Playing professionally in Europe is the dream of many soccer players. Kentucky men's soccer alumnus Justin Laird has traveled thousands of miles -- and to another continent -- in pursuit of that dream.
Sure, for an American the aspiration of playing in Europe seems farfetched, but considering Laird's development over the past two years, maybe it's not so far from the realm of possibility.
During his time at UK, Laird developed into one of the nation's most lethal strikers as a senior.
Laird's goal-scoring prowess could serve him well in the future as it's a well-known fact that just about any team is always in the market for a player who can put the ball in the back of the net.
Laird showed an uncanny ability to do just that in UK colors last year. And perhaps the greatest illustration of his ability to effectively lead an attacking line came more in the games he missed than the ones he played in.
Laird was a key component in the Wildcats' attack, which went undefeated in nine straight games between the end of September and early November, leading UK into the de facto Conference USA regular-season championship game.
And Laird was on the pitch when UK took a 1-0 lead in that game, only to go off injured with a season-ending MCL sprain, which significantly hindered UK's ability to threaten opposing defenses.
Laird scored a UK-leading six goals, including three game-winners -- many of them coming in spectacular fashion -- and led the team in shots with 47, which was the ninth most in UK single-season history.
Not coincidentally Kentucky scored just one goal -- off a penalty -- in the three games after he went out.
In short, Laird's absence in the stretch run of the season showed just how good he was. UK was a top-15 team when he was playing, but lost three straight matches after he went out.
So following his season and entering rehab, Laird was at a crossroads. To continue pursuing his love of soccer or to move on to the so-called real world?
He didn't take long to make a decision.
"Coach came up to me in the training room and asked if I was interested in playing after college," Laird said. "I told him 'for sure' and that's when things started to happen. That was when professional soccer became a possibility."
Upon deciding he would continue to pursue soccer and after returning to full fitness, Laird set about training for his next chance when he went home to Milwaukee, Wisc., after the semester ended.
In Milwaukee the European dream began to take shape.
Laird was training with the Premier Football International Academy, and options started to open.
"The academy assembles a team from the Milwaukee area to send them to Europe to play against some of Europe's top organizations," Laird said. "The academy's goal is to get these players exposure, in hopes of getting them signed to a professional team."
Laird's first trial in Europe, which began in January, went relatively well.
He wasted little time in living out the dream, as on the first day of his trial at Swiss club FC Lausanne Sport, he played 1v1 with former Italian International forward Marco Simone -- who in the 1990s scored 47 goals at Italy's famed AC Milan, before stints at multiple Ligue 1 clubs in France.
In the end, Lausanne Sport ended up bringing in a veteran striker for a quick-fix solution.
Currently, Laird is on trial with Servette FC in Geneva, Switzerland.
For now, Laird feels he has a lot left in the tank. He is excited for a chance at a professional career, and remains appreciative of all those who have played a part in getting him where he is.
"I'd like to give a big thank you to the Big Blue Nation," Laird said. "I wouldn't be in this situation if it weren't for this athletic program."
He isn't a professional yet, but Laird continues to fight in pursuit of something he never saw coming just a few months ago.
Thomas Bernal was a star shortstop and quarterback for Paso Robles High School in California.
When he got to Kentucky as a walk-on, he immediately immersed himself into learning the nuances of the catching profession during a redshirt season in 2011.
During his redshirt freshman season, Bernal served as a key right-handed pinch-hitting option and was the opening-day starter as the designated hitter, helping UK to the NCAA Gary Regional.
After the departure of UK's first-base starters in 2013, he was called upon to be UK's everyday first baseman, a key role that would allow two-way star AJ Reed to DH on days he was not pitching. UK got off to a strong start, with Bernal's consistent line-drive approach spearheading a lineup that was hitting .292 and owned a 21-6 record. An errant throw led to a collision near the first-base bag vs. Georgia ended Bernal's season, with UK limping to a 10-19 record and a .223 team average, narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament.
With Bernal's importance to the UK club firmly emphasized with the injury, the six-foot, 210-pounder starred as a junior in 2014, leading UK back to the NCAA Tournament.
A mild-mannered, highly respected standout, Bernal was a breakout performer as a key change of pace from the right side with UK's lineup riddled with left-handed hitting options - including the record-breaking season chipped in by Reed.
He hit .305 in 54 of UK's games, belting nine doubles, one homer and 32 RBI, sporting a .392 on-base percentage. Bernal's ability to focus and reach an extra gear of competitiveness is showcased in his situational hitting. He paced UK in hitting against top-25 (.373), top-10 (.370) and top-five opponents (.373), going 5-for-10 in four games vs. No. 1 ranked teams.
In SEC series openers - facing the top college arms in the nation's premier league - Bernal hit an astounding .475 in 10 games. During a 15-game hitting streak over the entire month of April, he sported a .463 average with 31 hits. With UK needing a win in its home matchup with No. 9 Louisville, and in front of a season-best crowd, Bernal had a career day, belting his first career homer and driving in four runs.
With a .314 average in 91 career games, Bernal is among the top performers in UK history, but his .355 career average in his three-year SEC career speaks to his ability to perform at a high level when challenged.
