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Celis ready to take next step

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Bryan Celis. Photo by Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics Bryan Celis. Photo by Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics
By Brent Ingram

Kentucky's 2014 men's soccer team features four upperclassmen on a youthful roster with high hopes for the upcoming season.

Because of the nature of the roster, those four upperclassmen will be counted on to shoulder a large share of the leadership burden.

Among them is junior midfielder Bryan Celis, a talented product of Houston's Mayde Creek High School.

Celis enters his junior season after starring in the midfield for the Wildcats the last two seasons. Celis is coming off a sophomore campaign that was limited to 12 starts due to injury. Despite missing time, Celis totaled three assists, including a pass that set up on the game-winning goal in the season opener vs. Georgia State.

A 5-foot-8, 159 pounder, Celis stepped right into the UK lineup as a freshman in 2012, helping pace the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. Celis played in all 21 games in his collegiate debut, with 11 starts as an attacking midfielder and forward. Celis finished with a goal and four assists. His four assists ranked second on the club.

"Coming in my freshman year I didn't know what to expect," Celis said. "I didn't know much about college soccer so it was all basically new to me. Now that I've spent three years here, I've learned a lot, how to manage my time with school and soccer, what to expect on and off the field, being a leader, being one of the older guys, and having to teach the young guns how things are done around here."

Celis joined the UK roster after a standout prep career in Houston. He saw time on the US U-17, U-15 and U-14 national teams, while TopDrawerSoccer.com ranked him as the 75th-best player in the class. He also saw time with the Dallas Texans in the US Soccer Development Academy.

"We all come from different backgrounds and different playing styles," Celis said. "Johan (Cedergren) really looks up to players the come from MLS academy teams. Me being one of them, he knows that I know the right things to do on and off the field. He believes that I can be a huge leader in the team and he wants me to teach the other guys how to overcome some of the obstacles that they are going to face and tell them to keep working hard and always being there for them and helping them play at 100 percent."

An obvious strength of the Kentucky squad entering 2014 is its defense, which is led by preseason All-Conference USA goalkeeper Callum Irving. Irving will help anchor the backline, along with talented returning starters Jordan Wilson, Charlie Reymann and Kaelon Fox.

"Having Callum back this year is going to be a great help to us," Celis said. "Cally has been with the Vancouver Whitecaps training all summer. Having Jordan, Fox and Cally back there is going to be a good help this year just because we all played together last year. We are a little bit more familiar with each other and our strengths and weaknesses. And same in the midfield with Kristoffer (Tollefsen), we all know how we play, we all know our strengths and we try to play towards our strengths so we are not exposed and vulnerable against teams."

As Kentucky gets ready for the 2014 season, one dominant storyline is the debut season of the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex.

"We are really excited," Celis said about opening up the new stadium. "I am sure I am speaking for everybody, we got the help through Mitch Barnhart and others who were kind enough to donate money to the stadium. New team, new training facilities, everything has us excited to get back to the season and start playing again. That is pretty much what we came here to do, is play soccer."

Kentucky opens its 2014 season on Friday at Wright State at 7 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then debut the Bell Complex on Sunday at 5 p.m. vs. Belmont.

Video: Eckstein, Henderson meet with media

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ECKSTEIN

HENDERSON

2 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Craig Skinner

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SKINNER_TWITTER-FACEBOOK.jpgLeading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. The final feature is head coach Craig Skinner:

"Kentucky volleyball is a culture of great people that are striving to be the best.  Our staff and players over the years have created an environment of achievement and success.  We collectively work daily to be elite and become better than yesterday.  Each year, athletes join us who are willing to embrace that concept."

Head coach Craig Skinner enters his 10th season at the helm. With 202 career victories in Lexington, Skinner sits just eight wins shy of becoming the program's all-time winningest coach. He has led the Wildcats to a school-record nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a feat only 12 other schools in the nation have achieved. He has directed UK to three Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2009 and was named the 2011 AVCA All-South Region Coach of the Year. Kentucky has won 17 or more matches in each of Skinner's nine seasons, including 20 or more victories in six of the last seven campaigns.

Preseason Team Update: August 27, 2014
Today is the first day of class, and the Wildcats have their last day off of the 2014 preseason. The team will be back in the gym tomorrow, preparing for Friday's season-opener vs. Wichita State.

Cat Scratches, the Official Blog of UK Athletics, has a feature on the team. By Guy Ramsey, the article looks back on the team's trip to China earlier in the summer and how that has helped the team during preseason practice.

Yesterday was media day UK volleyball. Head coach Craig Skinner, seniors Jackie Napper and Lauren O'Conner and junior Morgan Bergren met with the media to preview the upcoming season. Video from the event can be viewed here.


