Head coach Edrick Floreal (left) with senior sprinter Shiara Robinson (right). (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When the Kentucky track and field team gets ready to compete in the 2013 Outdoor Southeastern Conference Championships this weekend, the Wildcats will look very different from their conference counterparts. The blue and white uniforms, of course, will distinguish the Wildcats, but the real contrast won't begin to show itself until competition begins.
The SEC allows each university to bring 30 male and female student-athletes to compete at the conference championships. Instead of piling in 60 members from the UK track and field team and busing to Columbia, Mo., this week, first-year head coach Edrick Floreal chose to take a different approach.
Floreal made the decision to send just 35 athletes, 18 males and 17 females, to compete at SECs. This might seem to put the Cats at an immediate disadvantage, but Floreal knows his team better than anyone else. He has a clear picture of what a UK track and field athlete looks like, and the Wildcats he'll bring with him to Missouri have grown to fit that vision.
The biggest difference he has seen in this group over the course of the year hasn't necessarily been a boost in athletic ability or skill, but a change in their mentality.
"I just think it's been self-belief," Floreal said. "They believe they actually belong and I actually heard it from some of the coaches in the SEC that the kids that we have now act like they belong in the SEC and they can be competitive. That was a goal for the kids to feel like they belong instead of just letting them participate in the event.
"That's kind of why we took a smaller group of people that actually feel comfortable competing at that level as opposed to taking a large group that might not be ready when it comes to competing at that level yet."
One of the meets this year that has stood out to Floreal on that front was the Kentuckiana Border Battle in mid-April, when UK teamed up with Louisville in a meet against Indiana and Notre Dame. UK and U of L ended up winning both the men's and women's meets but more importantly, Floreal saw belief and determination out of his athletes.
Coaches from the three neighbor schools who were familiar with Kentucky and how the Wildcats compete were caught off guard by the Wildcats' new sense of self-confidence.
Creating that attitude has been one of Floreal's main goals since he arrived in the Bluegrass. He hopes for a similar reaction from UK's SEC brethren this weekend.
"I'm hoping for a little shock factor for the rest of the conference to exceed their expectation," Floreal said. "Not so much exceed their expectation in winning events but just from watching how hard our kids fight and how confident they are at that level more importantly than anything else.
"It is one thing when you are used to seeing Kentucky on the back and now they are next to you being competitive. That's what we are aiming for in every event. Whether somebody is fighting for next-to-last or fighting to make the final, I just want them to fight as hard as they can all the way to the finish."
What this week does for the Cats is give them an opportunity to compete at the highest level and gain experience for the 2014 SEC Championships, which will be held at the UK Track and Field Complex. Floreal is hoping that his athletes take this experience and develop some leadership for next year as well.
Kentucky has a large recruiting class coming in next year, with 25 male and 12 female athletes set to arrive in Lexington for the 2013-14 season. With such a massive group of newcomers, UK needs some leaders to step up so the freshmen have an example to follow.
"We just need to establish a group of leaders now so when the freshmen come they already know, 'Hey these people have gotten it done, we need to learn from them on what it takes to compete in the SEC,' " Floreal said. "You don't want the freshmen to come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely lost. You want them to come in and feel like they can talk to the All-SEC members and All-Americans on the team and learn from them."
Another goal of Floreal's is to improve on last year's performance - eighth for the men, 12th for the women - and see if the Cats can crack the top half. With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M this season, the Wildcats will need to place at least seventh to achieve Floreal's goal.
Last year junior Andrew Evans won the discus throw, while senior Luis Orta and sophomore Raymond Dykstra were runners-up in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and javelin throw, respectively. Floreal wouldn't mind seeing a few more of his athletes up on the stage accepting awards this year.
"We didn't have an exceptionally good showing last year and the No. 1 thing is to improve on that," Floreal said. "Anytime you can be in the top half of the SEC that's a big accomplishment. We want to see some people in that top five and top three and see some people on the podium. We just want the kids to compete hard and be competitive so it should be fairly clear who are the stars and who are not."
