In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of 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.
Today, Jared Philips writes about the group's arrival in Ethiopia.
By Jared Phillips
Today's the day. We are traveling to Ethiopia! Our team got up early and headed to the airport where waiting in lines, flight delays and confiscation of necessary items at security awaited us. However, we were all incredibly excited for this trip, so these events were merely slight bumps in the road.
We boarded our nearly 13-hour flight to Addis Ababa shortly after noon in Washington, D.C., and finally touched down on a cloudy, cool morning at Bole International Airport at roughly 9:30 a.m. local time. Our team's exhaustion quickly turned into exhilaration after landing in what was a novel experience for all of us but Jason (Schlafer, the senior associate athletic director accompanying student-athletes): Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Made it safely to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with a full day ahead of us! #UKtoEthiopia
Surprisingly quickly, we made it through customs, picked up our baggage, and walked out of the terminal. I got a taste of how kind the Ethiopian people are when a lady stopped me as our team was leaving the terminal and personally welcomed me to Addis Ababa; it was rather touching to see someone as welcoming as she was. As soon as we were outside, we were in awe what was before us: a mixture of nature and urban life stretching for miles and miles. The weather was nice and cool compared to Lexington, and the mass of cars in the airport parking lot awaited us. We met up with Mark, who would be leading us around to the various places on the trip, and Nikki, our photographer for the week and departed for our guesthouse.
Immediately, our group got to witness the poverty and crowdedness that characterize the cities of third-world countries. People were everywhere: walking in the streets, begging and trying to sell numerous goods, and crammed into blue and white vans that served as taxis for the city. Upscale buildings stood next to tiny tin shacks, and rudimentary slabs of concrete under construction littered the landscape before us. The traffic was organized chaos, as cars, trucks, and vans would come and go with not a stop sign or traffic light in sight. We arrived at the Addis Guesthouse, across from a field where tents of cloth, towels, and mud sprung up from the ground. We met two of the local guys that would be assisting us this week, Girma and Wario, who dropped our luggage off in our rooms, and we soon departed for our first visit.
As our driver navigated through the Addis traffic, Mark explained to us that the neighborhood we would visit is mainly occupied by widows and their children, and that we would be giving them bags of coffee and sugar and mattresses, complete with sheets and a blanket. We arrived outside a community center and made our way in through a metal gate with barbed wire, a common scene in Addis. What happened next absolutely floored me. As soon as the widows and children saw us, they welcomed us with such warmth and love, peppering us with hugs and kisses. The joy evident on their faces was contagious. After a few hugs, I could not help but beam with joy simply being in their presence.
We hastily made our way into the community center where everyone sat in a circle and each member of our team was introduced to much applause. The women sang worship songs with clapping and rejoicing, and even though none of our group could understand what was being sung, it was a pretty neat experience. Several women then proceeded to share their testimony of how their sponsorship through the program that Mark is in charge of has completely changed their lives by giving them food to eat and providing for their children's healthcare and education. In everything these women thanked God for what they had, and it struck a chord with me: I complain about my phone being slow sometimes, yet these women are so thankful for the very little they have. Such incredible conviction.
Afterward, we handed out bags of coffee and sugar to these women, who thanked us profusely for them. We also managed to give out mattresses and sheets to the women who needed replacements. We then got to spend time with one another, meeting each other and playing with the kids. One woman, Tonga, pulled me aside and continued to thank the group and me for coming to visit them and eagerly introduced me to her daughter. She kept telling me how we were such a blessing to them and how grateful she was for the things we handed out. Although it felt good to provide for these people's physical needs, I was humbled by her gratitude and thankful to her for how loving and gracious the hearts of the widows are. I got the joy of hanging out with some of these kids and seeing their faces light up when Montana handed out some chocolate.
