In the midst of a record-setting athletic season, Wildcat student-athletes combined for their best academic semester since 2002-03, the first year for which complete grade information is available.
Continuing to raise the bar in the classroom, scholarship Wildcats combined for a remarkable 3.218 cumulative grade-point average for the spring semester. UK Athletics has now posted GPAs of at least 3.0 in four consecutive semesters.
"We have great expectations for our student-athletes, but to get to this spot is special," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "I know how hard our kids work every day and I'm so proud to see it pay off like this. This semester is proof of the commitment they have made in the classroom." **SEE BELOW FOR COMPLETE GRADE INFORMATION BY SPORT**
Of UK's 20 teams, 18 posted GPAs of better than 3.0. The women's swimming and diving team led the way with a 3.728 GPA, closely followed by women's cross country (3.667), softball (3.599), women's tennis (3.546) and rifle (3.517). Men's tennis (3.401) led all UK men's teams.
Women's swimming and diving, softball and men's and women's tennis were among 13 teams to attain 3.0 GPAs while also competing in the championship portions of their schedule. Included in that group was the men's basketball team, which posted a 3.050 cumulative scholarship student-athlete GPA -- 3.111 including non-scholarship players -- and reached the national championship game in April.
"Balancing schoolwork and competition is not easy," Barnhart said. "Excelling in both is an incredible achievement and the fact that some of our top performers on the field are some of our best students is really special."
In total, 325 Wildcats -- scholarship and non-scholarship -- earned GPAs of 3.0 or better, accounting for more than 60 percent of UK's student-athlete population of 508. Seventy-one of those student-athletes had perfect 4.0 GPAs this spring.
"Our student-athletes get the work done, but our coaches and the staff at CATS (Center for Academic and Tutorial Services) are important pieces of the puzzle," Barnhart said. "I want to thank them for everything they do."
With the streak of four straight semesters of GPAs of 3.0 or better, the Wildcats continue to make progress toward the goals set forth in Barnhart's 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. UK ranks No. 14 in the latest national all-sports standings, on pace for the best finish in the 20-year history of the Directors' Cup, and has 11 conference or national championships since November of 2008.
After almost 18 hours of travel, the Kentucky volleyball team landed in China on Wednesday.
The Wildcats arrived in Shanghai around 2 p.m. local time (2 a.m. ET) and took a 90-minute bus ride to their hotel at Shanghai University. They then settled in their rooms, ate dinner at their hotel and took in some of the sights around the world's most populous city.
Still adjusting to the time change, the team was surely in need of some sleep before a busy Thursday when the Cats will study at Shanghai University and train at the school's gym. But before bedtime, they took to social media to update their followers on their first hours in China (and their culinary adventures).
A.J. Reed allowed one run over five innings of UK's 7-1 SEC Tournament-opening win over Alabama on Tuesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Coaches from around the league spent much of Monday's pre-Southeastern Conference Tournament teleconference heaping praise on A.J. Reed.
They called him the clear-cut favorite for national player of the year awards. They gushed over his power at the plate. They marveled at his excellence on the mound.
Anyone who listened and had not seen the junior lefthander in action surely expected a show with Reed set to pitch UK's postseason opener on Tuesday. What they got instead was a workmanlike effort.
Reed was far from dominant against Alabama after starting on Thursday at Georgia, but the result was just the same as in any of Reed's headline-grabbing performances this season: a win for Kentucky and a win for Reed.
"He's on four days' rest, he goes 92 pitches and he clearly didn't have his best stuff, but he competed really well," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.
UK's two-way star battled through five innings pitched, with the Crimson Tide reaching base eight times. Only once did Reed retire the side in order, but only once did Alabama cross the plate against him.
"I could definitely feel that I was on short rest," Reed said. "I definitely got tired more quickly that I normally would on a full week. I was just going out there planning on throwing up zeroes for five or six innings and hopefully we would have a lead at that time."
UK (33-22) had that lead and kept it en route to a 7-1 victory over Alabama (34-22).
Reed repeatedly worked around trouble to pick up his 11th win, most notably in the second through fourth innings.