"I don't even know what I do differently," Bernal said about his SEC Friday-night productivity. "Maybe it is those white unis. It's Friday night in the SEC, you get a little pumped up, you have the adrenaline flowing. Got to bring it and be ready to play."
Not only is Bernal an accomplished performer on the diamond, he is a polished and educated student-athlete off the field. He has already completed his undergraduate degree, is currently working to finish his second degree in communications and has plan for law school following his playing career.
As if his continued quest for education didn't speak to a unique maturity and drive for a college athlete, Bernal married his high school sweetheart, the former Lauren Redberg, during the summer of 2012.
"Obviously not a lot of 20-year-olds are married," Bernal said. "But if you were to ask anyone that knows me they'd probably tell you that I am a little different than most 20-year-olds and they wouldn't be surprised that I was married. It has helped me mature. I have to worry more about paying bills and stuff like that. My wife is working and making money and that makes my life pretty easy because I can just focus on baseball."
Now a fifth-year senior, Bernal faces a whole new challenge. After proving himself as an elite defender at first base for four seasons, and learning the catching position during a redshirt season, Bernal is shifting over to third base for the 2015 campaign.
Despite never having played the position before in an NCAA game, Bernal enters the year as a preseason All-SEC selection by Perfect Game.
He will take over for former UK star third sacker Max Kuhn, who became the first player in program history to lead the SEC in runs scored in 2014. Kuhn was a force at the plate, an on-base machine and owned an above-average arm, but was saddled with a .863 fielding percentage and 21 errors as a junior.
With Kuhn transitioning to catcher as the 13th-round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics, UK has turned to Bernal as an experienced performer who can handle another challenge.
"When I came in here being a utility guy, I would anything I could do to help the team," Bernal said. "They'd throw me behind the plate, put me at first, and move me to third. I just want to be in the lineup wherever it is and hopefully I can give some freedom to the coaches when they are filling out the lineup."
Growing up as a baseball lover in Arizona, and later in Omaha, Nebraska - the mecca of college baseball - Andrew Nelson dreamed of making it to the highest level of the game.
During his seven years in Arizona, Nelson basked in the pleasure of the year-round baseball circuit. When he moved to Omaha, his love for college baseball flourished in the acclaimed site of the College World Series.
Nelson played catcher and infielder growing up. He served as Millard West High School's primary backstop as an upperclassman. He also pitched in two games as a senior, eating up innings when the team had a fatigued pitching staff.
Determined to ascend to the Division I level, Nelson went to Cuesta College (Calif.) and was unwavering in his mission to make the team, regardless of position. It was at Cuesta that Nelson began to zero in on the possibility of moving to the mound full-time as he searched for a path to major college baseball.
"I tried out for everything there," Nelson said. "Honed in as a pitcher because of a leg injury where I couldn't slide, run, or steal bases for a couple weeks. Went to pitcher and never went back."
As a sophomore in 2013 at Cuesta that things began to click for Nelson. He was named the Western State Conference Pitcher of the Year and first-team all-conference.
There, Nelson caught the eye of the UK coaching staff, landing a spot on the 2014 UK roster. Nelson experienced a challenging fall in adjusting to a new level of competition for a right-hander who was just two years earlier was still learning to pitch.
"It started in the fall," Nelson remembered. "I was going from the junior college level to SEC caliber hitters and it was very different. You had to, obviously, hit your spots better and that was so different."
In his first NCAA outing, on Sunday of opening weekend vs. a scrappy Virginia Military Institute, Nelson worked 1.2 innings, allowing a run on three hits over 31 pitches.
After working consecutive scoreless outings vs. Wright State and Eastern Kentucky, UK coach Gary Henderson turned to Nelson for his first career start in the nightcap of a twinbill vs. Cincinnati.
Nelson allowed one earned run over four innings, and just four days later, filling in for an injured Kyle Cody as UK's Sunday starter vs. Ball State. He fired 6.2 innings and allowed one run vs. the Cardinals, and with Cody on the shelf for 21 days, Nelson earned the Sunday starting nod.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, who works exclusively from the stretch on the bump, faced an entire new test the following week at Alabama in UK's SEC opener.
"It was a struggle for me up until a week before that start (at Alabama)," Nelson said. "Once I started getting those guys out (in non-conference starts), building confidence and figuring out how to pitch down in the zone, I kept building up confidence until that SEC start."
The Wildcats split the first two games of the series and turned to Nelson in the rubber match vs. the Crimson Tide.
"I thought a lot about that start, because it's SEC baseball," Nelson said. "I went into it saying that I was going to be as confident and relaxed as possible and I was able to do that. I was able to throw strikes in the bottom of the zone. I was able to get through the first inning and was able to throw strikes where I want it just went from there. I felt good that day."
Nelson took a two-run lead into the ninth inning without allowing an earned run, forcing the Tide into a litany of ground balls, not issuing a walk and doing it all in under 90 pitches.
A two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning ended his bid for a complete-game win in the rubber match and a Mikey White walk-off homer in the 10th inning lifted Alabama to the win. But the loss did not diminish the confidence Henderson - and his club - was quickly developing in Nelson.
