Marcus McWilson is among three Kentucky football players serving in Ethiopia this week. (Nicolette McLaughlin, UK Athletics)
This week, Alex Montgomery, Austin MacGinnis and Marcus McWilson are on UK football's annual service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, they will take turns sharing their experiences in a series of Cat Scratches blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
It's day two for us here in Ethiopia and it's such a blessing that we have the opportunity to put smiles on so many faces.
This morning as I got out of bed getting ready for the day I have to say I was overwhelmed with excitement and very anxious. I know that all of us were ready to see what God had in store for us, so we packed our bags and headed out.
As we're driving around it's a humbling experience seeing how much people struggle every day. People come from nothing, have nothing and leave with less but they have smiles on their faces because it's a new day. Knowing we can make a difference in a life is the best thing for me because I love making someone smile.
This afternoon repairing houses was a lot different from what I'm used to, but we were all able to adapt and help in any way possible. The houses aren't your typical brick and stone houses; they're made from sticks and mud clumped and molded together and made from the ground up. Once we figured out what we could do to help we were all in, from playing with the kids to handy work with hammers and nails.
We also gave out mattresses, which was heartbreaking because some people had never slept on beds. At times I feel like I'm not doing enough because there are so many people in need and I want to help them all. Tomorrow cannot come soon enough!
Kentucky's 14 SEC wins is part of its strong NCAA Tournament resume (Charlie Healy, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. - With its resume, it shouldn't be over. Despite a 6-3 loss to Auburn in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday, the Kentucky baseball team has a strong case to make the NCAA Tournament.
On the bubble for an NCAA berth, UK's resume speaks for itself. Kentucky (30-25) has an impressive list of victories, including several series wins, over ranked opponents.
Taking two of three at No. 1 LSU highlights that list. The only series the SEC champion Tigers lost in 2015, UK's two wins in Baton Rouge marked one of five series victories for the Wildcats vs. league foes.
Adding to that list are 2-1 weekends at No. 5 Florida, vs. No. 20 Mississippi State and at Missouri, along with a sweep of Tennessee.
In total, Kentucky racked up 14 wins in SEC play.
Historically for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the 14-win mark acts as the Mendoza Line. Just one team has failed to make the tournament in the last 12 years with at least 14 SEC victories.
Kentucky has a strong resume, but head coach Gary Henderson hasn't thought much about it. He, and his team, just want to keep on playing.
"Well, I haven't looked at [our postseason chances], but I've had a couple people around me look at it and spend a little bit of time on it," Henderson said after Tuesday's game. "I know that there's only one team in the last dozen years with 14 league wins that didn't make the NCAA tournament. So we certainly feel good about that. But I haven't studied it. I don't know. I'm just hoping that we get the chance to continue to play."
Henderson just wants that chance to keep on playing. To prove that Tuesday's loss was an anomaly and to continue to make history.
Make the NCAA Tournament and the Wildcats will have earned back-to-back NCAA bids for the second time in program history and for the first time since 1949-50.
Road wins, upset wins, an 11-game winning streak and another streak that went six games. Make the tournament, and UK knows anything can happen.
All those wins are impressive, and it gives Kentucky a strong case for inclusion in NCAA play. Add to it that all those wins came in arguably the toughest conference in the country, and UK's case gets even stronger.
Alex Montgomery is on an athletics department-sponsored service trip to Ethiopia this week. (Nicolette McLaughlin, UK Athletics)
This week, Alex Montgomery, Austin MacGinnis and Marcus McWilson are on UK football's annual service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, they will take turns sharing their experiences in a series of Cat Scratches blog entries.Please note
that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the
views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of
Kentucky or UK Athletics.
I would start this off by saying the flight was terrible and I never want to do it again, but then I would be lying because traveling is a part of the process. Yes, there were a few times that I wanted to turn around and go back home, but when I think about this trip and how life-changing it will be for me I said, I can do it.
