Freshman Kevin Lai picked up a point in singles to help UK advance to the NCAA Tournament second round. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Rainy spring weather moved the first round of the NCAA Men's Tennis Tournament indoors on Friday afternoon, but that didn't keep the Wildcats from handling Western Michigan and advancing to face Virginia Tech in the second round Saturday afternoon.
Looking to start a deep tournament run, the Wildcats came out blazing, earning the doubles point on the strength of not their No. 1 doubles team comprised of junior Tom Jomby and freshman Kevin Lai, but due to the performances on courts two and three.
The tandems of Ryuji Hirooka and Beck Pennington combined with the duo of Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra gave Kentucky two quick decisive match victories, winning 8-3 and 8-1 respectively.
After having nearly two weeks off, it was important to grab that doubles point and strike quickly against a scrappy Western Michigan squad.
"I thought the intensity was really, really good," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "I think it's going to hopefully carry on to tomorrow, but I thought we played some of our best doubles today."
Though Jomby was unable to make a mark in the doubles point, he and Lai were well on their way to winning their doubles match point, he was the first off the court Friday with a dominating performance over his first-round opponent Ross VanderPloeg. Jomby made quick work of his foe, taking set one 6-0 before discarding VanderPloeg 6-4 in the second set.
Jomby's running mate in doubles, Lai, was busy making noise of his own on court No. 4, and quite literally.
From the other side of the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center indoor facility, Lai could be heard yelling in celebration, point after point as he drew nearer and nearer to a victory for his team with the Cats leading 2-0. Lai got off to a great start in doubles with Jomby, playing a great match which was ultimately abandoned due to UK's clinch, and he carried his play over to singles.
He took the first set with relative ease, taking it 6-2. He was in for a battle in the second set, however, from his opponent Ruben Greiner.
That's when the intensity and his inner Jomby -known for his on-court energy and enthusiasm - began to manifest themselves.
"I think he's taking it from Tom. I think he's looking at Rossi. He's looking at the upperclassmen," said Kauffmann. "I think it's a little bit from him too. That's just the way he is."
Lai had to battle back in set two, trailing 3-1, before knotting things up at 3-3. Then Lai had a chance to put the match away with 6-5 lead, but the back and forth continued as Greiner forced a tiebreaker at 6-6.
It was all Lai from there, however, as he jumped out to a 3-0 lead that turned into a 7-3 victory to take the match in straight sets
It was a sign that the freshman has continued his season-long maturing process.
"Today I tried to work on every single point during the match," said Lai. "I'm all the way back (on court four) so I don't have to worry about what the crowd's doing and like with these three courts what they're doing because I couldn't see the score, so I just focused on my court and tried to finish for the team."
With Lai's point, the Cats had pulled ahead to a commanding 3-0 lead with three matches still in play. Rossi was battling on court No. 1 against WMU's No. 1 Nadin Indre. Indre gave Rossi all he could handle, though Rossi took the first set.
Meanwhile, after completion of Jomby's victory, the final match of the day got underway as junior Grant Roberts took the court. While the other matches grinded out point after point, Roberts made quick work of his opponent.
After getting a later start due to the weather and moving the tournament inside with fewer courts, Roberts still managed to finish before two of the other matches, disposing of Andrew Cahn in a hasty fashion to clinch the first round victory for his team and fulfilling a role that he relishes in.
"It felt pretty good," said Roberts. "I'm used to playing on the last two, so being in the pressure situation I guess you'd say, so I'm pretty used to that. It felt pretty good to get out there and get a match and take care of business."
Roberts took both sets by the score of 6-1 and propelled the No. 1 Wildcats into a second-round matchup with No. 3 seed Virginia Tech, which defeated No. 2 Michigan. After playing several matches outside over the course of the last couple months, getting back inside today was a good change of pace for the Wildcats.
"This is what's maybe is good if it does rain," said Kauffmann. "If we play inside (Saturday) I think it helps us, and if we play out, we've been playing some really good tennis outside."
No matter the venue, Kentucky will have to continue to bring the intensity Saturday if the Cats want to advance to the Sweet 16 and knock off a surging Virginia Tech bunch.
"I think over the last month they've been playing pretty well," Kauffmann said. "They just knocked off Michigan who's been kind of hot through the year, so I think we're going to have a pretty tough match. We're at home so we hope the Big Blue Nation will help us out."
Cedric Kauffmann leads UK into the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a head coach starting on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Since the moment he took over 10 months ago, Cedric Kauffmann has been planning for this moment. All along, the first-year Kentucky head coach has been trying to position his team to play its best tennis in the NCAA Tournament.
That doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like though.
The Wildcats aren't going to paint the line with every shot. Not everything will go their way now that every match could be the last one of the season. What Kauffmann has been working toward is his team understanding that and knowing how to best deal with it.
"I never have six guys playing their best tennis in one match, but what I mean by 'best tennis' is knowing what to do when you're not playing your best," Kauffmann said.