He went on to make eight of UK's 10 SEC Sunday starts as the Wildcats brought Cody back to health with a fastball-only, relief role. In addition, UK's staff was hurt by a three-week injury to fellow weekend starter Chandler Shepherd, forcing him to eat innings. A five-inning win over No. 12 Florida, without allowing an earned run, and strong starts vs. No. 1 South Carolina and at No. 5 Vanderbilt, secured Nelson's role as a go-to weapon for Henderson.
Nelson then slid into a relief role for the final two weekends of the regular season and into the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, shining for the UK bullpen. He had a heroic 2.1 innings in relief in a 12-inning marathon at Murray State, worked 4.2 shutout innings at Georgia, and worked two games in the SEC Tournament, picking up a save with four shutout innings vs. Alabama.
He finished the year with a 2-5 record and a 3.94 ERA in 19 games and 10 starts, working 75.1 innings, allowing just 20 walks and striking out 37.
As a senior, Nelson will have the ability to serve nearly any role on the UK pitching staff. With a funky right-handed delivery, Nelson could be used to get out righties, or could eat up innings as a weekend starter or middle reliever, and has proven to have the ability to finish a ball game with his ground-ball, aggressive approach.
Nelson's versatility will give Henderson a bevy of options with his pitching staff.
"That's what coach Henderson has talked about with me," Nelson said. "He's not really sure of my role yet, he's going to put me out there and see the best role that I fit into for this team. It is basically whatever the team needs and wherever the innings need to be eaten up. Still not sure what I am going to do this year, but whatever it is, whether it is starting or bullpen, I'll be happy and I'll be ready."
Armed with a whole new mindset after experiencing the transition of his junior season, Nelson is poised for a strong senior season.
"Going from a junior college to (UK) is a really big jump in the caliber of the hitters," Nelson said. "Going through a whole year and knowing what to expect; going on all the traveling and everything that you do, even just dealing with school and baseball at the same time and just being through it all makes a huge difference. Knowing what to expect improves your confidence and you can start mentally planning ahead of time because you've been through it. You can go over those reps in your mind. You can visualize it and it is just easier to be prepared."
Aaron Harrison had 23 points in UK's 68-61 win at Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Aaron Harrison has seen it all.
Two years into his Kentucky career, he's hit more big shots than most players make in a lifetime. He's played on the biggest stages and in some of the most hostile venues in the game.
But after he had faced down the latest raucous road crowd on Saturday night at Florida, even the ever-clutch shooting guard had to admit it never becomes routine.
"You can't ever get used to it," he said.
It only seems like it.
Harrison had just short-circuited the Gators' upset bit and helped send their fans to the exits while time was still on the clock. After a quiet, foul-trouble plagued first 20 minutes, Harrison scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half of a 68-61 win at a packed O'Connell Center. Whenever the top-ranked Wildcats - who moved to 23-0 (10-0 Southeastern Conference) - needed a big basket, Harrison delivered.
"If you don't love coming into atmospheres like this, that's the type of game you're playing," Harrison said. "Florida played really well tonight and came out with a great atmosphere."
It had been nearly two years since Kentucky had beaten Florida (12-11, 5-5 SEC), and the Gators did everything in their power to prolong the drought. They built a nine-point first-half lead, the Cats momentarily flustered by the environment, and came within one made field goal of becoming the first opponent to shoot 50 percent on UK's historically stingy defense.
"They played to win, they fought, they did whatever they had to do to keep it--they started putting their head down and driving into our centers and scoring layups," John Calipari said. "They shot 49 percent against us today. Forty-nine."
Upping the degree of difficulty a bit more, UK shot just 3-of-14 from 3-point range and four players combined for all but one of the Cats' points on Saturday night. Harrison, of course, was able to pick up much of the slack.
"Not many teams in the country have a player like Aaron Harrison on their team," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who dominated the interior with 19 points and eight rebounds. "Luckily, we have the only one. We have a person like him on the floor anytime the game gets really close you give him the ball, the ball's going in."
Towns has learned that in less than a full season, so of course Calipari is even more certain of just how much Harrison can be counted on.
"Now you understand that if Aaron Harrison is 1 for 9 and there's three minutes left in a close game, he's in," Calipari said. "Somebody else might be out, but he is in. Because he makes all those plays and he's not afraid and he sees himself making them."
Harrison shot 6 of 12 from the field and 3 of 6 from 3-point range, but it was at the free-throw line where he and the Cats closed out the Gators. He hit all eight of his free throws and UK made 21 of 22 (95.5 percent) as a team. UK scored its final 11 points at the line, with Harrison accounting for six of them.
"Free-throw shooting is contagious both ways," Calipari said. "It's contagious when you're making them if the right guys are shooting it. It's contagious the other way. If you miss a couple, then all of a sudden your best free-throw shooter steps up and misses a couple."
Unquestionably, Harrison is one of those "right guys," but there was a less-than-usual suspect who joined him. Willie Cauley-Stein made all five of his free throws, though that was only his second-most impressive feat of the night, trailing the and-one dunk with 12:09 left that gave UK the lead for good.
"You've gotta go to the line with confidence and I think that's what we did," Harrison said. "The biggest thing is Willie. Willie definitely improved from the free-throw line, and we get on him about it, and I think that's part of him just working so hard at it."
Hard work is a common theme for this team, even as the Cats passed one of their most difficult remaining tests, kept their perfect record intact and kept alive all the talk that goes with it. Along those lines, Harrison dismissed the notion that UK found another gear in the final minutes with its unbeaten run in jeopardy.