The flight wasn't too bad because we all slept for majority of it. When we first landed I was so nervous because I didn't know what to expect as in where are we staying, what are we eating, can I shower, can I brush my teeth. All of these things run through your head, but after speaking to our trip leaders I felt better because they let you know that everything and everyone is going to be fine. Today is our first day going out so as soon as I get back I'll finish this day one blog.
(Eight hours later)
I'm back now, sorry for the long pause, but I can officially say our first day here is over! This morning I was a little hesitant because I didn't want to be too pushy or too laid-back like I usually am. So I told myself whatever you do today, Alex, just be you and to make someone else's day! So we set out to do just that.
First you're just driving through this amazingly different city with a lot of different things going on like their driving, the buildings, the people. I just wanted to stop and help everyone but unfortunately I can't. So we're finally on this dirt road where there are huge bumps, goats and donkeys. I really enjoyed looking at the donkeys though just because they all reminded me of Donkey from Shrek.
After that, we finally got to one family's house and we were shocked to see it had no roof and barely any walls. We got right to work, without a question. After a few hours of work fixing their home, the lady was so happy. She said, "Thanks for making my house beautiful," but I wanted to thank her for just showing me that it doesn't take a million dollars to make someone's day.
As the Kentucky baseball team begins postseason play Tuesday at the SEC Tournament, the formula is simple.
"We need to win."
That's how head coach Gary Henderson phrased it as he previewed Tuesday's opening contest. The eight-seeded Wildcats (30-24, 14-15) open with a first-round game vs. No. 9-seeded Auburn at 5:30 p.m. ET at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes undecided, Kentucky likely needs a win, if not several, to secure back-to-back tournament berths for the second time in program history.
The Wildcats head to Hoover knowing they can win away from the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium. They have posted three series wins in SEC play on the road, at No. 1 LSU, No. 5 Florida and Missouri.
UK's wins over the then-No. 1-ranked Tigers in Baton Rouge, La., marked LSU's only series loss of the season.
Those wins are a boost to Kentucky's confidence, which will only help in the neutral-site SEC Tournament that's just over 100 miles from Auburn's campus.
"Anytime you win a series on the road in our league, especially against somebody in the upper part of it, I think you get confident, because it's hard," Henderson said. "I think any coach in the league will tell you it's hard to win on the road. To be able to get two [at LSU], and two at Florida and obviously we got two on the weekend at Missouri, that's something we haven't done over the years. And not a lot of teams are able to do that. But you leave confident."
The confidence certainly comes from the wins, including an 11-0 run in late February and early March, but it also comes from who Henderson is coaching.
It's something he said at the beginning of the season, but Henderson coaches a fun team. A group that likes to show up to the park every day and work hard, have fun and get better.
Henderson believes the attitude and makeup has played a role in the team's confidence.
"I've said it all year, I told you in February when we talked, our guys like to play, they really do," Henderson said. "We've got a spirit about us, it's fun to be around. Clearly at times we didn't play as well as we'd like, that just makes us normal. That's not uncommon in our game. It's a fun group, they are confident in a three-game set right now. We're pretty confident."
Confidence also comes from the way UK has improved over the course of the season. The Wildcats' 11-game winning streak was snapped at the start of SEC play when they got swept at No. 7 South Carolina. Kentucky then lost to Ohio before winning two of three at home over No. 20 Mississippi State.
After a splitting a pair of midweek games, it was a 2-1 road trip at top-ranked LSU before UK went 1-6 in its next seven games. That's when the tides started to turn in Kentucky's favor though. The Wildcats swept Tennessee, and back-to-back wins at No. 5 Florida gave UK a six-game winning streak.
"We're a group that has gotten better as the season has progressed," Henderson said. "When we left [LSU] in late March, we didn't look very good defensively at all. We've played dramatically better, infield defense since we left Baton Rouge.
"We're in a spot now with Kyle [Cody], throwing on the weekends, where we're a much better team. He's gotten into a rhythm the last three outings. Kyle has been outstanding, and we've got three solid starters. We've gotten better offensively. We're still a group that relies tremendously on the top half of our order."