On Friday, No. 8 UK (20-11) will open the NCAA Tournament at home - the fifth straight time the Wildcats have hosted to open NCAA play - against Western Michigan (19-9). When the first ball is served in doubles play at around 3 p.m. ET, Kauffmann knows it's unlikely all of his players will be at their peak; the goal is to grind through whatever happens.
"Am I going to have two, three guys that play very good tennis? Yeah, we're going to have to." Kauffmann said. "But I know I'm going to have one or two or three guys that are not going to play their best tennis and they're going to have to get through it."
During the fall, Anthony Rossi was having trouble with that. He looked around and saw that he was the only senior on the roster, that former stars Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek were no longer there to fill the top two spots in the lineup. Sensing that void, Rossi tried to step up, bearing the responsibility for an inexperienced group.
It wasn't working.
An inconsistent fall caused Rossi to drop from a No. 12 all the way to No. 94 in national singles rankings. By thinking first about his team, Rossi neglected himself and his own game. With the help of his coach, Rossi has found the right balance during the spring.
"I'm doing much better than the beginning of the season," Rossi said. "During the fall I was maybe focusing too much on the team and not on myself and that's why I dropped from 12 to 94. Now I'm doing first a better job on myself and then taking care of the team."
In turn, Rossi has excelled, running up a 22-5 spring record and ascending to No. 5 in the rankings. No. 2 singles player Tom Jomby has followed suit and joined Rossi as a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree.
"I think we have one of the strongest one-two punches in the country when they're ready to play," Kauffmann said.
Entering the postseason, Rossi and Jomby will look to raise their game once more. With a freshmen-laden back of the rotation behind them, UK's two veterans will need to set the tone, particularly with unfamiliar opponents coming to Lexington for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week. After Western Michigan, UK faces a possible Saturday matchup with either No. 23 Michigan (16-9) or No. 42 Virginia Tech (15-9), neither of which the Cats have played in the recent past.
With that in mind, the Cats plan to think about themselves more than their opponents.
"Focusing on your game because we don't know much about them, they don't know much about us," Rossi said. "So just focus on your game one point at a time and that's about it."
Though Western Michigan, Michigan and Virginia Tech are all unknown, none of them figure to be able to throw anything at the Cats that they haven't already seen. UK has played an incredible 17 matches in 2013 against teams currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's top 20.
"That's something that Coach (Dennis) Emery kind of taught me a little bit," Kauffmann said. "If you really want to be good, you gotta play a strong schedule that gets you ready for the end of the year."
It's now time for the Wildcats to find out exactly how well prepared they are.
"There is a little bit of pressure, but it's a really good pressure," Jomby said.
A.J. Reed will start Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET series opening against No. 1 Vanderbilt's Kevin Ziomek. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In preparing for Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede - the Friday and Saturday starters for No. 1 Vanderbilt - Gary Henderson is reminded of a player familiar to Kentucky baseball fans.
It's not so much their style, delivery or even their handedness - Ziomek is a lefty and a Beede a righty - but Henderson sees a lot of Alex Meyer in what the dominant Commodore duo does to opponents.
Meyer - now pitching in the Minnesota Twins organization after being picked in the first round in 2011 - had stuff so electric and secondary pitches so good that batters were forced to attack early in counts. Now, with UK set to face Ziomek and Beede in the first two games of a weekend series beginning on Friday in Lexington, Henderson is asking his Wildcats to do the same.
"It's some of the same approach that you saw the opposition take when Alex Meyer was here and he was going well," Henderson said. "Once a guy gets in a rhythm and he's got a legitimate out pitch, the game becomes really hard."
Ziomek and Beede have been the anchors for a Commodore team off to a historic start in Southeastern Conference play (42-6 overall). The two have combined for a 21-2 record identical to Vandy's league record, a 1.89 earned-run average and 169 strikeouts in 166.2 innings pitched. Perhaps most remarkably, Beede has a perfect 12-0 record in his 12 starts.
Though that last number may suggest otherwise, they are not unbeatable. Kentucky has faced incredible pitching all season long, so Henderson knows the Cats need a good game plan and need to follow it to have their best chance at success.
"What you really want is confidence and aggressiveness," Henderson said. "If you're passive against these guys, it's going to be really tough when you get to two strikes. Really tough."
As deserving of praise as Ziomek and Beede may be, Henderson knows he has a strong pitching staff of his own. With UK's offense scoring more than five runs just once over the past 11 games, Wildcat pitchers have responded - from Friday night starter A.J. Reed (2-6, 2.84 ERA) to a bullpen that has allowed one run over Kentucky's last five games.
"I'm really pleased with our pitching," Henderson said. "Those guys have held on. It's been tough for us for a stretch to score runs and we've been about as tough as you can be on the mound and certainly in that bullpen."
This weekend, the pitchers will have the challenge of limiting a Vandy offense that is averaging 7.2 runs per game and hitting .315 on the season to lead the SEC in both categories. In other words, the Commodores are about a lot more than a couple starting pitchers.