"We're not really trying to survive right now; we're just trying to get better," Harrison said. "It's midseason. We've still got a long way to go. We're not really trying to survive; we're trying to just get better as a team so we can play our best at the end of the year."
To that end, Coach Cal is looking for one thing above all else.
"Andrew (Harrison) played so well last game. Come on, man," Calipari said, referencing the point guard's one-point outing. "He didn't play bad, but why weren't you in attack mode? Why did they attack you? You didn't make one play, one shot. You know what I'm saying? Where was the guy that played last game?
"Aaron, who played awful last game, was the outstanding player in college basketball today. So, what is what? Dakari (Johnson), come on. Willie, you know, let's go. Let's be more consistent."
After sustaining the blow from a 13-point second-half comeback effort by the No. 21 Georgia Bulldogs the last time No. 11 Kentucky took the floor, the Wildcats' resilience was put to the test in an 80-72 victory February 1 at Memorial Coliseum.
"It was not the prettiest game ever, but we showed some toughness there," said UK head coach Matthew Mitchell.
With the triumph over Georgia behind them, the Wildcats head into the final seven games of the regular season. Thanks to home tilts against No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 14 Texas A&M, and No. 1 South Carolina, coupled with road trips to Vanderbilt, No. 6 Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Arkansas, the stretch may prove to be the most difficult of UK's season.
"We have a tough game ahead of us down in Nashville against Vanderbilt," Mitchell said of Sunday's game. "They are a tough team and always a tough place to go play. So they're hard to score against, and have another really good defensive team and will make it difficult on us."
Four ranked opponents over a seven-game stretch leave little wiggle room for Mitchell & Co. as their final bye week in conference play comes to an end.
"We've had a good week of preparation, and we just need to really work hard here the next couple days and see if we can go down and get a really important victory for our basketball team," said Mitchell.
The last time Kentucky (17-5, 6-3 SEC) was afforded an entire week of preparation during brutal SEC play, it was coming off an 84-79 loss at LSU, wherein Mitchell cited a lack of effort as reason for the defeat. This time around, his approach has been from a different perspective.
"They probably enjoyed it more this week because they didn't get punished at 6 a.m. in the morning with some pretty tough workouts," Mitchell said. "During (the last bye) week, that's what we did because of our lack of effort against LSU. (This bye week) came off of a good effort against Georgia."
With the Commodores on deck, and six other monumental matchups looming on the horizon, Kentucky is left with little time to better itself before season's end.
"You have to look at what you can get accomplished here. It's about 24 days left in the regular season. So, what can you do? Where can you move the needle?" said Mitchell. "We just tried to work on the things that are going to make this team the best it can be. I think that will be a good team."
Kentucky has won its last seven contests with Vanderbilt, including last season's 65-63 win in Lexington. The Commodores (13-10, 4-6 SEC) head into Sunday riding the momentum of a 58-54 comeback victory over Ole Miss.
"Our young players are working so hard," Mitchell said. "They're getting better, and I just want to be the best coach for them that I can, and get the most out of them. We've just spent a lot of time this week working and trying to get better, and hopefully you'll see that Sunday in Nashville."
No. 11 Kentucky will face Vanderbilt Sunday, Feb. 8 at 1:00 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
Kyle Barrett joined the Kentucky roster for his freshman season without big expectations for him to be an instant-impact performer.
He quickly dispelled any notions of low expectations.
Barrett burst onto the scene with a Freshman All-Southeastern Conference campaign in 2013, leading the Wildcats with a .349 average in his debut season.
He pushed his way into UK's everyday lineup, showcasing a top-of-the-order skill-set that features blazing speed and an opposite-field, line-drive approach.
"Coach Green and Coach Henderson had a lot of confidence in me," Barrett said about his freshman season. "I came in not knowing what to expect. Everyone here is the best of the best from wherever they come from. When I was in high school I was a big fish in a small pond and you come to college and everyone has skill. I worked my way up little by little and they threw me out there against Eastern (Kentucky) and I got a couple hits, then Michigan State they started me on Saturday. I played well, I had a double down the leftfield line against Michigan State and that is when I knew that I could belong and knew I could hit a little bit."
Barrett didn't stop hitting after his freshman season. He ventured to the Perfect Game Collegiate League for the summer, earning all-star honors and leading his Amsterdam team to the league title.
He changed expectations from those which he entered his freshman year with. He was UK's opening-day rightfielder and leadoff hitter for UK's win over No. 1 Virginia and went on to start 32 of Kentucky's first 34 games before facing adversity for the first time in his career.
"Last year, mentally I just wasn't right," Barrett said. "If you look at my stats, I really wasn't hitting bad and then I looked around, saw AJ, Max, MT hitting above .400 and I was hitting in the .300s and was thinking that was bad so I tried to do more, swing a little harder and get out of my thinking process. I wasn't really hitting it bad, I was just trying to do more than I should've and I got out of who I was need to be at the plate."
After fighting through a brief slump during the Missouri series and with UK freshman outfielder Storm Wilson battling for the SEC freshman lead in homers, in addition to a blistering-hot pace, Barrett slid into the fourth outfielder role for the remainder of the season.
