UK celebrates after its walk-off victory over Louisville on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and Missouri's first softball matchup as conference mates is set to be a big one.
With just one Southeastern Conference series left after the Tigers come to town, the Wildcats will look to strengthen their position for the postseason against a quality opponent. If the regular-season ended today, the Wildcats (35-14, 10-8 SEC) would be the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament, while Missouri (27-8, 11-6 SEC) would be the five seed.
It's obvious on paper how much this means for the winner of this series, and with a trip to No. 4 Alabama up next for the Cats, there is an opportunity for UK to climb in the SEC standings by finishing the season out strong.
"Right now everybody is bottle-necked basically three through 10 so we want to have a good seed for the SEC Tournament," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Well first you have to make it and second you want to have a good seed. If we can do something pretty cool against Missouri that would really help our standing and move up."
This is obviously a big weekend for UK and with Missouri ranked 11th in the country, it magnifies the matchup. However, even though wins and losses will likely determine Kentucky's seeding in the postseason, junior Lauren Cumbess knows the right way to approach the series.
"It's nothing different than any other SEC team we have played because they are ranked," Cumbess said. "Our conference is really tough but it's fun so when you do come away with a win it's huge for our team and gets us ready for postseason."
Kentucky will be riding a momentum swing after a walk-off 2-1 victory over rival Louisville on Wednesday at John Cropp Stadium. The win was a team effort as UK had great performances offensively and defensively as well as a gem from freshman hurler Kelsey Nunley.
Louisville defeated UK three times last season, including 3-2 in the regionals to end the Wildcats' 2012 season. This year, the Cardinals won the first meeting between the schools by knocking off the Cats 5-1 in Louisville.
U of L has had UK's number over the last few matchups but the Wildcats were finally able to get over the hump on Wednesday to pick up a momentum-building win heading into the final weekends of the season.
"It's very exciting because last year we didn't beat them and they beat us this year the first time we played them, so we were really looking forward to this game," Cumbess said. "To finally get a win over Louisville, that's huge for us. We evened it up for the year, until postseason anyway."
With just six games left in the season the Wildcats are approaching postseason play where they will need to take their game to the next level to compete with the best teams in the country. Cumbess believes the team is peaking at the right time and is playing their best ball of the year.
"I feel like our team is coming together and finding that chemistry and we are moving up and almost at our peak to play our best," Cumbess said.
Missouri is one of the top teams in the country and features two-time First-Team All-American and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year in Chelsea Thomas. Thomas is a pitcher that relies heavily on the dropball and that's exactly what UK saw when facing Louisville hurler Rachel LeCoq.
The Tigers are no strangers to big games as they appeared in the 2012 Super Regionals before falling to LSU in three games. The Cats are hoping the emotional win over Louisville will motivate them and boost their confidence the rest of the way.
"I hope it's going to carry on big," Lawson said. "Missouri is an awesome team, they have an incredible pitcher and they hit the ball well. The confidence and knowledge that we gain from (Louisville) is great and plus she is a drop ball pitcher in Chelsea Thomas and while she has a lot of other pitches the drop is a huge pitch for her. To be able to work on that against Louisville a little bit is good coming into this weekend."
UK is 20th in Directors' Cup standings in the fifth season of Mitch Barnhart's 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK Athletics is on pace for its best-ever finish in the Directors' Cup.
Learfield Sports released updated Directors' Cup standings following the conclusion of winter sports and Kentucky checks in at No. 20. UK scored 343 of its 511 points in the winter thanks to contributions from rifle, women's basketball, gymnastics, swimming and diving and indoor track and field.
Kentucky is fourth in the standings among Southeastern Conference schools and leads all schools from the Bluegrass state. Louisville is a spot behind UK in 21st.
UK has steadily improved in Directors' Cup standings since Mitch Barnhart arrived as athletics director. UK was 29th in two of the last three seasons after coming in 50th in 2002-03, Barnhart's first. UK's best finish in the 20-year history of the Directors' Cup is 26th in 1996-97.
