For a week in late May, a group of three Kentucky football players -- Bud Dupree, Landon Foster and Braylon Heard -- went one of two service trips to Ethiopia sponsored each summer by the UK Athletics Department accompanied by Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Jason Schlafer and Senior Athletic Trainer Gabe Amponsah. Foster, a junior punter, described his experience in a series of diary entries for Cat Scratches that will be published this week. Please note that these posts are Foster's personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics.
To start, Foster describes three days of their journey, from a stop in Washington, D.C., to a long day of travel to their first hours in Ethiopia.
Day one - D.C.
Today was somewhat of a start on our Ethiopian journey. We made it all the way to Washington, D.C., with a stop in Cincinnati.
After landing, we claimed our bags and hopped on the hotel-airport shuttle bus to take us to our hotel. before our private tour of Washington, D.C. After getting settled, we walked outside of the hotel and were greeted by our friendly Egyptian tour guide, Zuma.
Trying to retain all of the information that Zuma was giving to us was impossible. I actually ended up with a headache as soon as we arrived at our first stop, the United States Air Force Memorial. This memorial was beautiful and consisted of three very tall half arches that were outwardly curved in the center of two marble slab walls 40 yards to each side of the main arch attraction guarded by hulking statues of soldiers.
We left the U.S. Air Force Memorial and drove right past the Arlington National Cemetery that was located directly across the street and occupies an absurd amount of acreage. We then headed to downtown and passed the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol along with multiple historic buildings and monuments that featured some of the most amazing architecture I've ever seen.
We ultimately ended up stopping at only two more memorials, the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, which honors an individual that had more influence on civil rights and equality than I can even comprehend. Quotes from Dr. King lined the marble walls surrounding his statue, and my favorite was, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." This quote speaks so much truth to our nation as a whole, as well as to me personally.
After a great dinner, we took a taxi back to the hotel. Now, here I am, typing this journal entry while half-watching this Miami Heat-Indiana Pacers Game 2, after what would typically be a long day of traveling in my mind. Just thinking about tomorrow is exhausting. Now time to get some rest before waking up in seven hours to get to the airport to fly on a plane for twice that long...or I might just stay up so I can sleep on the plane. Either way, today was an enjoyable, entertaining and fulfilling start of the trip.
Day two - Wheels up to Ethiopia
Welp, there's not a better time than now to write my journal entry of today than now...since we'll technically spend over 20 hours on this plane - 13 on the plane and seven more crossing time zones. Today started early, around 6:30, to get up, pack, get some breakfast and take the shuttle to the airport. The flight wasn't until 11:00, but since it is an international flight, we were supposed to be there three hours early.
So far, this plane ride has been pretty smooth, and we are about four-and-a-half hours in. I've passed the time with Sports Illustrated articles, a ton of music and watching a movie. Now, here I am, typing this journal entry with my knees against this seat in front of me as a lady has already leaned her chair back as far as it can to go, and she is now trying to force the chair back even further, pushing with all of her will. I almost feel bad for 6-foot-4, 275-pound Bud Dupree sitting to my left in the dead middle of the plane while all 6-2 and 200 pounds of me has the aisle seat. Typical of me, I had so much planned and high hopes for getting things accomplished during this everlasting flight. However, since it is already around 11:00 p.m. Ethiopian time, I am going to head to the back of the plane, get in a couple stretches, go to the bathroom, and try to get some rest before landing around 7:30 a.m. Ethiopian time with a full day planned tomorrow.
And...here's a morning update: First, I have slept maybe a total of an hour and a half during the 12-plus hours we have been in the air thus far. Right now, my computer reads 11:10 p.m., which means it is around 6:10 a.m. Ethiopian time, and the last time I had any bit of sleep was about three hours ago. Since then I have finished one Sports Illustrated magazine, eaten breakfast and watched "Invictus," the story of Nelson Mandela's release from prison and his support of the South African National Rugby Team before and during the 1995 World Cup.