In the second, Alabama loaded the bases with one out after a walk, a single and an error by UK first baseman Thomas Bernal. Reed, however, coaxed a harmless fly ball to right from Daniel Cucjen and an inning-ending groundout from Crimson Tide leadoff man Mikey White. In the process, he protected a 2-0 lead UK built in the top half of the frame on a sacrifice fly by Matt Reida and run-scoring fielder's choice off the bat of Austin Cousino.
The following inning, Alabama seemed to have a beat on Reed. Georgie Salem singled to right and Wade Wass scored him two batters later with a double into the gap in left-center. Two groundball outs with a walk sandwiched in between ended the threat.
"The key was those two innings right there because they had guys left on all over the place when it's all said and done they got one run in," Henderson said.
In the fourth, Reed allowed back-to-back one-out singles before coaxing an inning-ending double play.
"I think it was just going out there and making pitches," Reed said. "They got some runners on, but just keep the ball down and keep attacking hitters and making a pitch when you need to."
Reed's numbers at the dish -- 1-for-3 with and two walks -- weren't eye-popping considering he's the nation's home-run leader, but he did smash two balls deep into right-center in cavernous Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The first was caught and the second bounced off the wall for a double.
"A.J.'s the best player in the country and that's pretty well-established," Henderson said.
When Henderson lifted Reed before the sixth inning, he called on first-year junior-college transfer Andrew Nelson. The junior responded and picked up his first save, tossing four shutout innings and allowing two hits and no walks.
"I think I was effective today because I did a good job of getting on top of the ball, on top of the fastball and throwing it down," Nelson said. "I did a good job of letting the ball sink."
By doing so, Nelson positioned his team ideally for the rest of the week. UK advances to face top-seeded Florida in the double-elimination portion of the tournament on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET with a stable of arms as fresh as Henderson could have hoped for.
"Anytime you can split a game up, you get five out of the starter and you can finish it with one guy out of the pen, it's a tremendous lift," Henderson said. "But we'll have to wait and see just how much it helps us tomorrow."
A special two weeks are ahead for the Kentucky volleyball team.
Before sunrise on Monday morning, UK student-athletes and coaches began the first leg of a journey to China for a cultural exchange trip. After a long day of travel, the Wildcats will arrive in Shanghai around 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
From there, the team has a packed schedule, combining learning, competition and sightseeing.
The Cats will study at Shanghai University, learning about Chinese culture and sharing some of their own as well. They will also play six matches over the course of two weeks against some of the top volleyball teams in the world. And when they aren't in the classroom or on the court, the Cats will be taking in some of China's most famous landmarks, from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square.
Traveling with the team is UK's Andrew Maske, an art history professor who specializes in the arts of Asia. Professor Maske spent time with the team for the week leading up to the trip, teaching the team some basics about Chinese philosophy. The team also practiced tai chi and brush calligraphy to prepare to head to the Far East.
Throughout the trip, the Cats will be chronicling their experience through a series of blogs. We will be sharing them here -- as well as other social-media, photo and video content -- on Cat Scratches. We've also created a special URL -- UKVBtoChina.com -- so you can find all of the entries in one place.
To get it started, here are some tweets from right before the team departed and the week of preparation for the trip.
Sylver Samuel's inside-the-park home run resulted in UK's first run of a 10-1 win that clinched a Super Regional berth. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team's bats had been held at bay for much of the weekend at the NCAA Regional, including in a 2-1 loss in the first game of Sunday's regional final.
That all changed in a win-or-go-home game two.
The Wildcats exploded for 10 runs in the first three innings, including six in the second to down DePaul, 10-1, and advance to their third NCAA Super Regional in the last four seasons.
DePaul had already lost once in the double-elimination tournament, so the Wildcats needed just one win Sunday in two chances. The Blue Demons prevailed in game one, 2-1 in 10 innings, to force a second game, and that's when the UK bats came up bigger than ever.
"Our hitters decided to put the team on their back and go out and score runs," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "In the other games, I think (Kelsey) Nunley did a good job of putting the team on her back and I thought we had good defensive play but I think that the mindset of the team offensively was we need to get this done."