The Directors' Cup was established in 1993-94 by the National Association of Collegiate Director of Athletics and USA Today to rate the top athletic departments in the country, taking into account all NCAA-sanctioned sports.
Barnhart keeps a close watch on the rankings, including them in his 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. He set a goal nearly five years ago for UK to win 15 conference or national championships by the year 2015. After rifle's conference championship this winter, UK has won 11 titles.
With spring sports baseball, softball, outdoor track and field, men's and women's tennis and men's and women's golf still having opportunities to earn points, UK has a shot at cracking the top 15 in the Directors' Cup a couple years early.
Junior Lauren Cumbess' walk-off RBI single gave UK a 2-1 victory over Louisville Wednesday evening. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth on a wild pitch that scored Kentucky sophomore Sarah Frazer, the Louisville Cardinals came to bat with UK three outs away from defeating it's in-state rival. Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley toed the rubber looking to finish off her complete game shutout.
However, the leadoff hitter in the inning for the Cards, Taner Fowler, had other ideas. The junior took Nunley's 2-1 offering down the left-field line over the fence to tie the game at 1-all. Instead of getting down on herself, Nunley stepped right back in the circle and got the Wildcats back in the dugout without further damage.
The UK offense had Nunley's back and took care of the rest as the Wildcats loaded the bases with Lauren Cumbess stepping to the dish. The junior got a pitch she liked over the plate and ripped an infield single to the left side hole that was too much for Louisville shortstop Whitney Arion to handle and driving in the game-winner to give the Wildcats a 2-1 victory over the eighth-ranked team in the country.
Following the game-timing home run, Nunlely admitted she was a little rattled but quickly regrouped to give the Cats a chance to win in the bottom half.
"Right after she hit that homer I was a little shaky but you kind of always get shaky after that happens," Nunley said. "You just have to regain your confidence and go back out there."
Cumbess and the rest of the Wildcats seemed to keep their cool after the home run by Fowler. She kept reminding herself the advantage of playing at home and having the last at-bat. As Kentucky filled the bases in the seventh, Cumbess stepped in the box in the most pressure situation of the game.
The Normal, Ill., native may have been one of the coolest members in the ballpark. She was seeing the ball well all game and felt extremely confident when it was her time to deliver.
"I was actually pretty comfortable surprisingly," Cumbess said. "I feel like I had been seeing the ball pretty well all game even though I had only had one hit before. I was pretty comfortable and it was exciting. I always love being in those kinds of positions."
Head coach Rachel Lawson also felt good seeing Cumbess at the plate in the pressure situation. Lawson has coached the junior for close to three years now and knows just how smart and how good of a hitter Cumbess is.
In fact, if the sixth-year head coach could have chosen anyone on her roster to get the job done, it would have been Cumbess.
"I have a ton of confidence in Cumbess," Lawson said. "She's a strong woman and she's both physically and mentally strong. She loves softball and she knows the game really well so if I was going to have anybody up to bat I would want it to be Lauren."
The win was big for UK, who evened the season series after falling to U of L back on April 3, by a score of 5-1 in Louisville. The Cards have controlled the series between the two schools for a few years so the win was extra sweet for UK.
"Oh its huge. They have had our number for quite some time so to be able to come in and play it was actually a very fun game," Lawson said. "It was a fast game I thought both pitchers did a nice job. To be able to come out on the winning end is pretty exciting."
Time and time again The Wildcats has shown toughness to will themselves to wins. UK showed it again tonight by collecting themselves after the Louisville home run and producing in the seventh to get the win.
It was an all-around win for the Wildcats, who got production from the entire lineup, both offensively and defensively along with a great effort in the circle from Nunley.
"To get production in the entire batting lineup is big for us," Lawson said. "We were able to do that on Sunday against Arkansas and that has been a big thing for us. The fact that we showed toughness on defense, throughout the order and on the mound was big for us."