Two of these children I will remember forever: Biniyam, a 13-year-old boy, and Doriba, his 10-year-old sister. We bonded immediately and Haley and I got to carry their mattress back to their house. It was fantastic seeing these children who had nearly nothing, yet were so joyful and free of burdens. Walking through the neighborhood, we saw some houses that were pretty decent for their standards, but as we got closer we saw things for what they were. In the garages and backyards of these people, we saw widows and children in makeshift homes. Once we reached Biniyam's home, he invited us inside and showed us around. The house was no bigger than my bedroom at the guesthouse, yet they kept saying how big it was and were so proud of their belongings. These people are so thankful for the very little they have, and I was yet again floored at their attitude; we may have comfort in America, but the joy that these people have is a treasure very much worth looking for and guarding with your life.
We returned to the community center from Biniyam's house for a lunch of fried egg sandwiches and sodas, then left to go deliver laptops to some of Mark's friends and pick up supplies for his children. The area we were in, as Wario noted, is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Addis, yet it was not exactly middle-class America. Even something as subtle as being in a nice area of Addis rocked me. It was continued evidence that comfort and possessions do not equal joy, and possibly the absence of comfort and possessions (or the absence of finding your value in these things) contributes to the joy that people have.
Once we dropped off the laptops, we left to go exchange our American dollars for Ethiopian birr and we stopped by the "Starbucks of Ethiopia:" Kaldi's Coffee. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my coffee and I'm a big fan of the local coffee shops we have in Lexington, but nothing has come close to what I had today. The coffee is so rich that it doesn't need any creamer, sugar or anything fancy. These Ethiopians know their coffee! After the coffee shop, we returned to the guesthouse to eat dinner and retire for the night, exhausted after a long yet rewarding day in Addis Ababa.
A week from now, the Kentucky men's basketball team will be in the Bahamas for a series of exhibition games. On Monday, UK's equipment staff tweeted a photo of the special uniforms UK will wear for the six games.
Even compared to his fellow newcomers in UK's record-setting 2014 recruiting class, junior-college transfer Ryan Flannigan is facing lofty expectations.
Playing linebacker -- one of the thinnest positions on the roster -- Flannigan is projected by many as an immediate contributor.
Flannigan isn't shying away from his potential importance -- he came to Kentucky in part because of the prospect of early playing time -- but he also knows he has a long way to go.
"I figured I was pretty important," Flannigan said on the first day of fall camp, "but I'm not important if I don't know what I'm doing."
On that front, Flannigan is playing catchup.
Twenty-six of his 27 fellow newcomers were on campus over the summer, but Flannigan only arrived this past weekend. He missed out on the time his teammates spent in the film room and Mark Stoops confirmed Flannigan is behind.
"I'm just trying to learn each positon at the linebacker position, take it day by day," the former Blinn College standout said. "I felt like today I did pretty good learning the new stuff. So, first day, it was great, I'd say."
Had it not been for all the work Flannigan logged this summer, he might have been singing a different tune. Flannigan, aware of what he was missing in UK's High Performance strength and conditioning program, put himself through a rigorous running routine.
"I didn't want to be out of breath and not conditioned well and stuff like that," Flannigan said. "I just really wanted to stay in shape because I knew there's a lot of running in the SEC and I knew I had to get my running right. So I just ran a lot. A lot a lot. And I lifted weights too."
When he wasn't training at his high school in Missouri City, Texas, you likely would have found Flannigan either eating or studying film defensive coordinator and linebackers coach D.J. Eliot sent him. Based on that independent film study, Eliot would then ask Flannigan questions over the phone.
"He quizzed me," Flannigan said. "I passed a couple of tests. But yeah, he quizzed me. Coach Eliot's been great. I'm happy to have him as a coach. He stuck with me all through the summer. He didn't just leave me out to dry. He made sure I knew everything I needed to know and he just said I need to execute my job."
On day one, Flannigan lined up at weakside linebacker. Early returns were positive.
"Did a good job," Eliot said. "He's very athletic, caught on quick. It's what he needed to do, so I was impressed with him on the first day."
Still, Flannigan has lots of work ahead. To get it done, he plans to call on the help of anyone who will answer.
