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
UK scored three runs in the ninth inning to defeat Arkansas on Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader, 4-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When a reporter referred to the first 17 innings of a Saturday doubleheader as "disappointing" for the Kentucky baseball team, head coach Gary Henderson disagreed.
He thought "disgusting" was more appropriate.
Arkansas - boasting the nation's top earned-run average entering the series - had handcuffed the Wildcats for 51 outs. UK hitters managed 11 hits in dropping game one, 5-3, and trailing game two 3-1 heading to the ninth inning.
In an instant, it all changed.
"That's four balls hit hard in the bottom of the ninth and I'm not sure we had four balls hit hard the first eight innings, or the first 17 innings," Henderson said.
Those four hard-hit balls led to four singles, and Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) used those hits to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth to salvage the final game of a three-game set against the No. 14 Razorbacks (32-16, 15-8 SEC).
"To have those guys dial in and be as competitive as they were in the ninth inning, I was really glad to see that and hopefully that helps us moving forward," Henderson said.
Designated hitter Greg Fettes got it all started, leading off the ninth against an Arkansas bullpen that had allowed just one hit and no runs in 6.1 innings of Saturday work up to that point. J.T. Riddle followed with another single, creating an opportunity for Max Kuhn to lay down a bunt and put the potential tying run in scoring position. Kuhn, however, couldn't get it down, popping up the first pitch of his at-bat to the pitcher.
"We could have rolled over after we popped up a bunt, but we didn't," Henderson said. "We came back and obviously we got a little bit of help, but after that we took care of it ourselves."
The help to which Henderson is referring came two batters later. After Micheal Thomas flew out to center for the second out, Matt Reida grounded to second base. Particularly considering the Razorbacks hadn't made a single error in the series to that point, the Cats seemed on the verge of being swept as the ball bounded toward Jordan Farris. Instead, he misplayed it, allowing a run to score and cutting the Arkansas lead to 3-2.
The error, however, would have been rendered little more than an afterthought had the next two batters not delivered.
Lead-off hitter Kyle Barrett watched the play unfold from the on-deck circle, but was concerned Arkansas would bring in a left-hander to face him once Reida reached. Instead, Landon Simpson remained on the mound with runners on first and third.
"When they kept the righty in, I knew I was going to tie the game," Barrett said. "I had no doubt in my mind."
That type of confidence is uncharacteristic for a true freshman, and Barrett delivered on it. Sure a fastball was coming on the first pitch of his at-bat, Barrett swung away and singled up the middle to make it 3-3, setting up Zac Zellers with runners on first and second. In his mind, it was a no-pressure situation.
"I was pretty loose," Zellers said. "We were able to come back and tie the game, so it wasn't really a do-or-die situation."
On a 1-2 count, Zellers got the pitch up the zone he was looking for, stroking it into center and scoring Reida from second.
"I think it was really important, especially the win that we had," Zellers said. "Being able to come back, I think that's good for us. It's not the first time we've done it and it's probably not going to be the last."
The frenzied ninth inning and the celebration that followed might be the memories that stick from Saturday's second game, but they would not have happened had it not been for an impressive outing by the UK pitching staff.
Freshman Kyle Cody was set to make his first career SEC start on Saturday, but when it became a doubleheader and Corey Littrell started and lost game one, Cody was all of a sudden pitching to avoid a sweep. Very quickly, things went bad.
In a bit of first/ninth inning symmetry, the game started with an error on a grounder from second. From there, Arkansas would plate three runs on four hits and another fielding error by the Cats in the first, but Cody settled in. He worked around constant trouble over his final six innings, allowing no more damage and keeping his team within striking distance.
"It didn't go his way in the first," Henderson said. "A lot of ground balls got through and then obviously we kicked two in the top of the first, which was really disappointing and put him in a bad spot. And his rhythm was not great until probably the fourth inning."
Cody - filling in for struggling Saturday starter Jerad Grundy - has grown up quickly in his first season, so quickly in fact that he doesn't believe he could have pulled off this outing just a couple months ago.
