Kentucky begins life after AJ Reed on Friday at 12 p.m. vs. Ball State (UK Athletics)
The 2014 season for the Kentucky baseball team was a historic one.
Not only did the Wildcats advance to their eighth all-time NCAA Tournament, but folks in Lexington and around the country were treated to one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the sport.
Two-way star AJ Reed swept the national player of the year awards while pacing the nation's most explosive offense. UK led all major conference schools in runs scored while Reed powered a NCAA-best 23 homers, also leading the Southeastern Conference in pitching wins, in one of the most remarkable individual seasons in college baseball history.
"You don't replace AJ with one guy," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And clearly we are going to have a different team offensively. You know we were old and strong last year. We had several kids who were physical. We will have a different club. You can win a lot of different ways in baseball which is one of the great things about it. It is pretty safe to say that we are not going to lead the league in home runs or have the home run leader in the program this year and that's fine."
The 2015 UK roster will look quite different than the physical lineup employed a year ago. Gone are Reed and fellow sluggers Austin Cousino, Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas. UK will be built through speed, defense and pitching depth in Henderson's seventh season at the helm - with his previous six years the most successful in program history.
"Well we're going to run well," Henderson said. "I don't know how that's going to translate into stolen bases yet but we're going to have a group of people they can get from home to first quickly."
Kentucky returns first-team All-SEC outfielder Ka'ai Tom, who narrowly missed the league batting crown in conference play with a .373 average. In addition, UK boasts the return of 2013 Freshman All-SEC selections Kyle Barrett and Greg Fettes, and 2014 Freshman All-SEC second baseman JaVon Shelby.
UK's lineup will be anchored by fifth-year senior Thomas Bernal, who will transition to third base to accommodate freshman first baseman Evan White. Bernal, who hit .475 on SEC Friday nights last year, is a preseason All-SEC selection at the hot corner by Perfect Game.
On the mound, UK's history of talented arms continues as junior right-hander Kyle Cody enters the season as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. A 6-foot-7, 245-pound product of Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cody is coming off an all-star summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. UK also returns southpaw Dylan Dwyer and right-hander Andrew Nelson, a duo that helped fill UK's weekend rotation a year ago. UK will be boosted by junior transfer Dustin Beggs, who has been tabbed to make UK's opening-day start.
"I love the beginning of the season every year and our kids do as well," Henderson said. "I'm really fortunate for the people that I get to work with on a daily basis. We're really eager to get this thing started."
Makayla Epps scored 42 points, including the buzzer beater, in UK's 92-90 win over Mississippi State in double overtime. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
From the final play to the whole 50-minute game to her 42-point performance in it, Makayla Epps didn't need to say much more to describe what had just happened.
"Crazy," Epps said. "Complete craziness."
Epps, however, was talking only about the final possession that led to the buzzer-beating shot she used to send No. 10 Kentucky (19-5, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) to a thrilling 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13/15 Mississippi State (23-4, 8-4 SEC).
The play started when the Wildcats took possession following a Breanna Richardson basket with 35 seconds left. Matthew Mitchell didn't call timeout, instead opting to tell Epps to run the clock down and attack as the shot clock neared zero.
"I just thought it was kind of silly to have it in anybody else's hands but hers there at the end, no matter if four were guarding her," Mitchell said.
Epps would get a good first look, but missed a short jumper. Somehow, Jelleah Sidney came away with the offensive rebound in a mad scrum as the clock reached five seconds remaining.
"I feel like all 12 of my teammates crashed the glass on that one," Epps said.
"I can't wait to watch it again," Mitchell said. "It was a really incredible play."
From there, Sidney could do little else but fire the ball back into the fray.
"Jelleah Sidney, sometimes she has the tendency to throw the ball really hard at us," Epps said. "And she threw it really hard and it was bouncing off faces and noses and ears. And then I looked up and it was right there. 'Go get it, Epps!' "
Epps got it, and put the ball on the glass and through the basket with 0.6 seconds on the clock.