I couldn't help but notice some similarities between what we are doing on this trip to what was represented by the movie. President Mandela was so supportive of the team, because he believed backing the team for the World Cup would help unite the divided Republic of South Africa. It was during this time that he urged, well, demanded, the national team (which only had one black player on the roster) to go out to less fortunate villages and run youth rugby "camps." These villages, which were mostly made up of less fortunate black citizens in South Africa, knew very little about rugby, but fell in love with Chester, the lone black player on the team.
It was amazing seeing the nation coming together throughout the entire movie to support the national team. Also, the joy on the children's faces was unparalleled, and I hope that we as a group of football players from the University of Kentucky can instill half of the happiness that the team did in "Invictus." Now, it is around 6:30 a.m. Ethiopian time, and we are about 45 minutes from landing and starting (continuing) our day of events.
Day 3 - Only the beginning
Looking back on today, I don't even really know how or when to begin.
We landed in Ethiopia around 8 a.m. local time after a 14-hour flight during which none of us, other than Jason, got more than two hours of sleep total. Once we landed, we proceeded to go through customs. After making it through and claiming our bags, we were greeted by our photographer for the trip, Jeff. He guided us through the airport parking lot to our large van guarded by the rest of our group, guides and interpreters. We quickly loaded the bus with our luggage and headed to the guesthouse where we are staying, the Addis Guesthouse.
Once we arrived, we dropped our bags off in our rooms and headed downstairs and outside to consume our second breakfast of the morning. After breakfast, we quickly changed, packed up our gear, boarded the bus and began our 15-minute ride to a local community center. Demmis, the founder of the program that provides support to local widows, greeted us when we arrived. We were divided into three different teams to perform different tasks. Braylon and our interpreter/friend Girma were chosen, with the help of an expert in the area, to re-roof the grass roof on the round cultural house right outside of the church. Bud, Brett and another of our Ethiopian friends, Kaleab, went along with one carpenter, while Gabe, our Ethiopian friend Wario and I teamed up with another carpenter to perform both fixes and upgrades to mud stucco houses.
Our house needed one of the mud walls to be torn down and lots more work. After redesigning the infrastructure of that wall, we nailed heavy plastic tarp around the inside of this 8-foot by 8-foot house to keep it dry.
Imagining staying one night in one of these houses, or shelters, is hard to comprehend by itself. That reality sets in even more during days like today, in the midst of the rainy season where it gets very windy and chilly along with the daily storms. The joy shown by these Ethiopians affected by such poverty is an amazing sight to see that can only make people like me more thankful for what I have.
One common theme throughout the day today was how important interaction and the idea of togetherness are in this community. Coffee, even though it is expensive, is served as a ritual around three times a day, which forms bonds as they typically travel hut to hut or house to house each time during the day. Their happiness in the community truly is a testament to their connectedness to one another.
After finishing up all of the repairs on the houses, each group returned to the community center, and we were greeted by a line of beautiful widows and a few of their children. It was then when you could truly see the thankfulness and sense of relief on each of their faces when we handed out bags filled with food, bed sheets and a blanket, as well as a mattress and bed frame set to some. That was a very exciting moment for me, because you get to see the widow's reaction to being gifted food and a place to sleep first hand. Clean bed sheets, a pillow, and even a mattress are all things that I definitely have taken for granted growing up in ever-so-sheltered Franklin, Tenn.
After finishing passing out "the goodies," a couple of the widows needed help getting their newfound sleeping arrangements back to their houses, so we all lent a hand, or two, walking at least 20 minutes one way to drop off one woman's new possessions.
From there, we walked back to the Church, picked up our bags, and boarded the bus to get back to the Addis Guesthouse, where we ended up eating a wonderful group dinner with our Ethiopian friends. Here, we were finally able to connect to Wi-Fi for the first time since landing in Ethiopia, allowing us to contact our friends and family to ensure them we had arrived safely. The rest of the dinner was spent talking about sports, reflecting on the sights and events of the day, and discussing plans for tomorrow. But now, it is time to rest. At last, a good night's sleep hopefully lies in front of me. Until tomorrow.