For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVB and on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.



Craig Skinner was visiting with his assistants earlier this week about Kentucky's run of practices leading up to the 2014 season.

There have been up and downs, to be sure, but the coaching staff could find little to complain about in the effort department.

"The coaches kind of said that we really haven't had a day where the concentration and intent to perform wasn't there, and that's fairly unusual because you go so hard for so long and a short period of time that you're bound to have some days where it's not really focused and energetic," Skinner said. "But that hasn't been the case."

If you ask Skinner or the Wildcats themselves, that has a lot to do with a cultural exchange trip to China the team took in May. For two weeks, UK toured the Far East on a journey that combined high-level volleyball, education about the nation they visited and plenty of team bonding.

"It went really well. We played professional teams over there which was even more experience," senior outside hitter Lauren O'Conner said. "It's great that we were able to get experience with the team that we had without the seniors (from the 2013 season) to get even more practice with us and to build the chemistry on the court playing together with a new lineup. So I think it helped out a lot both physically and mentally."

That's especially true on defense.

Given the experience and talent of the opponents they faced in China, the Wildcats learned quickly no points would be given to them. That resulted in some losses, including a 3-0 defeat in their final match with each set being decided after a deuce point, but also a new mentality in practice this August.

"We've talked about how this could be the best defensive team we've had here at Kentucky," Skinner said. "I think part of it is talent, but I think also that it is because all but three of the girls (true freshmen Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek and Darian Mack) saw firsthand how hard it was to win a rally over there and that you have to work for it."

The Cats won't go up against any teams as veteran as the ones they saw in China, but UK won't get much of a reprieve to start the season or really at any point during the 2014 season. In hosting two tournaments in Memorial Coliseum to start the season, the Cats will go up against three teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament, including Wichita State in Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET season opener and Elite Eight participant USC next week.

UK will have to do it without Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan, two players honored as All-Americans last season who have since graduated.

"We've had to adapt a little bit, to change our style a little bit and I think our players understand and appreciate that challenge and are certainly embracing it and we're finding new ways," Skinner said. "Now it's just putting all of it to the test when we finally play against outside competition to see if those things have worked."

Even without Billings and Morgan, it's not as if UK is devoid of experience.

The Cats return five of seven starters from last year's team, which reached the tournament for a record ninth season in a row. Leading the way will be O'Conner, senior libero Jackie Napper and setter Morgan Bergren.

"We have a core group of people on the court that are working together," Napper said. "Morgan's a junior, but she's really stepped up to be a leader, as well as other underclassmen and upperclassmen. So together, we all try to figure out what works best with this team, ways to lead others, and ways to bring others on board."

UK's roster features a mix of veterans and players who will look to contribute for the first time, with seven seniors or juniors and five freshmen. Skinner doesn't downplay the importance of experience, but he also doesn't believe it's the most important thing once the ball is served.

"I think in our case, probably the most important thing in all of our athletes is that they're talented and motivated," Skinner said. "So whether they've been here for four years or just beginning, we feel very good about the group of people that we have and now it's about getting on the court Friday and seeing what it's all about for us this year."

Transcript: Rick Eckstein Joins Big Blue Insider

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Baseball_newcoach (2).jpg Newest Kentucky baseball assistant coach Rick Eckstein joined Dick Gabriel's Big Blue Insider on Tuesday night. Eckstein talked about his time as a big-league hitting coach with the Washington Nationals from 2009-13 and his last year with the Los Angeles Angels and UK baseball great Collin Cowgill.

On why he would leave the big leagues to come to the SEC ...
"That's an easy question. To reconnect with Gary Henderson and be in the SEC. Raise my family here in Lexington. There are just so many positives; I can go on and on."

On his previous relationship with Gary Henderson at Florida ...
"He recruited me as a preferred walk-on. Made the team and earned my way. We ended up finishing third in the country that year. When the year was over, I was offered the opportunity as a volunteer assistant coach and that is where I really got to work side by side with Gary and see how he went about his day. And right away I recognized why we were so good. Gary is meticulous, just so knowledgeable. Gary was our recruiting coordinator and we were just getting so many great players. As my career unfolded we stayed in touch and this opportunity came up and my wife and I looked at each other and said this is the right opportunity for us. I couldn't be happier. We are here in Lexington and looking forward to raising our family here and settling down in Lexington. Jumping in head first the last few days has been great, getting to meet the staff and the players, I just couldn't be more excited."

