UK scored three runs in the ninth inning to defeat Arkansas on Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader, 4-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When a reporter referred to the first 17 innings of a Saturday doubleheader as "disappointing" for the Kentucky baseball team, head coach Gary Henderson disagreed.
He thought "disgusting" was more appropriate.
Arkansas - boasting the nation's top earned-run average entering the series - had handcuffed the Wildcats for 51 outs. UK hitters managed 11 hits in dropping game one, 5-3, and trailing game two 3-1 heading to the ninth inning.
In an instant, it all changed.
"That's four balls hit hard in the bottom of the ninth and I'm not sure we had four balls hit hard the first eight innings, or the first 17 innings," Henderson said.
Those four hard-hit balls led to four singles, and Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) used those hits to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth to salvage the final game of a three-game set against the No. 14 Razorbacks (32-16, 15-8 SEC).
"To have those guys dial in and be as competitive as they were in the ninth inning, I was really glad to see that and hopefully that helps us moving forward," Henderson said.
Designated hitter Greg Fettes got it all started, leading off the ninth against an Arkansas bullpen that had allowed just one hit and no runs in 6.1 innings of Saturday work up to that point. J.T. Riddle followed with another single, creating an opportunity for Max Kuhn to lay down a bunt and put the potential tying run in scoring position. Kuhn, however, couldn't get it down, popping up the first pitch of his at-bat to the pitcher.
"We could have rolled over after we popped up a bunt, but we didn't," Henderson said. "We came back and obviously we got a little bit of help, but after that we took care of it ourselves."
The help to which Henderson is referring came two batters later. After Micheal Thomas flew out to center for the second out, Matt Reida grounded to second base. Particularly considering the Razorbacks hadn't made a single error in the series to that point, the Cats seemed on the verge of being swept as the ball bounded toward Jordan Farris. Instead, he misplayed it, allowing a run to score and cutting the Arkansas lead to 3-2.
The error, however, would have been rendered little more than an afterthought had the next two batters not delivered.
Lead-off hitter Kyle Barrett watched the play unfold from the on-deck circle, but was concerned Arkansas would bring in a left-hander to face him once Reida reached. Instead, Landon Simpson remained on the mound with runners on first and third.
"When they kept the righty in, I knew I was going to tie the game," Barrett said. "I had no doubt in my mind."
That type of confidence is uncharacteristic for a true freshman, and Barrett delivered on it. Sure a fastball was coming on the first pitch of his at-bat, Barrett swung away and singled up the middle to make it 3-3, setting up Zac Zellers with runners on first and second. In his mind, it was a no-pressure situation.
"I was pretty loose," Zellers said. "We were able to come back and tie the game, so it wasn't really a do-or-die situation."
On a 1-2 count, Zellers got the pitch up the zone he was looking for, stroking it into center and scoring Reida from second.
"I think it was really important, especially the win that we had," Zellers said. "Being able to come back, I think that's good for us. It's not the first time we've done it and it's probably not going to be the last."
The frenzied ninth inning and the celebration that followed might be the memories that stick from Saturday's second game, but they would not have happened had it not been for an impressive outing by the UK pitching staff.
Freshman Kyle Cody was set to make his first career SEC start on Saturday, but when it became a doubleheader and Corey Littrell started and lost game one, Cody was all of a sudden pitching to avoid a sweep. Very quickly, things went bad.
In a bit of first/ninth inning symmetry, the game started with an error on a grounder from second. From there, Arkansas would plate three runs on four hits and another fielding error by the Cats in the first, but Cody settled in. He worked around constant trouble over his final six innings, allowing no more damage and keeping his team within striking distance.
"It didn't go his way in the first," Henderson said. "A lot of ground balls got through and then obviously we kicked two in the top of the first, which was really disappointing and put him in a bad spot. And his rhythm was not great until probably the fourth inning."
Cody - filling in for struggling Saturday starter Jerad Grundy - has grown up quickly in his first season, so quickly in fact that he doesn't believe he could have pulled off this outing just a couple months ago.