UK advanced to the regional final with an unblemished 2-0 record, with a 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday and a 2-1 win over James Madison on Saturday. In the two victories, Kentucky rode Nunley's stellar pitching arm while scoring just enough runs to win.
After game one's 10-inning loss, the Wildcats had their backs against the wall and knew the offense had to come through in order to earn a ticket to Super Regionals.
"Coach just basically talked to us and said it was time to get it done," sophomore Christian Stokes said. "This is make-it-or-break-it, this is your opportunity right here, just go out here and have fun and take hard cuts."
In the bottom of the first inning of game two, Sylver Samuel got things going for the UK offense with an inside the park home run. The first homer of Samuel's career was a grounder up the middle through a drawn-in outfield that rolled all the way to the center field wall.
By the time the DePaul center fielder, who was playing in shallow left center, could get to the ball, Samuel was nearing third and thinking of home. Samuel circled the bases and a throw was never made to try and get her out at home plate.
"There were a lot of holes and a lot of people had shifted so I was just trying to get something started," Samuel said. "I was thinking more about making sure my timing was right and everything and finding a hole. I saw people still running when I was going to second. I saw that they hadn't gotten to the ball yet so I saw (Kristine) Himes running and I was like, 'Well, she's waving me,' so I just went for it."
Samuel's home run was the only run of the first inning, but it sent momentum and confidence into Kentucky's dugout.
"That was huge for our team," Stokes said. "We needed something that would get our momentum going and I think that was a huge at-bat. We scored a run on one hit, so that is huge. I think that got it started and then hits were going all around."
Nunley retired the side in order in the top of the second inning, and it was time for the UK bats to get back to work in a big way.
With two outs and the bases empty, the big inning almost didn't happen, but senior Emily Jolly reached on an error. Krystal Smith followed with a single and sophomore Ansley Smith walked to set up Stokes with the bases loaded.
Stokes sent a ball deep to left field that bounced off the top of the wall for a double. Just a foot short of clearing the fence, the bases emptied and gave UK a 4-0 lead.
"I didn't feel too much pressure," Stokes said. "When I got up there and I was on deck I knew that we had to get it done right here because this was a huge opportunity for us. I came up in the first game and didn't get the job done so I knew I wanted to help out my team and get it done on the second chance."
The runs didn't stop, however, as Samuel tripled to score Stokes and, after sophomore Nikki Sagermann walked, junior Griffin Joiner doubled down the left field line to score two more.
After UK scored a total of five runs in the previous 24 innings, the offense had just rattled off seven in the span of two innings.
With the hits, five of them in the first two innings, came momentum for both the offense and Nunley in the circle.
"I think the momentum definitely shifted towards us once we started getting hits," Samuel said. "That picked us up a lot and I think it just got our offense rolling and I think it gave Kelsey (Nunley) confidence that she didn't have to put the team on her back as much."
Along with the Wildcats' ability to make adjustments at the plate in the second game, the key to their offensive success in the second game was the fact that they moved on quickly from the first game's loss.
A team with four sophomores in the starting lineup, including the first three in the order, was able to forget about game one and quickly shift its focus to getting key hits in game two.
"You just have to move on," Lawson said. "You have to bounce back if you want to keep going. The nice thing about our team is that they love softball. They are able to adapt, adjust and move on. What we lack in certain offensive numbers, I think we make up for in terms of mental toughness and sure grit."
That mental toughness and grit is what has helped UK to a school-record 47 wins in 2014, the program's first-ever trip to the SEC Tournament Championship game and now a second consecutive NCAA Super Regional appearance.
The Wildcats, seeded 14th in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, head to Los Angeles next weekend to face third-seeded UCLA in a best-of-three series.
To advance to its first Women's College World Series in team history, Kentucky will need the hot bats that came to life in Sunday's second game. That, and more of the toughness and grit that got them there in the first place.
Only one Wildcat, however, did something that Edrick Floreal simply couldn't explain.
"What Ally Peare did, that's just unheard of," Floreal said.
Within 90 minutes, Peare in ran in the finals of both the 1500m and 800m. To make things even more difficult, she had to qualify for the two grueling races in the preceding 48 hours.