With spring practice in the books for all 14 Southeastern Conference schools, head coaches from around the league called in Wednesday morning and early afternoon for the SEC Football Spring Coaches' Media Teleconferenc. Included among them was UK's Mark Stoops, who addressed the spring as a whole, the quarterback position and his early recruiting success. Here's everything he had to say:
On his first spring at UK and how the team progressed ... "I was encouraged with the first spring. I felt like things went well. I was impressed with our players. I felt that they had a great attitude and were embracing the process. Really happy with their attitude and the way they're going about their business. Encouraged with the spring game and our fans and the fan base is awfully hungry to help us be successful. That was evident with their support at the spring game. So overall I'm pleased with the way things are going."
On what makes Vince Marrow a good recruiter and whether he recruits only in Ohio ... "Yeah, I've got him just in Ohio right now. And what makes him a great recruiter I think is just his ability to make everybody feel comfortable. He's very good at just building relationships. He works at it extremely hard and he has a lot of ties to Ohio. He's lived in three or four different parts of Ohio. He grew up in Ohio and went to the same high school (Cardinal Mooney) that I did, so Vince knows me very well. He knows how we want to go about our business in recruiting. And so I think just with his work ethic and his ability to build relationships are some of the best qualities he has." On whether Georgia is an area he plans to recruit ... "Absolutely, yes. We are currently recruiting Georgia. Yes."
On whether he sees any separation in the quarterback battle after watching tape ... "Well I think it's very fair to say that Jalen (Whitlow) had the best spring game and did some awfully good things. So I think, yeah, I gotta say that Jalen had the best spring game and did some awfully good things. With that being said, it's still an open competition there."
On where UK will need the most help from newcomers next season ... "Well, obviously we need help in every position. We need to improve across the board. But what stands out to me right now is the skill positions, both on offense and on defense. We need to get a lot better in the secondary and we need to get a lot better at wide receiver."
On Josh Clemons and Dyshawn Mobley ... "Yeah, Dyshawn, he was a good back. He just really did some good things and I was impressed. I feel like he's a physical guy up about 215 pounds and gives us a little physical punch and also got some good speed. So I was impressed with him. Who else did you ask about? (Clemons) Josh is, again, a pleasant surprise. I think with coming back off a knee injury, I really just was impressed with him. He also had a good spring game. We did not practice him back-to-back (days). We gave him, if we did have a back-to-back practice, we just practiced him one of the other to try to let that knee heal up a little bit in between practices and all that. But again, a big physical guy that's got some good vision, so I was happy with Josh."
On what Clemons and Mobley stepping up means for Justin Taylor ... "He's got a lot of work to do. So we'll see."
On whether he will be at the NFL Draft with three potential high picks from his 2012 Florida State defense and whether that is a selling point in recruiting ... "Yeah, I am going to be there for the draft and supporting those players, a couple of them, and come up and be with them. So I wanted to be there to support them and their family. I don't know if it's a selling point or not, but I'm really doing it because of my relationship with these guys and I've been with them the last three years and really think the world of them and want nothing but success for them. So that's the reason I'll be at the draft."
On whether he has been surprised with how well 2014 recruiting has gone ... "I've been very encouraged with recruiting since I've been to Kentucky. I feel like we're getting a good reception and I feel like the coaches are working extremely hard. The coaches have the ability to get in there and build some relationships and earn some trust from some of these recruits. So overall I've been very pleased with 2013 and the start of 2014, yes."
On whether he is focusing on any positions in 2014 ... "We really need a lot of help in every area. So I feel like we need help across the board, but we need to continue - it's hard to say because we need help everywhere, but we certainly need some help in the skill positions like I mentioned. I think really defensive back and wide receiver we need to upgrade there."
Nerlens Noel is hoping to become UK's third No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick in four years. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When it comes to the NBA Draft, information is just a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes away. If Nerlens Noel wanted, he could read detailed scouting reports about himself and find out where countless experts are pegging him in mock drafts.
He isn't having any trouble resisting the urge to look.
"I don't pay attention to those at all," Noel said on Tuesday. "I just stay focused on my physical therapy and make sure I stay focused and keep my mind right."