"I'm asking linebackers, defensive line," Flannigan said. "I mean, (anything) I'm confused with I'm asking everybody I can, everybody I can get my hands on I'm asking questions because I know that's the only way to get better. They know the defense and I don't and I have to stick with somebody that knows it."
Though he'll use every resource available to him, Flannigan knows Eliot is his best bet.
"It's not going to be easy, but we will get it done," Flannigan said. "I will stay in Coach's pocket, I'll stay in his hip and we're going to get it done."
Twenty-five days remain until the Kentucky volleyball season kicks off with the four-team Bluegrass Battle on August 25 at Memorial Coliseum. Today, we recognize the SEC champion 1983 Wildcats, who won a school-record 25 home matches. The team went 44-7 and claimed the program's third league title in five seasons and what would be the third of five in a nine-season span. In the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky downed North Carolina at home before beating Texas in Austin, Texas in the regional. In the regional final, UK lost to perennial power Hawaii and placed fifth nationally.
UK played 51 matches in 1983, won 44 of them, and went 25-6 at home. Given the fact UK hasn't played 40 matches in a season since, much less 50, it's a feat that may never be topped. Last season, Kentucky played 31 matches, 16 at home, while this year the Wildcats will also play 31 matches and 18 in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum.
Follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball here, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVBand on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.
In late July, nine student-athletes - Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) - participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of 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.
To start off, Bria Goss writes about the group's first day of travel and time in Washington, D.C.
By Bria Goss
This is the day we have all been waiting for. As excitement rises, so does nervousness. There are so many questions running through my mind as I make my final preparations for the trip. I am unsure what to expect when I get to Ethiopia, even though I have a pretty clear image.
The plan was to meet in the K Fund office to get lots of snacks from Coach Rock (Oliver) and double-check our bags to make sure we had everything. Today is Haley Mills' birthday so Katrina very generously gave her homemade brownies. Katrina and Haley had only met once or twice before that and Katrina already showed an act of kindness by giving her brownies. From that point on, I knew I had to make friends with Katrina to get some sweets on my birthday!!!
As 10:30 a.m. rolled around, it was time to load the bus and head to Cincinnati where we will depart for Washington, D.C. I slept the whole ride to catch up on some much-needed rest. We arrived at the airport and check our bags. Everyone was so nice helping us along and pointing us to our next destination. We had a wonderful lunch in the airport and continued on our way. As we boarded the plane was when I first realized I was traveling to Ethiopia.
The plane ride was smooth and I slept the whole hour and a half. When we got to the Washington, D.C. Airport, we quickly grabbed our bags and headed to the hotel. After we dropped everything off in the rooms, we met in the lobby for our tour. Our tour guide, Zuma, was awesome. Not only did he make the tour interesting, he taught me a lot about D.C. Zuma took us everywhere: the Pentagon, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Capitol, the White House and much more. He made the tour special and enjoyable.
After the tour was done, we went to dinner. This is where I really got the chance to talk with the other student-athletes. As the day went on, we became closer. After a great meal, we surprised Haley by telling the waiter it was her birthday. The staff of the restaurant came out singing happy birthday with a lot of energy. Haley was shocked! The look on her face was priceless.
After a night of many laughs, we loaded back up in our bus and headed for the hotel. We had a long day the next day so we wanted to get some rest. I am so excited to see what this trip has to offer. I am still so thankful for this amazing opportunity.
Big thanks everybody for all the love as we head to Ethiopia today. Proud to be apart of an athletic dept that makes a difference #weareUK
Alarms sounded early for the Kentucky football team - 5 a.m. ET in Bud Dupree's case - as UK opened fall camp with a 6 a.m. practice
While most other teams were still sleeping, the Wildcats were working without pads on the fields at the Nutter Training Facility.
"It was good to get out here," Mark Stoop said. "Good first day. I really liked the energy for an early morning practice. I thought we did a good job defensively, great communication, good competitive plays. Need to continue to clean up offensively like you'd suspect, a little rusty, but overall good first day."