"And then Epps, we'd missed so many, and that one was as tough as any one that you'll ever shoot and we make that one," Mitchell said. "So go figure. Who knows? I can't figure all this stuff out. I don't know how we're winning all these games."
Epps has a lot to do with it, especially on this night.
Her buzzer beater brought her career high in scoring to 42 points, just one point shy of the school-record 43 Jennifer O'Neill scored in five overtimes against Baylor last season. She made 18-of-30 field goals and added six rebounds and five assists for good measure to outduel Bulldog star Victoria Vivians, who had 39 points of her own.
"Especially at the level we're at in the SEC, that's not common," Epps said. "That's not something you see every month or every week or (anything) like that."
With Epps leading the way - including scoring UK's final eight points in double overtime - the Cats weathered multiple furious Mississippi State rallies. Kentucky built and lost double-digit leads on four different occasions and the Bulldogs tied the game in the final seconds of regulation on a basket by Moran William.
"I was glad she scored 42 and not 39," Mitchell said. "We needed those extra three points that she had. So that was incredible. We didn't look like we could win any other way tonight."
Epps is now seven games into her run as UK's full-time point guard in place of the injured Janee Thompson. She's now averaging 21 points in those games and the Cats have won five of them, two against ranked opponents.
"I'm hoping that after every game she's proud of me and that she's happy I'm out here handling my business as she would if she was out there with us," Epps said. "At the end of the day, it's all for Janee. Regardless if I'm playing, Bria's (Goss) playing good, the team's playing good, in the back of our minds we're all thinking about Janee."
Just like all baseball-playing youth growing up in Hawaii, Kentucky junior outfielder Ka'ai Tom admired the exploits of MLB star outfielder Shane Victorino.
And for good reason.
Victorino has carved out a distinguished big league career, winning the 2013 World Series title with the Boston Red Sox.
"It's pretty big knowing how successful he has been, especially when he went to the World Series a few years in a row with the Phillies," Tom said about Victorino. "Being from Hawaii just shows that I can do it as well. He is a big example to all players from Hawaii, not just me in general, that even though we may be far away from the mainland we can still have the same opportunities."
Tom, a native of Kaneohe, Hawaii, is a very similar player to Victorino. A 5-foot-9 hitter with surprising pop for his size and great wheels, Tom is an above-average defender in the outfield and has the ability to impact the game with a line-drive approach at the plate.
A junior left-handed hitter, Tom earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors in his debut season with the Wildcats in 2014. He narrowly missed the SEC batting crown for league games, batting .373 in conference play with 21 RBI.
Overall, Tom hit .328 as a sophomore, with 13 doubles, three homers, 41 RBI and 14 steals.
"Last year I was still transitioning in from junior college," Tom said. "I was still learning how to play baseball. There was a lot of knowledge I needed about how I could be better by hitting to all fields. Being a part of that club we had last year, (Austin) Cousino, (Max) Kuhn, MT (Micheal Thomas) and AJ (Reed), we had a lot of pop. Just following that and having them as mentors really helped me throughout the season."
Tom showed a disciplined approach and a discerning eye at the plate, sporting a .414 on-base percentage and 22-18 walk-strikeout ratio.
"I always like to be fastball aggressive," Tom said. "If there is a pitch early in the count that is in the zone I like to swing. I like to clear my mind in between at-bats and know what the pitcher is doing before I get into the box. Having a good mindset helps me generate good at-bats."
A year after hitting before and behind Reed in the lineup as he swept every national player of the year award, Tom will face a different challenge in 2015.
"This year, we have a lot of team speed," Tom said. "We can utilize the hit-and-runs. We can execute on the bunts. We can put a lot more pressure on the pitching staff. Even though it is great to have the home run hitting team we had. But this year, we have some real speed. We have Kyle Barrett, Connor Heady and me, a few guys with great speed. Having a different team than last year can really put pressure on the pitching staff."
Now as a proven performer in the league's best conference, Tom is seeking to improve upon a stellar season.
Makayla Epps stepped into a full-time role as Kentucky's point guard in mid-January.