"One of the things that happened to Kyle Barrett was that Storm Wilson stepped right up and just said thank you," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "That happens in athletics and I don't mean that in a mean way at all but he got his opportunity and made the most of it."
He made just six starts and playing in 14 of UK's final 28 games, going 3-for-24 during the stretch.
"Honestly if it wasn't for (coach) Henderson sitting me down last year, I don't know how I would've done," Barrett said about his mindset before heading to the Cape Cod League for summer ball. "When we sat down it was a low point for me. I was really magnifying the negative aspects of my game and I got to sit back and watch. I was able to sit back and see what I bring to the table and the things I do well."
After the season, Barrett was shipped off to the Cape Cod League, considered the best amateur summer baseball in the nation.
In the Cape, Barrett shined, earning the starting centerfield job in the all-star game. He finished with a .313 average - 17th-best in the circuit - and 10 steals, marking one of eight players in the league with an average over .300 and at least 10 steals.
"When I went up to the Cape, no matter who was pitching or the type of arm, I knew what kind of player I was and I was going to go out there and have fun with it," Barrett said. "No matter the outcome I was going to have fun. I did that and went up there and had fun and was able to perform with the best athletes in the country. It was just an awesome experience. I was able to play with a bunch of very athletic guys and good guys at that. I was just an awesome experience."
Now entering his junior season, high expectations are nothing new for the Douglasville, Ga., native. He is positioned to be a leader for a talented UK outfield that features speedsters Marcus Carson, Ka'ai Tom and Storm Wilson.
"It is going to be real hard," Barrett said about the schedule for the Wildcats in 2015. "Freshman year, we had a really tough schedule, similar to this year. Going to LSU is no joke, playing in front of 11,000 people. We have young guys but we also have a lot of older guys who are going to be able to step up. Dustin Beggs is a very talented pitcher that will be starting on the weekend for us. We'll have to tell him that you can't get caught up in the crowd. Evan White over at first base; these are all guys that are going to play and be very impactful for our program. They have to stay within themselves, not let the crowd bother them and stick to doing what they do."
A year after the Wildcats boasted the top offense among the major conferences, UK's lineup will have a different feel in 2015. With the losses of physical sluggers Max Kuhn, Micheal Thomas and, of course, AJ Reed, and veteran hitting machine Austin Cousino, UK's lineup will rely more on speed and athleticism than power. "Kyle Barrett is a really talented kid, he's likeable, he cares and his athletic instincts are good," Henderson said. "He plays hard what he has got to do in my opinion and just show up and be consistent in everything in his life every day. He has performed really well in January and our team needs him to be a very good player. He's a guy that can really impact plays, he runs really well, he's got a gene to hit there is no question about that but we got to get him back to where he was and we will. The biggest thing in my mind for Kyle Barrett is consistency in everything that he does."
The Wildcats lost 47 of their 60 homers from 2014, so proven power production is not a strength of UK entering 2015. Barrett's consistent ability to get on base - he's reached safely in 66 of his 76 career starts - will be a factor for the UK offense, as well as his defensive ability in covering large amounts of ground in the outfield.
With Cousino's departure, a question in the preseason will be who replaces the two-time Rawlings Gold Glove award winner in centerfield.
"We have four guys (in the outfield) that are pretty legit defenders," Barrett said. "It helps us because it makes us push each other. If one person pushes another person, then that makes the person next to them push even more. It makes everyone around them a better player. Makes everyone on edge and ready to go and if you aren't ready to go then we have someone we can replace you with."
JaVon Shelby was UK's opening day starter in leftfield, before making his second 51 starts at second base. JaVon's brother, John T., starred at UK from 2004-06. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky sophomore JaVon Shelby has been around baseball his whole life.
As the son of 11-year big league veteran and longtime MLB assistant coach John Shelby - who won the 1983 World Series with the Baltimore Orioles - baseball is in his blood.
Kentucky blue is also in JaVon's blood, as his older brother, John T., is one of the top players in school history.
John T. paced the Wildcats from a last-place finish in the Southeastern Conference in 2005 to a regular-season championship in 2006, earning All-SEC honors at second base, while belting 16 homers.
"Just growing up, watching him play in that Kentucky blue it just kind of soaked into me," JaVon said. "Ever since then I wanted to be a Wildcat and didn't want to be anything else. Glad it played out the way it did."
John T. is currently a scout in the Brewers organization, the same franchise that his father works for as the first-base coach.
"We used to travel with my dad every summer," JaVon remembered. "We would try to go early to the field to hit every single day. Being around baseball my whole life, you get that feel of the clubhouse, even at a young age you see how everything is planned out and rolls together efficiently."
Seven seasons after John T. manned the pivot at Cliff Hagan Stadium, JaVon emerged as an Freshman All-SEC selection in 2014 while helping UK to its eighth all-time NCAA Tournament berth.
Despite missing the entire fall of his freshman season while rehabbing an injury from high school, it was hard for the UK coaching staff to hide its excitement about the newest Shelby in the Kentucky baseball family in the preseason.
JaVon earned the opening day start in leftfield against No. 1 Virginia, with the Wildcats facing off with Cavaliers lefthanded off-speed artist Brandon Waddell.