The Kentucky volleyball team's time in China is running short, so the Wildcats navigated a packed schedule on Tuesday.
The morning began with breakfast before UK's final match in China. Facing a Beijing team that featured former AVCA Player of the Year and Oregon outside hitter Alaina Bergsma, the Cats dropped a tough one.
Last match of the trip tmrw morning vs #7 team in China pro league, Hyundai Beijing. #UKVBtoChina
Following the match and a stop for lunch, the team visited the Temple of Heaven, a complex of religious buildings originally constructed in the 15th century. From there, it was time for one last shopping trip at the Silk Market in downtown Beijing.
In the evening, the Cats gathered for a closing dinner at an Italian restaurant to recap the trip and say thank you to the hosts and guides who made it all possible. On Wednesday, it's back to America. UK's flight will leave in the afternoon and, oddly, land in Chicago around the same time.
We should have more on the trip in the coming days and weeks, but this will be the last official entry from an incredible experience for the UK volleyball team. Thank you for following along!
Before we let you go, check out this video from a couple days ago of UK's karaoke night.
UK advanced to the first Women's College World Series in school history in 2014. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Having just seen the season end, Rachel Lawson took time to reflect on exactly how special 2014 had been for Kentucky softball.
Women's College World Series berth. Fifty wins. A trip to the Southeastern Conference title game. The list of firsts goes on.
Nonetheless, Lawson's nature meant the wheels in her head couldn't help but keep turning.
"Well, I'm always a learner, so I'm already preparing for next year," Lawson said.
Her words came moments after a heartbreaking 8-7 defeat at the hands of Baylor during which the Wildcats gave up a seven-run sixth-inning lead. Kelsey Nunley, as she had throughout the tournament, threw every pitch even as the Lady Bears adjusted to her electric stuff.
"It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done because I knew that I was physically giving my all but just wasn't going the way I wanted to," Nunley said.
Noticing that, fans watching at home -- many of whom discovered the sport through UK's magical postseason run -- questioned why Nunley remained in the game. The sophomore, after all, had thrown upwards of 1,600 pitches in NCAA play.
The always-honest Lawson admitted she made a mistake with her pitching staff, but she says her error came well before the first pitch of Saturday's elimination game. Given her well-placed faith in Nunley, Lawson only felt comfortable with one of her pitchers actually pitching, no matter the talent of Lauren Cumbess, Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith.
"The mistake with me is that I didn't prepare them to come in, so the reason I went with Kelsey is because I'm comfortable with what they were doing," Lawson said. "They were timing her and squaring up and they had me figured out, so a change would have been great but I didn't prepare them for that situation and it was too unpredictable."
For ascendant softball programs that's not unprecedented, but it is a lesson for Lawson.
"Moving forward I realize in order to win the World Series you have to make sure that you have a staff prepared and I think you're going to see that moving forward with Alabama and you're going to see it moving forward with Florida," Lawson said. "When I watch what they did. What they did is really smart. They prepared all their pitchers for this moment but, they had to get there the first time and the first time they were in the show they pretty much rode one arm."
The two teams referenced by Lawson will play for the national championship this week. Florida and Alabama, however, are far from first timers, combining for 16 Women's College World Series appearances.
It's Lawson's goal to establish UK as a program that makes similarly regular trips to Oklahoma City and competes for titles, but the Cats had to take a first step to get there on the strength of Nunley's right arm.
"I think it's really hard to go to the World Series," Lawson said. "I think learning how to go to regionals and then learning how to host and then learning how to go to supers is all very difficult, but it's a whole other level when you have to figure out how to go to the World Series.
"So I feel proud for this team because they are the first team in Kentucky history that's figured out how to go to the show and I think that's very special."
Logan Salow allowed just one run over six innings in UK's season-ending loss to Louisville on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson called freshman Logan Salow's number Sunday evening to start the regional final vs. in-state rival Louisville, and Salow did not disappoint.
The lights were never too bright for the southpaw who had only thrown 25 innings all season.