"It's the best eight-week record in the history of the conference, so that's about as impressive as you could ask for," Henderson said. "It's a complete team and it'll be on this weekend."
With the top-ranked team coming to town, Henderson has found himself doing some balancing this week.
On one hand, taking on a nationally elite team with stellar pitching and a dangerous lineup is essentially a weekly proposition in SEC play. On the other, facing a team with that No. 1 next to its name offers a chance at a little extra motivation, motivation that could be used to create just the kind of edge the Cats need.
He's taken both perspectives into account this week.
"Every year at some point it seems we get to play the number one team, the number two team, the number four team and so it's not that unusual," Henderson said. "It's new for this season. It's another SEC weekend. You're gonna see really good pitching, which we've seen plenty of in the last month and it's an opportunity do something you're going to remember for the rest of your life if you're a kid."
An estimated 50,381 fans attended UK's Blue/White Spring Game on April 13. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
All fans who were at Saturday's Blue/White Scrimmage knew they were part of a special event.
The estimated attendance of 50,831 obliterated the old UK spring game record by nearly 30,000 and stacks up with the crowds attracted by college football's perennial powers.
With the last spring game being played last weekend, Kentucky ranks sixth in attendance among those schools, trailing only four Southeastern Conference schools and Nebraska. In 2012, UK's crowd would have ranked fourth in the nation behind only Ohio State, Alabama and Penn State.
Below is a complete list of schools that have held spring games sorted by attendance:
Note: Ben Jones of CatsIllustrated.com posted a similar list here. All information below was compiled separately and expanded to include non-BCS conference schools.
Auburn - 83,401 (April 20) Alabama - 78,135 (April 20) Tennessee - 61,076 (April 20) Nebraska - 60,174 (April 6) Arkansas - 51,088 (April 20) Kentucky - 50,831 (April 13) Texas - 46,000 (March 30) Texas A&M - 45,212 (April 13) Georgia (April 6) - 45,113 Ohio State - 37,643 (April 13 in Cincinnati) Oregon - 36,588 (April 27) South Carolina - 35,218 (April 13) Louisville - 33,000 (April 13) Notre Dame - 31,652 (April 20) Clemson - 30,000 (April 13) Florida State - "nearly 30,000" (April 13) Oklahoma - 29,200 (April 13) LSU - 28,000 (April 20) Ole Miss - 28,000 (April 13) Penn State - 28,000 (April 20) Michigan State - 22,500 (April 20) Mississippi State -21,000 (Capacity limited due to stadium construction - April 20) Rutgers - 21,000 (April 27) UCLA - 20,000 (April 27) Missouri - 18,234 (April 20) Michigan - "nearly 18,000" (April 13) Iowa - 16,500 (April 27) Kansas State - 16,383 (April 27) Texas Tech - 16,116 (April 20) USC - 15,284 (April 13) Iowa State - 15,000 (April 20) North Carolina - 15,000 (April 13) Oklahoma State - 15,000 (April 21) Vanderbilt - 14,000 (April 13) Wisconsin - 12,050 (April 20) Colorado - 10,244 (April 13) Minnesota - 10,106 (April 27) Boise State - 9,146 (April 13) Utah - 8,633 (April 20) Washington State - 8,340 (April 20) Oregon State - 8,263 (April 26) Maryland - 8,200 (April 12) Miami - 8,000 (April 13) West Virginia - 8,000 (April 20) WKU - 6,500 (April 20) Purdue - 6,427 (April 13) Arizona State - 6,300 (April 13) East Carolina - 6,294 (April 20) Louisiana Tech - 5,700 (April 13) California - 5,831 (March 23) Duke - 5,213 (April 13) Middle Tennessee State - 5,000 (April 20) Nevada - "nearly 5,000" (April 20) Texas State - 4,608 (April 6) South Florida - 4,606 (April 6) Stanford - 4,350 (April 13) Wake Forest - 4,200 (April 20) Arizona - 4,095 (April 13) Pittsburgh - 3,642 (April 12) Temple - 3,530 (April 20) Baylor - 3,500 (April 6) Colorado State - "a little over 3,000" (April 20) Utah State - "approximately 3,000" (April 20) UTEP - 2,581 (April 12) UTSA - 2,506 (April 14) South Alabama - 2,281 (April 6) Illinois - 2,100 (April 12) Western Michigan - 2,045 (April 20) Cincinnati - "over 2,000" (April 6) Georgia State - "more than 1,800" New Mexico State - 1,200 (May 4) UNLV - 1,200 (April 12) Tulsa - 1,200 (April 6) Hawaii - 900 (April 27) Eastern Michigan - "Hundreds" (April 14) Northern Illinois - "Hundreds" (April 13)
The following schools did not release attendance figures for their spring games:
Air Force (April 13) Akron (April 27) Arkansas State (April 13) Ball State (April 20) Bowling Green (April 12) Buffalo (April 20) Central Michigan (April 13) Connecticut (April 20) Florida (April 6) Florida Atlantic (April 20) Florida International (April 20) Fresno State (March 23) Georgia Tech (April 19) Houston (April 12) Idaho (April 19) Indiana (April 13) Kansas (April 13) Kent State (April 27) Louisiana-Lafayette (April 20) Louisiana-Monroe (March 23) Marshall (April 27) Massachusetts (April 20) Memphis (April 6) Miami (Ohio) (April 20) North Carolina State (April 20) North Texas (April 13) Ohio (April 13) Rice (April 6) San Diego State (March 23) San Jose State (March 23) Southern Miss (April 20) Syracuse (April 20) Toledo (April 12) Troy (April 20) Tulane (March 2) UAB (April 27) UCF (April 13) Virginia (April 6) Virginia Tech (April 20) Washington (April 20) Wyoming (April 27)