"I didn't have the experience," Cody said. "It's good to get this under my belt for later years and I feel good where I'm at right now."
Walter Wijas, Ryne Combs and Chandler Shepherd kept it going after Cody departed, tossing two perfect innings. On the weekend, the UK bullpen worked 4.2 innings without allowing a run.
"That bullpen let us win a game 4-3," Henderson said. "Kyle Cody let us win a game 4-3."
As much of a relief as the victory may have been, it doesn't change the fact that UK has much to work on with two weeks left in the regular season.
"Obviously we've got some work to do offensively," Henderson said. "You can't deny that. We've got some things that we've got to get it figured out and we've got some kids that we need to have a much, much more competitive approach out of at the plate. Much more toughness is needed if we're going to get this thing turned around and finished strong."
Though not a cure-all, the win does make listening to Henderson's message and putting it into practice a little easier.
"We've been working on it all year," Zellers said. "It's just a matter of time before it clicks. Some guys are getting it, some aren't and we just haven't clicked at the same time. But once we do, we'll be a force."
Senior captain Anthony Rossi looks to lead his Wildcats out of the first two rounds with a pair of wins to reach Champaign-Urbana, Ill., site of the 2013 NCAA Tennis Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the fifth straight season, the Kentucky men's tennis team will host the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament at the Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center. But for the first time in those five seasons, it will be Cedric Kauffmann leading his No. 8 Wildcats into battle.
Kauffmann, who took over for Kentucky tennis legend and former head coach Dennis Emery, has guided his team to a 20-11 record in his first season at the helm and has UK poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament beginning on May 10 after a strong regular season.
"It feels good. I'm excited about the body of work we've done through the season, and I guess that's why we're hosting," said Kauffmann. "We've done some good things and we've done some things that were just so-so. I look into the postseason to maybe play our best tennis because I think we have some better tennis to be played."
Kauffmann would categorize his first season as good but not great after Kentucky failed to meet its goals of winning the ITA Indoor Tournament, the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship or the SEC Tournament crown.
Just like every tournament his team competes in, however, Kauffmann has his team gunning for the championship. This one just happens to be the biggest of them all. All of those unmet goals would be forgotten with a national title, and Kauffmann sees no reason why UK can't be the last team standing at tournament's end.
"Our goal every tournament is to win it," said Kauffmann. "Everybody in the field has that in the back of their heads. It's a long tournament, a physical tournament. We're going to take it one match at a time, but everyone in the back of their mind wants to win it."
Before the Cats can get to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., for the next stage of the tournament, Kentucky will have to deal with a competitive regional in Lexington comprised of its first-round opponent Western Michigan and potential second-round foes Michigan and Virginia Tech.
Though Western Michigan (19-9, 3-2 MAC) is the four seed of the regional, the Broncos will pose a threat to the Wildcats riding the emotion and momentum of a Mid-American Conference tournament victory.
"We're playing Western Michigan who won their conference. They're feeling good and have confidence," said Kauffmann. "That's a dangerous round. If we're lucky enough to win that round, we'll play somebody that has enough talent to knock us out. It's very dangerous and it's going to be very tough."
The Wildcats will have to continue to rely on their No. 1 and No. 2 players in senior Anthony Rossi and junior Tom Jomby, who rank No. 5 and No. 23 in the nation, respectively. From there, Kauffmann will put the rest of their chances in the hands of four true freshmen.
The talent is there, now it's time for the youngsters to take ownership of this team with a full season under their belt and seize the opportunities in front of them.
"Our freshman class, since we've had some injuries, is going to have to step up," said Kauffmann. "I thought this team was going to become theirs in a year or two, but it's kind of become their team. I threw four freshmen out there in the SEC Tournament. I thought they competed well and gave us a chance."
What Kauffmann is hoping for, despite a packed sports weekend on the Kentucky campus with the NCAA Tournament coinciding with the SEC Softball Tournament and a crucial three-game set for Kentucky baseball versus Vanderbilt, is for all of their fans to come out and support his team to give them an edge. With all the fans and one area, fans can stop by heading from one venue to another to help the Wildcats pick up a couple of wins this weekend.
