An artist's rendering of the outside of a renovated Commonwealth Stadium, which will open in time for the start of the 2015 season.
Visit www.TheNewCWS.com for complete information on Commonwealth Stadium renovations.
He had long worked toward a renovation of Commonwealth Stadium, but as it became closer to reality, Mitch Barnhart began to sort out exactly what he wanted to accomplish through the project.
His priorities were clear. Above all else, Barnhart wanted the transformation of Commonwealth to serve three groups: fans, current Wildcats and future Wildcats.
With plans now set, Barnhart believes that mission will be accomplished.
"I think we've changed the personality of the stadium," Barnhart said. "It is hopefully more intimate, hopefully it is more fan-friendly, and at the end of the day it provides our program with things we need for recruiting and people that want to come and participate in a great league and a great facility."
With construction set to start in December, designs for the new Commonwealth Stadium were revealed in front of hundreds of season-ticket holders and media at the Nutter Field House on Monday. Gerardo Prado -- the principal architect for HNTB, UK's partner in the project -- walked attendees through a presentation detailing the highlights of the renovation that started by showing a view of the East end zone.
A new multipurpose recruiting room will be located in the East end zone.
There, a new multipurpose recruiting room space for 200 will be surrounded by the UK student section which will feature 4,000 and 5,000 lower-level seats. The recruiting room will feature a patio overlooking the field with a new centrally located tunnel through which players will take the field directly below it.
"I want to fast-forward and get to that look right now," Stoops said after seeing renderings of the new stadium. "That's beautiful."
Senior linebacker Avery Williamson represented his team at the ceremony. Like everyone else in attendance, he was impressed by what he saw. In fact, his only regret was not getting the chance to play in the new Commonwealth himself.
"I'll bleed blue until the day that I die," Williamson said. "I love this school and I love this community and I love the fans and I feel like it's really going to be a turnaround. I just can't wait for the future of Kentucky, and ready to go beat Tennessee this weekend."
Adding to an already exciting day, Stoops announced the signing of five talented members of UK's 2014 class. Quarterback Drew Barker (Burlington, Ky.), linebacker Dorian Hendrix (Huber Heights, Ohio), running back Mikel Horton (West Chester, Ohio), wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass (Springfield, Ohio) and wide receiver T.V. Williams (McKinney, Texas) have signed scholarship papers, laying the foundation for what many expect to be the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history.
"This is a great start to our 2014 recruiting class," Stoops said. "They will benefit from enrolling in January. Going through our winter conditioning program and spring practice will give them a much greater ability to compete for playing time next season. In addition to being outstanding players, their academic commitment is shown by graduating high school in three-and-a-half years."
Barnhart and Stoops were joined at the unveiling by UK President Eli Capilouto; Senate President Robert Stivers; House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly; Dr. C.B. Akins, member of the UK Board of Trustees and Chair of the University Athletics Committee; and Gov. Steve Beshear, who signed the legislation approving the $110-million project in February.
"This stadium upgrade will ensure the continued financial success of UK football -- an integral part to a truly self-sustaining athletics program that also funds millions of dollars to the university's academic programming," Gov. Beshear said. "I am proud to have supported the agency bond legislation that is making this renovation possible and I congratulate UK's officials and leaders for taking this visionary action."
The renovation -- a result of an unprecedented partnership between UK Athletics and the university it represents -- will decrease the capacity of Commonwealth from 67,606 to approximately 61,000 when construction is completed in time for the 2015 season. That was no accident.
"We have got to provide an experience that people want to come, competitively and from a fan amenity perspective," Barnhart said. "And then we've got to create an environment that's fun for people to want to come. And I think that this is the right size for us."
Not only does Barnhart believe it to be the right size, he also thinks it has the right look.
"Now, as I'm looking at this picture, my first thought is, 'Pretty cool. Pretty cool,' " Barnhart said. "Then we can walk in and it has a different feel to it on the inside. I just wanted from start to finish, as you begin the process of coming into this stadium and you see it from the road or you see it for the first time, that it's a different-feeling stadium and it's something that is classy and can span the test of time a little bit, and I think it is."
UK launched a website (www.TheNewCWS.com) featuring the designs of the new stadium and pertinent information regarding tickets and the history of the project. It will be updated regularly throughout the course of the renovation.
The revamped exterior of the stadium will take on a uniquely Kentucky feel with Kentucky limestone and reclaimed barn wood. Inside, concourses will be widened and modernized, while new concession stands and restrooms will also be built, improving the game-day experience for every fan.
A view from inside the new loge-level club seating area.
Playing a central role in both the renovation and its funding will be premium-seating areas constructed during the renovation. Approximately 2,300 club seats will be added at the loge, mezzanine and field levels along the South sideline, allowing fans to enjoy UK football in style. Also, approximately 20 sellable sideline luxury suites will be added below the newly constructed press box, bringing Commonwealth's total seat count to approximately 61,000.