"I didn't have the experience," Cody said. "It's good to get this under my belt for later years and I feel good where I'm at right now."
Walter Wijas, Ryne Combs and Chandler Shepherd kept it going after Cody departed, tossing two perfect innings. On the weekend, the UK bullpen worked 4.2 innings without allowing a run.
"That bullpen let us win a game 4-3," Henderson said. "Kyle Cody let us win a game 4-3."
As much of a relief as the victory may have been, it doesn't change the fact that UK has much to work on with two weeks left in the regular season.
"Obviously we've got some work to do offensively," Henderson said. "You can't deny that. We've got some things that we've got to get it figured out and we've got some kids that we need to have a much, much more competitive approach out of at the plate. Much more toughness is needed if we're going to get this thing turned around and finished strong."
Though not a cure-all, the win does make listening to Henderson's message and putting it into practice a little easier.
"We've been working on it all year," Zellers said. "It's just a matter of time before it clicks. Some guys are getting it, some aren't and we just haven't clicked at the same time. But once we do, we'll be a force."
Senior captain Anthony Rossi looks to lead his Wildcats out of the first two rounds with a pair of wins to reach Champaign-Urbana, Ill., site of the 2013 NCAA Tennis Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the fifth straight season, the Kentucky men's tennis team will host the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament at the Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center. But for the first time in those five seasons, it will be Cedric Kauffmann leading his No. 8 Wildcats into battle.
Kauffmann, who took over for Kentucky tennis legend and former head coach Dennis Emery, has guided his team to a 20-11 record in his first season at the helm and has UK poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament beginning on May 10 after a strong regular season.
"It feels good. I'm excited about the body of work we've done through the season, and I guess that's why we're hosting," said Kauffmann. "We've done some good things and we've done some things that were just so-so. I look into the postseason to maybe play our best tennis because I think we have some better tennis to be played."
Kauffmann would categorize his first season as good but not great after Kentucky failed to meet its goals of winning the ITA Indoor Tournament, the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship or the SEC Tournament crown.
Just like every tournament his team competes in, however, Kauffmann has his team gunning for the championship. This one just happens to be the biggest of them all. All of those unmet goals would be forgotten with a national title, and Kauffmann sees no reason why UK can't be the last team standing at tournament's end.
"Our goal every tournament is to win it," said Kauffmann. "Everybody in the field has that in the back of their heads. It's a long tournament, a physical tournament. We're going to take it one match at a time, but everyone in the back of their mind wants to win it."
Before the Cats can get to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., for the next stage of the tournament, Kentucky will have to deal with a competitive regional in Lexington comprised of its first-round opponent Western Michigan and potential second-round foes Michigan and Virginia Tech.
Though Western Michigan (19-9, 3-2 MAC) is the four seed of the regional, the Broncos will pose a threat to the Wildcats riding the emotion and momentum of a Mid-American Conference tournament victory.
"We're playing Western Michigan who won their conference. They're feeling good and have confidence," said Kauffmann. "That's a dangerous round. If we're lucky enough to win that round, we'll play somebody that has enough talent to knock us out. It's very dangerous and it's going to be very tough."
The Wildcats will have to continue to rely on their No. 1 and No. 2 players in senior Anthony Rossi and junior Tom Jomby, who rank No. 5 and No. 23 in the nation, respectively. From there, Kauffmann will put the rest of their chances in the hands of four true freshmen.
The talent is there, now it's time for the youngsters to take ownership of this team with a full season under their belt and seize the opportunities in front of them.
"Our freshman class, since we've had some injuries, is going to have to step up," said Kauffmann. "I thought this team was going to become theirs in a year or two, but it's kind of become their team. I threw four freshmen out there in the SEC Tournament. I thought they competed well and gave us a chance."