At the time - as Epps replaced injured junior Janee Thompson - Matthew Mitchell said she could develop into one of the best point guards in the Southeastern Conference.
Almost exactly a month later, that's exactly what's happened.
"I think Epps is really, really good," Mitchell said. "And so when you have a point guard that's near the top of the league, that helps everybody. That helps everybody, especially a scoring point guard."
In six games since Thompson went down, Epps is averaging 17.5 points , 4.7 rebounds and three assists. She has led No. 10 UK (18-5, 7-3 SEC) to wins in four of the games, including an 82-68 win over Vanderbilt on Sunday in which she posted 18 points.
Entering a tough Thursday matchup with No. 13/15 Mississippi State (23-3, 8-3 SEC), Epps is getting better by the day.
"I think when you're a player like Makayla, it's just constant attention to detail, which will lead to continuous improvement," Mitchell said.
For Epps, the little things go well beyond the physical. The sophomore who has played four positions is figuring out the intricacies that accompany the role she's settled into.
"Makayla Epps is starting to go and grab people off the floor and get people in the huddle like a point guard needs to," Mitchell said. "And I really complimented her on that yesterday."
Epps earned praise again from Mitchell during a defensive drill in practice on Tuesday. He said she was "working as hard as a human being could work.
"If she'll do that, it'll be hard to find a better player than her around because she can do everything that you need her to do to be a good player offensively and defensively," Mitchell said.
Mitchell, however, doesn't want Epps to settle for merely being good. He believes she has too much natural talent for that.
"She's one of these players that when she has her mind right and mindset doing the little things, she's a fantastic player," Mitchell said. "So once you get to that point, you just have to learn the mental discipline to keep striving for your best. And that's what, to me, what separates the good ones from the great ones."
No matter what she does, Mitchell sees a bright future for Epps in both the short and long term. If she accepts the challenge to make the small changes she's starting to make permanent, the sky is the limit.
"Let's just say if she just incrementally better just from being here and through experience, it'd be hard to find a lot better player than her," Mitchell said. "She'll be fine and she can help us win some games. But if she'll really do what we're asking her to do, she'll be a 10-year pro and be one of the best players that's ever played here."
Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 116, Oklahoma City Thunder: 113 After falling to the Thunder 102-91 in New Orleans on February 4, the Pels were seeking revenge when they traveled to the Sooner State a short two days later. Not only did Davis pour in 41 points and grab 10 rebounds in the rematch, but the 6-foot-10 former collegiate national player of the year nailed his first 3-point field goal of the season, by way of a game-winning 30-foot double-clutch jumper over Kevin Durant at the buzzer.
Not a bad day for Anthony Davis:
• Makes his 1st 3-pt FG of season
• Hits 1st career buzzer-beater
• Beats Thunder pic.twitter.com/GwRnwzVSMw
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (29-23) Over three games in the first week of February, Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 6.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds per contest. Though the Suns dropped two straight to the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, Phoenix ended the week on a high note with a 100-93 victory over the Utah Jazz.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (17-32) Despite three consecutive losses by the woeful Kings, Cousins still managed to produce 25.3 PPG and 10.7 RPG weekly averages. The Mobile, Ala. native also made his mark on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 2.7 blocks (1.0 greater than his season average) through the week's three contests. Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (27-24) Besides his memorable 41-point, 10-rebound performance in his second game with OKC in one week, Davis recorded 29 points and 13 rebounds in NOLA's streak-snapping win over the Atlanta Hawks, as well as 23 points and eight rebounds in the loss to the Thunder. However, in the Pelicans' 107-72 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, Davis sprained his shoulder during the fall from a successful slam dunk. "The Brow's" injury status is day-to-day.
Enes Kanter | #0 C | Utah Jazz (18-33) Kanter recorded two double-doubles in four starting efforts for the youthful Utah Jazz. Scoring at least 16 points in every game but one, the 22-year-old Turkish big man also averaged 9.0 RPG on the week. The Jazz lost three straight before emerging triumphant over Cousins' Kings on February 7.