A later end to summer classes is the reason behind the morning practices Monday through Thursday, but the Cats didn't let the early wakeup call affect them. In fact, they hardly remembered practice started well before sunrise by the time it ended.
"We did pretty good for it being so early," Bud Dupree said. "The hardest part was waking up and once we got up it felt like a real day. It feels late right now to me. ... Every guy was excited to be here and that's always great."
Not only were they excited, they were also prepared. With more than a year and a half of instruction from Stoops and his staff under their belts, the Cats have come a long way since last fall in terms of knowing schemes and assignments.
"It's way easier," Dupree said. "I know what they expect. I know what to do. I know the playbook inside and out. So my biggest key is staying healthy on the field and just better at the small things each day. I'm just trying to progress each day and be great for my team."
Two springs and a full season of practices obviously make a difference, but Stoops says the work his team did this summer can't be forgotten either.
"I think obviously year two helps a great amount just because (players) are just familiar with how we practice, and then also the work that we did through the summer, that the players did, and the film study that we did with them," Stoops said. "You could tell that we're further along."
The same is true from a physical perspective. Add the highest-rated recruiting class in school history to a group that has transformed in UK's High Performance program and you have a team beginning to resemble what Stoops envisioned when he took over.
"You know with the addition of the freshmen even -- you know how it is in the spring, you're always a little bit thin in the spring -- so seeing the whole crew here and the depth that we have, we're getting there," Stoops said. "Obviously, it's tough as you know, to count on too many young guys, but definitely they'll be here to give us some depth and help out."
Stoops mentioned defensive tackle Matt Elam as a potential early contributor. Dupree can see why.
"Just by looking at him, he will be a great bulldozer," Dupree said. "Anytime he's in, I think people will have to account for him. He's just gotta keep progressing each day and he'll be pretty good."
Elam was one of 26 newcomers on campus over the summer, using the time to work his way into shape. Junior college linebacker Ryan Flannigan - who arrived over the weekend - didn't have that luxury, but he wasted no time jumping in with his new teammates.
"Fun," Flannigan said, describing his first practice at UK. "I was happy to be back playing football, honestly. It was a great day for me, great day for the team, great practice. We got better today. Even though it was my first day, I feel like we got better today because we ran fast, we went to the ball. Everybody was running. The sideline was hyped when the first(-team) defense was out there."
UK's linebacking corps is thin, meaning Flannigan will be a boost if he's ready to play immediately, but it's still too early for Stoops to say which newcomers will play.
"Certainly after day one it's too hard to make that decision," Stoops said. "They're a good-looking group. They are, for the most part, very mature and handled themselves the right way. They've been doing a good job this summer. We'll see where it goes. It's hard to tell. I think there's certain positions where we need to use them."
Mark Stoops speaks at UK's annual Kickoff Luncheon. (Brent Ingram, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops knew this offseason was an important one.
Through his debut season at Kentucky, he coached a group that was almost always competitive, but clearly had a long road ahead to become the team he was brought to Lexington to build.
"That first year, there's so much to change in the culture, creating that culture that you want," Stoops said at Friday's annual Kickoff Luncheon. "You learn from that first year and you go back in the offseason and say, 'Where do we need to improve?' There's a lot of areas we needed to improve. We know that."
Stoops had little trouble identifying a priority.
"We started with leadership and we started with accountability," Stoops said. "That's where we've made drastic improvements. This team has a better attitude. They have a tougher mentality. It starts there and then it goes into physical."
Perhaps no two players better exemplify that leadership development than Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Standout performers on the field a year ago, the two defensive ends have become much more as they prepare for their senior year.
"Bud and Za'Darius are not only great players but they're great leaders," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "They're veteran players now. Both of them, first year in the system, were learning what to do and developing themselves, and now they've taken that role on where they can develop others."
Dupree and Smith have always been blessed with exceptional physical gifts, but their growth both on and off the field is exactly what Stoops means by the words that have become one of his signature phrases.
"You hear me talk about it all the time: Recruit, recruit, recruit - and develop," Stoops said. "We can't just bring talented players into our program and stop there. We have to develop them in all areas of their life."