Baseball - Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning. - The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of nonleague play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action. - UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team recently completed one of the most successful weekends in school history, taking two of three games against No. 7 Alabama - the defending national championships - in Tuscaloosa. The series win was the first for Kentucky against the Tide in school history and also marked the first time UK had won in Tuscaloosa. - The wins moved UK to 13-11 in SEC play, earning the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has now posted three straight winning conference seasons under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson, advancing to five straight SEC Tournaments. The two wins over Alabama give UK nine against ranked foes this season and 40 against ranked foes under Lawson, including 24 against top-10 teams. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend, winning both games she started, throwing 15 innings, allowing only four earned runs with 11 strikeouts and a 1.87 ERA. Nunley shutout the Tide Saturday, marking the first time a pitcher had shutout Alabama at home since 2010. Fellow freshman Nikki Sagermann went 3-for-5 in the series finale with a school-record tying six RBI. Sagermann blasted a three-run home run in the eighth inning, giving Kentucky the win.
Track and field - Matt Hillenbrand finished as top collegiate finisher in the IU Billy Hayes Invitational 1,500 meters on Friday. - Hillenbrand ran a personal best time 3:44.66. - Adam Kahleifeh finished the same race fifth in 3:45.99. - Hillenbrand's time is second-fastest in the SEC this season. - Kahleifeh's time ranks No. 8 in the conference. - Keffri Neal posted No. 3 SEC time over 1,500 meters at the Stanford Invitational earlier this season. - Friday's race was Kentucky's final tune-up for the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin Thursday, May 9. - The conference championships will be held at the Audrey J. Walton Track Stadium at the University of Missouri in Columbia from May 9-12. - Kentucky will enter the SEC Championships defending one individual championship, as Andrew Evans claimed the event title last season in Baton Rouge, La. Upcoming schedule
Tuesday, May 7 Baseball def. Wright State, 4-1
Wednesday, May 8 Softball hosts South Carolina - 6:30 p.m. (SEC Tournament)
Thursday, May 9 Track at SEC Championships - 12:30 p.m. (Columbia, Mo.) Softball hosts Tennessee - 4:00 p.m. (SEC Tournament) Women's golf at NCAA Regionals (Auburn, Ala.)
Jerad Grundy allowed just one run over five innings in UK's 4-1 win over Wright State on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jerad Grundy had a lot of time to ponder his recent struggles.
The senior left-hander was replaced in his usual role as Kentucky's Saturday starter last weekend, meaning he had to wait a week and a half between outings. But in returning to the mound on Tuesday against Wright State, the worst four-start stretch of his UK career was the last thing on his mind.
"When you're a baseball player, you've got to have a short-term memory," Grundy said. "You don't want to be worrying about what you did last week and all of a sudden you're not focused on what you can do this week. You've just got to go out there and play one game at a time."
Using that approach, Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) returned to form against the Raiders, looking much more like the pitcher who allowed didn't allow more than three earned runs in any start over the first seven weeks of the season. He turned in five innings of one-run ball, yielding five hits and no walks while striking out five as the Wildcats (28-19) defeated visiting Wright State (20-24), 4-1.
"I'm really happy with Jerad's performance tonight," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Command of all three pitches, he stayed down for the most part, briefly lost a little bit of rhythm there in the fourth and got it back and had a clean fifth inning."
It wasn't his most dominant outing or even long enough to make it a quality start, but Grundy put into practice the work he had logged over the last week. Hitters had been making him pay for pitches he left up, but Grundy kept the ball in the lower half of the zone on Tuesday, particularly during the first three innings when he didn't allow a base runner.
"His pen work has been good all year," Henderson said. "Through the starts where he's struggled with fastball command it came up a little bit, it was not indicative of what he's been doing between starts. It's a thought process issue, a relaxation issue and I thought tonight he was able to go out there and relax."
By relaxing, Grundy proved to himself once again that he can get the job done. And in addition to buoying his own confidence, Grundy's performance was positive for the postseason prospects of a team that has just two weekends left in the regular season. As well as true freshman Kyle Cody pitched in his first Southeastern Conference start last Saturday, UK will need Grundy's experience and veteran presence.
"It definitely doesn't hurt to have another starter, especially with the stuff Kyle has," Grundy said. "That's going to be huge for us once we get in the SEC Tournament and the regionals."
That's a ways off though.
"I think anytime you've got four guys, you've got something," Henderson said. "But to be honest with you, I haven't looked that far ahead. We've got a couple weekends first."
In the meantime, Grundy is taking the short-term view, no matter whether he's pitching on a weekend or a weekday.