Brandon Knight | #11 PG | Milwaukee Bucks (28-23) After missing February 2 with a sore quadriceps muscle, Knight nearly completed his first career triple-double, with 24 points (on 4 of 7 shooting from downtown and 6 of 6 from the free throw stripe), eight assists and seven rebounds in a 113-105 win over the Los Angeles Lakers two days later. Following a 12-point, 11-assist performance in a Feb. 6 defeat at the hands of the Houston Rockets, Knight bounced back with 26 points in the Bucks' 96-93 victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (32-20) Through four games last week, Wall averaged 18.0 PPG and 9.8 APG, despite only one Washington win. Wall recorded two double-doubles (16 points, 10 assists and 15 points, 13 assists), and flirted with a triple-double (24 points, nine assists, seven rebounds). After three straight losses, the Wiz defeated the Brooklyn Nets 114-77 on February 7.
As Kentucky prepared for its 2014 season, there was one unanswered question that kept coming up in the preseason.
Who would replace UK record-setting reliever Trevor Gott at the back end of a ballgame?
UK had some solid options, including right-handed split-finger change-up artist Zach Strecker, power righties Zack Brown, Kyle Cody and Spencer Jack, and strike-throwing lefty Logan Salow.
Replacing Gott as UK's go-to reliever would be no easy task. Gott had shattered UK's season record in saves twice in his three-year career, also rewriting the career saves mark.
While UK never operated with a designated closer in 2014 the way it did when Gott was throwing bullets out of the bullpen, Cody, Jack and Salow formed a nice trio of relief aces.
A native of Los Angeles, Jack opened his career with nine consecutive outings that were scoreless and worked 14.1 straight innings to finish his junior season without allowing an earned run.
Overall, Jack had a 4-1 record, a 1.16 ERA and four saves in a team-leading 26 games. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder worked 38.2 innings, allowing just 28 hits and eight walks, striking out 31.
Jack started his collegiate career in 2012 for Jacksonville University, before transferring to Glendale Community College for his sophomore season, owning a 2.16 ERA in 16 games.
Despite showcasing his strike-throwing, competitive demeanor, Jack was not satisfied with his first few outings. After working 1.1 innings to secure UK's series-evening win at Alabama, he gave up a 10th inning walk-off hours later in the nightcap of a doubleheader.
"You have to take the success and downfall in stride," Jack said about his mentality after the Alabama homer. "You have to take it one day after another. You can't get too high or too low, you just have to focus on your plan. That first SEC weekend at Alabama is a prime example. I got us out of that jam in the first game and we won and I'm on cloud nine. Then I came in that night and got the walk-off of me and we had a long bus ride home and I was feeling terrible. I was on the edge. Did I belong here? One game I was getting us the win and the next game I'm giving up the series."
Jack's defining moment in the first half of the season was when UK turned to him with a runner on third, one out in the top of the ninth inning of a rubber match with No. 1 South Carolina. Jack tossed five pitches to get a swinging strikeout and set up a left-on-left matchup for Salow to get the save.
"There were a couple," Jack said about defining moments as a junior. "The first one that comes to mind was coming in against South Carolina and getting that strikeout was big for me. I felt like I got a lot better towards the end of the year. My bullpens started to get better I started to figure things out. When we got to Tennessee, I felt really strong. I knew I just needed to handle myself and not worry about where the ball goes when it leaves my hand, understand my mechanics and my plan."
He picked up saves vs. Florida, Auburn and Missouri, and earned praise for a save in a win over Tennessee Tech when the wind at Cliff Hagan Stadium was blowing hard to leftfield. He added shutout frames in extra innings at Murray State, before making his biggest outing of the year vs. No. 17 Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.
"When we faced Mississippi State, that was obviously one of the best games I've ever played in, let alone pitched in," Jack said.
Jack fired four shutout innings vs. the Bulldogs, working around two errors and setting the stage for UK's dramatic walk-off win in the 12th inning.
The next week, Jack picked up his fourth save with a shutout frame in the NCAA Tournament vs. Kansas, helping UK to an elimination game win and a berth in the regional final.
