UK celebrates after its walk-off victory over Louisville on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and Missouri's first softball matchup as conference mates is set to be a big one.
With just one Southeastern Conference series left after the Tigers come to town, the Wildcats will look to strengthen their position for the postseason against a quality opponent. If the regular-season ended today, the Wildcats (35-14, 10-8 SEC) would be the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament, while Missouri (27-8, 11-6 SEC) would be the five seed.
It's obvious on paper how much this means for the winner of this series, and with a trip to No. 4 Alabama up next for the Cats, there is an opportunity for UK to climb in the SEC standings by finishing the season out strong.
"Right now everybody is bottle-necked basically three through 10 so we want to have a good seed for the SEC Tournament," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Well first you have to make it and second you want to have a good seed. If we can do something pretty cool against Missouri that would really help our standing and move up."
This is obviously a big weekend for UK and with Missouri ranked 11th in the country, it magnifies the matchup. However, even though wins and losses will likely determine Kentucky's seeding in the postseason, junior Lauren Cumbess knows the right way to approach the series.
"It's nothing different than any other SEC team we have played because they are ranked," Cumbess said. "Our conference is really tough but it's fun so when you do come away with a win it's huge for our team and gets us ready for postseason."
Kentucky will be riding a momentum swing after a walk-off 2-1 victory over rival Louisville on Wednesday at John Cropp Stadium. The win was a team effort as UK had great performances offensively and defensively as well as a gem from freshman hurler Kelsey Nunley.
Louisville defeated UK three times last season, including 3-2 in the regionals to end the Wildcats' 2012 season. This year, the Cardinals won the first meeting between the schools by knocking off the Cats 5-1 in Louisville.
U of L has had UK's number over the last few matchups but the Wildcats were finally able to get over the hump on Wednesday to pick up a momentum-building win heading into the final weekends of the season.
"It's very exciting because last year we didn't beat them and they beat us this year the first time we played them, so we were really looking forward to this game," Cumbess said. "To finally get a win over Louisville, that's huge for us. We evened it up for the year, until postseason anyway."
With just six games left in the season the Wildcats are approaching postseason play where they will need to take their game to the next level to compete with the best teams in the country. Cumbess believes the team is peaking at the right time and is playing their best ball of the year.
"I feel like our team is coming together and finding that chemistry and we are moving up and almost at our peak to play our best," Cumbess said.
Missouri is one of the top teams in the country and features two-time First-Team All-American and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year in Chelsea Thomas. Thomas is a pitcher that relies heavily on the dropball and that's exactly what UK saw when facing Louisville hurler Rachel LeCoq.
The Tigers are no strangers to big games as they appeared in the 2012 Super Regionals before falling to LSU in three games. The Cats are hoping the emotional win over Louisville will motivate them and boost their confidence the rest of the way.
"I hope it's going to carry on big," Lawson said. "Missouri is an awesome team, they have an incredible pitcher and they hit the ball well. The confidence and knowledge that we gain from (Louisville) is great and plus she is a drop ball pitcher in Chelsea Thomas and while she has a lot of other pitches the drop is a huge pitch for her. To be able to work on that against Louisville a little bit is good coming into this weekend."
Junior Lauren Cumbess' walk-off RBI single gave UK a 2-1 victory over Louisville Wednesday evening. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth on a wild pitch that scored Kentucky sophomore Sarah Frazer, the Louisville Cardinals came to bat with UK three outs away from defeating it's in-state rival. Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley toed the rubber looking to finish off her complete game shutout.
However, the leadoff hitter in the inning for the Cards, Taner Fowler, had other ideas. The junior took Nunley's 2-1 offering down the left-field line over the fence to tie the game at 1-all. Instead of getting down on herself, Nunley stepped right back in the circle and got the Wildcats back in the dugout without further damage.
The UK offense had Nunley's back and took care of the rest as the Wildcats loaded the bases with Lauren Cumbess stepping to the dish. The junior got a pitch she liked over the plate and ripped an infield single to the left side hole that was too much for Louisville shortstop Whitney Arion to handle and driving in the game-winner to give the Wildcats a 2-1 victory over the eighth-ranked team in the country.
Following the game-timing home run, Nunlely admitted she was a little rattled but quickly regrouped to give the Cats a chance to win in the bottom half.
"Right after she hit that homer I was a little shaky but you kind of always get shaky after that happens," Nunley said. "You just have to regain your confidence and go back out there."