On following along with UK when it soared to its first No. 1 national ranking in 2012 ...
"It doesn't surprise me. I know Gary. I know what Gary stands for and I know what he is going to build. When I had the opportunity to be a part of that I didn't even hesitate. I knew it was where I needed to be. On a side note, being with the Angels and Collin Cowgill being on the major league roster, I got to talk extensively with him about his time at Kentucky. And Collin is just a wonderful human being and just an outstanding player on top of it. It is no wonder the Angels are right there in first place because he is a part of that. He brings that type of attitude with him. And that is what Kentucky baseball represents and he is representing UK in the big leagues with that same attitude."

On working with Collin Cowgill as he impacted the Los Angeles Angels ...
"Having worked under Mike Scioscia and knowing his philosophy. It's everything that I believe in, and Gary too. It's the character of the player. It's the work ethic. It's the attention to detail. It's the commitment to excellence. Its giving it everything you have for your teammates. That is what Mike Scioscia values for his system. And when Collin came over in spring training and was earning a spot on the team, it was visible from day one that this guy was going to help us win. Whether it was coming off the bench to steal a base, or coming off the bench to get a bunt down. Or whether he was going to hit the game-winning home run like he did against Oakland earlier in the season. He had every trick in his bag and that is because of the development Gary and his staff had in the program. It is just a wonderful process that you can see in Collin."

On his relationship with Albert Pujols ...
"Well Albert and I were able to work together through the years. My brother was a part of the St. Louis Cardinals and I was around them for a lot of time and then in 2007 I was hired by St. Louis and got to see Albert 1-on-1 for a good portion of the season. He has a work ethic that is second to none; his attention to detail. He would not let anything go. He wants to know everything and he will work until he figures it out. Our relationship blossomed because of one at-bat. It was against Carlos Zambrano and needless to say he did a few things to get himself in position and the rest is history from our relationship standpoint. We reconnected again with Anaheim and from day one it was the same type of approach, the same mentality, the same work ethic. He showed up every day with the same commitment on day one that he has on day 162 and more. It is phenomenal."

On how much he can talk with UK's hitters about his big-league experience ...
"No you are absolutely right. This is about JaVon Shelby. This is about Zach Arnold. This isn't about Albert and Collin. It is my job to understand our guys as a person and a player. Get inside their head and understand their mindset. I believe in coaching as a two-way street. We are both going to understand each other so we have a great line of communication and dialog. The buy in is going to be easy, they are going to understand where I am coming from and I am going to understand where they are coming from. That respect is where you gain miles and miles of knowledge and acceptance and everything that comes with achieving the goals that come with that. I am sure players are going to want to know about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Barry Bonds and all the guys that I have had the great fortune to work with. But at the same time, I am going to focus on our players and I am going to use the knowledge I have working with those guys to talk about adjustments. To talk about mindset, the mentality, about the character it takes and the understanding that failure is a part of how to be successful and how do you handle the tough moments and how do you rise to the top. That is all a part of the message."

On if UK's offense has some big pieces to replace in former stars AJ Reed and Austin Cousino ...
"Absolutely. You are going to lose some of those good guys in AJ and Austin Cousino. But we are going to get to replace them with some great guys that Brad Bohannon and Keith Vorhoff have helped bring in and recruited. They are getting talent into the system and that is exciting. I am glad to be a part of that. I am proud to be a part of that. We might miss out on a little power but we have team speed, we have the ability to get on base. We have the mentality, I know has been preached and that is right up my alley. The make-up of our team is going to be a huge strength. We had a team meeting last night. Gary Henderson led the meeting and I just sat back and watched the room. I watched the players. They were into it. They were there. You felt like one big family. I tell you what, I left that room and I told my wife after I got home late, 'I am fired up. I am ready to go. These guys are ready to go.' I am not a big guy. My brother is not a big guy. We were raised on the mentality that the size of the player doesn't matter. It's what you give every day. It's how much you pour into the program. What stamp are you leaving on the program? That is indicative, whether you are the giant monster of Kyle Cody or the little big guy of Rick Eckstein."