Cody, a junior righthander, has gone at least seven innings in each of his last two starts and earned the win in UK's series-clincher over Missouri on May 16. His spot in the rotation comes after Zack Brown and Dustin Beggs, who have combined for 15 quality starts on the season as Kentucky's top two arms in the rotation.
Even if Henderson hasn't revealed UK's first round starter, a strong rotation of Brown, Beggs and Cody is another reason to be confident.
Tuesday, a day before the tournament's double-elimination round begins, the Wildcats will look to eliminate an Auburn team trying to do the exact same thing to them. However, on Kentucky's side will be some confidence, from its success on the road and solid starting pitching. Not to mention a fun attitude.
Griffin Joiner had two hits on Sunday, including the game winner to send UK to a third Super Regional trip in a row. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For four years, Rachel Lawson has kept a batting-practice secret.
When Griffin Joiner is up and Lawson wants her star senior catcher to make an out, Lawson knows just what to do.
"Every time I want Griffin to get out, I call a timeout and I freeze her and then she gets so fidgety and ends up popping up," Lawson said.
Only with a third Super Regional trip in a row on the line would Lawson give up the secret.
Leading 3-2 with two outs in the top of the seventh inning of Sunday's Regional final, Notre Dame tried the trick, calling timeout with Joiner ahead 2-0 in the count. Right away, Lawson ran from her customary spot just outside the Kentucky dugout to finally spill the beans to Joiner.
"I told her what the trick was," Lawson said. "Now that she's a senior, I don't have to keep it (a secret)."
Facing one of the biggest moments of her illustrious career, Joiner got just what she needed from the brief visit. A few pitches later, she laced a full-count single into the gap in right-center field. Christian Stokes scored from second and Nikki Sagermann from first on a Fighting Irish throwing error, a rally fellow senior Kara Howard sparked with a leadoff single.
"Obviously it helped that she called timeout and told me they were just trying to get in my head," Joiner said. "Because she does that to me all the time. So I kind of felt comfortable that she had told me that."
That Joiner could feel comfortable in that situation speaks to her poise.
"I just looked at the scoreboard it was full count, top of the seventh," Joiner said. "That's really what you work for and what you live for."
It was a moment, however, that seemed unlikely to come for Joiner as recently as a few days ago.
UK entered the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game losing streak, including three walk-off losses in a row to Tennessee in the final two games of the regular-season and the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Now, the Wildcats are on a remarkably well-timed three-game winning streak after sweeping through the South Bend Regional.
"It definitely says that we're tough," Lawson said. "I think the other thing it says is we have a really short memory, which in situations like this is key. So we don't really carry things from game to game. I think it says a lot about our character."
Joiner isn't so worried about what the win says about her team, at least not right now. She's only thinking about her college career lasting at least one more week.
"It's definitely a good feeling knowing that we get to go out and we get to play another game," Joiner said. "That's really all we're doing right now, is just fighting for another game."
The next game will be next weekend, as UK heads to Gainesville, Fla., for a Super Regional showdown with No. 1 overall seed Florida.
Lawson will almost certainly turn to Kelsey Nunley against the Gators. Why wouldn't she after Nunley held a Notre Dame team that scored 29 runs in two run-rule wins on Saturday to just three runs on seven hits?
"Notre Dame is a great offensive team," Lawson said. "They have so many different weapons and so many different tools. I really think that Nunley did a great job on the mound keeping them off balance and keeping the number of runners on base to a minimum."
Nunley couldn't keep Notre Dame off the bases in the seventh inning as she tried to protect the lead Joiner gave UK, as Jenna Simon singled, stole second and moved to third on a grounder. But facing Notre Dame's two best power hitters in Emilee Koerner and Katey Haus, Nunley coaxed a pair of pop ups to shortstop.
"We just tried to keep them off balance like we always do," Nunley said. "Once again, I thought Coach called another good game and it went well. It worked out. It was a little shaky at times, but in the end Griffin came up and was a stud."
That's no secret.