Cumbess and the rest of the Wildcats seemed to keep their cool after the home run by Fowler. She kept reminding herself the advantage of playing at home and having the last at-bat. As Kentucky filled the bases in the seventh, Cumbess stepped in the box in the most pressure situation of the game.
The Normal, Ill., native may have been one of the coolest members in the ballpark. She was seeing the ball well all game and felt extremely confident when it was her time to deliver.
"I was actually pretty comfortable surprisingly," Cumbess said. "I feel like I had been seeing the ball pretty well all game even though I had only had one hit before. I was pretty comfortable and it was exciting. I always love being in those kinds of positions."
Head coach Rachel Lawson also felt good seeing Cumbess at the plate in the pressure situation. Lawson has coached the junior for close to three years now and knows just how smart and how good of a hitter Cumbess is.
In fact, if the sixth-year head coach could have chosen anyone on her roster to get the job done, it would have been Cumbess.
"I have a ton of confidence in Cumbess," Lawson said. "She's a strong woman and she's both physically and mentally strong. She loves softball and she knows the game really well so if I was going to have anybody up to bat I would want it to be Lauren."
The win was big for UK, who evened the season series after falling to U of L back on April 3, by a score of 5-1 in Louisville. The Cards have controlled the series between the two schools for a few years so the win was extra sweet for UK.
"Oh its huge. They have had our number for quite some time so to be able to come in and play it was actually a very fun game," Lawson said. "It was a fast game I thought both pitchers did a nice job. To be able to come out on the winning end is pretty exciting."
Time and time again The Wildcats has shown toughness to will themselves to wins. UK showed it again tonight by collecting themselves after the Louisville home run and producing in the seventh to get the win.
It was an all-around win for the Wildcats, who got production from the entire lineup, both offensively and defensively along with a great effort in the circle from Nunley.
"To get production in the entire batting lineup is big for us," Lawson said. "We were able to do that on Sunday against Arkansas and that has been a big thing for us. The fact that we showed toughness on defense, throughout the order and on the mound was big for us."
With spring practice in the books for all 14 Southeastern Conference schools, head coaches from around the league called in Wednesday morning and early afternoon for the SEC Football Spring Coaches' Media Teleconferenc. Included among them was UK's Mark Stoops, who addressed the spring as a whole, the quarterback position and his early recruiting success. Here's everything he had to say:
On his first spring at UK and how the team progressed ... "I was encouraged with the first spring. I felt like things went well. I was impressed with our players. I felt that they had a great attitude and were embracing the process. Really happy with their attitude and the way they're going about their business. Encouraged with the spring game and our fans and the fan base is awfully hungry to help us be successful. That was evident with their support at the spring game. So overall I'm pleased with the way things are going."
On what makes Vince Marrow a good recruiter and whether he recruits only in Ohio ... "Yeah, I've got him just in Ohio right now. And what makes him a great recruiter I think is just his ability to make everybody feel comfortable. He's very good at just building relationships. He works at it extremely hard and he has a lot of ties to Ohio. He's lived in three or four different parts of Ohio. He grew up in Ohio and went to the same high school (Cardinal Mooney) that I did, so Vince knows me very well. He knows how we want to go about our business in recruiting. And so I think just with his work ethic and his ability to build relationships are some of the best qualities he has." On whether Georgia is an area he plans to recruit ... "Absolutely, yes. We are currently recruiting Georgia. Yes."
On whether he sees any separation in the quarterback battle after watching tape ... "Well I think it's very fair to say that Jalen (Whitlow) had the best spring game and did some awfully good things. So I think, yeah, I gotta say that Jalen had the best spring game and did some awfully good things. With that being said, it's still an open competition there."
On where UK will need the most help from newcomers next season ... "Well, obviously we need help in every position. We need to improve across the board. But what stands out to me right now is the skill positions, both on offense and on defense. We need to get a lot better in the secondary and we need to get a lot better at wide receiver."
On Josh Clemons and Dyshawn Mobley ... "Yeah, Dyshawn, he was a good back. He just really did some good things and I was impressed. I feel like he's a physical guy up about 215 pounds and gives us a little physical punch and also got some good speed. So I was impressed with him. Who else did you ask about? (Clemons) Josh is, again, a pleasant surprise. I think with coming back off a knee injury, I really just was impressed with him. He also had a good spring game. We did not practice him back-to-back (days). We gave him, if we did have a back-to-back practice, we just practiced him one of the other to try to let that knee heal up a little bit in between practices and all that. But again, a big physical guy that's got some good vision, so I was happy with Josh."
On what Clemons and Mobley stepping up means for Justin Taylor ... "He's got a lot of work to do. So we'll see."