Making just his second-career start, the Ashland, Ky., native tossed a career-high six innings, while only allowing one run on five hits. Salow threw 95 pitches in the game after a previous career high of 63, which also came against the Cardinals back on April 15 in a winning effort. In his brief UK career, he had never thrown more than 3.2 innings in a single game.
When it seemed like Louisville would finally break through, Salow continually got himself out of jams, twice with double plays and twice by retiring American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jeff Gardner with the bases loaded, including one of those by strike out.
"I thought it was tremendous, I really did," said Henderson. "That's six innings against a really good opponent. ... He got strikeouts on changeups. He threw the ball off the plate to induce the double-play when we were trying to do that. He made pitches and I was really proud of him."
Salow has come a long way from the start of the season and a performance like this will only do wonders for his confidence as he enters his sophomore campaign, though he was the hard-luck loser as the Wildcats saw their season end with a 4-1 defeat.
"He hadn't done anything like that this year and to be able to do it against a club like Louisville, it's significant and that's going to help him," Henderson said. "He'll draw upon that next fall. In athletics you have to do it -- you can talk all you want about practice and the skills are getting better and all those things -- but you've got to do it in a competitive environment and even more significantly if you do it in a hostile environment or a sense of heightened awareness."
What makes the performance even more remarkable is that the team, and even Henderson for that matter, didn't know what to expect from Salow. With a limited amount of pitchers available for the game, Henderson was going to have to piece together a pitching staff to force a game on Monday.
Salow delivered and then some for his team.
"I'm not sure I expected anything," Henderson said. "I know what I was hoping for and I was hoping for three (innings) clean. If we could get that then I felt like we could go, two (innings), two (innings) and two (innings) with three guys, but to get six with one run and hold them to four on the night with where we were on game four, I think I probably would have signed that deal going into it."
After the third inning, Salow strolled back to the mound. Then came the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth. Most people in the stands were probably second-guessing the head coach for sending Salow back out there after clawing his way out of jams in basically every one of those innings. And every time he made Henderson look like a genius.
The Wildcats' future is bright with two freshmen pitchers gaining valuable experience in the NCAA Tournament this weekend. Along with Salow's performance in the nightcap, fellow freshman Zack Brown helped UK reach the regional final after defeating Kansas in an elimination game earlier in the day.
When it looked like Kentucky's chances of advancing were slim, two of maybe the unlikeliest guys stepped for the Wildcats.
don't think you could have drawn up better freshman starts than what we
got today," Henderson said. "Pretty amazing today from Zack Brown and
Logan Salow in this environment against those teams."
Brown's final line won't look as spectacular as Salow's, but Brown gave UK exactly what it needed to advance. The Seymour, Ind., native was able to pitch with a sizable lead for a large portion of the game en route to five innings pitched and four runs allowed, which all came in the sixth inning when he was running on fumes.
"It gives you hope, but I didn't need that to make my vision for those kids any more clear," Henderson said. "I have a pretty good idea where they're (Brown and Salow) going at least in my mind. It's more significant for them I think. When you pitch well in a regional that sticks with you. I have a high opinion of those two kids both as people and as pitchers. They're going to be good."
A.J. Reed, who saw his remarkable season and potentially UK career end -- he's a draft-eligible junior likely to be selected in the early rounds -- has a similar appraisal of his school's future.
"I think they've got a lot of upside in the future," Reed said. "We've got some young guys that can hit and we've definitely got some young arms in the freshman and sophomore class who can definitely pitch. I think some of these guys are going to be able to step up and take over the staff when some of us older guys are gone."
The Kentucky volleyball finally made its way to China's capital city on Sunday and didn't waste any time seeing the sights in Beijing.
The Wildcats toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and shopped at the Silk Market in an informative day for the team. Taking advantage of the more the 1,700 retail vendors, the Cats bought plenty of keepsakes from the trip and gifts for friends and family.
Afterward, it was time for some rest because UK has a big day ahead on Monday. The Cats will tour the Great Wall and visit the Olympic Village from the 2008 games.