"I struck out swinging on a changeup," JaVon said. "I had a whole bunch of butterflies, because it was my first game and we were playing the No. 1 team in the nation so it was easy to get hyped up. I got out of my rhythm in that first at-bat thinking (Wadell) was going to throw me all fastballs."
A high school draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers, JaVon got a second chance against Wadell in the fourth inning, with UK owning a 2-1 lead and two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning. He ripped a RBI line drive into the right-centerfield gap to give UK a two-run advantage.
"As the game went along I settled down and we were in a spot where I needed to get a hit," JaVon said. "Later on the game I sat back on a fastball and got a single. That was a great experience."
In his first career home start, a twinbill sweep or Cincinnati, JaVon belted his first career homer and added a double. He went on to make his next 51 starts at second base - including 41 consecutive to end the year - tying UK teammate Storm Wilson and Alabama outfielder Casey Hughston for the freshman SEC homer lead (four). Overall, Shelby hit .250 during his debut season, with six doubles, two triples and 21 RBI.
Somewhat new to second base, but with enough jaw-dropping athleticism to play anywhere on the diamond, JaVon's transition to the keystone was not without challenges. Learning the intricacies of turning a double play, holding runners and playing up the middle at the SEC level was a new challenge to the star centerfielder as a senior at Tates Creek.
"I didn't start playing outfield until my senior year of high school," JaVon said. "After playing second base in summer ball, I got back to school, we had lost Dorian Hairston left and we needed a centerfielder. I made that transition to outfield, which is easier than making the transition to infield. UK recruited me as an infielder. I had to step up, I had to fill the role because we lost (former UK star 2B) J.T. (Riddle), so I was trying to do anything I could to fill the role."
It became obvious as the year went on that Shelby's transition to second base was getting smoother. His turn was better and he was able to utilize his above-average arm strength in completing plays other defenders couldn't,
During the summer, JaVon teamed with Marcus Carson, Zack Brown and Connor Heady on the Amsterdam Mohawks in the Perfect Game Collegiate League. He earned the starting shortstop gig in the PGCBL All-Star Game, belting 12 doubles and three homers in 134 summer at-bats.
After his summer, JaVon was forced to sit out the 2014 fall practice season while he worked to get back to full health for his sophomore campaign.
As the Wildcats enter 2015, JaVon will be counted on as a middle-of-the-order run producer for a left-handed heavy UK lineup. With UK missing right-handed power veterans Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas, Shelby and veteran right-handed hitting infielder Thomas Bernal will be key in balancing out the UK batting order.
His quick right-handed bat is not the only thing that he will be counted on for, as JaVon owns a charisma and infectious personality that screams leadership potential.
"You can't really make a guy a leader. You are born with it or not and you can't go out of your way with it," JaVon said. "You have to be yourself to be a leader. You have to tell jokes, be serious at times, tell guys what they are doing wrong and sometimes you have to yell at a guy to straighten them up."
Willie Cauley-Stein is averaging 8.7 points and 6.4 rebounds. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein is the veteran leader and arguably the top player on the nation's top-ranked team.
His defense has drawn praise from all corners, with Grantland.com saying he might be the best defender in America both inside and outside.
On a Kentucky squad with unprecedented talent and depth, he's the one player who's cracked the national player of the year conversation.
Cauley-Stein, however, has a critic: himself.
"I just haven't been playing like I should be playing," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein set that high standard for himself with his own play early in the season. With outings like his 21-point, 12-rebound, five-steal, three-block performance against Texas, Cauley-Stein showed everyone what his ceiling is, but he hasn't reached those heights in recent weeks.
He's scored in double figures just twice in Southeastern Conference play, including back-to-back two-point games at South Carolina and Missouri. He's continued to flummox opponents with his versatility, but his gaudy defensive numbers have taken a dip. He has only two combined blocks and steals in his last three games entering a trip for UK (22-0, 9-0 SEC) to Florida (12-10, 5-4 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"It's just like, just the same stuff I've always been doing, I just got away from it," Cauley-Stein said. "As the season goes on you just start to get like wear and tear and you stop doing what got you there, so now I'm just trying to do what got me so high up and then just keep on building off of it."
For Cauley-Stein, wear and tear is coming in the form of a nagging injury that John Calipari terms a "sore ankle" that has been "scanned and double-scanned and triple-scanned" for something more serious. It's nothing that will keep him from playing, but it doesn't make playing to his potential any easier.
"He's a little hurt," Calipari said. "You know, ankle's bothering him a little bit, but there's no reason for him not to have the numbers -- you know, double-digit scoring and rebounding, even with the minutes, because he is probably one of the guys that is getting a little more minutes."
The only way Cauley-Stein can think of to try to get back to that is work.
"I've been in the gym after every practice, before practice, trying to get back to the stuff that I was doing at the beginning of the year I got away from," Cauley-Stein said.
Beyond the production, he says there is one notable difference between the Cauley-Stein who dominates every phase of the game and the one who has been merely a good player on a great team.
"It just feels fun," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like I'm having fun, I look like I'm having fun. If I'm not playing then I don't look like I'm having fun. That's the biggest part about it."
Unfortunately, there's no simple switch for Cauley-Stein to flip to have that fun because he doesn't realize what's going on until after the fact.