The amenities available in premium seating areas are not yet finalized, but they will include separate restrooms and covered concession areas.
These new premium seating areas, as well as the multipurpose recruiting room, will be rentable spaces at the conclusion of the 2015 season. The field-level club area will also house a new training table where football student-athletes will eat many of their meals. Other player-centric upgrades include a special game-day locker room and state-of-the-art training room.
When UK was granted bonding authority for the $110-million football project in February, plans initially included upgrades to the Nutter Training Facility, which houses football offices and day-to-day practice facilities. After seeing everything that could be done for players at Commonwealth, the decision was made to spend all of those funds on the stadium.
"We are absolutely committed to getting this program to the spot where we can all enjoy some very special moments," Barnhart said. "We're resolute in that. I am absolutely not backing down from the fact that we can compete at the highest level in this league. I want to get to Atlanta (for the SEC Championship) and that's the goal, make no mistake about it.
"The transformation of Commonwealth Stadium is the first step in that process, but it's not our last. We have more plans that we are still working on, but today is a celebration of our new home."
Construction on that new home will begin shortly after UK's season finale vs. Tennessee on Saturday. Crews will work through the start of the 2014 season to prepare the site and take steel deliveries, and the Cats will play next season in Commonwealth with construction ongoing.
The majority of fans will be unaffected, save for approximately 2,000 seats in the South upper level. Rows 22-39 in sections 219-232 will be unavailable in 2014. UK Athletics staff will contact affected season-ticket holders personally in December to provide a variety of alternative seating options for next season.
UK will conclude its 2014 home schedule on Nov. 8 of next year, more than three weeks earlier than this season's finale, which will provide important extra time ahead of the 2015 season opener.
"We're very fortunate in that respect," Barnhart said. "It gives those guys a chance to really jump in there and get going on that."
Ticket information for the 2015 season is still being finalized and will be announced in the first quarter of 2014.While significant premium seating is being added through the renovation, approximately 25,000 seats will be available at the current $100 K Fund annual donation level or lower.
"What I can tell you now is that the process will be fair, equitable and transparent," Barnhart said. "We will work closely with each fan to help them choose the right seats."
Barnhart encouraged fans to put themselves in the best possible position for 2015 tickets by purchasing 2014 season tickets when renewals are sent in January.
As curious as fans may be to learn details about ticketing, Monday was primarily about the overarching vision for the future of Commonwealth Stadium and the Kentucky football program. Too much work by too many people -- from UK Athletics to the university to the Big Blue Nation -- for it to be anything other than a celebration.
"When the Wildcats take the field and you fill the stands for our eight home games -- I repeat, eight home games -- in 2015, you will be proud of the new home we have created together for Kentucky football," Barnhart said.
Mark Stoops has been refreshingly honest about his team's performances throughout the 2013 season, so there was no sugarcoating things on Monday following UK's 59-17 loss at Georgia.
Ahead of Kentucky's season finale against border rival Tennessee, Stoops was still feeling disappointed about his team's performance the previous Saturday.
"This past Saturday, there's no denying it, that was a blow to our progress and that's disappointing because it's a mentality to me more than anything," Stoops said. "So that we need to get over and bounce back and move forward, but throughout the year, I did think we were improving. I think we are getting better as a program, as an organization; I know we are ... There's (also) a lot of positive things."
Still, the Wildcats have one remaining game and the head coach made it clear he will challenge the team to improve during the final week of his first season at UK.
"We have a big game coming up with Tennessee," Stoops said. "It will be our last game at home for these seniors, and we need to see where we're at and how much progress we've made throughout this year. I think we've been up and we've been down, and it will be very important for us to come out and have a good week of preparation and play a great game versus Tennessee."
Stoops and his staff certainly saw the Georgia game as a step back for the program. He admitted that many of the players didn't give their top effort every snap, but was also adamant that the Wildcats are now turning their attention to Tennessee.
"We all have to look at ourselves," Stoops said. "It starts with me. I said that after the game; it starts with me and what I'm doing to prepare the team and to prepare the coaches. It goes on with the assistant coaches and it goes on with the players.
"I think a big part of it is your attitude. We talk about that all the time. You walk in that building and you go to work, you've got to have an attitude about you and you've got to have a toughness about you. We (didn't) play with it (vs. Georgia) so we are going to challenge them to have that attitude today."
Dyshawn Mobley emerges
After going through the game tape from Georgia, Stoops was less than pleased with almost all his players performances, except for one.
Dyshawn Mobley, who had seen limited action in the backfield throughout the 2013 campaign, saw significant action against Georgia and turned some heads in the process, most notably his head coach's.
"Dyshawn is about the only guy I could really say that I thought played extremely hard for every play that he was in there," Stoops said of the sophomore running back, who busted a career-long 69-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Mobley ending up rushing for a team-high and career-best 92 yards.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown also took note of Mobley's breakout performance at Georgia as well.