After resting during the summer and battling through a back injury that forced a cortisone shot halfway through the season and nearly two weeks off, Jack enters his senior season healthy for the first time in two years.
"The biggest thing now is I'm healthy this year, so gosh that makes all the difference," Jack said. "I'm getting better every day and I'm healthy. Mentally I am a little more relaxed. I was on the attack a lot last year and was at points too much on the attack. At some time you have to take a deep breath and relax, be even keel and understand that it is a long season and not to take certain points of the year to hard or too well. More relaxed, understand what I need to do and I'm healthy."
His stuff has also improved over the offseason and preseason, with Jack incorporating a new off-speed offering that will help him combat left-handed hitters.
"I'm got a better handle with my third pitch, a change-up," Jack said. "Early on last year there was a big difficulty for me handling left-handed hitters. I know Hendo would bring me in when there were a lot of righties coming in and if there was a lefty coming up he might go lefty matchup. Now that I am handling my changeup better and can work my fastball to both sides of the plate it is a different story.
"I'm more relaxed. I understand that we are playing two seasons. I didn't really get that last year. You are really playing two seasons, you have some time to figure stuff out and when SEC play comes you have to have your stuff ready."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 12 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 71-69 win over LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The way things were going, Kentucky needed a life vest.
The Wildcats, possession by possession, were watching a lead that once reached 13 points disappear, the pivotal play coming when Karl-Anthony Towns hung on the rim too long on a dunk attempt with UK up eight and drew a technical foul.
After that, the Cats were going to have to figure out how to tread water on their own.
"Nope. No timeouts this time," Calipari said. "They're going to learn their lesson on this. We're not losing in March because of a play like that."
In a blink, LSU was on a 16-0 run and UK trailed 66-60. Unbeaten record and all, Coach Cal was fully prepared for the result to go against his team for the first time in 2014-15 so the same wouldn't happen again when a loss would mean the end of the season.
"I hope we lose," Calipari said. "You'll learn. You'll never do - watch this. You don't do stuff like that in a 10-point game. You finish people off."
The Cats, however, weren't about to go along with that.
Instead, No. 1 UK closed on an 11-3 run to move to 24-0 (11-0 Southeastern Conference) and secure a 71-69 win over the Tigers (17-7, 6-5 SEC) in a raucous Maravich Center. LSU failed to score for the final 3:52 in falling short in its upset bid.
"That is what you sign up for when you come to Kentucky," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and two more SportsCenter Top 10-worth dunks. "They tell you that when they are in your home visiting you, it's going to be a sell-out every night. It's going to be a gold-out, a black-out or a white-out every night. Everyone is going to have t-shirts. That's what it is when you sign up to play here. It's good for us."
UK won the battle on the glass against a big, athletic LSU frontline, 40-35. Fittingly, it was the player who made the mistake that triggered the run that nearly felled the Cats who got the biggest rebound of them all.
After Towns scored with 1:30 left to give UK a one-point lead and LSU committed a turnover, the Cats had the ball and ran down the shot clock. Andrew Harrison tried a jumper and missed, but Towns, refusing to put his head down after his technical, tapped the loose ball to himself and snared it to keep possession.
"I had to let that play go," Towns said. "The biggest thing I was worried about was getting this W. I just had to put my body on the line and do anything I could to get this win. I am glad I was able to come down with the rebound and give my team what they needed."
Devin Booker, who scored 14 points, would get fouled and hit one of two at the line. LSU's Keith Hornsby tried a 3 in the final seconds, but it missed. That loss, even though Calipari was resigned to it, just wouldn't come. Or more appropriately, the Cats - and the player known by shorthand as KAT - wouldn't let it.
"The other thing I'm proud of Karl is he came back and he grew up," Calipari said of Towns, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds. "Big rebound, big steal, big basket. Won the game. Now, I doubt ever in his life will he chin up on a basket. Ever again."
As a high school star in Seymour, Indiana, Zack Brown was a two-way player.