The following schools did not hold official spring games or did not open their spring games to the public:
Army - "Limited viewing opportunities" to the public (March 8) Boston College - Cancelled due to events in Boston (April 20) BYU - "Nearly 1,000" attended Alumni Day scrimmage (April 5) Navy - No spring game New Mexico - No spring game Northwestern - No spring game SMU - No attendance released for "Fan Fair" (April 20) TCU - "A couple of thousand" attended Spring Frog Fest (April 6)
The following schools have not yet held their spring games:
The UK softball team fell to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, 6-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team couldn't recover from a four-run third inning and a dominant pitching performance from South Carolina hurler Julie Sarratt, as UK was ousted in the first round of the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday evening, 6-3.
The evening kicked off what was supposed to be a memorable event for UK as the SEC Tournament made its way to Lexington for the first time in school history in the newly renovated John Cropp Statdium. However, the Wildcats seventh-inning rally fell short after scoring two in the frame and bringing the tying run at the plate before Sarratt ended the game on a strikeout.
The result wasn't what the Cats wanted, but it wasn't enough to make them look past what this weekend means to UK and its softball program.
"I would like to thank the SEC and the University of Kentucky for putting on this venue right now," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I think the SEC is a special tournament because all the teams who come here, all 10 of them are exceptional teams. I think it's a great venue and barring the rain everything else has turned out really nice, both from the SEC side and from our side."
UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team earlier in the week and had been reliable for the Cats all season, especially down the stretch. Wednesday just wasn't her night either, as South Carolina had a good game plan adjusting to her attack.
Nunley had been on fire for Kentucky, winning two games over perennial powerhouse and defending champion Alabama last weekend. It turned out she just didn't have it tonight and Lawson gives credit to the Gamecocks for having a good scouting report on her freshman.
UK came off one of its biggest series wins over Alabama last weekend and figured to carry that momentum into this weekend's tournament. That series win may have bit them in the rear-end as the Cats seemed to have locked themselves into good position as far as seeding goes in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has essentially clinched an at-large bid into the postseason and are hoping to host a regional tournament, while South Carolina had a little more to play for being considered on the bubble.
"I think at times, especially when you are dealing with a team so youthful with five freshmen and a sophomore behind the plate, I think sometimes their focus is a little misguided," Lawson said. "I think beating Alabama was a big deal to them and beating South Carolina three times earlier in the year, offensively we didn't start strong and they came out and seemed a little hungrier than us."
Looking forward the Wildcats can learn from their mistakes and will have some time off to shake this loss off and look ahead to achieving their ultimate goal of making it to the Women's College World Series.
"We need a day off so tomorrow we will take off and watch the teams who are playing," Lawson said. "Obviously we have good pitching, we have won a lot of games. Offensively, I think we are going to have to do a better job of mixing things up. I think we have a good game plan we just didn't execute them this weekend. We have a lot of big wins and a lot of experience going into postseason I just think it depends on if it's a good matchup for us or not."
Freshman Sarah Harris looks to build on her second-place finish at SECs in the NCAA Regional at Auburn. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Fresh off the best finish in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in 20 years, the Kentucky women's golf team is headed to Auburn, Ala., for NCAA Regionals in pursuit of more history and a trip to nationals.
As the Wildcats have done all season long, they will have to fight through adversity to realize that goal.
The Wildcats had a great week of preparation heading into the SEC Tournament two weeks ago with fantastic weather in the Lexington area and plenty of time out on the golf course. The preparation and a renewed focus helped vault UK into a top-five finish at SECs and put the Cats in contention for a strong seed in the NCAAs.
With confidence soaring for the Wildcats heading to Auburn, Mother Nature has done her best to rain on the parade - literally.
The Kentucky spring weather has been unkind to leisurely casual golfers and collegiate golfers alike this spring season, whether it's been a chill in the air or moisture on the ground. With no end in sight to the less-than-ideal golf conditions, head coach Golda Borst went into improvisational mode to prepare for this weekend.
The Wildcats took to the range and visualized the Auburn golf course to the best of their abilities. With all of the distances and dimensions at their disposal, they created a virtual course and played it at the range.