The challenge is so great, in fact, that Floreal hesitates to even ask a student-athlete to face it.
"That's one of my greatest fears, to put somebody in the eight and 15, because the second one is always kind of god awful," Floreal said. "The kid is so lactic acid loaded up."
Defying biology, Peare managed second-place finishes in both. She tallied 16 points for her team, playing an important role as the UK women placed fourth, their best finish at SECs since 1983.
"It was a really great weekend for me," Peare said. "It's been really exciting and I'm just glad I was able to score a lot of points for the team."
Knowing the nature of the double, the coaching staff adjusted their projections for Peare's point-scoring down a bit entering the weekend. The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.
"I was only expected to score nine points," Peare said. "I even talked to Coach and I was like, 'I think I can score more than that.' "
She nearly eclipsed nine in her first race, finishing with a school-record time of 4:15.14 in the 1500. Afterward, women's distance coach Hakon DeVries pulled her aside to strategize for the 800.
"I had a lot of confidence in myself from Coach DeVries," Peare said. "He told me beforehand, that going into the 800, five other girls were coming back from the double of the 15. He said, 'I believe you can run 2:04.' "
Her time? 2:04.13.
Peare surged to the finish, nipping Georgia's Megan Malasarte by a mere tenth of a second.
"I thought, 'Man, no way you can come back after that 15 and do that.' " Floreal said. "And then when they took off in 57 (seconds through 400 meters), I thought, 'So much for us.' And then all of a sudden this little gal kept coming and then kept coming and then kicked in the home stretch. You're not supposed to be able to kick after running a 15. Your legs are not supposed to respond. I'm just so impressed."
For a little added perspective on Peare's feat, you needn't look any further than her UK teammate Keffri Neal. The junior won the 1500 and attempted the same double Peare pulled off, but finished eighth to account for 11 points. It was a more than respectable effort, but only makes Peare's all the more impressive.
"It takes a strong physical body and a strong personality as well," Neal said. "Maybe I'm not at that level yet but I'm trying to get there. She's a very good runner and I'm happy that she could run that fast."
Her coach, clearly, felt the same way.
With the women finishing fourth and the men coming in sixth -- their best SEC outdoor finish since 1996 -- the Cats turned in the clearest proof yet of the program's progress under Floreal. True to his nature, Floreal had already moved on to the next step when asked about it.
"Obviously the biggest trophy you get is the one you get at the NCAA," Floreal said. "We want to get ready for that and then position ourselves to do as best as we can and hopefully be a podium team at the NCAA. That's the goal of a program. That's what's going to define us."
Peare is on board, but she has so more immediate concerns to tend to first.
"I'm going to sleep very well tonight after I get a very good meal," she said.
Andrew Evans won his second SEC discus title in three years on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Before the Southeastern Conference Championships, Edrick Floreal and his Kentucky coaching staff sketched out how they expected the meet to go. They went event by event, assigning points based on how they thought each athlete would perform.
Then the athletes had a choice. They could either hear how many points they were expected to score or go into the weekend blind.
The former option, in Floreal's eyes, was the better one.
"You've gotta be able to embrace that pressure," Floreal said. "When somebody tells me, 'I don't want to know what you expect from me,' that's not very good. I want them to make the decision."
For senior discus thrower Andrew Evans, the decision was easy.
"The team has expectations of us," Evans said. "They asked us if we wanted to know what expectations they had for us in points and discus was (to score) 10 (points). So I knew they wanted me to get it done."
And get it done he did. Evans won the second SEC title of his career, turning in a throw of 64.09 meters/210-3 on his final attempt in front of a large crowd there to watch a loaded discus final.
"We initially had the throwing set up on the infield, which is kind of absent the crowd right on top of you," Evans said. "Then we moved it to the outside throwing facility where everybody's right on top of you and expectations are right on top of you as well."
His coach's expectations were far from the only ones Evans had to shoulder competing Saturday in front of his home fans.
Just two weeks ago, Evans won National Athlete of the Week honors after his throw of 66.37m/217-9 at the Tennessee Challenge. The mark is the best in the NCAA this season and third best in the world this year, but brought with it the pressure to back up that "magical moment," as Floreal called it.