On whether he will be at the NFL Draft with three potential high picks from his 2012 Florida State defense and whether that is a selling point in recruiting ... "Yeah, I am going to be there for the draft and supporting those players, a couple of them, and come up and be with them. So I wanted to be there to support them and their family. I don't know if it's a selling point or not, but I'm really doing it because of my relationship with these guys and I've been with them the last three years and really think the world of them and want nothing but success for them. So that's the reason I'll be at the draft."
On whether he has been surprised with how well 2014 recruiting has gone ... "I've been very encouraged with recruiting since I've been to Kentucky. I feel like we're getting a good reception and I feel like the coaches are working extremely hard. The coaches have the ability to get in there and build some relationships and earn some trust from some of these recruits. So overall I've been very pleased with 2013 and the start of 2014, yes."
On whether he is focusing on any positions in 2014 ... "We really need a lot of help in every area. So I feel like we need help across the board, but we need to continue - it's hard to say because we need help everywhere, but we certainly need some help in the skill positions like I mentioned. I think really defensive back and wide receiver we need to upgrade there."
Nerlens Noel is hoping to become UK's third No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick in four years. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When it comes to the NBA Draft, information is just a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes away. If Nerlens Noel wanted, he could read detailed scouting reports about himself and find out where countless experts are pegging him in mock drafts.
He isn't having any trouble resisting the urge to look.
"I don't pay attention to those at all," Noel said on Tuesday. "I just stay focused on my physical therapy and make sure I stay focused and keep my mind right."
If he did take a peek, Noel would see that his name has floated back to the top of many a draft board. Though he's not frequenting Draft Express or ESPN for the latest scoop, he acknowledges that the prospect of being taken No. 1 overall has crossed his mind.
"It'd be a dream come true being the first pick in the NBA Draft," Noel said. "That's something you dream about from when you're a kid and I'd be very blessed to be in that position and very appreciative of it."
But barely two months ago, that dream was cast into doubt.
Noel injured his knee racing down the floor to prevent a fast-break layup in a game at Florida on Feb. 12. In an instant, he went from thinking about winning a basketball game to pondering whether playing the sport was even in his future, among countless other things.
"A lot goes through your head," Noel said. "When it first happens to you, you don't know what the injury is. So you don't know if you'll never play basketball again or if you'll be playing a month from now. When I heard what the injury was, I knew no matter what I'd get back on the court as fast as I could and just get back to what I love doing."
Since then, Noel has directed his energy toward that end.
He is at the six-week mark of his recovery process and Noel goes through rehab every day. He reports he is now doing exercises in therapy out of his brace and slowly regaining lost muscle. Noel is shooting for Christmastime as a rough return date, but that's very much a moving target.
"The knee's doing good," Noel said. "I've been working hard in rehab and my physical therapist has been telling me I'm way ahead of schedule and I'm coming along very well."
Seeing his progress, Noel was comfortable making his decision to enter the NBA Draft on April 15.The prospect of playing with a talented incoming class and the simple fact that he has enjoyed his time in Lexington were tempting, but he is happy with his ultimate choice.
"There was a consideration about coming back, but anybody that gets injured you're probably going to have a consideration and just think about it," Noel said. "But I sat there with my family and just saw the extent of my injury and I felt it wasn't going to affect me too much in the draft. So I've definitely been tackling the rehab and my decision was probably the best decision for me I believe."
Though he has opted to move on to the next level and didn't even play a full season of college ball, Noel believes he has benefited greatly from his time at UK. He was projected as a top pick before he became a Wildcat, but Noel sees himself as much better prepared to be successful in the NBA after playing for John Calipari at Kentucky.
"Coach Cal has taught me so much on and off the court: How to be a good person and just really know how to have a good work ethic," Noel said. "He made us love work and just (how) to carry yourself and just a lot of life lessons that any regular coach would not teach you about off the court."
When he went down, Noel's injury sparked a debate about the one-and-done rule and whether players should be allowed to declare for the draft out of high school. He sees all sides of the argument, but isn't entering the conversation. Noel is just glad to be where he is now.
"I loved this year and it was one of the best experiences of my life being here at Kentucky this year," Noel said. "Regardless of if I had to stay three, four years, these are the best times of your life whether it's one or four years."
Similarly, Noel isn't thinking about the play on which he got hurt. A pragmatist might say that Noel would have been better served to let Mike Rosario have a wide-open layup. But even though UK was down double digits at the time, Noel doesn't second-guess his decision to hustle back and block his 106th and final shot of the season in spite of all the pain it ended up causing him.