Players estimated their shots, used a range finder, aimed at the "green" or flag or a different target on the range. They would imagine their shot, execute and estimate whether or not they were close to their target.
"The girls did a really good job and got really into it and tried to make the best of the situation," said Borst. "For me, that's what it's about .We're going to have tough conditions, and this time it was extra tough."
Preparing in that fashion will at least give the older players a refresher on a course that the seniors have already played in their career, but this week's preparation is particularly important for the freshmen who have never seen it.
"The more mentally you can prepare, the better because when you get there, it's like, 'Oh, I've played this before. I kind of had an idea of what this looks like,' " said Borst. "Then I would walk around and help them remember some of the holes."
And having the experience of Auburn's University Club golf course should not only give the upperclassmen an edge, but they will also be able to pass along their wisdom - as they've done all season - to the freshmen.
"Three of the girls have been there. They know what's coming," said Borst. "They know emotionally how to prepare for it. They can talk to the two freshmen about it and kind of give them an idea about the golf course.
"I think the golf course sets up for us well and I think they'll do a good job. We just have to make sure that we stay focused on us and play within ourselves and play the game we know that we can play, and we'll do a good job."
Kentucky's preparations aren't limited to the Bluegrass, however, as Borst got her team ready to go a couple of days earlier to head to Atlanta, Ga., and get an extra round in before heading to Auburn for the NCAA Tournament as she continues to try and find any additional edge she can provide her players.
Despite the distractions of early travel and a rainy day - or week - Kentucky has remained cool, calm and collected, much like the Cats were heading into the SEC Tournament.
"They've been very calm and very focused," said Borst. "They know what they need to do and they're ready to do it. I must say, there's a different mindset this year than there was the last two years."
Freshman Sarah Harris, who recently took second place individually at the SEC Tournament, might be able to continue to carry the Wildcats as they look for a top-eight finish to advance to nationals, but she's going to need some help.
While junior Liz Breed has been very consistent this season, Kentucky will need seniors Betsie Johnson and Ashleigh Albrecht to continue to battle the emotions of their senior season and put up a solid tournament. Albrecht carried the Cats for much of last year much like Harris is doing now late in the season, but she's yet to find her consistent stroke.
There would be no better time and place for Albrecht to rediscover it than this weekend at Auburn.
"It would mean a lot to me as a coach," said Borst. "Not necessarily because it would help us advance, but it would help her with her game as she moves on to be a professional golfer because it would help her confidence. I think that would be really big to know that she has it in her, and she does, it's just the more rounds you can get around par and under par, it will validate her."
At the end of the day, the Wildcats will need to bridle their emotions for this event and remaining as relaxed as possible, knowing that they don't have to do anything special to achieve a top-eight score.
Though Borst is confident that the Auburn course sets up well for her team, it's all going to come down to the short game, which has been the story of the season.
"You have to make the big putts on every single day because a lot of times it comes down to the last hole on the last day, missing it or making it by one shot," said Borst. "We worked a ton on putting here in the last week and a half because I know how important it is. As you prepare, I want the girls to know that they gave it their all and they are fully prepared for whatever comes their way this week."
It hasn't been perfect, but Borst has done her part to get her team ready for just that. If she has it her way, which has been tough for her to come by in her never-ending battle with Mother Nature, Kentucky will be standing in the sunshine having clinched a trip to nationals.
Head coach Edrick Floreal (left) with senior sprinter Shiara Robinson (right). (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When the Kentucky track and field team gets ready to compete in the 2013 Outdoor Southeastern Conference Championships this weekend, the Wildcats will look very different from their conference counterparts. The blue and white uniforms, of course, will distinguish the Wildcats, but the real contrast won't begin to show itself until competition begins.
The SEC allows each university to bring 30 male and female student-athletes to compete at the conference championships. Instead of piling in 60 members from the UK track and field team and busing to Columbia, Mo., this week, first-year head coach Edrick Floreal chose to take a different approach.
Floreal made the decision to send just 35 athletes, 18 males and 17 females, to compete at SECs. This might seem to put the Cats at an immediate disadvantage, but Floreal knows his team better than anyone else. He has a clear picture of what a UK track and field athlete looks like, and the Wildcats he'll bring with him to Missouri have grown to fit that vision.
The biggest difference he has seen in this group over the course of the year hasn't necessarily been a boost in athletic ability or skill, but a change in their mentality.
"I just think it's been self-belief," Floreal said. "They believe they actually belong and I actually heard it from some of the coaches in the SEC that the kids that we have now act like they belong in the SEC and they can be competitive. That was a goal for the kids to feel like they belong instead of just letting them participate in the event.
"That's kind of why we took a smaller group of people that actually feel comfortable competing at that level as opposed to taking a large group that might not be ready when it comes to competing at that level yet."
One of the meets this year that has stood out to Floreal on that front was the Kentuckiana Border Battle in mid-April, when UK teamed up with Louisville in a meet against Indiana and Notre Dame. UK and U of L ended up winning both the men's and women's meets but more importantly, Floreal saw belief and determination out of his athletes.