"You have to be able to perform when people expect you to do it," Floreal said. "I'm really happy that Andrew was able to get it done with all the pressure. Everybody that was over there, they expected one thing: Andrew Evans to win the discus. And he fought off the demons and delivered the goods in a big way."
Emerging atop a field that featured three of the top four throwers in the country, Evans received his gold medal from former discus national champion and UK alum Rashaud Scott. With his nation-leading throw two weeks ago, Evans took over the school record from Scott, who graduated in 2009.
"Rashaud and I are good pals," Evans said. "He let me have it when I took his record, so we just kind of go back and forth."
Scott started a streak of five consecutive SEC discus titles for UK athletes in 2008, a streak Evans continued in 2012 but ended a year ago when he finished second. In his final home meet, Evans is happy to restart the streak and continue a Wildcat tradition.
"It feels good to win again and bring it back to Kentucky, because Kentucky is such a storied discus school," Evans said. "Hopefully we can use my results to bring in big discus recruits to keep making the program better."
If his younger teammates can mimic the way Evans handles the weight of expectations, UK track and field will continue to blossom under Floreal.
"Being counted on, that's good," Floreal said. "You don't want to not exist. Nobody expects anything from you, who wants to live that life? I want a life where I know that people expect stuff from me. We expect you to do something here."
"My interest is having people around me that they are OK with that, they can live with that, they can stand up under it and be OK with the outcome."
Delivering when he was supposed to, Evans became UK's first 2014 SEC outdoor champion. Behind him, UK is fifth with 21 points in men's standings through three days, while the women are currently in ninth with 13.
It wasn't an ideal day -- Floreal said Saturday started without the "zeal" the Wildcats had on Friday -- but it was another step in the growth of a program.
"Like I always say, character is not what happens, but it's what happens after you get your butt kicked," Floreal said. "We lost some points, but we're going to be OK. In the end, we're still in a building stage trying to put ourselves in position. And I think we're a contender, but we're not there yet. We've still got some stuff we've gotta figure out. We still gotta get a little bit tougher, a little bit grittier."
Nikki Sagermann had the game-tying RBI and scored the game-winning run in UK's sixth inning rally. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
A staple of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to keep fighting and battle back, and it was never more prevalent than in UK's 2-1, comeback win Saturday over James Madison on the second day of the NCAA Regional.
The Wildcats were trailing 1-0 and being no-hit through four innings, but in the fifth, everything started to change.
All it took was a leadoff flyout from senior Emily Gaines -- the first ball from the UK bats to leave the infield -- and the offense and the Big Blue Nation responded.
Senior Lauren Cumbess followed with a single for UK's first hit of the game, and fellow senior Emily Jolly also notched a double. While UK would not score a run in the frame, the rally was officially in effect.
Credit goes to sophomore Nikki Sagermann and junior Griffin Joiner, who recorded the game-tying and game-winning hits, but the crowd certainly played a factor.
John Cropp Stadium was close to capacity for the second consecutive day, but the Wildcat faithful didn't have a lot to cheer about until Gaines' flyout in the fifth inning. That's when the momentum shifted, and the Big Blue Nation could be heard, loud and clear.
"I thought a lot of our adjustment the third time through the order was due to the fact the crowd really got into it, chanting 'blue' and 'white,' " UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "You could hear them really cheering when Sylver Samuel got that hit up the middle and everybody went crazy. I actually think the crowd was a lot of the reason why we adjusted. The crowd was the big difference, I thought they were tremendous and a lot of the reasons why we scored the runs at the end of the game."
The Kentucky runs came in the sixth inning, but it unofficially got started in the fifth with Gaines' fly ball to center.
"Gaines has sparked us all year, so that got us going, everybody got fired up," Joiner said. "The rest of the lineup started battling better in their at-bat."
"We finally saw someone get some solid contact on her, and we were like, 'Alright, we can hit it,' " Sagermann added.
In the sixth inning, the Wildcats sent the top of the order to the plate for their third time. Sophomore Christian Stokes led off with a strikeout, but Samuel followed with a single up the middle to set up Sagermann.