What Kauffmann is hoping for, despite a packed sports weekend on the Kentucky campus with the NCAA Tournament coinciding with the SEC Softball Tournament and a crucial three-game set for Kentucky baseball versus Vanderbilt, is for all of their fans to come out and support his team to give them an edge. With all the fans and one area, fans can stop by heading from one venue to another to help the Wildcats pick up a couple of wins this weekend.
"It's clear that I would love for them to step by and check it out," said Kauffmann. "I know the fans that have been following us all season will come. I'd like to have some new fans, maybe come on over. I think they'll enjoy it. I think it will help our guys play a little bit better. I think our guys play good with a loud crowd, so I welcome everybody to come."
Freshman Kelsey Nunley has been a force in the circle for UK this year, breaking the single-season wins mark with 22 on the year. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky softball team travels south to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend, the Wildcats will be faced with a tall task.
They begin a three-game road set against Alabama, a team that has more than had UK's number over the years. The Crimson Tide leads the all-time series over the Cats, 38-2, and are vying to defend a national championship after being crowned at the 2012 Women's College World Series.
Playing the defending champs will always give you that little extra adrenaline when lacing up the cleats and emotions will no doubt be running high. UK freshman pitching sensation Kelsey Nunley admits she will be a little anxious before the game, but that doesn't mean she lacks confidence.
"I'm nervous I'm not going to lie about it, but I think if my team and I can play to our full potential we can beat them," Nunley said.
One of the biggest reasons for Alabama's success over the last few years has been their junior ace Jackie Traina. For the second straight weekend, the Cats will be stepping into the batter's box against a two-time All-American. Last weekend, UK lost two out of three games to Missouri, with the two losses coming to the hands of Chelsea Thomas. Kentucky will face Traina at least two times this weekend but may have an idea of what they are up against.
Head coach Rachel Lawson views the two All-Americans as fairly comparable pitchers with electric movement. The difference between the aces is the amount of pitches in their repertoire. Thomas uses one dominant pitch - her dropball - to baffle hitters, while Traina has a more diverse arsenal.
"Traina has more pitches to work with so she can go head-to-head when she needs to but she is unpredictable so that makes her scary," Lawson said. "She can throw the ball high and low and on both sides of the plate. They are different in that standpoint where I think Traina has more pitches but she is definitely comparable. She is as good as Thomas and I think they are two of the best pitchers in the country."
Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy - now in his 15th season at the helm - has done an exceptional job. Since Murphy has been in Tuscaloosa, UA has been known to hit the long ball. However, the Cats will be wary of Bama on the basepaths as the Tide has swiped 107 bags on the year compared to UK's 65.
To put it succinctly, the Crimson Tide have it all. They can hit, run, play defense and great pitching, but Kentucky may have just the answer to slowing down Alabama: Nunley.
She was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Week on Monday, racking in her second SEC weekly accolade of the year. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native leads all freshmen in the conference in strikeouts (156), earned-run average (2.02) and wins (22).
Unlike most aces in the SEC, Alabama will see a new face in the circle for the Wildcats and with Nunley likely getting the nod on Friday, the Cats could have a solid chance of containing the Tide's bats and knocking off the defending champs in the opening game on Friday.
Nunley has several qualities that make her a great pitcher, but one in particular stands out to Lawson.
"I always knew she was very good and what she's great at I can't teach," Lawson said. "She's very competitive and has great command of the zone so once she's figured out how to adjust to the college game she is able to do a nice job attacking batters where she wants to. I'm not surprised that she has been successful."
What has made Nunley so successful in her debut season at Kentucky has been her ability to paint the corners of the plate and be in control of the count. She consistently stays ahead of hitters and heavily uses the inside part of the plate to jam opponents.
Nunley hasn't always been a control pitcher growing up as she would blow hitters away at the high school level. However, this season she has had to change her style a bit in adjusting to the collegiate ranks.
While training in the preseason, she was throwing a bullpen and found a pitch and location that has helped carry her to UK's all-time single-season wins record.
"I remember it was one day in practice I threw a pitch on the wrong side of the plate and Coach was like, 'Wow that's a good pitch,' " Nunley said. "That's been one of my best pitches and we just figured it out two months before the season."