"He did some positive things," Brown said of Mobley. "I think he had 10 carries for 92 yards, and the touchdown went for 69. We weren't doing a whole lot of good things in the run game so I thought he did a good job with some leg drive, and getting some yards after contact. I've always thought he could do the things in the run game that he did.
"Now I didn't think he was going to bust open on a short-yards run for 60. I was pleasantly surprised on that. What Dyshawn has to get better at is the pass protection and some of those things when he's not getting the ball."
Williamson embodies senior spirit
Saturday's game will also be Senior Night, with the UK seniors set to be honored on the field before the game.
Linebacker Avery Williamson has emerged as UK's emotional and on-field leader in 2013. Given his play and contributions to the team in other ways, Stoops took time to reflect on the contributions of the defensive play-maker.
"He definitely is a guy that jumps out at you right away," Stoops said. "(It would be great) to be a senior (and) get a victory here. But Avery is definitely a guy that you think about when you think about this group that has done an awful lot for this program. Since I've been here, he's been a great leader and a great person to coach.
"I'm going to miss him. It will be very important for us to help him get a victory in this last game, along with all the seniors. Coordinators name MVPs on the spot
Given the late-season nature of Monday's media opportunity, both of UK's coordinators were asked to reflect on the year and name their respective unit's most valuable players.
UK's top defensive performers have been relatively clear, and so D.J. Eliot praised senior linebacker Avery Williamson and junior defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree.
"It would between Bud or Avery," Eliot said. "Bud is not only athletic and he has all the tools, but he's very smart too. You tell him to do something and he does it. He can adjust on the run and his football IQ is part of what makes him special.
"Avery is just a tremendous worker. He studies the game and wants to always be one step ahead of his opponent. He puts in the extra time, and is focused every practice and every meeting."
Brown's praise of offensive linemen Jordan Swindle and Darrian Miller may have seemed a little more unexpected. After all, rarely do offensive linemen, no matter how good, earn such praise so publically.
"The two guys that have played at the highest level all year are Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle," Brown said. "I'm really excited about Swindle. I know the right tackle position doesn't get a whole lot of thoughts in the media, but he has really played well, even last week. He's a true sophomore that played very little last year. He struggled early to be honest, so his growth has been a surprise."
Coaches look forward to the new CWS
Even with a big game coming up on Saturday, just about everyone on the UK campus couldn't help but look forward to the unveiling of the plans for the New Commonwealth Stadium, which will take place on Monday afternoon.
Stoops withheld his thoughts on the occasion as he was no doubt saving up for his remarks at the event later in the day.
Neal Brown, himself a Kentucky native, expressed his own excitement.
"It's a great day for the Commonwealth," Brown said. "It's something that's needed. (I'm) very glad the Legislature, Mitch Barnhart and Dr. (Eli) Capilouto were working behind the scenes got it done. It's going to provide another burst of energy in our program. To have the unveiling today, and then (if we can) go win Saturday night. That would be huge going into what's going to be a pivotal next two months recruiting."
UK rifle fell to Alaska-Fairbanks on Sunday, 4695-4689. (Will Kindred, UK Athletics)
On Thursday, the top-ranked Kentucky rifle team departed for Fairbanks, Ala., where the Wildcats will compete in two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches with Alaska-Fairbanks on Saturday and Sunday. To help the Big Blue Nation keep up with their trip, student-athletes from the team will take turns blogging about their voyage. To close it out, Sonya May looks back on Sunday's match and describes the trip home.
By Sonya May
Still not completely adjusted to four-hour time difference, I woke up early this morning and did some homework until my roommate, Heather (Kirby), woke up. I spent the morning working and packing to head back to Kentucky.
Packing was a little bit of a challenge. Our bags coming up here were already stuffed with warm clothes and the souvenirs we all acquired just made it that much more difficult, but we managed to fit it all in.
Once I finished packing I headed downstairs for breakfast at the hotel. We all ate together as a team since we shot as one relay rather two like Sunday. Post-breakfast we headed over to the range a little earlier than yesterday, making sure we were prepared for the match in hopes of performing better than Saturday.
With all five counters for each team competing in the first relay, the ending was intense as both teams were neck and neck set to finish at the same time. Once I finished with air rifle, I sat with my team anxiously watching the last few wrap up, hoping the match would fall our way.
The results of the match didn't turn out as we had liked but there were positives to take out of Sunday's match. Our efforts were definitely better than the day before. All of us learned something from how we performed yesterday and we used that to our advantage in order to close the point gap by 25 and finish just six points behind Alaska today.
After we finished packing up our equipment we listened to a recommendation from some members of the Alaska team and headed to Loose Moose Cafe for lunch. The local burger joint featured some interesting meals, including buffalo burgers, moose chili and reindeer steak sandwiches.
Coach Mullins used the opportunity at lunch to talk to us about today, recapping how he was proud of us although we didn't come away with the win. He definitely wanted to make sure that we were all using this experience to grow and learn together.