"Regardless of the score I wasn't going to let him get that easy basket," Noel said. "That's just who I am though. I will not be embarrassed in any type of way. I will not give them an easy basket. I just want to keep fighting and give my team the best chance of getting back in fighting position to win that game."
Based on that attitude, it's easy to see why NBA teams are still so eager to take him.
Larry Warford is expected to become the first UK offensive lineman to be selected in the NFL Draft since 1993. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With the NFL Draft just days away, Larry Warford is desperate for ways to pass the time. UK's former star offensive guard knows he's about to receive life-changing news and he's trying everything he can think of to occupy his racing mind..
"Play bass guitar, fish, video games, workout," said Warford. "Just anything to get my mind off of it. Might go driving for no reason. That's really it. Just lay down and try to relax."
But how can he relax when in just a couple of days he will be living in a completely new city surrounded by a wholly unfamiliar set of coaches and teammates? Warford literally has no idea where he will be headed come this weekend when his name is called, whenever that may be.
As of now, he doesn't even know where he will be when he gets drafted. In fact, he may just keep playing video games until he gets that phone call.
"My dad wants me to come down and have a party with the family," said Warford. "I kind of don't want to do anything for it. I kind of just want to sit at my house and play video games or something like that because I'm just going to be nervous the whole time."
One thing he will be doing is a virtual certainty: Warford is going to be selected in the NFL Draft (Thursday-Saturday on ESPN and the NFL Network). When that moment comes, he will become the first UK offensive lineman to accomplish the feat since Todd Perry and Chuck Bradley in 1993.
Scouts and analysts have Warford projected anywhere from the second to fourth rounds in a draft heavy with talent at offensive guard. Teams that he has worked out for and talked with on the phone have given him a similar feel.
While he's nervous, it's not about his ability to compete at the next level. After four seasons as a Wildcat, Warford has solidified himself as one of the top offensive linemen in this season's draft class after earning All-Southeastern Conference accolades the last three seasons and becoming an All-American along the way.
It's been his time as a Wildcat and the tutelage of former offensive line coach Mike Summers that have helped him reach this point.
"I'm a lot more confident in myself," said Warford. "I'm very critical of myself still, but when I first got to UK, I thought that I wasn't great at all. I went from high school to college and I wasn't dominating like I was. I failed to realize there's a lot better talent in college.
"Having gone through my years at UK these last four years and steadily becoming a better player, I've gained a lot more confidence in myself."
There was talk about Warford potentially declaring for the draft after his junior season, but he knew that he still had plenty of improving to do before he was ready for the NFL while his confidence continued to blossom.
"I wasn't ready last year to come out as a junior. I had a lot to work on," said Warford. "I feel like through this season, I got to play against a lot better (defensive) tackles with the addition of Missouri and going out to play Florida and Georgia. Those guys had a lot of great d-tackles, so I got to improve my game a lot. It's helped me out a whole bunch."
While confident in his abilities, Warford's humility and desire to continue to improve has put him in this position to have his named called at Radio City Music Hall in New York City this weekend. And even when he gets that call, he'll still go out there and show his team that he has something to prove.
"I knew that I had a lot to work on. I still believe I do," said Warford. "I'm not a perfect offensive lineman. Nobody is. There's always something to work on. Honestly, from keeping that point of view throughout my entire career at UK has helped me progress as a play and become a good one. I'm just going to try to keep that mentality and never become complacent with where I'm at."
Where he's at now and where he's been seem like lifetimes away, though he played high-school football just down the road at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky.
His high school coaches implored Warford to try and improve his body composition and conditioning, things he continues to work on as he prepares for the NFL. At that time, Warford had no idea what to expect going into college. Looking back, he wishes he would have listened.
"It would have made my life easier as a freshman," said Warford. "Coming in and doing the conditioning tests, it just woke me up that I needed to do something about my condition when I first got here. If I would have listened to them a little bit more and ran a little bit more, I wouldn't have been hurting for that whole first year."
Back then, heading into his freshman season and playing football for Kentucky was the unrealized dream. Now, he's ready to play the game professionally in the NFL. That thought, though the moment is just days away, is still taking some getting used to.
"It's still kind of like a dream. Since it's not (at Kentucky), it doesn't seem like it's real," said Warford. I'm getting all these calls from these teams asking me for my information for draft day, and it's like, 'Oh, I'm here now.' It's only a couple of days away. The fact that it's getting so close, it's becoming a reality."