As the season winds down with the SEC Tournament to follow next weekend, the Cats could use a lift to ride the momentum into the league tournament and regionals. Whatever the result is in the showdown against Alabama, UK will likely receive a shot of energy with senior co-captain Kara Dill set to return in the coming weeks.
Dill, who has led Kentucky in hitting each of the last two seasons and was named an all-league performer in 2012, had her cast removed on Monday from her broken left hand. She is currently going through rehab and Lawson believes Dill will be ready come regionals.
Lawson has options to choose from when her all-conference player returns. If Dill isn't 100 percent on defense, freshman Christian Stokes has done a tremendous job filling in at shortstop. Lawson can use Dill at the designated player slot and insert her back into the leadoff position - a place in the lineup where UK hasn't been all that consistent.
Either way, Dill will provide the Wildcats with a boost coming at the right time during the postseason.
"I believe that offensively, if she is able to do what she can and see pitches she would do an outstanding job at DP and she would fill a major role for us," Lawson said. "She was our best hitter the last two seasons so to get her back in the lineup is our first priority, but if her body responds I feel very comfortable putting her out on defense as well."
Coming off a series win at Ole Miss, UK will host No. 14 Arkansas for a three-game series beginning Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last week was an eventful one for the Kentucky baseball team.
It began with an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky, where the Wildcats dropped a 2-1 decision on a walk-off home run. About 40 hours later, UK was in Oxford, Miss., for the first pitch of a three-game series against No. 16 Ole Miss with a break only to attend class back in Lexington on a couple hours sleep.
"Those are good memories," head coach Gary Henderson said with a wry smile.
Better memories awaited the Cats over the weekend.
On the heels of seven straight losses and 10 in 12 games, UK took two of three from the Rebels for only the third series victory at Ole Miss in school history.
After an exhausting but potentially crucial week, the Cats were due for a respite. Life in the Southeastern Conference, however, yields no such thing.
"It doesn't stop," Henderson said. "It's the same every year. You face really good players, really good pitching. It's just the nature of the deal. And you gotta play well. You can beat anybody, you can get beat by anybody and I think any coach in the league would tell you that."
Next up for No. 24 Kentucky is a three-game home set with No. 14 Arkansas. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 1 in the preseason and boast an impressive 1.78 staff earned-run average.
"They're very deep, they can match you up, they've got good starting pitching," Henderson said. "It'll be another one of those weekends you would anticipate - no crystal ball - but you would anticipate another weekend of close games: 3-2, 5-4, 2-1, those types of games. We've played plenty of them, but that's exactly what I would think that we're looking at."
On the season, UK has a 9-3 record in one-run decisions after adding to its SEC-leading total with two of them last weekend. That series victory led to inevitable questions about whether the Cats had saved their season. Henderson was hesitant to say that, mostly because of how much work he knows lies ahead.
"I think anytime you have a disappointing weekend, the next one's important," Henderson said. "And I've felt that way for a long time. It seems like you sit here and do the interviews and every weekend is the most important weekend of the year."
That's true again with the Razorbacks coming to town, though the Cats will likely be so happy to just being playing baseball again for nerves to have much of an effect. After returning to Lexington on Saturday, Henderson gave his players Sunday and Monday off to focus on final exams.
And for the first time this season, UK had no scheduled midweek game to help pass the time. Instead, Henderson pondered what to do with his weekend rotation.
Coming off a strong junior season and a hot start to 2013, Saturday starter Jerad Grundy has hit a rough patch in recent weeks.
"He's missing up in the strike zone," Henderson said. "There's no mystery. It's up, it's flat, he's doing it in very, very inopportune times. He's healthy, it's not a work ethic issue. He's a great kid. He throws good pitches, but he's not throwing near as many good pitches consistently as he was the first eight weekends."
Looking both to help Grundy get back on track and give his team the best chance to win in the short term, Henderson has tabbed freshman Kyle Cody (3-2, 5.49 ERA) to make his first-career weekend start and interrupt a 76-game streak of weekend games started by left-handers.