On what hitting philosophy he subscribes to ...
"I would say that I know Charley Lau's theories. I know Ted Williams' theories. I know Davey Johnson's theories. I've worked for Frank Robinson. I know Mike Scioscia's theory. I've had the great fortune to work with some of the best hitters that have ever played the game, and talk with them. I had a chance to work 1-on-1 with Barry Bonds for three weeks in Japan for the Major League All-Star Series and literally was fascinated with how his mind worked and we talked and hit it off. I have taken pieces of everyone I have been around and you file those in your head. Everyone is unique. Everybody is different. Everybody is going to stand in the box different. Everybody is going to see the baseball coming at them differently. It is my job to get into the mindset and understand how they see and how they digest that information to make it efficient. To say that I am a Charley Lau guy or a Ted Williams guy, no, I am a guy that is going to work to help each guy individually to see who they are supposed to be with the parameters of that I believe that there are table setters and I believe that there are run producers. When you have a table setter like David Eckstein trying to hit home runs, then that isn't going to work. And when you have a run producer, like Barry Bonds, we don't want him hitting singles the other way. There is a common sense in that philosophy, where we are looking at you like what is your potential?  What are you supposed to do in our system? Where are you supposed to be? And that is how the philosophy shapes the guys while they are here under my watch and by the time that we get everything settled and the lineup, top to bottom, everybody will be pulling their weight."

BROWN

STOOPS

TOWLES

The schedule calls for Mark Stoops to talk to the media on Mondays and Thursdays during game week, with UK's offensive and defensive coaches available on Tuesday and Wednesday. After his weekly media luncheon on Monday, Stoops was supposed to have a two-day break.

As he came off the field on Tuesday, Stoops was in a jovial mood, even stepping over to the podium for an unscheduled media opportunity.

"It was good," Stoops said of UK's Tuesday practice. "We had a lot of work. We got a lot of work done today. We needed to. Good hot day. Felt good about the energy. Guys are starting to lock in and execute well. So overall, it was a very good practice."

With the Wildcats just five days from its season lidlifter vs. UT Martin at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday at noon on the SEC Network, Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown are continuing to get the offense working at the desired tempo and excelling on first down.

"We'll be much faster week one this year than we were at any point last year," Stoops said, referencing UK's 2013 season opener against WKU. "Like I said before, we've got to get some production on first down. That's a big key for us to move the football. We're not good enough on any side yet to go fast and not get first downs. So we have to move the ball, and even though you're going fast, you still have to chew up some clock by getting first downs and running plays. But I feel good. I feel like we're improved, and they're ready to go."

Brown echoed Stoops' assertion that a high-tempo offensive unit needs to excel on first down in order to run the desired offense.

"We did not play with very good tempo at Western," Brown said about the tempo of 2014 camp compared to 2013. "We tried to early and we just didn't do a very good job of it at all. We'll pick our spots in this game. I want to make sure that we're not playing so fast that we're hurting ourselves, you know? But we're in a position now, going into our second fall, that we're able to play really fast when we need to. And there's going to be some times in this game where we'll play at a really quick pace - faster than we ever executed last year."

With sophomore Patrick Towles earning the starting quarterback job entering the campaign, Stoops and Brown are focused on getting the 6-foot-5, 238-pounder and the offense off to a strong start.

"Yeah, I think it's important to get Patrick and everybody (off to a fast start)," Brown said. "Y'all looked at our depth chart. We've got a bunch of young guys in that two-deep, especially at the skill positions. So we've got to be simple. It's important to get Patrick off to a good start, but it's also important to get Kyle Meadows off to a good start. It's also important to get Stanley (Williams), when he gets in the game, off to a good start, all those freshmen wideouts that are going to play. So you've got to not only take Patrick into (account), but you've got to take everybody."

While Towles and the entire UK squad will be eager to get on the field and face a team not wearing blue and white, Stoops stressed the importance of keeping things as normal as possible.

"(Patrick) doesn't need to put any more undue pressure on himself," Stoops said. "The whole team needs to play well. I expect that he will be a little bit antsy. But he's just got to calm down and stay within himself and operate the offense. And that's where it is important to get off on a fast start and give him some things that he can manage early until he gets settled in."

3 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Sharay Barnes

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BARNES_TWITTER-FACEBOOK.jpgLeading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. Next up is redshirt freshman Sharay Barnes:

"Kentucky volleyball is all about improving yourself as a person as well as a player. By being in this program, my teammates and coaches have helped me gain confidence in my play."

A redshirt freshman from Swarthmore, Pa., Sharay Barnes did not compete in her first season at Kentucky. A four-year letterwinner for Strath Haven High School, Barnes was a two-time All-State selection and was named Player of the Year as a senior. The middle blocker/outside hitter also competed for Synergy Volleyball Club and was named one of the top seniors by PrepVolleyball.com.

Preseason Team Update: August 26, 2014
Today was media day for several of UK's fall sports, including the volleyball team. Head coach Craig Skinner, seniors Jackie Napper and Lauren O'Conner and junior Morgan Bergren met with the media to preview the upcoming season. Video from the event can be viewed here.


For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVB and on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.


Video: Men's soccer media day press conference

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Video: Cross country media day press conference

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Video: Volleyball media day press conference

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