"It was fitting because we've been doing this for so long together that we were either going to go down together or win together," Lawson said. "So I thought it was fitting for the program."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - A bumpy regular-season road might have cast some doubts about whether Kentucky softball's freshmen would be able to contribute immediately in the NCAA Tournament.
Rachel Lawson, however, saw it coming.
"Well yeah, I recruited them," Lawson said.
A day after Rachael Metzger's pinch hit propelled UK into the winners' bracket on Friday, fellow first-year players Brooklin Hinz and Erin Rethlake combined for five hits, two runs and two runs batted in as the Wildcats coasted past Ball State on Saturday, 5-0. They gave more than enough support to ace Kelsey Nunley, who allowed just two hits and a walk and struck out seven in a complete-game shutout as the Cats moved into Sunday's South Bend Regional final.
"I thought Coach Lawson called a great game and she really kept them off balance," Nunley said. "That was the whole goal. She was like, 'I'm going to call the pitches, you're going to throw the pitches and we're going to go from there.' That's what we did."
Nunley, after she led UK to the Women's College World Series a year ago, surprised no one with her performance. Hinz and Rethlake, on the other hand, have never been on this stage before, though Lawson brought them to Kentucky for exactly this.
"One of the major criteria I have when I recruit players is that they're a winner," Lawson said. "Their high school teams win, their travel ball teams win so that they understand what the postseason is about."
Hinz, who had just 23 hits in 109 at-bats before going 3 for 3 against Ball State, says her freshman season has been building to these moments, like when she led off the second inning with a sharp single and later scored the game's first run.
"I've kind of noticed it over the whole course of this year and just really figured out what to do with the details now that I've realized what things are," Hinz said. "I've been able to put them together and it's been working really well."
Though it took until Saturday for the results to show up in the box score for Hinz.
"I've been really pleased with the work our freshmen have been putting in," Lawson said. "In the later part of the SEC, they really started to hit the ball hard and looked a lot more comfortable in the box."
With the likes of Hinz, Rethlake and Metzger becoming legitimate threats at the plate, UK's lineup becomes that much more potent.
"We've really started to put things together," Lawson said. "This is the offense that we've put together through the beginning of the year that's really starting to shine right now."
UK has now scored four runs or more six times in its last eight games on the heels of a three-game stretch that saw the Cats score just one run total.
"Well I think it's been coming around for the last three weeks," Lawson said. "I just think things take time and I think we've had enough time to work on some of the things--specifically, we're working on early pitch recognition and just being on time for the pitch. I think anytime you make major adjustments it takes a little bit of time. So this was about the right timeframe for change to happen."
The timing truly couldn't be better. UK has snapped a seven-game losing streak with back-to-back NCAA Tournament wins, taking the Cats to within one victory of a fourth Super Regional appearance in five seasons. They'll go for it at 1 p.m. on Sunday against Notre Dame, Ball State or Northwestern.
"Towards the end, we've kind of been working on a lot of different things and now I think everything has just kind of clicked together and it's just been working really well for us," Hinz said.
Rachael Metzger had the game-winning, pinch-hit single on Friday. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Come postseason, experience was supposed to serve Kentucky well.
With numerous returners from last year's Women's College World Series team back, the veterans were the ones who would lead the way.
To start with, that's exactly how things played out.
It was junior Sylver Samuel getting on in front of senior Griffin Joiner, who laced a double to plate the game's first run. It was junior Kelsey Nunley shutting out Northwestern through four innings. It was junior Nikki Sagermann slamming a two-run home run to tie the game in the fifth inning.
But that familiar script got flipped in the sixth.
"I think what it says is you never know what's going to happen in the postseason," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The postseason is the time for--you gotta be risky, you gotta do whatever and it's really about who shines in the moment."
In the end, two underclassmen - sophomore Meagan Prince and true freshman Rachael Metzger - shined brightest and led UK to a 5-4 win to move into the winners' bracket of the South Bend Regional.
Prince came on in relief of Nunley, who gave up four runs and a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning. She tossed two scoreless innings and picked up the win in her first career NCAA Tournament appearance.