Over the eight months since UK's last game, Stoops has only been on the field with his team for 15 spring practices. Nonetheless, the way the Wildcats have "taken care of business off the field" - including in posting one of their best academic semesters in recent years - tells him all he needs to know.
"We're excited to get going," Stoops said. "Players report Sunday, first practice on Monday and just excited to get this season rolling."
With the start of fall camp finally at hand, Stoops will be asking one simple thing of his players.
"The big thing is: submit," Stoops said. "Submit to the process. Come in, leave everything behind. ... The bottom line is when we report, it's about submitting to what's going on. We have a saying in our program, we talk about 'All In' and that can encompass a lot of things, but just turn everything off, all the distractions, let's get in here, let's lock ourselves in this building and let's get some work done."
There will be plenty more to come next week with the first practices of the fall and media day on Friday, but here are a few other stray notes from Friday's Kickoff Luncheon at the Hyatt Regency.
It seems UK's incoming recruiting class was the highest rated in school history for a reason. It's too early to tell how much the newcomers will play this season, but Stoops has been impressed so far. "They've done extremely well this summer both in the classroom and on the field," Stoops said. "Let me tell you this: They look the part. We're going to make those strength and conditioning coaches look a lot better."
On the subject of those newcomers, Stoops reported that 26 of the 28 signees were on campus all summer. The 27th will arrive Saturday and Stoops said "we're working on the 28th."
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown's priority early in camp will be to figure out which players will play. Of course the quarterback battle will receive the most attention, but he mentioned identifying a third tackle behind Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle and sorting out the running back rotation as other areas of interest.
Speaking of the quarterbacks, there was no news on the battle. Brown, however, did spell out what he's looking for at the position. "As far as the actual game, we're looking for a guy that's going to make good decisions, quickly, that takes care of the football and is accurate. And what I mean by accuracy is throwing the football where our guys can make plays after the catch."
For those quarterbacks to improve as Brown and Stoops expect them to, they'll need help from their wide receivers. UK's inexperience at the position was plain to see a season ago, especially early, but the group now has a year under its belt. Stoops mentioned Ryan Timmons and Javess Blue as UK's top playmakers outside of running backs Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard and Josh Clemons and they are expected to lead UK's receiving corps. Depth, however, is essential in Brown's system. Jeff Badet was hampered in the spring by an ankle injury and Alex Montgomery will miss the start of fall camp due to a setback in his rehab from a torn ACL, but UK should be ready to go at wideout.
Friday's Kickoff Luncheon closed with an advanced screening of a "Change the Game" video featuring Josh Hopkins and Sundy Best that players will see when they report on Sunday. It will be posted soon after on the Kentucky Wildcats TV YouTube page.
A true sign that the 2014 season is just around the corner is the fact that season tickets are now on sale. Coming off a school-record ninth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and a 14-4 home record, the 2014 home slate features 18 contests in Memorial Coliseum, including nine against Southeastern Conference foes. More information can be found here. Fans can buy 2014 season tickets, which are available beginning at $35, here.
The Big Blue Nation is a big reason why UK has had so much success at home. The Wildcats went 14-4 in Memorial Coliseum last season and are 116-27 in Lexington in nine seasons under head coach Craig Skinner. The home court advantage helped lift UK to an upset win over No. 4 and then-undefeated Minnesota and a five-set victory over in-state rival Louisville.
Fans may purchase season tickets by calling the UK Ticket Office at 800-928-CATS or online at UKAthletics.com/tickets. Reserved season tickets (sections C-G) are now on sale for $50, while general admission season tickets are available for $35.
Single match tickets will go on sale August 18. Reserved tickets (sections C-G) are $5 each, regardless of age. General admission tickets are $5 for adults, $2 for seniors (65+) and youth (6-18), while children age five and under are admitted free of charge. UK students and faculty/staff are admitted free with a valid UK student/employee ID. General admission group tickets (20 or more individuals) are $4 for adults and $1 for youth/seniors, if purchased in advance.