He only worked around 50 innings off the mound in his career at Seymour High School, tossing just enough to earn the single-season ERA record (0.54).
That was enough for Kentucky recruiting coordinator Brad Bohannon to spot a potential electric right-handed arm in the making. After his Seymour career, Brown was a 38th-round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs, spurning the offer to begin his professional career in favor of his collegiate ambitions at UK.
During the fall and preseason of his freshman year, Brown flashed potential with a high-velocity fastball and the makings of one of the best breaking balls on the pitching staff, with a change-up rounding out his pitch arsenal.
Kentucky coach Gary Henderson handled Brown carefully for the first two weeks of the year, with Brown making his collegiate debut in a rout of St. Joseph's. He worked one shutout innings, working around a walk.
After tossing another shutout frame in his home debut, Brown worked innings vs. Eastern Michigan and Ball State, before making his Southeastern Conference debut in UK's opener of SEC play.
Brown needed just two pitches to get the final out vs. Alabama, earning praise from Henderson for continued strides in his development.
But it was not until April 15, when the Wildcats were facing off with their rival, No. 9 Louisville in the River City that he showed his breakout ability. Brown and fellow freshman hurler Logan Salow combined to handcuff the Cardinals for the first of UK's two midweek wins over the Cardinals.
Brown worked 2.1 shutout frames, allowing just one hit - a double - and striking out three.
"I would say that my outing at Louisville," Brown said about the moment that he knew he belonged at the highest level. "Salow and I came in from the pen and did a good job. That is when I felt like I belonged. I had struggled up until then and just made small appearances up here and there. That is when I extended my outing and took that next step."
A 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, Brown then became a fixture in the UK pitching staff. He made his first career start in a comeback win over Tennessee Tech, in a matchup of the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 offenses. Brown battled through three innings in an unprecedented wind blowing out to leftfield, allowing three solo homers.
After that start, he made a pair of strong relief outings vs. No. 12 Ole Miss and Auburn, before making a scoreless start at Murray State. Despite working 2.2 shutout frames, Brown was lifted in the third inning after reaching his 50-pitch mark, in an effort to save him for a potential weekend start at Georgia.
UK did in fact turn to Brown to start the regular-season finale at Georgia, with UK looking for its first sweep in Athens in 32 years. The Bulldogs, who had been shutout in the first two games of the series, got four runs on seven hits off Brown but UK called again on him in a tight spot in the SEC Tournament.
With UK winning the first two games in the tournament, while using four starting pitchers to combine for the first two games, the Wildcats turned to Brown to make a start in the biggest spot of his career.
Brown worked 3.2 innings vs. No. 17 Mississippi State, starting what would become the longest game played in the history of the SEC Tournament. Brown allowed one run in the start, as UK rallied to post a 12-inning win on Zach Arnold's walk-off single.
The following week, in an elimination game in the NCAA Louisville Regional, Brown made his fifth career start.
"I just knew that pitching was a little depleted from the previous games and knew I needed to work some quality innings for our team," Brown said. "My mentality was just to pound the strike zone. Let them hit it and see how many innings I could work for us."
He worked five one-run innings vs. Kansas, with UK holding a large lead before he exited with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, with all three runs scoring off the UK bullpen. It marked the first win of Brown's young career.
Following the season, Brown ventured to the Perfect Game Collegiate League to play with UK teammates Marcus Carson, Connor Heady and JaVon Shelby. He worked 36 innings with a 3.75 ERA during the summer, striking out 34.
"It was really neat with JaVon and Marcus and Connor up there for a little bit," Brown said. "It was good to play with some kids from around the country and get some more experience out there. I just felt like it was really productive and I did some things I needed to work on. I got a lot better."
In addition to the physical development a pitcher takes under Henderson at Kentucky, the mental approach to the game is a big priority under the well-rounded coach.