During lunch everybody wasn't too hung up on the loss, we were still able to giggle and have fun while enjoying our last hours in Alaska together.
After lunch, we headed to the airport with our cars stuffed full of equipment. The views on the drives around here are amazing, so I tried to soak it in one last time during our final car ride.
We got to the airport a little early to make sure all our equipment was checked and through security. With the extra time, almost everyone took the opportunity to do some last-minute souvenir shopping at the gift shop in the airport, buying gifts and personal mementos to remember the trip.
We're on our flight from Fairbanks to Seattle as I write this and we have a long journey ahead of us before we get back home. The total trip time is about 15 hours through the night so hopefully we'll be able to get some sleep and catch up on some homework during the flights.
Now that the trip is coming to a close, I look back at how much fun I had and how fortunate I am to have been a part of it.
This was the biggest trip of the year in my opinion and I was pretty stoked when I found out I was going to be on the traveling squad for it. I must admit though, when I stepped out of the airport on Thursday night and it was negative-23 degrees, I was rethinking my excitement for the trip. I adapted to the cold though and it all got better because Alaska is one of the prettiest places I've ever been.
From going to North Pole, Alaska, to seeing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, I really enjoyed getting to bond with my teammates and make these memories with them as we explored the wonder of Alaska.
We obviously would have liked to win both matches but the two losses did not ruin our trip. This was a great experience and we still have a long season ahead to prepare for the postseason.
Catching up on sleep is going to be a challenge when we get back as we will all be jetlagged, and lots of us are returning to classes and makeup exams. Fortunately, everyone is leaving for Thanksgiving during this week, so it will be a nice break before we head out to Winter Air Gun in Colorado.
As I look back now, I can't help but think about how blessed I am to have been able to come on this trip and to be able to shoot for the University of Kentucky Rifle Team, I don't think I could have asked for much more in my first semester of college.
Dominique Hawkins has played 31 minutes in UK's last two games as a defensive specialist. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There will come a time -- the NCAA Tournament, namely -- when winning is John Calipari's sole priority.
It's not March yet.
Looking to drive that message home, Coach Cal asked his freshmen-laden team what having fun on the floor meant.
"They said winning," Calipari said. "I said, 'No, not necessarily.' "
He used that as an opportunity to educate the Wildcats.
"It's coming out and having an unbelievable effort by everyone that's on that floor and who comes in the game and forcing your will on the other team, doing it together and talking and having fun doing it," Calipari said. "That's fun."
With six days between games -- UK's longest such break of the season to this point -- Calipari has gone to work on making his Kentucky team understand that, and it begins on the defensive end.
The Cats are coming off a game in which Texas-Arlington scored better than a point per possession in Kentucky's 105-76 win. UK repeatedly allowed drives to the basket, but not because of a lack of quickness or ability to guard.
It's all about effort.
"We're trying to get them to play through a whole possession, stay in a stance," Calipari said. "Someone said 'Wow, you guys got beat on the dribble.' Yeah, if you're standing straight up and down, it's pretty easy to get beat on the dribble."
Ahead of UK's matchup with Cleveland State at 7 p.m. ET on Monday, Calipari has honed in on defense.
"He really got on us (Thursday), you know, after our off day just to compete and stuff like that and play better defense," Dakari Johnson said. "So we've been doing a lot of defensive drills lately and just competing throughout the whole shot clock and just getting more stops."
In the preseason, practices were all about offense and playing together. Of course, learning the Dribble Drive allows for plenty of opportunities to play defense, but the Cats are focusing on the other end of the floor like never before.
"If you're not doing your best, if you're standing around, if you stop playing - for most of these kids, they were always bigger and stronger and longer and faster, you didn't have to outwork the other guy," Calipari said. "If a team's effort level is far beyond yours, it will smash a talented group."
There's a lesson that front even within UK's team.
Dominique Hawkins came to Kentucky as the least-heralded signee in a class labeled by many as among the best in the history of the game. The Richmond, Ky., native always believed he would carve a role out for himself, but through sheer force of will and a tireless commitment to defense, he's found his way into the rotation even earlier than he expected.
"I knew when I was on this team that I would probably get in games because of my defense," Hawkins said. "I'm trying to learn to become a better defensive player, definitely putting pressure on the ball and trying to be a defensive force for our team."
Hawkins has played a combined 31 minutes in UK's last two games. He has taken just seven combined shots and scored seven points, but has embraced the assignment of hounding the opposing point guard.
"Dominique is probably closest to what we're looking for of anybody on the team (defensively), but it's not where we need to be right now," Calipari said.
Even Hawkins has a ways to go in the communication department.
"I'm kind of a shy person and I don't really talk that much, but he's making me have to talk and yell out stuff because when I'm talking I'm usually quiet, I'm not loud enough," Hawkins said. "So he's working on talking louder with me."
Already, the Cats are seeing progress.
"I think we've gotten better," Johnson said. "I think we're starting to get it now, that we have to just compete the whole time and not stop and we just have to just keep on playing with energy and keep on working hard every possession."