The third baseman doubled to right center to score Samuel and tie the game. Joiner kept the hot hitting going with a single to left to score Sagermann and give Kentucky a 2-1 lead.
It was the adjustments that Samuel, Sagermann and Joiner made in their third time at the plate that proved to be the key for the UK offense to score two and take the lead.
After the second time through the batting order, Lawson knew the top of the order needed to adjust and get in attack mode if the Wildcats were to mount a rally.
"By the time the second at-bat comes around, if they're not in attack mode, you know you can be in big trouble," Lawson said. "You'd better straighten them out and get them in attack mode, so hopefully their third at-bat through, they're ready to get after the pitcher, which is what happened today."
The Wildcats have scored more than two runs just twice in their last six games, but have managed to notch five wins in that span, in large part to their ability to make adjustments at the plate and get the key hit at the perfect moment.
The fact that pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who has won all five games in the circle for Kentucky, is the school-record holder with eight postseason wins, certainly doesn't hurt either.
UK will look to advance to its third NCAA Super Regional in the past four years Sunday at 1 p.m. at John Cropp Stadium against either James Madison or DePaul.
Senior Lauren Cumbess had two RBI in UK's 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday night at the Lexington Regional. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
On an unseasonably cool evening at John Cropp Stadium, Lauren Cumbess' bat heated up to fuel the Kentucky softball team to a 2-0 victory over Ohio in the first game of the NCAA Regional.
Cumbess, who went 0-for-11 at the SEC Tournament last weekend, but went 1-for-2 Friday with a home run and drove in both UK runs.
"There was no secret," Cumbess said. "We practiced hard all week and worked on hitting different pitches in the zone and it was all about the right place at the right time."
The junior captain got things started in the bottom of the second with a home run to give UK an early 1-0 lead. Cumbess sent an 0-1 pitch over the right-field wall for the Wildcats' first hit of the game.
"I was just looking for my pitch and on that count it happened to be it," Cumbess said. "I swung at the first pitch, so I wanted to be aggressive and make something happen as the leadoff batter in that inning. I swung at the first one and missed it, and the second pitch looked like it was even more in my zone. I just went for it. It felt pretty good coming off the bat."
The homer was Cumbess' ninth of the season and third in NCAA Tournament play.
It came at the perfect time for the Wildcats, after starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley labored through the first two innings and allowed an Ohio baserunner to reach in the first two frames, each via walk.
Nunley allowed two runners to reach base in the third and one in the fourth, but she didn't allow a runner to score. As the sophomore continued to warm up, her pitches got even more effective and the Bobcat batters were retired in order in the fifth and sixth inning.
Three outs away from an opening-game victory, Cumbess once again helped plate a valuable insurance run in the sixth. Senior Emily Gaines led off with a double down the right field line. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner and stole third to set up Cumbess.
Cumbess flied out to right field, but it was enough to score Steed and put the Wildcats ahead 2-0.
"Especially after Maisie's delayed steal, I knew I had to get something, really stay behind it," Cumbess said. "It was either go up the middle or somewhere in the outfield and I knew she would score. Maisie is a smart baserunner, so I knew if I did my job and put it anywhere relative to where she could score, she could do it."
The 2-0 lead was all Nunley needed to secure the win and her seventh shutout of the year, good for second most in a season in program history. The win also gave Nunley seven postseason victories in her career, which extended her program-record mark.
The first win is always important, and puts the Wildcats in a good position going into Saturday's winner's bracket game with James Madison.
"It's important that you always get the first win in the tournament," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "That way you can kick the tires a little bit and get a little bit looser. Anytime you can get the first win in a postseason tournament I think that helps. It helps your pitching, it helps your defense relax a little bit and it helps the girls sleep a little bit better."
Going forward, the road doesn't get any easier. Kentucky will face James Madison on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. JMU downed DePaul in the regional's first game, 6-1.
The winner advances to Sunday, while the loser will play at 6 p.m. against the winner of Saturday's second game, between Ohio and DePaul at 3 p.m.
At stake in the double elimination tournament is a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals. The Wildcats, seeded in the top 16 in the 64-team field for the second consecutive season, will look to make their third trip to the Super Regionals in the last four years.