Grundy's struggles might not be ideal, but Henderson is thankful to be addressing them after a couple big wins. Confidence is maybe the first word that comes to mind when describing this Kentucky team, but even this bunch of Cats couldn't help but let a little self-doubt creep in after what they had been through. That's over now.
"Anytime you have a good weekend, it creates confidence and it gets you back to being optimistic about what you're doing," Henderson said. "We're always optimistic, but certainly the kids feel good after the win and glad to be home for a couple weekends."
The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fourth as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Every coach in America has a theory when it comes to scheduling. It's typically based on the nature of his program, the quality of the team he expects to return and a number of other factors.
As you'd expect, John Calipari has undergone quite the evolution over the years.
At Massachusetts and Memphis, he was tasked with rebuilding programs and scheduled as such. Whenever there was an opportunity to play on television, he took it, regardless of the time, place or opponent.
At Kentucky, he needs not worry about national exposure - that will take care of itself. Instead, Coach Cal has a primary goal in mind when seeking out non-conference opponents: getting his team ready for the NCAA Tournament.
With UK's 2013-14 out-of-conference slate now complete and released on Wednesday, Calipari seems to have exactly the kind of schedule to do just that.
It starts with the handful of marquee matchups that dot the schedule.
Games with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville await the Wildcats. In addition to facing Michigan State in Chicago's United Center as part of the State Farm Champions Classic, UK will take on Providence and Baylor at neutral sites, the second of which will be at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Every year, Calipari seeks to expose his team to the kind of domed stadium that hosts the latter rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Wildcats will do one better and take the floor in the building where the Final Four will be played.
This year's schedule - which will be finalized when the Southeastern Conference sets UK's 18-game schedule - is notable for more than just its marquee matchups.
In scheduling opponents from "mid-major" conferences, Calipari looks for teams that will contend for their leagues' automatic bids, and it appears he's found them. Of UK's eight opponents from outside the historic BCS conferences, six finished fourth or better in 2012-13 regular-season play and two finished first.
One of those is very familiar to the Wildcats.
After ending UK's season barely a month ago in the NIT, Robert Morris will come to Rupp Arena in the Keightley Classic - an event named after legendary equipment manager Bill Keightley. UK will also play host to Texas-Arlington, Cleveland State and Eastern Michigan as part of the inaugural event, but the game against the Colonials on Nov. 17 will draw the headlines.
But as anticipated as the opportunity for revenge against Robert Morris will be, two games against NCAA Tournament teams could make for the most compelling on-the-floor matchups with non-BCS opponents.
Within 11 days in December, Boise State (Dec. 10) and Belmont (Dec. 21) will come to Rupp Arena. Boise State - returning all but one member of last year's team that received an at-large bid - will be pushing for a preseason ranking in the fall, while Belmont will seek its seventh NCAA Tournament berth in nine years.
Comparing next season's schedule with the one from last year, it looks mostly the same on its face. North Carolina is back, but the mix of big names, neutral-site games and a true road game or two remains.
The difference, at least in theory, comes in the games against teams from non-power conferences.
When UK found itself on the bubble this season, its resume was weighed down by a mediocre strength of schedule. The average RPI of those eight opponents was 214.0 in 2012-13. Things obviously change from year to year, but UK's eight mid-major opponents this upcoming year had an average RPI of more than 60 spots higher.
The best comparison for the 2013-14 schedule is the one from two seasons ago.
That year, the Wildcats played three neutral-site games and one true road game against a perennial power (Indiana). Next year, UK will do exactly the same, trading North Carolina out for the Hoosiers. The Cats also played two Final Four teams that seasons (Kansas and Louisville) and another Elite Eight squad (UNC) in non-conference play and it wouldn't be a surprise for history to repeat itself with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville all potentially ranked top 10 in the preseason.
Considering UK won a title playing that schedule in 2011-12, that's likely no coincidence.