But with seven freshmen and two sophomores playing regular roles, it's going to take time for the message to fully sink in.
"This is all stuff that's new to them," Calipari said.
The Kentucky rifle team will take on Alaska-Fairbanks at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday after falling 4702-4671 on Saturday. (Will Kindred, UK Athletics)
On Thursday, the top-ranked Kentucky rifle team departed for Fairbanks, Ala., where the Wildcats will compete in two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches with Alaska-Fairbanks on Saturday and Sunday. To help the Big Blue Nation keep up with their trip, student-athletes from the team will take turns blogging about their voyage. Today, senior Emily Holsopple discusses lessons learned from UK's Saturday loss.
By Emily Holsopple
The day started like a typical morning of a road match. I woke up at 6 a.m., and got ready like any normal day, of course the only difference being I put my long johns on and bundled up in many layers to prepare to venture out in the cold.
The four of us shooting the first relay, Connor (Davis), Heather (Kirby), Sonya (May) and I, met downstairs in the hotel for the breakfast buffet to eat before we headed to the range.
Following breakfast we all hopped in the cars to head to the range around 7:40 a.m., hoping to get to the range about an hour before the match. We may have accidentally taken a bit of a detour because we took the wrong road but we made it there with more than enough time to prepare.
With seven of us traveling, we split up into two relays with four on the first and three on the second. The relay was different, normally we have six or seven lined up together competing. You could tell a difference with only four of us there but it was something we quickly forgot about.
We were a little rusty and got off to a somewhat rocky start. We were coming off a two-day break and tired from all the travel and I don't think we were as mentally prepared as we could have been but that's a lesson we had to learn the hard way today. It's a valuable lesson for us to learn at this point in the year, if we take it in stride and grow on in it then it will be very beneficial for us down the road.
While we didn't put up the overall numbers we were looking for today there were still some definite bright spots. The freshmen did a great job, for it being the second road matches of their careers; they really put together some strong performances and didn't get caught up in the early struggles. Kirby and Sonya are both still young and learning but I was really proud of their efforts today.
With the first relay complete and the second relay preparing, we took suggestions from members of the Alaska-Fairbanks team about where to go to lunch and eventually journeyed to a local restaurant called Ivory Jack's. The trip to the hole-in-the-wall led to some amazing views as we weaved in and out of the mountains north of Fairbanks. As we walked out of the local spot it was fascinating to see a group pull up to the restaurant on snowmobiles.
We headed back to the range to support the second relay and the three of them really worked hard to put together some good numbers. Aaron (Holsopple) had a really good performance, his 581 in smallbore bumped up our aggregate and (Elijah) Ellis's 588 in air rifle also gave our score a boost.
The results obviously weren't what we had planned for, but we held together well today when things went south. It could have gone a lot worse.
Honestly, we've now had one bad day this year... It was bound to happen. But we must take it in stride, learn from it and use what we learned to try to prevent it from happening again.
There's a lesson to be learned from today. It kind of opened our eyes a little bit and I think we can go forward with what we learned. It's not all rainbows and butterflies from here on out; it's hard work and it's back to working hard on Sunday.
The Kentucky rifle team visited the Trans-Alaska Pipeline on Friday. (Will Kindred, UK Athletics)
On Thursday, the top-ranked Kentucky rifle team departed for Fairbanks, Ala., where the Wildcats will compete in two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches with Alaska-Fairbanks on Saturday and Sunday. To help the Big Blue Nation keep up with their trip, student-athletes from the team will take turns blogging about their voyage. Today, sophomore Connor Davis describes a tourist-activity-filled Friday.
By Connor Davis
Not having adapted to the four-hour time change, our first morning in Alaska came early. Being used to Eastern Time I woke up around 3:30 a.m., luckily I managed to fall back asleep until around 7.
We all met downstairs at 8 for our team breakfast and ate before we started our full day of tourist activities and exploring the area.
We opened the day by heading a few miles out of town to the see part of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The pipeline runs from the north shore of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in southern Alaska. It was neat to see how it weaves through the mountains and frontier of Alaska.
Driving around up here is a very different experience. A layer of snow covers most of the roads but it doesn't seem to affect any of the drivers. The views driving out of Fairbanks are impressive, with snow-covered trees followed by mountain ranges in the distance.
After the pipeline we went to the University of Alaska Museum of the North on campus. The museum had a lot of interesting items on the history of Alaska. I was most fascinated by the exhibit showcasing the progression of the weapons Alaskans have used for whale hunting. It was wild to see how whale hunters overcame the challenges before the technology and tools we have today existed.
Following the museum we headed to North Pole, Alaska, to check out the Christmas themed town. All the local businesses in the North Pole were decorated with Christmas decor in some fashion.
To get the full effect of the North Pole, we stopped by the Santa Claus House. As we arrived we were greeted by reindeer to the side of the building and proceeded to go inside and buy some gifts for friends and family. Santa Claus was there and not only admitted to being a Kentucky fan but also mentioned our national championship in 2011.