"We're just taking it day by day," Grundy said. "To me it doesn't really matter what my role. I just want to have a role on the team and help us win."
Kentucky will host its first SEC Tournament this week at John Cropp Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the Kentucky softball program will host the most prestigious conference softball tournament in the nation. The Southeastern Conference tournament features the top-10 schools in the 14-team league based on the standings after a grueling 24-game schedule.
What makes the conference so dominant is that it includes several teams regarded as among best in the nation based on rankings. According to the RPI, which is the basis on who is selected into the NCAA Tournament, the SEC has six teams in the top 10 and 11 in the top 40.
The newly renovated John Cropp Stadium has come a long way since head coach Rachel Lawson arrived here six years ago. To think UK would be hosting the most highly anticipated and competitive softball tournament in the country is hard to imagine. Even for Lawson.
"When I got here six years ago, if you would have shown up to the softball field there was a small grandstand about the size of one row here and we have made drastic improvements," Lawson said. "It says a lot to the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be able to have ESPN here and hosting the SEC Tournament that they were able to put up such an amazing softball facility for a softball team and women's sports in general."
This weekend marks the first big tournament that Kentucky has hosted since a 2011 Super Regional, which was held here in Lexington.
Lawson remembers that weekend and how supportive the Big Blue Nation was well. The event staff had to add in additionally outfield bleachers in order to accommodate enough suitable seating for the fan base. The sixth-year head coach believes this weekend will offer a bit of the same flavor and is hoping to ride that home-field advantage.
"Everyone knows there is nothing better than Kentucky fans," Lawson said. "When the Big Blue Nation comes out it's pretty impressive as we showed two years ago when we hosted a Super Regional. Even when they are not softball fans, in general just being a Kentucky fan really helps us out a lot. It's nice to be able to have that crowd behind you when you are playing such awesome opponents."
UK (38-17, 13-11 SEC) is the No. 7 seed in the tournament and will face the No. 10 seed South Carolina (31-22, 8-16) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
When the two teams take the field on Wednesday, it will have been almost exactly a month ago since the Cats traveled to Columbia, S.C., and swept the Gamecocks. Even though Kentucky came away with a sweep, the series was a lot more difficult than it sounds with UK winning 3-1 in the opener and 4-3 in the final game of the three-game set.
"I think it gives them confidence knowing that they beat them but I think it was so far removed I think they are just looking to get back on the field and hopefully winning a SEC game," Lawson said.
If that series isn't enough to give UK a boost for their opening-round game then the Cats' performance last weekend most definitely will.
Kentucky went down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., last weekend having won just twice all-time against Alabama in 40 chances. Kentucky not only won for the first time at Alabama, but took two of three games to win its first series vs. the Crimson Tide in school history.
It was an emotional series for the Wildcats and something they can build on moving into postseason play.
"To be able to go into Alabama and get a win is huge," Lawson said. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence and it gives the younger players a lot of confidence. They went in there and hit two very awesome pitchers and I believe that shows them they can get it done.
"In order for us to get where we want, which is the World Series we're going to have to go through pitchers like the ones they have at Alabama. I think it gives them a lot of confidence and hopefully we will be able to take that momentum into our game tomorrow night against South Carolina."
One of the key cogs for Kentucky this season is freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley. She has been a workhorse for UK all season, setting the Kentucky single-season wins record earlier this year, was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team on Tuesday due to her efforts in the circle.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native, who was once a secret weapon for UK, now has the whole conference, or country for that matter, keeping an eye on her.
"I think everyone in the country knows we are going with her in game one," Lawson said. "It's not a secret. I love our other pitchers but she is the one that has gotten us here so I want to make sure she has that opportunity on national TV."
In order for the Wildcats to win their first SEC Tournament title, they must win four games in four days. Kentucky knows who its ace is and the Cats are going to ride her as long as they can. Nunley once pitched three straight games this season, firing over 300 pitches in a weekend series against Missouri.
After Nunley 2-0 against the defending national champions Alabama last weekend, Lawson is not going to be hesitant and just hopes she can see how long Nunley can go. So don't be surprised if you see Nunley out in the circle in Saturday's championship game, preparing to pitch her fourth game in as many days.
"Hopefully we will have the offense going so we have a chance to see that. I know she has pitched three in a row so four would be something she hasn't done but I believe she can do it," Lawson said.