UK was eliminated in the Women's College World Series with an 8-7 loss to Baylor on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY - There Ginny Carroll and Griffin Joiner were, sitting in their hotel room in the wee hours of the morning.
UK had just clinched its first-ever Women's College World Series berth with a Sunday sweep of UCLA and sleep just wasn't happening. Naturally, Carroll and Joiner flipped the television to ESPN, where the Wildcats' game-three victory was being re-aired.
Carroll, caught up the joy of the moment, turned to Joiner.
"I told Griffin no matter what happened from here on out I didn't think it was possible that I could be sad," Carroll said.
What Carroll didn't see coming was how things would change when UK arrived in Oklahoma City.
When she came to softball's biggest stage, Carroll quickly realized she wanted more. It became clear, in spite of what she thought on Sunday, that it would hurt if UK didn't win a national championship.
"Once you got here and practiced and played and you tasted it, then the bar is raised from making it to the World Series to winning the World Series," Carroll said. "Once you've tasted that, it's--I mean, you just want to win it."
UK did end up falling short of that national title, and it happened even more painfully than anyone could have predicted.
Riding an aggressive approach at the plate and a big day from their seniors, UK built a 7-0 lead on Baylor in an elimination game. Emily Gaines started it with a home run, hitting a second-inning home run on the first pitch she saw not even 24 hours after watching a crucial called strike three in a loss to Alabama. Fellow seniors Carroll and Krystal Smith would add homers of their own and the Cats appeared poise to cruise to a win with Kelsey Nunley dealing in the circle, per usual.
"I just thought we were facing a team destined to win and there was nothing we could do about it," Baylor head coach Glenn Moore said.
In the bottom of the sixth, things changed.
Entering the inning, Nunley had allowed just seven hits in 19 innings of work in the College World Series. The Lady Bears, however, smacked six singles to plate three runs. An inning later, with a solo home run, two doubles, a walk and the help of a fielding error, Baylor tied the game and sent it extra innings.
The Lady Bears would win it in the eighth, 8-7, when Joiner's throw to first on a sacrifice bunt went into right field.
"Obviously this was a hard one for us," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "This isn't the way we wanted it to go down, especially having so many runs early. But I'm really proud of this team."
Lawson has every reason to be proud.
By any reasonable measure, 2014 was the best season in the history of Kentucky softball. Not only did the Cats advance to the Women's College World Series and the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time, they did it while piling up a school-record 50 wins.
"I think this team has done something special," Lawson said.
The same can be said about UK's senior class.
Smith, Carroll, Gaines, Lauren Cumbess, Emily Jolly and Sarah Frazer have played important roles in the ascendance of UK softball onto the national stage, though they might not all have been stars or even full-time starters.
"We don't have any All-Americans in our class," Carroll said. "We're not 100-percent studs, but I think the biggest thing we are is we're tough. We have been in and out of the lineup our whole careers, but at the end I think we all brought our 'A' game and at the end of the day I know we're the toughest class around."
Tough as they may be, this is the end of the line for these seniors. Nonetheless, they'll rest easier than they did last Sunday.
"I don't think there is enough words to express what this means to us personally and for all our seniors," Smith said. "It brings us comfort to know that this senior class and this 2014 softball team has made an indelible imprint on the Kentucky softball program, and I think we can go home knowing that. We can move forward."
So too can the program, and the future is bright.
With the experience of finally reaching Oklahoma City for the first time, return trips seem likely. Nunley, though she ran out of gas in the late innings after a long NCAA Tournament, will be back in the circle next season.
Carroll will be watching.
"I told Skeeter after the game, she has two years left so I expect big things," Carroll said. "No pressure."
Welcome celebration Sunday at John Cropp Stadium
Soon after the loss on Saturday, UK announced plans to hold a welcome home celebration for the team at 1:30 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium on Twitter.
.@UKsoftball's welcome celebration is set for 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday at John Cropp Stadium. We can't wait to see the #BBN there.