Coaches from the three neighbor schools who were familiar with Kentucky and how the Wildcats compete were caught off guard by the Wildcats' new sense of self-confidence.
Creating that attitude has been one of Floreal's main goals since he arrived in the Bluegrass. He hopes for a similar reaction from UK's SEC brethren this weekend.
"I'm hoping for a little shock factor for the rest of the conference to exceed their expectation," Floreal said. "Not so much exceed their expectation in winning events but just from watching how hard our kids fight and how confident they are at that level more importantly than anything else.
"It is one thing when you are used to seeing Kentucky on the back and now they are next to you being competitive. That's what we are aiming for in every event. Whether somebody is fighting for next-to-last or fighting to make the final, I just want them to fight as hard as they can all the way to the finish."
What this week does for the Cats is give them an opportunity to compete at the highest level and gain experience for the 2014 SEC Championships, which will be held at the UK Track and Field Complex. Floreal is hoping that his athletes take this experience and develop some leadership for next year as well.
Kentucky has a large recruiting class coming in next year, with 25 male and 12 female athletes set to arrive in Lexington for the 2013-14 season. With such a massive group of newcomers, UK needs some leaders to step up so the freshmen have an example to follow.
"We just need to establish a group of leaders now so when the freshmen come they already know, 'Hey these people have gotten it done, we need to learn from them on what it takes to compete in the SEC,' " Floreal said. "You don't want the freshmen to come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely lost. You want them to come in and feel like they can talk to the All-SEC members and All-Americans on the team and learn from them."
Another goal of Floreal's is to improve on last year's performance - eighth for the men, 12th for the women - and see if the Cats can crack the top half. With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M this season, the Wildcats will need to place at least seventh to achieve Floreal's goal.
Last year junior Andrew Evans won the discus throw, while senior Luis Orta and sophomore Raymond Dykstra were runners-up in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and javelin throw, respectively. Floreal wouldn't mind seeing a few more of his athletes up on the stage accepting awards this year.
"We didn't have an exceptionally good showing last year and the No. 1 thing is to improve on that," Floreal said. "Anytime you can be in the top half of the SEC that's a big accomplishment. We want to see some people in that top five and top three and see some people on the podium. We just want the kids to compete hard and be competitive so it should be fairly clear who are the stars and who are not."
Jerad Grundy allowed just one run over five innings in UK's 4-1 win over Wright State on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jerad Grundy had a lot of time to ponder his recent struggles.
The senior left-hander was replaced in his usual role as Kentucky's Saturday starter last weekend, meaning he had to wait a week and a half between outings. But in returning to the mound on Tuesday against Wright State, the worst four-start stretch of his UK career was the last thing on his mind.
"When you're a baseball player, you've got to have a short-term memory," Grundy said. "You don't want to be worrying about what you did last week and all of a sudden you're not focused on what you can do this week. You've just got to go out there and play one game at a time."
Using that approach, Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) returned to form against the Raiders, looking much more like the pitcher who allowed didn't allow more than three earned runs in any start over the first seven weeks of the season. He turned in five innings of one-run ball, yielding five hits and no walks while striking out five as the Wildcats (28-19) defeated visiting Wright State (20-24), 4-1.
"I'm really happy with Jerad's performance tonight," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Command of all three pitches, he stayed down for the most part, briefly lost a little bit of rhythm there in the fourth and got it back and had a clean fifth inning."
It wasn't his most dominant outing or even long enough to make it a quality start, but Grundy put into practice the work he had logged over the last week. Hitters had been making him pay for pitches he left up, but Grundy kept the ball in the lower half of the zone on Tuesday, particularly during the first three innings when he didn't allow a base runner.
"His pen work has been good all year," Henderson said. "Through the starts where he's struggled with fastball command it came up a little bit, it was not indicative of what he's been doing between starts. It's a thought process issue, a relaxation issue and I thought tonight he was able to go out there and relax."
By relaxing, Grundy proved to himself once again that he can get the job done. And in addition to buoying his own confidence, Grundy's performance was positive for the postseason prospects of a team that has just two weekends left in the regular season. As well as true freshman Kyle Cody pitched in his first Southeastern Conference start last Saturday, UK will need Grundy's experience and veteran presence.
"It definitely doesn't hurt to have another starter, especially with the stuff Kyle has," Grundy said. "That's going to be huge for us once we get in the SEC Tournament and the regionals."
That's a ways off though.
"I think anytime you've got four guys, you've got something," Henderson said. "But to be honest with you, I haven't looked that far ahead. We've got a couple weekends first."
In the meantime, Grundy is taking the short-term view, no matter whether he's pitching on a weekend or a weekday.
"We're just taking it day by day," Grundy said. "To me it doesn't really matter what my role. I just want to have a role on the team and help us win."