Steve Meilinger was named first-team All-America in 1952 and 1953. (UK Athletics)
On Tuesday, the National Football Foundation announced the 2013 College Football Hall of Fame class. Included in the 12-member group is one of the best players in the history of Kentucky football: Steve Meilinger. The former UK star becomes the fourth Wildcat to be named to the College Football Hall of Fame.
STEVE MEILINGER University of Kentucky End, 1951-53
One of the most acclaimed two-way stars of the mid-20th century, Steve Meilinger gained fame as "Mr. Anywhere" for his versatility and value to the Kentucky football program. He becomes the fourth Wildcat to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The two-time First-Team All-America (1952, 1953) selection, under Hall of Fame head coach Bear Bryant, Meilinger led Kentucky to victory in the 1952 Cotton Bowl over TCU. The three-year All-Southeastern Conference honoree played end, halfback and quarterback on offense, while covering end, linebacker and defensive back on defense. He also served as the Wildcats' two-year starting punter while returning punts and kickoffs.
A first round selection by the Washington Redskins in the 1954 NFL Draft, Meilinger played six seasons in the league for the Redskins, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. He spent the entirety of his non-football life in military or public service. Immediately following his selection by the Redskins, Meilinger served two years as a tank commander in the U.S. Army's 100th Tank Battalion of the 1st Armored Division before embarking on his pro football career. From 1962-83, Meilinger was a United States Marshal, and he was one of the original six marshals who founded the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program. He also served two stints as a property valuation officer for the state of Kentucky.
The Bethlehem, Pa., native is a member of the State of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the University of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the Fork Union Military Academy Hall of Fame, the Lehigh Valley (Penn.) Hall of Fame and the Liberty High School Hall of Fame.
Michelle Canterna (left) broke UK's pole vault record at the RedHawk Invitational, while Matt Hillenbrand (right) was the 2013 Indoor SEC Mile Champion. (Britney McIntosh and Chet White, UK Athletics)
Watch a collegiate track and field meet in person for even a few minutes and it's difficult not to notice just how many different things are going on. It's one of the unique aspects of the sport, just how many different ways there are to win. Running faster, throwing and jumping farther or jumping higher.
Among the top programs in collegiate track and field, the mold for success varies just as much as the program of events at championship meets. Some top schools build winning team scores through excellence in field events, others in sprints and others again use a distance-based formula to go for titles.
Under first-year head coach Edrick Floreal, the Kentucky track and field program has yet to identify a singe group of athletes that stands out as the major point-earners at championship meets like the Southeastern Conference Championships, which take place this weekend.
UK boasts a balanced squad, with no group standing out particularly over the other. And under the new coaching staff, multiple athletes have taken huge steps forward this season.
For two of those Wildcats, that success has come in very different styles, an illustration of just how many ways there are to get the job done when it comes to finding a way to win at track and field.
Michelle Canterna's path to success has been long and winding, but given her recent string of results, it seems she's struck the right chord.
She was recruited and competed her freshman year at Kentucky as a long jumper. Being a former gymnast for 12 years of her life, Canterna would perform tumble routines in the field during her downtime after practice. The coaches joked with her and threw a pole vault in her hand, telling her to try it out. She went through drills and even competed in an event as a sophomore, clearing 11 feet before getting injured.
Then things changed over the summer for the redshirt sophomore.
Her previous jumps coach had never been a pole vaulter before and with the new coaching staff on board, assistant coach Will Thomas, responsible for the team's vertical jumpers, has been a major key to her success. Thomas, a former decathlete, has brought the experience of competing in multiple events at the highest levels of Division I to the Wildcats.
By Canterna's own estimation, the new training regime under Thomas has been the catalyst for her unprecedented success this season. As a former decathlete, Thomas can relate the experience of having been a long jumper and pole vaulter, something that may have seemed daunting when Canterna first made the switch in events.
"I like the fact that I can come in my first year vaulting and he was able to mold me," Canterna said. "It was really nice because I've never vaulted before so being able to be molded by a new coach is awesome and obviously he is doing a great job if I can hit heights that people haven't at UK before. It's just humbling because I had no idea that I could do it and he showed me that I can which was awesome."