"It's clear that I would love for them to step by and check it out," said Kauffmann. "I know the fans that have been following us all season will come. I'd like to have some new fans, maybe come on over. I think they'll enjoy it. I think it will help our guys play a little bit better. I think our guys play good with a loud crowd, so I welcome everybody to come."
Freshman Kelsey Nunley has been a force in the circle for UK this year, breaking the single-season wins mark with 22 on the year. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky softball team travels south to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend, the Wildcats will be faced with a tall task.
They begin a three-game road set against Alabama, a team that has more than had UK's number over the years. The Crimson Tide leads the all-time series over the Cats, 38-2, and are vying to defend a national championship after being crowned at the 2012 Women's College World Series.
Playing the defending champs will always give you that little extra adrenaline when lacing up the cleats and emotions will no doubt be running high. UK freshman pitching sensation Kelsey Nunley admits she will be a little anxious before the game, but that doesn't mean she lacks confidence.
"I'm nervous I'm not going to lie about it, but I think if my team and I can play to our full potential we can beat them," Nunley said.
One of the biggest reasons for Alabama's success over the last few years has been their junior ace Jackie Traina. For the second straight weekend, the Cats will be stepping into the batter's box against a two-time All-American. Last weekend, UK lost two out of three games to Missouri, with the two losses coming to the hands of Chelsea Thomas. Kentucky will face Traina at least two times this weekend but may have an idea of what they are up against.
Head coach Rachel Lawson views the two All-Americans as fairly comparable pitchers with electric movement. The difference between the aces is the amount of pitches in their repertoire. Thomas uses one dominant pitch - her dropball - to baffle hitters, while Traina has a more diverse arsenal.
"Traina has more pitches to work with so she can go head-to-head when she needs to but she is unpredictable so that makes her scary," Lawson said. "She can throw the ball high and low and on both sides of the plate. They are different in that standpoint where I think Traina has more pitches but she is definitely comparable. She is as good as Thomas and I think they are two of the best pitchers in the country."
Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy - now in his 15th season at the helm - has done an exceptional job. Since Murphy has been in Tuscaloosa, UA has been known to hit the long ball. However, the Cats will be wary of Bama on the basepaths as the Tide has swiped 107 bags on the year compared to UK's 65.
To put it succinctly, the Crimson Tide have it all. They can hit, run, play defense and great pitching, but Kentucky may have just the answer to slowing down Alabama: Nunley.
She was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Week on Monday, racking in her second SEC weekly accolade of the year. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native leads all freshmen in the conference in strikeouts (156), earned-run average (2.02) and wins (22).
Unlike most aces in the SEC, Alabama will see a new face in the circle for the Wildcats and with Nunley likely getting the nod on Friday, the Cats could have a solid chance of containing the Tide's bats and knocking off the defending champs in the opening game on Friday.
Nunley has several qualities that make her a great pitcher, but one in particular stands out to Lawson.
"I always knew she was very good and what she's great at I can't teach," Lawson said. "She's very competitive and has great command of the zone so once she's figured out how to adjust to the college game she is able to do a nice job attacking batters where she wants to. I'm not surprised that she has been successful."
What has made Nunley so successful in her debut season at Kentucky has been her ability to paint the corners of the plate and be in control of the count. She consistently stays ahead of hitters and heavily uses the inside part of the plate to jam opponents.
Nunley hasn't always been a control pitcher growing up as she would blow hitters away at the high school level. However, this season she has had to change her style a bit in adjusting to the collegiate ranks.
While training in the preseason, she was throwing a bullpen and found a pitch and location that has helped carry her to UK's all-time single-season wins record.
"I remember it was one day in practice I threw a pitch on the wrong side of the plate and Coach was like, 'Wow that's a good pitch,' " Nunley said. "That's been one of my best pitches and we just figured it out two months before the season."
As the season winds down with the SEC Tournament to follow next weekend, the Cats could use a lift to ride the momentum into the league tournament and regionals. Whatever the result is in the showdown against Alabama, UK will likely receive a shot of energy with senior co-captain Kara Dill set to return in the coming weeks.
