadership not just worrying about herself but worrying about everyone else," Floreal said. "You need people in there who are going to score 20 points and be leaders and you need people in there that are going to keep everyone in line and also be leaders. There are different leaders that you need to have a successful team."
UK will send 27 athletes to regionals this weekend (14 men and 13 women). While Floreal has searched for unique ways to motivate his team all season, his message for this weekend was simple and to the point.
"This weekend is more so advancing to the NCAA and less about a team competition," Floreal said. "Each individual has to take care of their own business. You can be first or you can be 12th it's the same thing. Just be top 12, let's move on and we'll do it again in two weeks at nationals."
HOOVER, Ala. -- The opportunities, as they have been for much of the season's second half, were there for Kentucky.
After a 4-1 loss to Ole Miss in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday, those opportunities are what the Wildcats were thinking about.
"The biggest issue the last seven weeks has just been getting the hit at a key moment," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.
The seventh inning was particularly frustrating. After chasing Ole Miss starter Mike Mayers, UK loaded the bases with one out on an infield single by Zack Storm. Micheal Thomas followed with a pop-up to second and Kyle Barrett grounded out to end the threat, accounting for three of the eight runners the Cats left on base as they were eliminated in the conference tournament.
The story has been all-too-familiar since UK (30-25) sprinted to a 22-6 start. Since then, the bats have fallen silent at all the wrong times and the Cats are 8-19 during that stretch. Most of the fans in attendance at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium were watching Kentucky for the first time, but they got a pretty clear picture of what the last two months have been like.
"You kind of saw a large part of the second half of the season for us today," Henderson said. "That's kind of what it is and has been unfortunately. They fought well. At times, we pitched extremely well. ... But we just didn't have enough offense. We couldn't sustain anything offensively over a period of time to really get out of where we were."
Because of that, UK will be reduced to hoping when they watch the selection show next Monday. UK is ranked No. 38 in the RPI and boasts 12 wins over fellow top-40 teams, but its 11 SEC wins and uneven finish leave the Cats in perilous NCAA Tournament position.