"I couldn't say enough about Meagan coming in and shutting the door," Lawson said. "Northwestern was doing a great job, they were hitting the ball hard and for her to calm down their bats a little bit was big for the win today."
Also big was Metzger, who came off the bench and delivered the game-winning pinch-hit single.
The hit - which came on the first pitch of the at-bat - made Metzger the exception on Friday afternoon. The first time through the order, her teammates didn't manage a single hit against Kristen Wood.
"We had never seen her before," Lawson said. "She's a really good pitcher and she had a little bit different spin than we were used to. It didn't break as much side to side as we thought that we had seen on video. So it had a lot more downward movement than we were anticipating and once we figured that out we were able to recognize the pitches sooner and be able to square up on them."
Metzger didn't need that time.
"I had been watching previous at-bats from other batters and had watched a lot of pitches - first-strike pitches - and kind of knew she was most likely going to throw something close in my house," Metzger said. "I just kind of saw the ball and hit the ball."
Metzger promptly laced a ball down the left-field line to score Maisie Steed and stake UK to a 5-4 lead. Prince took it from there.
Even though Northwestern loaded the bases thanks to an error, a walk and a fielder's choice, Prince closed the door with a game-ending strikeout.
"Pretty stressful situation, but I trusted my teammates behind me," Prince said. "I knew when it came down to it they would have my back. So long as I just didn't give up a bomb, they would have my back."
Thanks to Prince and her teammates having her back, UK will play the early game Saturday needing just one win to reach the Regional final. The Cats will face Ball State at noon.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For seven straight seasons, the Kentucky softball team has reached the NCAA Tournament.
Leading one of just 21 programs nationally with such a streak, UK head coach Rachel Lawson knows it's a big deal.
"It means that we are able to build and that we are a program, not just a team," Lawson said.
The latest edition of the Wildcats will make its tournament debut on Friday, facing Northwestern in the South Bend Regional at 2 p.m. UK. The Cats are coming off their first Women's College World Series trip ever, but haven't performed quite up to expectations in entering the NCAA Tournament with a 29-24 record.
"We understand that we have fallen short for a lot of reasons and hopefully we have tightened up," Lawson said.
When Lawson says "tightened up," she's thinking execution, not the emotional state of her team. She learned long ago from a longtime UK administrator to avoid that kind of tightness at all costs.
"We are really fortunate because John Cropp - who our stadium is named after - used to tell me when I first got here that worrying is just praying for something bad to happen," Lawson said. "That is kind of our mindset all the time."
Instead of thinking about the fact that they have lost seven straight games - the last three in walk-off fashion to No. 8 national seed Tennessee - the Cats are trying to learn the lessons they can from the defeats and focus on what's next.
"Honestly we're just trying to take the positives out of it and kind of move on from the past and move forward and look at what's ahead," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "That's the next pitch and the next game that we play."
But practice came first.
UK fell in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday, leaving the Cats ample time to practice for the NCAA Tournament with nothing but themselves in mind.
"We have had about six great days of practice and we haven't had that since January," Lawson said. "I think the fact that we have been able to focus on those things and the individual techniques that are required so we end up coming through in the end. I think we are going to be OK."
"We just had more time to focus on the things that we need to focus on," Joiner said. "It's kind of (hard to do that) during the grind of the season. You play every day, so it's just been good to be able to slow down and focus a little bit."
Lawson expects that extra time to yield results come this weekend, when UK will look to get past Northwestern, host Notre Dame and Ball State and into a Super Regional.
"I like the intensity of the practice and the passion," Lawson said. "The other thing from a tactical standpoint was the defense was a lot better and a lot cleaner and we were making diving catches and attacking balls that we used to sit back on. The postseason is about pitching and defense and then hopefully you luck out and get those timely hits."
A season ago, UK had that recipe down pat in making that WCWS trip, riding the arm of Kelsey Nunley, a good defense behind her and a clutch offense to Oklahoma City. With numerous contributors back from that team, including Nunley and Joiner along with Christian Stokes, Nikki Sagermann and Sylver Samuel, the Cats will be calling on that experience come Friday.