"I mean, at the time I don't realize that I look that way, but it's more or less like, 'Dang, I'm not scoring,' or 'I should've got that rebound,' so then you're just thinking about that," Cauley-Stein said. "Then vice versa, when you're doing all that stuff your energy is so high 'cause you're doing the right things, doing the right things. By the end of it you look back and you see you were flying and doing all this other stuff and then, the other way around, you're just kinda there, out there."
But if you ask his teammates, they'll tell you Cauley-Stein isn't being completely fair to himself, though they believe the result will be positive.
"Willie is going to play like Willie," Tyler Ulis said. "He's a great defensive player. Offensively, he's doing a lot better I feel like. If he feels like that then that's great. He's going to put more work in. He's not complacent. With him, he's just a great asset to our team, blocking shots defensively, being able to guard 1-5. Having him is great."
The Wildcats will certainly be counting on Cauley-Stein on Saturday considering he's twice played in Florida's O'Connell Center, a venue known as among the most hostile in the SEC.
"I mean they're like everybody else, but the way their gym is set up it's just different, like they're on top of you," Cauley-Stein said. "It's loud, yelling on top of you. They're really into it."
Cauley-Stein has not yet won in Gainesville, Fla., and he's averaging just six points and four rebounds in those two losses. He'll surely want to improve on those numbers come Saturday night, but his coach says Cauley-Stein shouldn't concern himself too much with all that.
"We try to talk to them, but they may feel the weight of the world on their shoulders," Calipari said. "They really shouldn't because they have each other. I kept telling everybody, 'You don't even have to play great every night. I just need five guys to play well. I don't need nine. We need five, so you're not forced.' 'Well, when I don't play well we lose.' That's not the case for not one player on this team. 'Now, you play to play great, but you're not a machine, you're not a computer. It doesn't happen all the time.' "
The UK softball team is coming off its first Women's College World Series appearance. The Wildcats are ranked No. 6 in the preseason poll, the highest in program history, and return much of last year's record-setting team, not to mention a star-studded freshman class.
The interest in the team has never been greater among the Big Blue Nation. In each of head coach Rachel Lawson's first seven seasons, UK has surpassed the previous season's accomplishments.
Needless to say, expectations are high in 2015. The team though, hasn't let those expectations bring increased pressure.
If anything, the Wildcats have embraced the expectations. It comes with the territory of being one of the nation's best programs, competing the in the NCAA's best conference.
At the team's annual media day before the season, Lawson was confident when looking ahead.
"We have a really strong team coming back," Lawson said. "We are coming back completely up the middle. We have our catcher back, we have our starting pitcher back along with a few other returning pitchers that are sophomores. We have our shortstop and second baseman required a lot of time last year and then our centerfielder. Anytime that you have the middle of your team coming back you are always looking forward to another great season."
As Kentucky made its record-setting postseason run last season, it did it with a loose, 'why not?' attitude.
The Wildcats upset No. 3-seeded UCLA, college softball's powerhouse program, and rolled into Oklahoma City with as much confidence and swagger as a team that was making another routine trip to the World Series, not its first. Sure, they were wide-eyed and excited about the opportunity to play on the biggest stage, but that loose attitude played a big part in UK winning its first game in OKC.
Fast forward eight months, and that spirit and fun attitude hasn't changed. Now, they know how to get to the World Series, and the memories and experience of college softball's biggest stage only make this team more determined to get there again.
"We set a goal and we actually know what it's like to accomplish that," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "I think that it has added extra motivation for us this offseason because we have always talked about going to the Women's College World Series and how great that would be, but now that we have actually made it there it's actually added a lot of determination to get back this year."
That's been the driving force through the fall and preseason practice. The trip to the World Series in 2014 and increased expectations this year have driven the team to work even harder to ensure a return trip in June.
"I think the mindset is determined," sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes said. "Obviously, we accomplished our goal last year of going to the World Series, but it is always a goal to get to the World Series and it's another goal for us this year and maybe even try to get a little further. That is what we are getting focused on."
With success comes higher expectations, increased media exposure and fan support that's among the nation's best. Inside the team facilities at John Cropp Stadium, the work ethic has remained from previous seasons.
However, Lawson has noticed some change coming off a WCWS appearance.
"Right now, I would say that we are a lot further along at this point in the season then we had been in past years, mostly because of the experience and focus that our players had in the offseason," Lawson said. "So when they came back, their swings were a little bit better, they were a little bit stronger and we are doing things right now that we haven't done at this point in time in the past."
Those extra cuts in the batting cages, attendance at voluntary summer workouts and increased focus didn't come at the request of the coaching staff. It came thanks to the determination of the players, which is a credit to Lawson, her staff and their leadership.
While on the surface it's a light team atmosphere, it's the blue-collar work ethic that has helped the Wildcats reach unprecedented success both on the field and in the classroom.
Lawson is proud that, World Series appearance or not, having to motivate her team to work hard, be good students and do the right thing isn't an issue.
"We never have had a motivational problem with our softball team," Lawson said. "We have a great team culture and we are motivated in everything that we do and incredibly strong pound-for-pound and have always been exceptional students. Last year, our team GPA was a 3.6 and we were the only BCS school in the country that was both in the World Series and top-10 in GPA."