If he did take a peek, Noel would see that his name has floated back to the top of many a draft board. Though he's not frequenting Draft Express or ESPN for the latest scoop, he acknowledges that the prospect of being taken No. 1 overall has crossed his mind.
"It'd be a dream come true being the first pick in the NBA Draft," Noel said. "That's something you dream about from when you're a kid and I'd be very blessed to be in that position and very appreciative of it."
But barely two months ago, that dream was cast into doubt.
Noel injured his knee racing down the floor to prevent a fast-break layup in a game at Florida on Feb. 12. In an instant, he went from thinking about winning a basketball game to pondering whether playing the sport was even in his future, among countless other things.
"A lot goes through your head," Noel said. "When it first happens to you, you don't know what the injury is. So you don't know if you'll never play basketball again or if you'll be playing a month from now. When I heard what the injury was, I knew no matter what I'd get back on the court as fast as I could and just get back to what I love doing."
Since then, Noel has directed his energy toward that end.
He is at the six-week mark of his recovery process and Noel goes through rehab every day. He reports he is now doing exercises in therapy out of his brace and slowly regaining lost muscle. Noel is shooting for Christmastime as a rough return date, but that's very much a moving target.
"The knee's doing good," Noel said. "I've been working hard in rehab and my physical therapist has been telling me I'm way ahead of schedule and I'm coming along very well."
Seeing his progress, Noel was comfortable making his decision to enter the NBA Draft on April 15.The prospect of playing with a talented incoming class and the simple fact that he has enjoyed his time in Lexington were tempting, but he is happy with his ultimate choice.
"There was a consideration about coming back, but anybody that gets injured you're probably going to have a consideration and just think about it," Noel said. "But I sat there with my family and just saw the extent of my injury and I felt it wasn't going to affect me too much in the draft. So I've definitely been tackling the rehab and my decision was probably the best decision for me I believe."
Though he has opted to move on to the next level and didn't even play a full season of college ball, Noel believes he has benefited greatly from his time at UK. He was projected as a top pick before he became a Wildcat, but Noel sees himself as much better prepared to be successful in the NBA after playing for John Calipari at Kentucky.
"Coach Cal has taught me so much on and off the court: How to be a good person and just really know how to have a good work ethic," Noel said. "He made us love work and just (how) to carry yourself and just a lot of life lessons that any regular coach would not teach you about off the court."
When he went down, Noel's injury sparked a debate about the one-and-done rule and whether players should be allowed to declare for the draft out of high school. He sees all sides of the argument, but isn't entering the conversation. Noel is just glad to be where he is now.
"I loved this year and it was one of the best experiences of my life being here at Kentucky this year," Noel said. "Regardless of if I had to stay three, four years, these are the best times of your life whether it's one or four years."
Similarly, Noel isn't thinking about the play on which he got hurt. A pragmatist might say that Noel would have been better served to let Mike Rosario have a wide-open layup. But even though UK was down double digits at the time, Noel doesn't second-guess his decision to hustle back and block his 106th and final shot of the season in spite of all the pain it ended up causing him.
"Regardless of the score I wasn't going to let him get that easy basket," Noel said. "That's just who I am though. I will not be embarrassed in any type of way. I will not give them an easy basket. I just want to keep fighting and give my team the best chance of getting back in fighting position to win that game."
Based on that attitude, it's easy to see why NBA teams are still so eager to take him.
Larry Warford is expected to become the first UK offensive lineman to be selected in the NFL Draft since 1993. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With the NFL Draft just days away, Larry Warford is desperate for ways to pass the time. UK's former star offensive guard knows he's about to receive life-changing news and he's trying everything he can think of to occupy his racing mind..
"Play bass guitar, fish, video games, workout," said Warford. "Just anything to get my mind off of it. Might go driving for no reason. That's really it. Just lay down and try to relax."
But how can he relax when in just a couple of days he will be living in a completely new city surrounded by a wholly unfamiliar set of coaches and teammates? Warford literally has no idea where he will be headed come this weekend when his name is called, whenever that may be.