Dill, who has led Kentucky in hitting each of the last two seasons and was named an all-league performer in 2012, had her cast removed on Monday from her broken left hand. She is currently going through rehab and Lawson believes Dill will be ready come regionals.
Lawson has options to choose from when her all-conference player returns. If Dill isn't 100 percent on defense, freshman Christian Stokes has done a tremendous job filling in at shortstop. Lawson can use Dill at the designated player slot and insert her back into the leadoff position - a place in the lineup where UK hasn't been all that consistent.
Either way, Dill will provide the Wildcats with a boost coming at the right time during the postseason.
"I believe that offensively, if she is able to do what she can and see pitches she would do an outstanding job at DP and she would fill a major role for us," Lawson said. "She was our best hitter the last two seasons so to get her back in the lineup is our first priority, but if her body responds I feel very comfortable putting her out on defense as well."
Coming off a series win at Ole Miss, UK will host No. 14 Arkansas for a three-game series beginning Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last week was an eventful one for the Kentucky baseball team.
It began with an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky, where the Wildcats dropped a 2-1 decision on a walk-off home run. About 40 hours later, UK was in Oxford, Miss., for the first pitch of a three-game series against No. 16 Ole Miss with a break only to attend class back in Lexington on a couple hours sleep.
"Those are good memories," head coach Gary Henderson said with a wry smile.
Better memories awaited the Cats over the weekend.
On the heels of seven straight losses and 10 in 12 games, UK took two of three from the Rebels for only the third series victory at Ole Miss in school history.
After an exhausting but potentially crucial week, the Cats were due for a respite. Life in the Southeastern Conference, however, yields no such thing.
"It doesn't stop," Henderson said. "It's the same every year. You face really good players, really good pitching. It's just the nature of the deal. And you gotta play well. You can beat anybody, you can get beat by anybody and I think any coach in the league would tell you that."
Next up for No. 24 Kentucky is a three-game home set with No. 14 Arkansas. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 1 in the preseason and boast an impressive 1.78 staff earned-run average.
"They're very deep, they can match you up, they've got good starting pitching," Henderson said. "It'll be another one of those weekends you would anticipate - no crystal ball - but you would anticipate another weekend of close games: 3-2, 5-4, 2-1, those types of games. We've played plenty of them, but that's exactly what I would think that we're looking at."
On the season, UK has a 9-3 record in one-run decisions after adding to its SEC-leading total with two of them last weekend. That series victory led to inevitable questions about whether the Cats had saved their season. Henderson was hesitant to say that, mostly because of how much work he knows lies ahead.
"I think anytime you have a disappointing weekend, the next one's important," Henderson said. "And I've felt that way for a long time. It seems like you sit here and do the interviews and every weekend is the most important weekend of the year."
That's true again with the Razorbacks coming to town, though the Cats will likely be so happy to just being playing baseball again for nerves to have much of an effect. After returning to Lexington on Saturday, Henderson gave his players Sunday and Monday off to focus on final exams.
And for the first time this season, UK had no scheduled midweek game to help pass the time. Instead, Henderson pondered what to do with his weekend rotation.
Coming off a strong junior season and a hot start to 2013, Saturday starter Jerad Grundy has hit a rough patch in recent weeks.
"He's missing up in the strike zone," Henderson said. "There's no mystery. It's up, it's flat, he's doing it in very, very inopportune times. He's healthy, it's not a work ethic issue. He's a great kid. He throws good pitches, but he's not throwing near as many good pitches consistently as he was the first eight weekends."
Looking both to help Grundy get back on track and give his team the best chance to win in the short term, Henderson has tabbed freshman Kyle Cody (3-2, 5.49 ERA) to make his first-career weekend start and interrupt a 76-game streak of weekend games started by left-handers.
Grundy's struggles might not be ideal, but Henderson is thankful to be addressing them after a couple big wins. Confidence is maybe the first word that comes to mind when describing this Kentucky team, but even this bunch of Cats couldn't help but let a little self-doubt creep in after what they had been through. That's over now.