Despite not reaching the level of team success he would have liked over the past two seasons, Kentucky will always be special to Warford as his home and place where he matured and developed as not only a football player, but as a man. This is why when one team decides to draft "Larry Warford from the University of Kentucky," that will be his proudest moment as his life changes forever.
"I just want to represent my university. It's a great place," said Warford. "I've had so much fun and I've gotten a lot out of it. To represent UK in the draft, it means everything to me. It's just something I've really been wanting to do and take a lot of pride in."
Willie Cauley-Stein (left) and Alex Poythress will help incoming freshmen ease into life as a UK basketball player next season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Becoming a champion is arguably the toughest achievement in sports. A championship is every team's ultimate goal each and every season.
"We got big expectations next year," said Alex Poythress, who opted to return to UK for his sophomore season earlier this month. "We just want to come prepared every day because the expectations next year, the goal is a championship, nothing less, nothing more."
Living up to the hype of a ranking or reputation is also no easy task, especially when that hype reads, "No. 1 recruiting class and likely to repeat as national champions."
The 2012-13 Kentucky basketball team had those expectations - fair or unfair - and failed to live up to the billing.
On the surface, it appeared Kentucky had all the ingredients it would need for another stellar season. The top recruiting class in the country, for the fourth consecutive season, was arriving at UK, Kyle Wiltjer was returning for his sophomore season off a national championship freshman season, and Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays would provide veteran leadership as transfers
But games aren't played on paper and the season failed to deliver a third Final Four in as many seasons.
With admittedly "bad tastes" left in their mouths after the way their freshman season ended, Willie Cauley-Stein and Poythress decided to return, realizing they needed more time to mature and had unfinished business to tend to.
Freshman year was difficult for each of them, but countless lessons were learned along the way.
"I already feel different," said Cauley-Stein. "Once the season ended it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly - which I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened. I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do."
"It prepares you mentally," said Poythress. "We should be mentally prepared for everything because really when you're losing, that's when you figure out what people are made of and stuff like that. It should just help us mentally."
Kentucky lacked a true leader last season to help prepare the freshmen for the difficulties they were bound to face. The Wildcats had only one senior, Mays, who had never played on the stage that is UK basketball. They didn't have a Darius Miller or a Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb.
They will this year.
"I think that's exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot minutes as a freshman (and) decided to come back and take on the role of a leader," said Cauley-Stein. "We didn't have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy, but he still didn't play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we've got three guys - including (Jarrod Polson) - that were playing almost thirty minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously."
After experiencing a full season of life as a Kentucky basketball player, Cauley-Stein and Poythress have each seen what it takes. They've gone through the tough times, the worst season head coach John Calipari has endured in his tenure at Kentucky.
With that experience, they want to change that and make sure that never happens again.
"You don't want next year to end like this year," said Poythress. "It shouldn't happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We're going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly."
Once again, next season, Kentucky looks awfully good on paper. With multiple key components returning for another season, and UK bringing in arguably the most heralded recruiting class in the history of the game, the Wildcats are considered a lock to contend for their ninth national championship and second in three seasons.
While Cauley-Stein says his decision to come back to Kentucky was "easy," he has seen that living up to the hype and expectations is not.
"The hype with these guys coming; they're freshmen," said Cauley-Stein. "They're going to have to do the same thing we've gone through, plus it's going to be harder next year anyway. That's the way I'm thinking about it. They're going to have to go through the same thing freshmen year we did, and it's tough. It's a tough road to go down."
Both Cauley-Stein and Poythress acknowledged how tough their freshman seasons were, and with the caliber of talent on the way, they expect it be even more difficult next season. That's a challenge they're willing to accept as it will likely lead to more competitive practices and improvement for their respective games.
Nothing will be given to them. Nothing will be easy.
"The hype is different because we have more guys coming in," said Cauley-Stein. "But it's going to be harder because we have 10 potential first-round picks coming back and going to be here playing against each other every day.
"Coach doesn't want the same thing to happen that we did this year for next year, so he's going to change a bunch of things so that doesn't happen. Intensity is going to pick up. The level of how we're going to play is going to go up tremendously."
That has to start from the beginning. From now until the freshmen get here, the returning players must focus on improving and transforming themselves. When the freshmen finally arrive, then it's time for the returners to show them the ropes.
From that point on, it's time to go to work.
"I think the biggest thing I took from all that is you got to know from the get-go that it's real," said Cauley-Stein. "We started off really good and went in those couple games where we lost those two games in a row (Notre Dame and Baylor) and it was like, 'Wow, we're really not as good as we thought we were.