As of now, he doesn't even know where he will be when he gets drafted. In fact, he may just keep playing video games until he gets that phone call.
"My dad wants me to come down and have a party with the family," said Warford. "I kind of don't want to do anything for it. I kind of just want to sit at my house and play video games or something like that because I'm just going to be nervous the whole time."
One thing he will be doing is a virtual certainty: Warford is going to be selected in the NFL Draft (Thursday-Saturday on ESPN and the NFL Network). When that moment comes, he will become the first UK offensive lineman to accomplish the feat since Todd Perry and Chuck Bradley in 1993.
Scouts and analysts have Warford projected anywhere from the second to fourth rounds in a draft heavy with talent at offensive guard. Teams that he has worked out for and talked with on the phone have given him a similar feel.
While he's nervous, it's not about his ability to compete at the next level. After four seasons as a Wildcat, Warford has solidified himself as one of the top offensive linemen in this season's draft class after earning All-Southeastern Conference accolades the last three seasons and becoming an All-American along the way.
It's been his time as a Wildcat and the tutelage of former offensive line coach Mike Summers that have helped him reach this point.
"I'm a lot more confident in myself," said Warford. "I'm very critical of myself still, but when I first got to UK, I thought that I wasn't great at all. I went from high school to college and I wasn't dominating like I was. I failed to realize there's a lot better talent in college.
"Having gone through my years at UK these last four years and steadily becoming a better player, I've gained a lot more confidence in myself."
There was talk about Warford potentially declaring for the draft after his junior season, but he knew that he still had plenty of improving to do before he was ready for the NFL while his confidence continued to blossom.
"I wasn't ready last year to come out as a junior. I had a lot to work on," said Warford. "I feel like through this season, I got to play against a lot better (defensive) tackles with the addition of Missouri and going out to play Florida and Georgia. Those guys had a lot of great d-tackles, so I got to improve my game a lot. It's helped me out a whole bunch."
While confident in his abilities, Warford's humility and desire to continue to improve has put him in this position to have his named called at Radio City Music Hall in New York City this weekend. And even when he gets that call, he'll still go out there and show his team that he has something to prove.
"I knew that I had a lot to work on. I still believe I do," said Warford. "I'm not a perfect offensive lineman. Nobody is. There's always something to work on. Honestly, from keeping that point of view throughout my entire career at UK has helped me progress as a play and become a good one. I'm just going to try to keep that mentality and never become complacent with where I'm at."
Where he's at now and where he's been seem like lifetimes away, though he played high-school football just down the road at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky.
His high school coaches implored Warford to try and improve his body composition and conditioning, things he continues to work on as he prepares for the NFL. At that time, Warford had no idea what to expect going into college. Looking back, he wishes he would have listened.
"It would have made my life easier as a freshman," said Warford. "Coming in and doing the conditioning tests, it just woke me up that I needed to do something about my condition when I first got here. If I would have listened to them a little bit more and ran a little bit more, I wouldn't have been hurting for that whole first year."
Back then, heading into his freshman season and playing football for Kentucky was the unrealized dream. Now, he's ready to play the game professionally in the NFL. That thought, though the moment is just days away, is still taking some getting used to.
"It's still kind of like a dream. Since it's not (at Kentucky), it doesn't seem like it's real," said Warford. I'm getting all these calls from these teams asking me for my information for draft day, and it's like, 'Oh, I'm here now.' It's only a couple of days away. The fact that it's getting so close, it's becoming a reality."
Despite not reaching the level of team success he would have liked over the past two seasons, Kentucky will always be special to Warford as his home and place where he matured and developed as not only a football player, but as a man. This is why when one team decides to draft "Larry Warford from the University of Kentucky," that will be his proudest moment as his life changes forever.
"I just want to represent my university. It's a great place," said Warford. "I've had so much fun and I've gotten a lot out of it. To represent UK in the draft, it means everything to me. It's just something I've really been wanting to do and take a lot of pride in."