We listened to Aaron Holsopple's lunch recommendation and went with Chinese restaurant Pagoda in the North Pole. Aaron did not let us down, the restaurant featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" with Guy Fieri was delicious. (Elijah) Ellis and Coach Mullins were the only ones able to finish their plates and they deserve some sort of award for that. The portions were huge.
On the way back from the North Pole we stopped by The Great Alaskan Bowl Company and the Alaska Raw Fur Company to check out a few local shops. It was crazy to see all the animal furs; I would have loved to have been able to take one home with me.
Of course we finished the night by doing the non-tourist thing and going to see "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." I won't ruin the movie for any of you with spoilers but we all enjoyed it to say the least.
I'm looking forward to Saturday. Emily (Holsopple), Heather (Kirby), Sonya (May) and I will be competing in the first relay, while Aaron, Ellis and Cody (Manning) will shoot in the second relay. I've been pleased with how we've competed to this point in the season and I'm looking forward to seeing if it carries into a big match on the road.
I plan to stay for the second relay to see Aaron, Ellis and Cody. Normally you don't stick around because you'll go get lunch with family or something but I'd like to come back tomorrow after lunch and support the guys.
The trip has been fun so far, Coach Mullins has made sure to show us around. He's been here so many times for matches in the past that he seems to know everything about it.
While we spent today having fun and being tourists, the reason we're here is to compete and I'm ready to hit the range.
The tone was set from the first serve. This was going to be a nip-and-tuck match
The scores in the opening set between Kentucky and Texas A&M went from 0-0 to 10-10 to 20-20. Neither the Wildcats nor the Aggies led by more than two all set.
It was exactly what Craig Skinner expected.
"We knew it was going to be a battle," Skinner said.
The Cats knew everything they needed to about A&M. The Aggies started Southeastern Conference play 3-7, but had rebounded and lost just one set it the last two weeks to climb back above .500.
"We knew they were on a five-game streak, so we knew what they could do," senior Whitney Billings said. "We knew they were going to bring it and they did."
Knowing that, it seemed a certainty Friday's match would come down to end-of-set execution, but not quite to this extreme.
All three sets in Kentucky's dramatic sweep of Texas A&M were decided by two points -- the minimum for a volleyball match -- and two went beyond regulation. And when points counted most, the Cats were at their best.
"Our kids were better executing under pressure than we were at the beginning and middle of all three sets," Skinner said. "I'm proud of that."
The third set was the most dramatic example, as UK found itself in a 23-20 hole with A&M just two points away from forcing a fourth set. With a combination of tough serving, well-placed attacks and a sturdy block, the Cats won six of the next seven points to close out the victory.
"I just like the way we kept our composure," Billings said. "We didn't freak out that we were down a couple points and we pulled through."
Billings was central to that effort, tallying three kills in the match-deciding run. The senior, like much of her team, struggled with errors in the first and second set, but came on the final frame to hit .545 and register seven of her match-high 15 kills.
"The thing that Whitney did best: She went for everything," Skinner said. "That was as aggressive as I've ever seen her offensively and she made some errors, but she had some big-time kills when we needed it and made plays at the net. That's all you can ask for."
All season, the Cats have shown a knack for raising their game when it matters most. Set-ending spurts have become the norm and UK now boats a 15-10 record in sets decided by the minimum of two points.
As with pretty much everything else, that starts on the practice floor.
"We have a lot of drills that we're down and the other side is ahead and we have to come back and win and there's usually something on the line for it," Billings said.
Billings named taking down and setting up the nets for practice as one set of possible stakes.
"No one wants to do that," Billings said.
However UK has become so effective at the end of sets, it bodes well as the Cats out the regular season and prepares for the NCAA Tournament.
"It's important," Skinner said. "Every team we play from here on out is very good. And so you expect to be in sets after 20 in close games and you've got to be comfortable being uncomfortable and we definitely were that tonight."
UK will have to be "comfortable being uncomfortable" on Sunday with Missouri coming to town. The fourth-ranked Tigers are the nation's lone unbeaten team at 32-0 and clinched the SEC Championship as UK was playing Texas A&M on Friday.
"Well, we gotta get rest and get refocused," Skinner said. "We'll go through the game plan tomorrow on Missouri. They're obviously a great team. We gotta go for it, we gotta play well and let the chips fall where they may. But I like this team, I like how hard we play and I know we'll give Missouri everything that we can."
Adding fuel to the fire on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET is the fact that UK will bid farewell to the class of Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre' Wilkerson with Senior Day festivities.
"It's going to be sad," Billings said. "It's not our last match at home (UK faces Florida on Wednesday), but just knowing that it's senior night, it's going to be a little emotional."
Skinner isn't hiding from that fact.