Kentucky will host its first SEC Tournament this week at John Cropp Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the Kentucky softball program will host the most prestigious conference softball tournament in the nation. The Southeastern Conference tournament features the top-10 schools in the 14-team league based on the standings after a grueling 24-game schedule.
What makes the conference so dominant is that it includes several teams regarded as among best in the nation based on rankings. According to the RPI, which is the basis on who is selected into the NCAA Tournament, the SEC has six teams in the top 10 and 11 in the top 40.
The newly renovated John Cropp Stadium has come a long way since head coach Rachel Lawson arrived here six years ago. To think UK would be hosting the most highly anticipated and competitive softball tournament in the country is hard to imagine. Even for Lawson.
"When I got here six years ago, if you would have shown up to the softball field there was a small grandstand about the size of one row here and we have made drastic improvements," Lawson said. "It says a lot to the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be able to have ESPN here and hosting the SEC Tournament that they were able to put up such an amazing softball facility for a softball team and women's sports in general."
This weekend marks the first big tournament that Kentucky has hosted since a 2011 Super Regional, which was held here in Lexington.
Lawson remembers that weekend and how supportive the Big Blue Nation was well. The event staff had to add in additionally outfield bleachers in order to accommodate enough suitable seating for the fan base. The sixth-year head coach believes this weekend will offer a bit of the same flavor and is hoping to ride that home-field advantage.
"Everyone knows there is nothing better than Kentucky fans," Lawson said. "When the Big Blue Nation comes out it's pretty impressive as we showed two years ago when we hosted a Super Regional. Even when they are not softball fans, in general just being a Kentucky fan really helps us out a lot. It's nice to be able to have that crowd behind you when you are playing such awesome opponents."
UK (38-17, 13-11 SEC) is the No. 7 seed in the tournament and will face the No. 10 seed South Carolina (31-22, 8-16) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
When the two teams take the field on Wednesday, it will have been almost exactly a month ago since the Cats traveled to Columbia, S.C., and swept the Gamecocks. Even though Kentucky came away with a sweep, the series was a lot more difficult than it sounds with UK winning 3-1 in the opener and 4-3 in the final game of the three-game set.
"I think it gives them confidence knowing that they beat them but I think it was so far removed I think they are just looking to get back on the field and hopefully winning a SEC game," Lawson said.
If that series isn't enough to give UK a boost for their opening-round game then the Cats' performance last weekend most definitely will.
Kentucky went down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., last weekend having won just twice all-time against Alabama in 40 chances. Kentucky not only won for the first time at Alabama, but took two of three games to win its first series vs. the Crimson Tide in school history.
It was an emotional series for the Wildcats and something they can build on moving into postseason play.
"To be able to go into Alabama and get a win is huge," Lawson said. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence and it gives the younger players a lot of confidence. They went in there and hit two very awesome pitchers and I believe that shows them they can get it done.
"In order for us to get where we want, which is the World Series we're going to have to go through pitchers like the ones they have at Alabama. I think it gives them a lot of confidence and hopefully we will be able to take that momentum into our game tomorrow night against South Carolina."
One of the key cogs for Kentucky this season is freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley. She has been a workhorse for UK all season, setting the Kentucky single-season wins record earlier this year, was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team on Tuesday due to her efforts in the circle.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native, who was once a secret weapon for UK, now has the whole conference, or country for that matter, keeping an eye on her.
"I think everyone in the country knows we are going with her in game one," Lawson said. "It's not a secret. I love our other pitchers but she is the one that has gotten us here so I want to make sure she has that opportunity on national TV."
In order for the Wildcats to win their first SEC Tournament title, they must win four games in four days. Kentucky knows who its ace is and the Cats are going to ride her as long as they can. Nunley once pitched three straight games this season, firing over 300 pitches in a weekend series against Missouri.
After Nunley 2-0 against the defending national champions Alabama last weekend, Lawson is not going to be hesitant and just hopes she can see how long Nunley can go. So don't be surprised if you see Nunley out in the circle in Saturday's championship game, preparing to pitch her fourth game in as many days.
"Hopefully we will have the offense going so we have a chance to see that. I know she has pitched three in a row so four would be something she hasn't done but I believe she can do it," Lawson said.
Michelle Canterna (left) broke UK's pole vault record at the RedHawk Invitational, while Matt Hillenbrand (right) was the 2013 Indoor SEC Mile Champion. (Britney McIntosh and Chet White, UK Athletics)
Watch a collegiate track and field meet in person for even a few minutes and it's difficult not to notice just how many different things are going on. It's one of the unique aspects of the sport, just how many different ways there are to win. Running faster, throwing and jumping farther or jumping higher.
Among the top programs in collegiate track and field, the mold for success varies just as much as the program of events at championship meets. Some top schools build winning team scores through excellence in field events, others in sprints and others again use a distance-based formula to go for titles.
Under first-year head coach Edrick Floreal, the Kentucky track and field program has yet to identify a singe group of athletes that stands out as the major point-earners at championship meets like the Southeastern Conference Championships, which take place this weekend.