"Anytime you have a good weekend, it creates confidence and it gets you back to being optimistic about what you're doing," Henderson said. "We're always optimistic, but certainly the kids feel good after the win and glad to be home for a couple weekends."
The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fourth as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Every coach in America has a theory when it comes to scheduling. It's typically based on the nature of his program, the quality of the team he expects to return and a number of other factors.
As you'd expect, John Calipari has undergone quite the evolution over the years.
At Massachusetts and Memphis, he was tasked with rebuilding programs and scheduled as such. Whenever there was an opportunity to play on television, he took it, regardless of the time, place or opponent.
At Kentucky, he needs not worry about national exposure - that will take care of itself. Instead, Coach Cal has a primary goal in mind when seeking out non-conference opponents: getting his team ready for the NCAA Tournament.
With UK's 2013-14 out-of-conference slate now complete and released on Wednesday, Calipari seems to have exactly the kind of schedule to do just that.
It starts with the handful of marquee matchups that dot the schedule.
Games with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville await the Wildcats. In addition to facing Michigan State in Chicago's United Center as part of the State Farm Champions Classic, UK will take on Providence and Baylor at neutral sites, the second of which will be at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Every year, Calipari seeks to expose his team to the kind of domed stadium that hosts the latter rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Wildcats will do one better and take the floor in the building where the Final Four will be played.
This year's schedule - which will be finalized when the Southeastern Conference sets UK's 18-game schedule - is notable for more than just its marquee matchups.
In scheduling opponents from "mid-major" conferences, Calipari looks for teams that will contend for their leagues' automatic bids, and it appears he's found them. Of UK's eight opponents from outside the historic BCS conferences, six finished fourth or better in 2012-13 regular-season play and two finished first.
One of those is very familiar to the Wildcats.
After ending UK's season barely a month ago in the NIT, Robert Morris will come to Rupp Arena in the Keightley Classic - an event named after legendary equipment manager Bill Keightley. UK will also play host to Texas-Arlington, Cleveland State and Eastern Michigan as part of the inaugural event, but the game against the Colonials on Nov. 17 will draw the headlines.
But as anticipated as the opportunity for revenge against Robert Morris will be, two games against NCAA Tournament teams could make for the most compelling on-the-floor matchups with non-BCS opponents.
Within 11 days in December, Boise State (Dec. 10) and Belmont (Dec. 21) will come to Rupp Arena. Boise State - returning all but one member of last year's team that received an at-large bid - will be pushing for a preseason ranking in the fall, while Belmont will seek its seventh NCAA Tournament berth in nine years.
Comparing next season's schedule with the one from last year, it looks mostly the same on its face. North Carolina is back, but the mix of big names, neutral-site games and a true road game or two remains.
The difference, at least in theory, comes in the games against teams from non-power conferences.
When UK found itself on the bubble this season, its resume was weighed down by a mediocre strength of schedule. The average RPI of those eight opponents was 214.0 in 2012-13. Things obviously change from year to year, but UK's eight mid-major opponents this upcoming year had an average RPI of more than 60 spots higher.
The best comparison for the 2013-14 schedule is the one from two seasons ago.
That year, the Wildcats played three neutral-site games and one true road game against a perennial power (Indiana). Next year, UK will do exactly the same, trading North Carolina out for the Hoosiers. The Cats also played two Final Four teams that seasons (Kansas and Louisville) and another Elite Eight squad (UNC) in non-conference play and it wouldn't be a surprise for history to repeat itself with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville all potentially ranked top 10 in the preseason.
Considering UK won a title playing that schedule in 2011-12, that's likely no coincidence.
UK freshman Sarah Harris helped the Wildcats achieve their best SEC Championships finish in 20 years with a second-place 9-over-par last weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On her final hole of the Southeastern Conference Championships, freshman Kentucky golfer Sarah Harris walked off the green in disgust.
She bogeyed. She was mad.
That was not the way she intended to end her round or the tournament for that matter. Harris also had no idea what that bogey had cost her team.