Under Thomas' guidance, Canterna has been a force for the Wildcats this year, breaking the school's all-time pole vault record clearing 3.96 meters / 12'11.75" at the Miami RedHawk Invitational last Saturday. The height came a week after the Florence, Ky., native set the UK outdoor record at the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic, Kentucky's first home meet since 1996.
On the track side of things, distance runner Matt Hillenbrand's story is more along the lines of a normal track athlete. The junior had tremendous success in high school, winning state championships as a distance runner. He has kept it going at Kentucky.
His first two years at UK were good, but he has had a breakthrough junior season.
"It was a combination of a lot of hard work that finally paid off over the past three years," Hillenbrand said.
At the SEC Indoor Championships in February, Hillenbrand claimed the mile race with a time of 4:01.55. He has continued his excellence by posting a personal-record time of 3:44.66 at the IU Billy Hayes Invitational last Friday, finishing second in the heat. His PR time is currently good enough to qualify him for the NCAA Regional Preliminary Championships if the season ended today.
According to Hillenbrand, a greater sense of self-belief has been the biggest factor in his newfound success this season. While Canterna's background may contrast quite a bit with Hillenbrand's, the SEC champion believes his teammate's success stems from the same source.
"We have worked a lot of longer distances and a lot of aerobic workouts, but it's really just the perception of what being good is," Hillenbrand said. "That's really the change."
The Wildcats travel to Columbia, Mo., this week to compete at the SEC Outdoor Championships. The event is the final invitational on the Cats' schedule before NCAA Regionals May 23-25.
Canterna has high hopes for her future both short and long term. She has the 13-foot mark on her mind at the SECs after falling just short of the feat at Miami, but her primary goal is to be one of the top eight finishers at the SEC Championships, earning valuable points for the UK cause.
"Right now my main focus is scoring at SECs," Canterna said.
Looking past SECs and toward regionals, nationals and even next year, Canterna is aiming to vault in the upper 13s and possibly clear as high as 14 feet. With the 2014 SEC Championships set to be hosted at the UK track and field complex in 2014, Canterna feels like she can use this week's experience to prepare for a great performance a year from now.
"I really think the more I work at it and even over the summer I am going to get bigger, stronger, faster and I am going to utilize this facility more to my advantage knowing that it will be our home meet that hopefully I can dominate," Canterna said.
Hillenbrand is looking to defend his indoor mile crown at the comparable outdoor 1,500M and he likes his team's chances to perform well this weekend given UK's greater depth with the outdoor meet program compared to indoors. UK can utilize the help of senior Luis Orta - who finished second at last year's championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, but was out of eligibility during the 2013 indoor season - and UK's group of throwers, which features two returning outdoor All-Americans in the form of defending SEC Discus Champion Andrew Evans and 2012 All-American javelin thrower Raymond Dykstra.
Maybe the biggest goal for Kentucky this week is to show the rest of the conference that this team is ready to take the next step toward being elite again.
"I'd definitely like to repeat and our team is looking pretty good and now that we have Luis back for outdoors and a couple of the throwers, we are definitely trying to be in the top half of the conference and just change the mold of Kentucky track and field," Hillenbrand said.
Changing the mold of the program is well under way, as evidenced by success of Hillenbrand and Canterna. This weekend will be a major measuring stick for just how much the new mold is beginning to take shape
If you missed it, UK safety Ashely Lowery was in a single-car accident over the weekend. News of the accident spread quickly on Saturday and Sunday as Lowery was hospitalized in an intensive care unit near his hometown in Georgia. The accident was a major one, but every update to Lowery's condition since it happened has been positive.
On Monday, head coach Mark Stoops visited Lowery in the hospital and issued the following statement:
"I went to see Ashely today and was glad to see him and spend some time with him. We're thankful for the progress he's made and are hopeful he will continue that improvement. He's heard from a lot of teammates and is grateful for all the good wishes and prayers that so many people are offering on his behalf. We ask the Big Blue Nation to join Ashely's football family in continuing to pray for a speedy recovery."
The Lowery family also issued a statement on Monday:
"On behalf of the Lowery family, we'd like to thank everyone for their concerns and prayer. From Georgia to Lexington, we can't thank everyone enough. You are like family to us.
"The only official comment from the hospital is that his condition has been upgraded from stable to satisfactory and his injuries are no longer life threatening. We expect a full recovery. Again, thank you so much for all the prayers and support."