"Coming here I never really was just a pitcher," Brown said. "I think I threw just 50 innings in high school so it was a different world. Having coach Henderson help you along the entire ways is a big thing. His personality is a very straight forward approach. Sometimes you aren't going to like what he says but it's the truth and that is what you really need to hear. That fits with my personality really well. Everyone is going to run into some trouble, and you have to fight through it with some adversity, but coach Henderson is there with you the whole way."
For a pitcher that surrendered a bevy of seeing-eye, 10-hoppers through the infield, managing the inevitable failure that comes with the sport is crucial.
"I still have strides to go with that," Brown said about the mental approach. "From last year it is immensely different, the game is much slower to me now then it was a year ago. I am more confident then I was. I am able to make pitches that I wasn't able to make last year. Everything is just slowing down for me."
When he returned to campus for the fall of 2014, Brown was no longer flashing signs of his ability. The ability was no longer projection, it was there.
"Last year there was no change-up and my fastball was flat," Brown said. "This year I have a lot of movement on my fastball. Change-up is coming along great. Curveball has always been there, I've just struggled to locate it at times. I just feel a lot more confident to throw anything at any count."
Playing professionally in Europe is the dream of many soccer players. Kentucky men's soccer alumnus Justin Laird has traveled thousands of miles -- and to another continent -- in pursuit of that dream.
Sure, for an American the aspiration of playing in Europe seems farfetched, but considering Laird's development over the past two years, maybe it's not so far from the realm of possibility.
During his time at UK, Laird developed into one of the nation's most lethal strikers as a senior.
Laird's goal-scoring prowess could serve him well in the future as it's a well-known fact that just about any team is always in the market for a player who can put the ball in the back of the net.
Laird showed an uncanny ability to do just that in UK colors last year. And perhaps the greatest illustration of his ability to effectively lead an attacking line came more in the games he missed than the ones he played in.
Laird was a key component in the Wildcats' attack, which went undefeated in nine straight games between the end of September and early November, leading UK into the de facto Conference USA regular-season championship game.
And Laird was on the pitch when UK took a 1-0 lead in that game, only to go off injured with a season-ending MCL sprain, which significantly hindered UK's ability to threaten opposing defenses.
Laird scored a UK-leading six goals, including three game-winners -- many of them coming in spectacular fashion -- and led the team in shots with 47, which was the ninth most in UK single-season history.
Not coincidentally Kentucky scored just one goal -- off a penalty -- in the three games after he went out.
In short, Laird's absence in the stretch run of the season showed just how good he was. UK was a top-15 team when he was playing, but lost three straight matches after he went out.
So following his season and entering rehab, Laird was at a crossroads. To continue pursuing his love of soccer or to move on to the so-called real world?
He didn't take long to make a decision.
"Coach came up to me in the training room and asked if I was interested in playing after college," Laird said. "I told him 'for sure' and that's when things started to happen. That was when professional soccer became a possibility."
Upon deciding he would continue to pursue soccer and after returning to full fitness, Laird set about training for his next chance when he went home to Milwaukee, Wisc., after the semester ended.
In Milwaukee the European dream began to take shape.
Laird was training with the Premier Football International Academy, and options started to open.
"The academy assembles a team from the Milwaukee area to send them to Europe to play against some of Europe's top organizations," Laird said. "The academy's goal is to get these players exposure, in hopes of getting them signed to a professional team."
Laird's first trial in Europe, which began in January, went relatively well.
He wasted little time in living out the dream, as on the first day of his trial at Swiss club FC Lausanne Sport, he played 1v1 with former Italian International forward Marco Simone -- who in the 1990s scored 47 goals at Italy's famed AC Milan, before stints at multiple Ligue 1 clubs in France.
In the end, Lausanne Sport ended up bringing in a veteran striker for a quick-fix solution.
Currently, Laird is on trial with Servette FC in Geneva, Switzerland.
For now, Laird feels he has a lot left in the tank. He is excited for a chance at a professional career, and remains appreciative of all those who have played a part in getting him where he is.
"I'd like to give a big thank you to the Big Blue Nation," Laird said. "I wouldn't be in this situation if it weren't for this athletic program."
He isn't a professional yet, but Laird continues to fight in pursuit of something he never saw coming just a few months ago.