"There will be emotions flying everywhere," Skinner said. "It's a good thing though. You can't really anticipate what'll happen the first part of the first set, but as long as we just keep our composure and stay focused and have tunnel vision through each point, we'll give ourselves a great chance to be successful."
And if it comes down to the final points, don't bet against Kentucky.
After Kentucky's 116-49 win over Lipscomb on Friday, the Wildcats talked about their near-record-setting night.
They reflected on their impressive streak of four consecutive games with 20-plus assists. They were asked about how eight different players had scored in double figures.
But in the middle of all that, Bria Goss snuck something interesting in as she responded to a question about their improvement at the foul line in the second half.
"Usually when we go into the locker room, Kastine (Evans) makes a list of points of improvement and things we're already doing well," Goss said.
It's a common visual, a coach going to the whiteboard at halftime to highlight areas for a team to improve. For a player to do it is another story, even a senior leader like Evans.
It turns out, however, that it's not a new thing for UK Hoops.
Matthew Mitchell started it a few years back as he searched for ways to maximize the 15 minutes the Cats spend in the locker room for halftime. With that goal in mind, Mitchell directed his players to gather and assess the first half as the coaches did the same on their own.
"We just wanted to make sure that no matter if you are up or down or where you are, you will have some positive points and some points for improvement in the second half," Mitchell said. "That gives the players more of a focus while we're trying to get our thoughts collected."
As the years have gone by and Mitchell has built his program, he's noticed growth in that halftime routine. More and more, the Cats and their coaches are on the same page.
"It's been really good to see that evolve to what the coaches talk about and we walk in and what the players have written down has really matched up well, which tells you the players are in tune with what we need to be doing to be successful," Mitchell said.
Evans is at the forefront of that, which is why it should come as no surprise that she's the player who wields the marker.
The Salem, Conn., native has accepted every role assigned to her, from coming off the bench and playing out of position in the post early in her career to now starting and serving as UK's second-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game. But regardless of what she's asked to do from a basketball perspective, she's always been a leader.
"I look to the veterans a lot to set the tone in every game and Kastine Evans is a good one as far as knowing what we need to do mentally to prepare," Mitchell said. "She's doing such a great job of that day in and day out in practice and in games. I feel good that we have some veteran leadership right now."
Mitchell will be counting on Evans' leadership this weekend, as UK (5-0) travels for a tough road test at Middle Tennessee State (1-2) on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.
"I think, clearly, the most gifted team we've played to date," Mitchell said. "Middle Tennessee has some really good players and you know they are going to be well-coached. Rick Insell is one of the best coaches in the country and certainly one of the great coaches in women's basketball right now."
UK-MTSU has become an annual series, with the Cats losing the last two times they've traveled to Murfreesboro, Tenn. For the players who were there two seasons ago, the 70-58 defeat is fresh in their minds.
"I haven't won there yet so this is definitely a game that I'm excited to play and really go down there with a lot of intention on winning this game," Evans said.
Behind Lexington native Ebony Rowe, the Blue Raiders won't make that an easy task. Rowe -- a senior forward -- is averaging 20.7 points and 12.0 rebounds.
"She's just a great, great college basketball player," Mitchell said. "I think the world of her; she has a great family, great people. I'm glad to see her have the success she's had, but I'm going to try hard for her to not have any success on Sunday, but that's hard to do with a player like that."
Rowe is certainly a Southeastern Conference-caliber player, helping to make MTSU the closest thing UK has seen to an SEC-level team this season. Add to that the fact that UK will make the same Thursday-Sunday turnaround it will have to throughout conference play and you have a challenge that could benefit the Cats down the road.
"I think it's going to be really good for us," Evans said. "Especially in the next week and a half, we have Louisville coming up, which is a great team. This MTSU team is really dynamic. They always go to the NCAA Tournament so it's always a great opportunity for us, as long as we use it how we should."
And if the Cats aren't doing that through 20 minutes, Evans will have something to put on that whiteboard.
This weekend, Cally Macumber will look to improve on a sixth-place finish at last season's NCAA Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As Cally Macumber races at the NCAA Cross Country Championships Saturday in Terre Haute, Ind., for the second consecutive year, she does so following an exciting second-place finish at the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships Nov. 15 in Charlottesville, Va.
The UK senior passed two runners in the final 50 meters of the 6,000-meter race and made up a 15-meter gap to secure a spot in Saturday's national championship event.
Her finish of 20:07.90 solidified an NCAA Championship bid and was just 0.80 seconds ahead of Virginia's Barbara Strehler and Duke's Juliet Bottorff, who both posted a 20:08.70. Emily Stites of William and Mary won the event in 19:57.5.
It was that final 50-meter kick that gives the Rochester Hills, Mich., native a chance to compete for a national title.
"She was probably 30 or 40 yards back with about 300 meters left and made a fantastic move," UK head coach Edrick Floreal said. "It's just being in the zone, like a basketball player making six or seven in a row. It's a jolt of confidence, and you sort of have to have that 'I don't want to lose' mentality.