A.J. Reed threw a complete game and plated UK's first run of the game in the ninth inning against Kent State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- It took until the very last possible batter, but Kentucky finally got the better of Kent State on the diamond following a gutty 4-2 win in an elimination game of the Louisville Regional.
If it looked and felt like a familiar game, you weren't alone. The two teams have met now three times in the last two years in a regional with the three games being decided by a grand total of four runs. UK had been on the losing end of the first two meetings that came with its fair share of drama. Kent State outlasted UK in the opening game of the 2012 Gary Regional in 21 innings and then sent UK home for good in the regional championship game on a controversial home run in the eighth inning.
This time would be different, even if it didn't look like it for the first two hours of the game.
"It was nice to beat them," said junior starting pitcher and National Player of the Year A.J. Reed. "They gave us a little trouble in 2012, so it was good to come out here and get that win and have that ninth inning."
UK's offense was stagnant all afternoon, mustering just three hits until the ninth inning, but when the game was on the line the Wildcats staved off elimination for at least one more day. As the team has done all year long, Kentucky battled till the very end and the Wildcats showed their mettle with their backs against the wall.
After failing to get anything going offensively through the first eight innings, UK would not go down without a fight.
"I'm really proud of our guys," said UK head coach Gary Henderson. "I felt like we would come around like I always do. Sometimes it doesn't happen, but with this group most of the time it has, especially offensively. I think a very unbiased opinion would be A.J. was outstanding. It's cliche but big-time players step up when you need them and we need A.J. today and he gave it to us."
Following a one-out single from Max Kuhn to start the ninth inning, Reed drove him in from second, after a balk, with a double to the right-center gap for the first run of the game. The clutch hit from Reed was just what the Wildcats needed from their star player.
Not only was the hit big for the team, but for Reed as well. Entering today's game, Reed was in the midst of a minor slump that saw him going six games without an RBI and tally just three hits in his last 18 at-bats.
"It was kind of a surreal feeling when I walked up and Max was on first base with one out and everybody got a little bit louder," Reed said. "I'm sure running through everybody's mind was a home run, but I was just trying to get on base and extend the inning for us."
With two outs and the bases loaded, Thomas Bernal stepped into the box and delivered a soft liner down the left field line for the go-ahead two-run double. Matt Reida, the very next batter, would then give UK one more insurance run on a sharp grounder through the left side to score Storm Wilson, while Bernal was thrown out at the plate trying to score as well.
On the mound, Reed threw his first-career complete game in giving up only two runs and striking out three, while only throwing 107 pitches. In fact, Reed never got to a single three-ball count against any Kent State batter. After allowing two runs on four hits to the first four batters in the first inning, he would retire 14 straight batters, while giving up no more runs and only three hits the rest of the way.
The win now gives UK some much needed confidence entering another elimination game on Sunday.
"It definitely gives us a lot of momentum," Reed said. "Right now we just have to be able to ride the high that we're on and take that momentum into the next game whoever we're playing. Whoever we're pitching is going to throw well. I think they'll be able to feed off how I pitched today and we're going to be pretty confident at the plate after that inning. I think it's going to give us a lot of momentum."
Coming into today's contest, Kentucky was 0-21 when trailing after eight innings this season. Big wins that come late in ball games can have a carry-over effect. That's exactly what UK is banking on for the remainder of this regional.
"I think any time you win a game late, kids feel good," Henderson said. "Everybody feels good. Your fans feel good, the coaches and the players. Winning late or losing late has a greater impact. I think it does in all sports. We'll feel good tonight. We'll feel good going to the ballpark tomorrow morning and if we score early, then you start riding that thing out."
Kentucky will face another stiff challenge on Sunday against the loser of Louisville and Kansas for the right to go to the championship series of the regional and would have to beat the winner of Louisville or Kansas twice in that championship series. In UK's seven previous regional appearances, the Wildcats have bounced back to make the regional championship in five of those.
So, knowing UK's history in past regionals, don't count out the Wildcats just yet.