"And that's the biggest thing. Every game you play is hype. It's a Super Bowl for everyone. I think that's the biggest thing for the freshmen coming in is that you have no time to relax when you step in between those lines. It's all business when you step in there."
Cauley-Stein believes that, after speaking with Coach Cal during their post-season meeting, it's up to him to become that leader they lacked last season and to bring next year's team together as early as possible.
"Cal always harps to you about coming together and, the way we were going, we were coming together right when the tournament was happening," said Cauley-Stein. "I think this year (it will start) way earlier, like way in the summer: having team meetings or going out to eat and doing goofy stuff together. I think that's what's really going to bring you together. That's one of my big things I'm going to go into the summer with."
If they don't come together, then just like last season, potential may never become a reality.
"The potential is exactly that. We had the potential this year and didn't capitalize on it," said Cauley-Stein. "If you don't come together and do things right, then you're just a bunch of talented kids that didn't get anything accomplished."
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart addresses student-athletes, coaches and staff at the 2013 CATSPY Awards. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mitch Barnhart spends a lot of time thinking about what he will say at the CATSPY Awards. After all, it was he who brought the annual celebration to UK Athletics and each year he serves as the keynote speaker before the student-athletes, coaches and staff assembled in Memorial Coliseum.
But this year, UK's athletics director had to do some last-minute scrambling. This year, Barnhart received some news that altered the message he wanted to send.
On Friday, Barnhart learned that former Oregon State linebacker Tevita Moala had lost his battle with cancer at age 37. Moala played college football more than a decade ago at a school thousands of miles from Lexington, which would seem to make his passing sad, but far removed from UK.
Barnhart sees things a different way.
"He's touched our program at UK and you would never know it," Barnhart said.
You see, Moala made a play during the 1999 season and its effects are still being felt today. On Nov. 6 against California, he snatched up a fumbled snap and sprinted 24 yards for a touchdown, clinching a 17-7 win and Oregon State's first winning season in 29 seasons and first bowl berth in 34. The next year, Oregon State would play in the Rose Bowl.
"He had an electric smile and an incredible passion for the game," Barnhart said. "Had he not made that play, Oregon State does not build its program, allowing us to do things we'd never done before at that university and affording me the opportunity to come to Kentucky with many others in this room, coaches and staff."
Barnhart would have been touched by the death of a young man he came to know regardless, but it was the symmetry between Moala's memorable play and the CATSPYs that made him change his speech at the 11th hour.
"Tonight, we're celebrating moments like that and trying to figure out how we can create more," Barnhart said.
It's that duality that makes the CATSPYs unique.
The event draws inspiration from the ESPYs and entertainment award shows like the Grammys, Oscars and Emmys. But those others are all about recognizing achievement from the preceding year, while the CATSPYs are as much about inspiring future achievement.
That's why motivating addresses from women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell, volleyball coach Craig Skinner and gymnastics coach Tim Garrison were interspersed with emotional award presentations by women's soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz to star sophomore Arin Gilliland (Blue Heart Award) and Joe B. Hall to long-time athletic trainer Walt McCombs (Lifetime Achievement Award).
That's why Barnhart took to the podium before the night's most prestigious individual awards - Mr. and Miss Wildcat - were given to Luis Orta and Chelsea Oswald of UK cross country and track and field.
Barnhart touched on a few themes, including leadership, tough love, sacrifice, emotion, training, passion and legacy, but he closed with a word that didn't seem on its face to fit with the rest: almost. His message was that almost is not good enough.
When he came to UK from Oregon State in 2002 with memories of Tevita Moala fresh in his mind, almost would have been a significant improvement for many of the school's 22 varsity sports. Since then, UK Athletics has made remarkable strides, winning national championships and positioning itself for a record finish in Directors Cup standings in 2012-13. That merits recognition, and that's why Barnhart believes the CATSPYs are so important.
But the days of setting improvement as the goal are gone. UK Athletics is aiming much, much higher.
"We've done a lot of great things in the last year and over the last decade," Barnhart said. "That's now just the foundation. We're on a new journey and much more is expected."
Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress elected to return for their sophomore seasons earlier this month. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within a week or so of the season's conclusion, John Calipari meets with each of his players individually. In the meetings, Coach Cal gives advice about the future and directs his players on how they need to improve.
Given the frequency with which his players are selected in the NBA Draft, the meetings are a source of intrigue. That was particularly true this year with so many players facing difficult decisions about whether to stay or leave.