Despite all the hard work, extra practice, determination and focus, one thing won't change: For the first time, UK has a target on its back. No longer are the Wildcats the hunters, but the hunted.
But, Kentucky knows that comes with the territory. You don't make the World Series, earn a No. 6 preseason ranking and play in the SEC and not have a giant target on your back.
For the Wildcats, it's not added pressure or increased expectations. It's what should happen.
"I think that just shows the success we had last year and speaks to the great conference we play in," Joiner said. "There are a lot of teams in the top 25 from the SEC so it's just exciting for us to be up there with the other teams. We're going to get to play the other teams that are ranked so we're really excited about that."
"We have ventured into uncharted waters and something that this team is going to have to manage is the expectations of being the team that people are going after," Lawson said. "In the past, we have always been a good team but we always kind of fell under the radar."
Just like facing powerhouse UCLA on its home turf and pulling off the unprecedented upset, or going to the World Series and winning a game they weren't supposed to be in, the Wildcats don't care that they're going places the program has never been before.
With the season opening this weekend in Tallahassee, Fla., some things will be the same, but some things will be different. The loose, fun team will have a target on its back. The determination and focus remains as it always was while escalating to a new level all at the same time.
When you have a 'why not?' mentality and a determination to be your best and shut out the outside distractions, anything is possible.
As for expectations, there's nothing wrong with embracing them. With a championship the ultimate goal, that's what the UK softball team has done.
"When you come to the University of Kentucky your goal is to win championships," Lawson said. "So that carrot is always dangling out there and when you win one championship you want to win another championship. Complacency isn't something that we worry about."
High expectations, lofty goals, but no pressure. Just go out and work hard and have fun.
Over the last two weeks, Cat Scratches has given fans an inside look at UK softball's 2015 roster with 20 fun questions and a quick outlook of every player. Senior catcher Griffin Joiner is the finale player to be previewed prior to UK's season opener at 4 p.m. ET today against Florida A&M.
Starting her second year as one of the team's captains, senior catcher Griffin Joiner is the leader of the team in all aspects entering 2015. Joiner, who has started 184 consecutive games at catcher, ranks high in several all-time records at UK, including doubles, home runs and RBI.
The native of Hopkinsville, Ky., has a .304 career batting average with 33 doubles, one triple, 100 RBI, a .501 slugging percentage and a .426 on-base percentage. Last year, Joiner hit .309 with 11 doubles, 10 homers and 39 RBI. The catcher had a hot stretch to start the season and was named national player of the week, becoming only the fourth player in school history to claim a national player of the week honor.
During her time at UK, Joiner has been named an All-Southeastern Conference performer every year, SEC Freshman and Player of the Week, CoSIDA Academic All-District, third-team NFCA All-Southeast Region honoree and three-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll.
Come see Griffin and the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats this spring at John Cropp Stadium. UK's home opener is March 11 vs. EKU at 5 p.m. ET. Season tickets can be purchased by calling the UK Ticket Office at 1-800-928-2287, in person at the Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or online at www.ukathletics.com/tickets.
To help you get to know Griffin better, it's time to play a game called 20 questions.
What is your nickname? Griff Why did you choose to play softball at Kentucky? It was my dream to be able to wear the Kentucky jersey and play in the SEC. Also, a lot of coaches put players on a pedestal when they are being recruited, but here it was different. Our coaches made me aware of the things I needed to keep working on to be able to play at this level and that honesty made me want to be a part of Kentucky Softball even more. If you could trade places with Coach Lawson for one day, what would you do? I would wear the furry crocs and hit people with the ponytail.
What is your biggest accomplishment to date? Being on the first team from Kentucky to make it to the World Series was a big accomplishment. It was the first time I could truly say that I was a part of a team that set a goal and accomplished it.
Can you solve a rubix cube? Only if I can go hide and move some stickers around ...
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be? Surf and braid my own hair ...
After softball, what would be your dream job? I would be a spy for the government or live on the beach and write motivational books.
Name three things you like? Passionate people, laughing and deep conversations ...
What is your favorite dessert? I haven't found many that I don't like.
What is your most memorable moment as a softball player so far? I will never forget celebrating our super regional wins, or the love our fans gave us when we walked onto the field for the first time in OKC.
Funniest players on the team and why? If you just sit and watch Nikki you'll be entertained because she will probably be doing something goofy without even knowing. I always laugh at Kelsey because she has no filter and her comments can be so shockingly honest that you just laugh.
Best dancer on the team is... Maisie
What is your worst fear? I hate knives. What did you do growing up that always got you into trouble? I always got in trouble for having a bad attitude, especially anytime something involved losing (softball, cards, games at birthday parties, gym) or shopping. It must have been pretty bad, because Santa left me a serious note about it one Christmas. Favorite saying or quote you like to live by: Control what you can control.
How do you like your eggs? Cheesy with ketchup and the way everyone else on the team hates them ... runny. Have you ever starred in a school play and if so, what was the name of the play and your character? In preschool, I was one of the trolls in the Three Billy Goats Gruff. I guess my mean face was noticeable at a young age. What three things do you think of most each day? Softball, my family and my next meal How did you get your name? My parents gave it to me. Do you have any weird superstitions? I have to wear eye black and I have to take a shower ever morning there is a game, even if I just had one the night before.