As Harris walked over to head coach Golda Borst with a look of disappointment, Borst had to alert her unsuspecting and somewhat oblivious freshman about what she had just done.
"Sarah, do you know you just did?" Borst asked.
"No," Harris responded, aware of nothing other than the fact she had just ended her round on a sour note.
"You might have had the highest (SEC Championships) finish out of any Kentucky women's golfer," Borst informed her unassuming freshman. "Do you know how big this?"
That quickly changed Harris' perspective on her tournament.
With her final score of 9-over-par, Harris had earned her best collegiate finish with a second place at the SEC Championships as she led the Kentucky women's golf team to its best finish at SECs in 20 years: a tie for fifth place with Mississippi State at 58-over par.
So why then did Harris have no idea where she was on the leaderboard? Well, it goes back to before Kentucky competed at Ole Miss and had its best showing of the spring with a fifth-place finish at the M&F Bank Rebel Intercollegiate.
The Wildcats struggling for much of the spring, fighting weather conditions back home,
having trouble translating the work they put in into tournament play and
frankly unable to get out of their own way.
The Wildcats faced a great deal of adversity. They learned from it. They are better for it.
"We had to go through those tough times in the fall and then the spring to figure out that we're stronger," said Borst. "We've gotten mentally tougher. I saw that this tournament. They did better with their toughness."
Before the Cats went to Ole Miss, they gathered around and decided something had to change. What they were doing wasn't up to their own standards. So each of them - without the influence of the coaching staff - decided that instead of playing for one another or playing for their coaches, family, friends, or any other outside distractions, that they would play for themselves.
"When we all sat down, we decided we were letting the outside things distract us," said Harris. "We all sat down and took it back to, 'I need to be playing for me.' I need to go out there and figure out what I need to do to play good golf. When I'm playing well, it contributes to the team. When we all do what we need to play well, it all adds up."
It's not selfish, but it's a fact. Golf wasn't designed to be a team sport, even though Kentucky might be one of the most tight-knit collegiate teams on the circuit. Kentucky actually might have been too close of a team and put too much pressure on itself to perform for one another.
So they separated, at least mentally, from that idea and started focusing on their individual selves and doing their own part, trusting that everyone would do the same and stay focused on the moment.
Harris on her final round, on her final hole, on her final shot, was focused on the moment. She didn't even know how to process what she had just accomplished.
That's also Harris' M.O. She's humble and modest. She doesn't expect things. She goes out with an open mind and plays with what the day gives her.
When Borst asked her freshman what her goal was for the SEC Championships, Harris simply hoped to place in the top half of the field. And then she finished second.
She simply didn't know how good she really was. She probably has a better idea of that now.
"I expected her to be a solid player for me this year. I really did," said Borst. "It's one of those where you knew she'd be in the lineup, but she didn't know because she doesn't know how good she is. I think she slowly but surely is realizing that."
Harris is quick to give credit to the turnaround of her season and the season as a whole to their four seniors who have done much of the grunt work while Harris and fellow freshman Cylia Damerau are simply expected to pick up where the seniors have left off. Where most seniors wouldn't necessarily be receptive to freshmen coming in and contributing immediately, this senior class has welcomed the youngsters with open arms.
Because of that, UK is peaking at just the right time as the Wildcats await word on where they will head for NCAA Regionals during the Division I NCAA Women's Golf Selection Show on Monday, April 29.
"The upperclassmen are such a wealth of information," said Harris. "Whenever we have questions or need help with something, they're always there to lend a hand. They're so encouraging and it's just great.
"I hear a lot of stories on other teams where they say, 'Our seniors, they hate us,' or 'They hope we don't play.' They are always cheering us on and it's really fun."
Each senior brings something different to the table. Ashleigh Albrecht has been the most consistent player over the last few years and brings great veteran leadership on the course along with Betsie Johnson, while Megan Moir and Heather Lott and lone junior Liz Breed bring gobs of perspective about being good teammates, where this program has been, and where they want them to take it next.
"Each of them has taught me different things, but I've really learned about just enjoying the game," said Harris. "Not necessarily always taking it so seriously, but just enjoying being out there. I've really just learned a lot from them on how to enjoy my time as a student-athlete. They've been so encouraging."