But anyone who wanted to be a fly on the wall when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped into Calipari's office would have been disappointed. The meeting was short and the message simple.
"I could leave this year, go late first round or come back next year and have an opportunity to go really early," Cauley-Stein said.
Then again, that's probably exactly what any UK fan would have wanted to hear: The skilled 7-footer would be returning for his sophomore season. Cauley-Stein had seen where he was projected in the draft and he decided he could do better.
"I heard a wide variety of things, which kind of that's what set me off," Cauley-Stein said. "I heard anywhere from eight to 10, 15 to 20, 22 to 25. That's the whole dang scale. That's everywhere. I didn't feel real comfortable taking a chance on it and landing somewhere that I'm not going to be good at or ending up hurting myself and coming back and helping."
Just like his meeting with Calipari, Cauley-Stein's decision was an easy one and a quick one. For Alex Poythress, it was a bit of a different story. Poythress talked at length about what to do with his family and UK's assistant coaches, in addition to Coach Cal.
"It was a long process," Poythress said. "You just want to make sure your heart is all in it, make sure you made the right decision, and I feel like I did."
The decision he settled on ended up being the same. Cauley-Stein and Poythress believed they could improve their draft stock with another season, but reducing the choice to that one factor is a vast oversimplification.
At the top of that list of reasons is a little unfinished business.
"You don't want next year to end like this year," Poythress said. "It shouldn't happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We're going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly."
Though it's been more than a month, neither Poythress nor Cauley-Stein need any reminding of the way UK's season ended with back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Robert Morris in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and NIT, respectively.
"It just left a bad taste in your mouth," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like something's empty and I want to fill it. Next year, we're going to have a great opportunity to do that."
Cauley-Stein's optimism, of course, is based in large part on the unprecedented volume and quantity of talent coming to Lexington next season. In terms of recruiting rankings, Calipari has signed his most highly regarded class to date, an eight-member group that features six five-star prospects and the top point guard, shooting guard and power forward in the class according to Rivals.
"It's going to be a nice roster," Poythress said. "The competition at practice is going to be very good. You're going to have to go hard every day."
Cauley-Stein arrived at UK an unheralded prospect - at least relative to the standards of the Calipari era at Kentucky - but contributed immediately and even dominated at times as the year wore on. Intense matchups with a potential No. 1 overall pick in practice for the first three-and-a-half months should not be overlooked as a reason for that.
"I think honestly for me that's going to be the best thing to come out of next year is you're going against pros every day," Cauley-Stein said. "This year it was like that until Nerlens (Noel) got hurt, and then we were going against Brian Long. ... You're not getting better. You're going to dominate practice and get into a game and struggle. Next year, it's going to be a lot different."
Though practices will undoubtedly be different, Cauley-Stein is quick to caution that it's in the Cats' hands whether things change in games.
This time a year ago, Cauley-Stein and Poythress were members of a recruiting class generating more than its fair share of championship talk. UK entered last season ranked No. 3 and is likely to be ranked in the same range in 2013-14. Having gone through what he just did, Cauley-Stein knows how insignificant hype can be.
"The potential is exactly that," Cauley-Stein said. "We had the potential this year and didn't capitalize on it. We could easily be, you know, we had the best recruiting class coming in and not do anything with it. It's that simple. If you don't come together and do things right, then you're just a bunch of talented kids that didn't get anything accomplished."
Cauley-Stein also realizes it's up to him and his teammates to write the script for next year.
"It's different if you make it different," Cauley-Stein said. "It could easily be the same where you come in here and you don't work as hard. But the thing is I don't think Cal's going to let that happen and us guys coming back's not going to let that happen just because how we finished, you can't leave off there."
After that ignominious end, Cauley-Stein has already noticed in himself reason to believe things will be different.
"Once the season ended it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly - which I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened," Cauley-Stein said. "I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do. ... This time I want come in here and do it. I don't want to try to do it."
That mentality sounds a lot like that of a leader, and it's no coincidence. Other than the concise advice he gave to Cauley-Stein about coming back, Calipari told his big man he needed to step up in the leadership department. Heeding that advice, Cauley-Stein wants to do what Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb did for Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the likes of Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison.
"I think that's exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot minutes as a freshman (and) decided to come back and take on the role of a leader," Cauley-Stein said. "We didn't have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy, but he still didn't play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we've got three guys (Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer) - including (Jarrod Polson) - that were playing almost thirty minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously."