UK boasts a balanced squad, with no group standing out particularly over the other. And under the new coaching staff, multiple athletes have taken huge steps forward this season.
For two of those Wildcats, that success has come in very different styles, an illustration of just how many ways there are to get the job done when it comes to finding a way to win at track and field.
Michelle Canterna's path to success has been long and winding, but given her recent string of results, it seems she's struck the right chord.
She was recruited and competed her freshman year at Kentucky as a long jumper. Being a former gymnast for 12 years of her life, Canterna would perform tumble routines in the field during her downtime after practice. The coaches joked with her and threw a pole vault in her hand, telling her to try it out. She went through drills and even competed in an event as a sophomore, clearing 11 feet before getting injured.
Then things changed over the summer for the redshirt sophomore.
Her previous jumps coach had never been a pole vaulter before and with the new coaching staff on board, assistant coach Will Thomas, responsible for the team's vertical jumpers, has been a major key to her success. Thomas, a former decathlete, has brought the experience of competing in multiple events at the highest levels of Division I to the Wildcats.
By Canterna's own estimation, the new training regime under Thomas has been the catalyst for her unprecedented success this season. As a former decathlete, Thomas can relate the experience of having been a long jumper and pole vaulter, something that may have seemed daunting when Canterna first made the switch in events.
"I like the fact that I can come in my first year vaulting and he was able to mold me," Canterna said. "It was really nice because I've never vaulted before so being able to be molded by a new coach is awesome and obviously he is doing a great job if I can hit heights that people haven't at UK before. It's just humbling because I had no idea that I could do it and he showed me that I can which was awesome."
Under Thomas' guidance, Canterna has been a force for the Wildcats this year, breaking the school's all-time pole vault record clearing 3.96 meters / 12'11.75" at the Miami RedHawk Invitational last Saturday. The height came a week after the Florence, Ky., native set the UK outdoor record at the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic, Kentucky's first home meet since 1996.
On the track side of things, distance runner Matt Hillenbrand's story is more along the lines of a normal track athlete. The junior had tremendous success in high school, winning state championships as a distance runner. He has kept it going at Kentucky.
His first two years at UK were good, but he has had a breakthrough junior season.
"It was a combination of a lot of hard work that finally paid off over the past three years," Hillenbrand said.
At the SEC Indoor Championships in February, Hillenbrand claimed the mile race with a time of 4:01.55. He has continued his excellence by posting a personal-record time of 3:44.66 at the IU Billy Hayes Invitational last Friday, finishing second in the heat. His PR time is currently good enough to qualify him for the NCAA Regional Preliminary Championships if the season ended today.
According to Hillenbrand, a greater sense of self-belief has been the biggest factor in his newfound success this season. While Canterna's background may contrast quite a bit with Hillenbrand's, the SEC champion believes his teammate's success stems from the same source.
"We have worked a lot of longer distances and a lot of aerobic workouts, but it's really just the perception of what being good is," Hillenbrand said. "That's really the change."
The Wildcats travel to Columbia, Mo., this week to compete at the SEC Outdoor Championships. The event is the final invitational on the Cats' schedule before NCAA Regionals May 23-25.
Canterna has high hopes for her future both short and long term. She has the 13-foot mark on her mind at the SECs after falling just short of the feat at Miami, but her primary goal is to be one of the top eight finishers at the SEC Championships, earning valuable points for the UK cause.
"Right now my main focus is scoring at SECs," Canterna said.
Looking past SECs and toward regionals, nationals and even next year, Canterna is aiming to vault in the upper 13s and possibly clear as high as 14 feet. With the 2014 SEC Championships set to be hosted at the UK track and field complex in 2014, Canterna feels like she can use this week's experience to prepare for a great performance a year from now.
"I really think the more I work at it and even over the summer I am going to get bigger, stronger, faster and I am going to utilize this facility more to my advantage knowing that it will be our home meet that hopefully I can dominate," Canterna said.
Hillenbrand is looking to defend his indoor mile crown at the comparable outdoor 1,500M and he likes his team's chances to perform well this weekend given UK's greater depth with the outdoor meet program compared to indoors. UK can utilize the help of senior Luis Orta - who finished second at last year's championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, but was out of eligibility during the 2013 indoor season - and UK's group of throwers, which features two returning outdoor All-Americans in the form of defending SEC Discus Champion Andrew Evans and 2012 All-American javelin thrower Raymond Dykstra.
Maybe the biggest goal for Kentucky this week is to show the rest of the conference that this team is ready to take the next step toward being elite again.
"I'd definitely like to repeat and our team is looking pretty good and now that we have Luis back for outdoors and a couple of the throwers, we are definitely trying to be in the top half of the conference and just change the mold of Kentucky track and field," Hillenbrand said.
Changing the mold of the program is well under way, as evidenced by success of Hillenbrand and Canterna. This weekend will be a major measuring stick for just how much the new mold is beginning to take shape