The seniors have also taught the freshman about how Kentucky golfers are to handle themselves while on the golf course, which coincides with the seniors' message to Harris to enjoy the game and have fun. Borst and assistant coach Lucy Nunn have preached to their players since they arrived three years ago that there team would always carry themselves with class and play with a good attitude.
That message not only helps to represent the university in a positive light, but it also actually improves performance. And others have noticed.
On the second day of play at the SEC Championships - a day that's been notoriously troublesome for the Cats over the course of the season - Albrecht had just flown the green on a par three with a tough up and down in her future. Without hesitation, Albrecht stuck her club in her bag, walked with purpose to her ball, and took care of business and parred the hole.
That prompted Mississippi State head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm to walk over to Nunn.
"Lucy, your girls have such a great attitude. What do you do with them?" asked Brown-Lemm.
"We really emphasize playing with a great attitude," Nunn answered.
"Lucy, that saves shots," Brown-Lemm said.
That emphatic message is finally paying dividends.
"That's something that we've preached all year, because if we're going to do anything, we're going to do it with a good attitude," said Borst. "I don't like to see anything else on the golf course. Overall, I'm very happy and pleased and it shows we're going in the right direction."
Now, it's the freshmen helping those seniors advance and reach new heights as UK earned its best finish since before Harris and Damerau were even born. That's what these players set out to do when they decided to come to Kentucky. Now, the pieces are coming together and the entire team is making sure that the Wildcats end the 2013 season on a high note to send off their seniors the right way.
"When I made my decision to come to Kentucky, that's one of the things that drew me here," said Harris. "I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of rebuilding a program. We have such a great program, but we want to get back to where we were.
"Just the pride (the seniors) have in the program and the confidence they have in us. When we go to a tournament, it's always, 'We are Kentucky women's golf. We're here to play well.' It's really cool to watch."
UK freshman Kelsey Nunley stifled Missouri's bats on Saturday as the Wildcats evened the series with an 8-2 victory. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Different day, different pitcher and different result.
The 19th-ranked Kentucky softball team defeated No. 11 Missouri on Saturday, 8-2, to even the three-game series with the rubber match to be played on Sunday. The Wildcats fell to the Tigers in the opening game on Friday, 2-1, in a game they let get away and as two-time All-American pitcher Chelsea Thomas dominated.
Saturday was a different story as UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was the one in the circle controlling the game. She gave up just one earned run in a complete-game effort, while striking out four UM hitters. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native did what she has been doing all season, working the corners and keeping hitters guessing at the plate.
Nunley lived on the inside corner, jamming several Missouri batters while painting the outside corner from time to time leaving the Tigers with little chance to connect the barrel of the bat with the ball. Location has been key for Nunley, who leads the Wildcats with a 22-7 record on the season. She lives and dies by painting the black of the plate and knows just where the zone is by figuring out the umpire early in the game.
"She's been doing that her whole life," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The one thing she does exceptionally well is she has great command and she locates it well. Once she figures out an umpire's zone she's pretty good at attacking it and locating the ball where she wants to and that's really the name of her game is being able to locate and attack batters and giving the umpire what they want."
After Missouri tied the game in the top of the fourth at 1-all, the Tigers filled the bases with two outs in the inning. Nunley threw a pitch on the inside corner that UM's Rachel Hay could do nothing with but fly out to left to end the threat. That pitch looked to be the turning point in the game as Kentucky plated two runs in the bottom half of the inning to stretch its lead to 3-1, taking command the rest of the way.
Nunley hurled 120 pitches in the game and has now thrown over 200 pitches in less than 24 hours after tallying 91 in four innings on Friday. That's a lot of pitches for anyone but to ask out of a freshman is saying a lot. The right hander has been huge for UK all season and is a large reason for its success this year.
"She's a very strong girl and she's been exceptional for us, especially for a freshman to be able to throw as many pitches as she does a game and as many games as she has," Lawson said. "We have been really lucky this year but she has been able to step up and act like a real veteran."