"It was a single file line that was probably about six or seven girls long. Cally, in that big homestretch at one point went left and came back right and passed another one, it was kind of amazing, just to watch that confidence. We talked after the SEC Championships, and she didn't do what we thought was her best and we talked about being a champion and finding a way to becoming that champion, one that people talk about. She is making strides to become that."
That can't-lose attitude was what got Macumber a runner-up finish and a place on the All-Southeast Regional team for the second consecutive season.
"Whenever you see the finish line, you get that extra boost," Macumber said of her sprint to the finish. "I just get really happy to see the finish line and start sprinting. The energy from having all the cheering fans gets me to sprint."
After a break-out season in 2012, Macumber has raced this season with a target on her back. It's something she has grown to accept and a challenge she has taken head on.
"She is becoming aware of her abilities," Floreal said. "She's aware, and everyone else is aware. People are building their strategies based off of her, and that's a sign of respect. You also have to embrace that and convince them that this plan won't work, I can adjust too."
Macumber has adjusted well, and her sprint to the finish at the NCAA Regionals was the perfect example. Now, it's time to bring it one last time.
"I need to keep focused and not think about that too much," Macumber said of the expectations. "It's just another race and I have to make sure I stay composed and do the best I can."
As the lone Kentucky runner in her final collegiate cross-country competition Saturday, she'll be racing all alone for the Blue and White.
"I definitely feel like I'm representing our team, and I want to represent us well," Macumber said. "I'm going to try and finish as high up as possible."
Being the only runner from UK and having lofty expectations won't faze her though. As Macumber said, "It's just another race."
Only this time, there will be a lot more people cheering as she nears that finish line.
The Kentucky rifle team arrived in Alaska on Thursday. (Will Kindred, UK Athletics)
On Thursday, the top-ranked Kentucky rifle team departed for Fairbanks, Ala., where the Wildcats will compete in two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches with Alaska-Fairbanks on Saturday and Sunday. To help the Big Blue Nation keep up with their trip, student-athletes from the team will take turns blogging about their voyage. First up is junior Cody Manning.
By Cody Manning
The day started early; it seems like any time we fly somewhere we always leave at the earliest of hours. I set three alarms to make sure I got up on time, got up at 4 a.m. ET, was able to take a quick shower, get a banana and race out the door. Some of my teammates picked me up, we got to the range and from there we loaded up on the bus and headed to the airport. That's where our journey began. Probably the most extreme trek I've done since I've been on the team.
This is my first time to Alaska and to take part in any of kind of travel is always great because we have such a fun team. The trips are great opportunities for us to bond and come together as a team.
Flying out of Lexington is pretty typical for us so we've got that whole process down. Of course I managed to complicate it by leaving my duffle bag at security. Everyone made sure I didn't live that one down. The flight to Atlanta was pretty simple. Afterwards we had just enough time to grab a snack and board our first long flight from Atlanta to Seattle.
That second flight was long and we had to find stuff to do to keep occupied. I spent a majority of my time watching a movie with Connor (Davis). We watched "World War Z" with Brad Pitt.
It was my first time in the Seattle airport. Most airports tend to get meshed together in your memory but I'll definitely remember the task of getting to our next gate today in Seattle. We had to change terminal trains four or five times before finally getting to our terminal and I know I wouldn't have ever figured it out if I wasn't with the team.
Finally getting on that last plane for that last four-hour plane trip to Fairbanks, at that point it became a little more real that I was actually going to Alaska. It's pretty neat to look out your window and see the window starting to freeze up on the outside and see snow-covered ground below.
The last stint was probably the toughest because I had already watched my movie, I had already done the homework that I wanted to accomplish and then those last two hours on the trip were brutal. I had already slept and I was excited and just wanted to land.
In Alaska, we got down into the baggage claim, I added another layer, putting an extra sweater thinking that was going to be it, I'm not going to be cold. It's going to be negative-23 degrees but I'm going to warm. Then me and Connor step outside and it hits my face and It's just brutal. That weather just doesn't exist in Kentucky.
To illustrate how cold it is, the cars need to be plugged in to stay warm when parked, something I have never heard of.
Dinner, like any other team meal, was an experience; it's always a good time. Everyone was real tired after dinner because we've been up since 4 a.m., and now as I'm writing this it's around midnight back home. We're trying to stay awake to avoid jet lag. We're going to get ready for tomorrow which is going to be some time for us to just unwind and get acclimated to Alaska before we head into what we're really here for: our matches Saturday and Sunday.
In regards to tomorrow, we don't know exactly what's on the schedule but I'm looking forward to it. There have been talks of curling, going to see the trans-Alaska pipeline or maybe go dog sledding. All the typical Alaskan adventures that you would hear of, typical Alaskan things that are atypical to Kentuckians. I look forward to it, I'm excited.
Being in Alaska is awesome, it's something that I would have never gotten to do if I wasn't on the rifle team and I think that's just one more benefit of being a student-athlete at Kentucky.