"I think the team that has the most experience when you walk on the field, you are not as nervous, you know what to expect and know what pregame is about and media and all those things," Lawson said. "That certainly gives us an advantage."
An advantage, sure, but no guarantee.
The Cats might be part of something bigger than themselves when it comes to the UK program, but they're just a team when they step on the field.
"I think the other thing you understand is that when you are in the postseason: It doesn't matter what you did the previous season, you have to play well this weekend," Lawson said. "Having that mindset is what has been able to carry us and we have had that mindset for seven years now."
The Kentucky baseball team got the all-around effort it needed on Tuesday en route to a 5-1 win over Northern Kentucky.
It was the team win the Wildcats were looking for after a dropping the final two games of a weekend series vs. Georgia and before the final regular-season series of the year, at Missouri beginning on Thursday.
All but one starter had a hit, and the four-man pitching staff combined to allow one run and nine hits. The all-around effort saw just two Wildcats, Evan White and Storm Wilson, with more than one hit, and no pitcher took the hill for more than three innings.
As head coach Gary Henderson looked back at the win, it was the pitching that stood out.
"It was a really good team win tonight," Henderson said. "Starting with two innings from Andrew [Nelson] on the mound, then to be able to get three out of Brad [Schaenzer] and three out of Zach [Pop] and then one out of Bo [Wilson], in a different role for Bo. I was really pleased with all four of those guys."
Nelson got the start and worked two innings. The senior righthander allowed no runs on just two hits with three strikeouts. In the first inning, he walked two and NKU loaded the bases, but a lineout to left ended the threat with the bases full.
Schaenzer came in the start the third. The freshman allowed a two-out single in each inning, but nothing more. Schaenzer added four strikeouts and walked none.
Next in line was Pop, another freshman. He was nearly as good as Schaenzer, but a pair of doubles in the eighth plated the Norse's lone run.
With Kentucky's lead cut to 3-1, the offense scored two in the bottom of the eighth before Wilson closed it out in the ninth.
Offensively, the game was just as clean and well-rounded for Kentucky. Eleven hits distributed among nine players, and the five runs were scored and batted in by a combined seven Wildcats.
"We came up with a couple of key hits when it mattered," Henderson said. Greg [Fettes'] hit in the eighth was huge. It was certainly a lot better than the offensive showing on Sunday. We were able to get some guys some at-bats and get some hits and drive in some runs with guys on base. That was nice. Obviously that was a little bit of a battle for us on Sunday, but they did a nice job today."
Fettes, in his first at-bat of the game, launched a two-run home run in the eighth. The shot to left scored Wilson and came a half-inning after Northern Kentucky scored its only run.
The offense got a quick start to the game in the first, as Kyle Barrett singled to lead off the game. He scored on White's double, who scored on a JaVon Shelby groundout. Four batters into the game for the Wildcats and they held a 2-0 lead. UK's lead grew to 3-0 after White scored in the fifth.
It was a big win for Kentucky because of what's next. Wednesday's day off includes a trip to Missouri, where the Wildcats open a three-game set on Thursday. Then, the postseason begins at the SEC Tournament on Tuesday.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes still up in the air, Kentucky will need some wins this weekend against the Tigers. However, the Wildcats will have some momentum on their side as they take the field for the final time in the regular season.
"It's a lot better than not having the win," Henderson said of momentum going into the Missouri series. "Hopefully we'll go from this and we just have to play well. We're very capable of playing well on the road, and the team knows that. That'll be our job, that's our challenge, and we need to go to Columbia and play well."
With series wins in two of its last three three-game road SEC series, UK certainly knows how to play well on the road. That should only add to the momentum.
The Kentucky softball team is headed to Notre Dame.
Making their seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats were sent to the South Bend Regional during Sunday night's Selection Show. UK will open tournament play against Northwestern at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, with host and No. 16 seed Notre Dame taking on Ball State afterward.