The Cats' offense came alive on Saturday after recording just five hits and one run in nine innings against Thomas on Friday. Senior Alice O'Brien regained the lead for UK, connecting on a long homerun to right center in the bottom of the fourth inning. Junior Ginny Carroll and freshman Christian Stokes charted two RBI each as the Wildcats had nine hits and eight runs on Saturday.
UK is going to need that same offensive-minded attack on Sunday as they will most likely see Thomas in the opposing circle again on Sunday. Having already faced the two-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Year once, Lawson feels the Cats can make some adjustments the second time around.
"I think yesterday we made contact with some balls but we didn't hit them square and stay behind them," Lawson said. "We hit a lot of balls but they were just ground balls in the infield and we swung around a lot of pitches. We are going to have to do a better job hitting the higher dropball that she brings and second when she does bring it a little bit lower we have to do a better job of staying behind it and driving through it as opposed to moving it around and trying to run."
Sunday is meaningful because the winner of the game will take the series and have the tiebreaker when it comes to seeding for the SEC Tournament. However, Sunday also marks Senior Day for two Wildcats. Kara Dill and O'Brien have been key components for Kentucky over their four years.
Dill, who is a former all-league performer, broke her hand earlier in the year and has been limited. That hasn't stopped her from competing as she will enter the game as a pinch runner and is willing to help out the team in any way possible. O'Brien has had a great year at the plate for UK, hitting in the cleanup position for the majority of the season.
"Senior day is always a big day," Lawson said. "This year is a little bit different because it won't be our last game on this field for them. With that said, Kara and Alice have meant so much to the program. They have been starters for four years, they're awesome contributors on offense but more importantly they are great people. They are great students, they do exceptionally well in the classroom, they do well in the community and they have been an asset to Kentucky."
The Detroit Lions selected former Wildcat Larry Warford with the No. 65 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Expecting to hear his name called between the second and fourth rounds of the NFL Draft, Larry Warford was planning to forgo the watch parties potential draftees typically attend.
Nervous and excited to learn of his new team and home, Warford simply wanted to pass the time the best way he knew how.
"My dad wants me to come down and have a party with the family and all that but I kind of don't want to do anything for it," Warford said on Tuesday. "I kind of just want to sit at my house and play video games."
For this, Larry Warford was happy to put down the controller.
The Detroit Lions selected Warford in the third round (No. 65 overall), making the star offensive guard the highest-picked Kentucky player since Randall Cobb in 2011 and second-highest in a decade. Warford is the first UK offensive lineman to be chosen in the draft since both Todd Perry and Chuck Bradley were selected in 1993.
If the Lions are right about him, Warford will be playing for a long time.
"Warford was made to play guard in the NFL," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said in a press conference after Detroit selected Warford.
Warford is expected to compete for a starting spot immediately on a team that ranked 23rd in the league in total rushing yards in 2012. According to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, Warford is more than capable of winning the job.
"This is one of my favorite football players in the draft, Larry Warford from Kentucky," Mayock said. "And you want to talk about a big, square, stout son of a gun, this is him.
"Every tape I put on he was dominant."
Making that all the more impressive in the competition Warford was facing on a weekly basis. He credited going head-to-head with the Southeastern Conference's top defensive tackles for preparing him for the next level and his performance against them caught the eye of ESPN's Todd McShay.
"This guy has faced some big-time defensive linemen and he won the vast majority of his one-on-one battles," McShay said. "He is a phone-booth player. He's gonna get into the pads of defensive linemen and once he's locked on, forget about it."
Warford did not allow a sack during his senior season en route to receiving All-SEC honors for the third year in a row. All his accolades - which include a third-team AP All-America nod - make him one of the most decorated linemen in school history.
At the next level, he only figures to build on his Wildcat legacy.
"I just want to represent my university," Warford said. "It's a great place I've had so much fun and I have gotten a lot out of it and to represent UK in the draft it means everything to me. This is something that I really have been wanting to do and take a lot of pride in."
Long wait well worth it Crazy excited about my new family!!! LIONS!!!!!!!
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."
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."