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.
Kara Dill and Alice O'Brien
We just posted a release with details on Meilinger's career and hope to have a feature on him Wednesday. In the mean time, here's his hall of fame bio from the National Football Foundation:
University of Kentucky
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.
Also, check out Mark Story's piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Meilinger's time at quarterback from a few years ago.
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
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."
(Note: Includes student-athletes who received degrees after their completing eligibility.)
Zac Zellers (Will complete coursework this summer)
(Note: 2012 seniors Mikie Benton, Gabe Correll, Gene McCaskill, Morgan Newton, Cartier Rice, Collins Ukwu, Steven Duff and Sam Simpson graduated previously.)
Jarrod Polson (Graduated in three years)
(Note: Jamal Mashburn also received an honorary doctorate of humanities.)
Men's swimming and diving
Kara Dill (Graduate degree in exercise science)
Track and field
Ben Mason (Will complete coursework this summer)
Josh Nadzam (Masters of social work)
No graduates this weekend, but seniors Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann had already graduated.
Women's swimming and diving
Record Last Week: 1-2, 1-2 SEC
Friday, May 3 - lost vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 2-1
Saturday, May 4 - lost vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 5-3
Saturday, May 4 - won vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 4-3
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern)
Tuesday, May 7 - vs. Wright State - 6:30 p.m.
Friday, May 10 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 11 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 7 p.m.
Sunday, May 12 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 1 p.m.
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.
Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) completed its finals week during the previous week, leading to no midweek tilts before the Arkansas series. The Wildcats welcomed the Razorbacks and their NCAA's leading pitching staff to Cliff Hagan Stadium on Friday. Arkansas won the opener, 2-1 with the impending weather forcing a doubleheader on Saturday. UK lost the middle game of the series and the opener of the doubleheader, 5-3, before rebounding with a 4-3 win in the finale on Zac Zellers walk-off single in the ninth.
The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of non-league 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. Slugger A.J. Reed has hit .302 with eight doubles, two triples, 11 homers and 47 RBI, owning a 2-6 record and a 2.84 ERA on the mound as the Friday-night starter. J.T. Riddle has hit .286 with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 19 RBI, stealing six bases, while outfielder Zac Zellers owns a .255 mark with three doubles, three homers and 25 RBI. Austin Cousino leads the team with 11 doubles and has hit .247, with one triple, six homers and 25 RBI, stealing 12 bases.
In relief for UK, senior righty Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.73 ERA) has appeared in 23 games, with Trevor Gott (4-1, 1.33 ERA) owning 10 saves in 20 outings. Sophomore righty Chandler Shepherd (4-0, 3.22 ERA) has appeared in 20 games and tossed 44.2 innings, with freshmen Ryne Combs (0-0, 1.37 ERA), Zach Strecker (1-1, 2.40 ERA), Kyle Cody (3-2, 4.86 ERA) and Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 4.38 ERA) each having impacts in their collegiate debuts.