Thomas Bernal was a star shortstop and quarterback for Paso Robles High School in California.
When he got to Kentucky as a walk-on, he immediately immersed himself into learning the nuances of the catching profession during a redshirt season in 2011.
During his redshirt freshman season, Bernal served as a key right-handed pinch-hitting option and was the opening-day starter as the designated hitter, helping UK to the NCAA Gary Regional.
After the departure of UK's first-base starters in 2013, he was called upon to be UK's everyday first baseman, a key role that would allow two-way star AJ Reed to DH on days he was not pitching. UK got off to a strong start, with Bernal's consistent line-drive approach spearheading a lineup that was hitting .292 and owned a 21-6 record. An errant throw led to a collision near the first-base bag vs. Georgia ended Bernal's season, with UK limping to a 10-19 record and a .223 team average, narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament.
With Bernal's importance to the UK club firmly emphasized with the injury, the six-foot, 210-pounder starred as a junior in 2014, leading UK back to the NCAA Tournament.
A mild-mannered, highly respected standout, Bernal was a breakout performer as a key change of pace from the right side with UK's lineup riddled with left-handed hitting options - including the record-breaking season chipped in by Reed.
He hit .305 in 54 of UK's games, belting nine doubles, one homer and 32 RBI, sporting a .392 on-base percentage. Bernal's ability to focus and reach an extra gear of competitiveness is showcased in his situational hitting. He paced UK in hitting against top-25 (.373), top-10 (.370) and top-five opponents (.373), going 5-for-10 in four games vs. No. 1 ranked teams.
In SEC series openers - facing the top college arms in the nation's premier league - Bernal hit an astounding .475 in 10 games. During a 15-game hitting streak over the entire month of April, he sported a .463 average with 31 hits. With UK needing a win in its home matchup with No. 9 Louisville, and in front of a season-best crowd, Bernal had a career day, belting his first career homer and driving in four runs.
With a .314 average in 91 career games, Bernal is among the top performers in UK history, but his .355 career average in his three-year SEC career speaks to his ability to perform at a high level when challenged.
"I don't even know what I do differently," Bernal said about his SEC Friday-night productivity. "Maybe it is those white unis. It's Friday night in the SEC, you get a little pumped up, you have the adrenaline flowing. Got to bring it and be ready to play."
Not only is Bernal an accomplished performer on the diamond, he is a polished and educated student-athlete off the field. He has already completed his undergraduate degree, is currently working to finish his second degree in communications and has plan for law school following his playing career.
As if his continued quest for education didn't speak to a unique maturity and drive for a college athlete, Bernal married his high school sweetheart, the former Lauren Redberg, during the summer of 2012.
"Obviously not a lot of 20-year-olds are married," Bernal said. "But if you were to ask anyone that knows me they'd probably tell you that I am a little different than most 20-year-olds and they wouldn't be surprised that I was married. It has helped me mature. I have to worry more about paying bills and stuff like that. My wife is working and making money and that makes my life pretty easy because I can just focus on baseball."
Now a fifth-year senior, Bernal faces a whole new challenge. After proving himself as an elite defender at first base for four seasons, and learning the catching position during a redshirt season, Bernal is shifting over to third base for the 2015 campaign.
Despite never having played the position before in an NCAA game, Bernal enters the year as a preseason All-SEC selection by Perfect Game.
He will take over for former UK star third sacker Max Kuhn, who became the first player in program history to lead the SEC in runs scored in 2014. Kuhn was a force at the plate, an on-base machine and owned an above-average arm, but was saddled with a .863 fielding percentage and 21 errors as a junior.
With Kuhn transitioning to catcher as the 13th-round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics, UK has turned to Bernal as an experienced performer who can handle another challenge.
"When I came in here being a utility guy, I would anything I could do to help the team," Bernal said. "They'd throw me behind the plate, put me at first, and move me to third. I just want to be in the lineup wherever it is and hopefully I can give some freedom to the coaches when they are filling out the lineup."