The UK track and field program held a Senior Day celebration on Saturday at the Heart of Bluegrass Classic. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
For the first time since 1996, the Kentucky track and field program hosted an outdoor meet as the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic on Saturday. In more ways than one, it was a special day for the program. Not only did it give UK a chance to showcase its world-class facility, but it also provided a chance to honor its seniors as a special ceremony was held toward the end of the day.
UK had great performances by several athletes, highlighted by junior distance runner Cally Macumber, who broke the school-record mile time, and senior Keith Hayes, who claimed victories in four different competitions.
Head coach Edrick Floreal told his seniors earlier in the week to compete in one event and then rest up so they could be in the action while still enjoying the Senior Day celebration. However, Hayes took a different approach, attempting to race in as many heats as possible because he plainly and simply wanted to run.
"I told him if you need me to run the 4 by 800, I'll run the 4 X 800; if you need me to run the mile, I'll run the mile," Hayes said. "I just wanted to run just to be out because everybody doesn't see what we do on a day-to-day basis. They see results here and results there but we got the opportunity to put on a performance."
The Wildcats put on a show for the fans Saturday, winning several competitions. Although Floreal wanted his Cats to come out and perform well, Saturday was less about how they competed and more about a way to show appreciation to the crowd and alumni.
"The point today was less about performance, more about putting on a good show for the crowd," head coach Edrick Floreal said. "We also wanted the alumni to be part of this after 17 years without an outdoor track meet. It was more of a thank you.
One of Floreal's goals for the coming years is to bring the high school state meet to UK. There were 37 high schools competing against each other on Saturday and the commissioner and assistant commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in attendance to boot.
"I think the meet belongs here at UK," Floreal said. "I think with a facility like that, you have to highlight it. I think having the high schools participate and perform here gave them a sense it's a fast track and they can do well here."
As the day continued and the races starting winding down, a Senior Day celebration took place to honor the student-athletes who have dedicated themselves to the program.
Seniors had their names called and were accompanied by either family members or their respective coaches as they had their list of accolades read off by the public address announcer. After the festivities concluded, there were two more competitions left. The men's and women's 4 by 400-meter races were saved for last as the seniors anchored each.
"Student-athletes have other places they can go to it's not like they are forced to come here. They can go somewhere else and they are great athletes," Floreal said. "If they are going to come here the least we can do is to give them a meaningful thank you to really highlight what they have done and that was my goal."
UK baseball visited Fort Jackson on Friday before its series with South Carolina this weekend.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Usually on the day of night games in the Southeastern Conference, visiting teams spend the day wasting time at the hotel, eating pregame meals and preparing for the daunting challenge of winning a league series opener on the road.
Not so on Friday for the 17th-ranked Kentucky baseball team, which faces off with No. 14 South Carolina at Carolina Stadium this weekend.
The Wildcats had a different Friday, spending the morning at Fort Jackson, the United States Army's main production center for Basic Combat Training under the command of Brigadier General Bryan T. Roberts.
UK's club was invited to visit Fort Jackson during the week leading up to the trip to Columbia. UK jumped at the chance to break from its routine and show its student-athletes the training ground for America's heroes.
UK head coach Gary Henderson, assistant coach Keith Vorhoff, support staff and a dozen Wildcats boarded the bus and ventured down the road to Fort Jackson.
"This was a tremendous opportunity to get some of our group out to see a special place at Fort Jackson," Henderson said. "The men and women that serve in our armed forces are heroes and we were honored to have been welcomed on a visit. The chance to see what our soldiers go through on a daily basis to prepare them to fight for our freedom is an eye-opening experience. We can't thank General Roberts, Captain Meyer and the soldiers who were able to visit with us enough; they make us all proud to live in this great nation."
After a chance to meet with General Roberts, the Wildcats were given a personal tour of the recently renovated Fort Jackson museum where they were given a glimpse into the fort's history dating back to its inception in 1917.
Among the Wildcats on the trip was redshirt junior catcher Micheal Thomas. The Elizabethtown, Ky., native is a child of the military just 20 minutes from historic Fort Knox.
"It is cool to see what the men and women who serve our country have to go through to get ready to go to Afghanistan and other places for war," Thomas said. "It was an eye-opening experience for me and the guys, to see what guys our age actually have to go through."
Thomas, who has been a fixture behind the plate in 2013 after spending the previous four years behind standout catchers Marcus Nidiffer, Luke Maile and Michael Williams, was touched by the personal invite to the historic military base.
"It is really cool. Most of my family has been in the army," Thomas said. "Both of my parents were in the Navy so it was a little different for me. I got to see some of the other aspects of what my family has gone through from generation to generation. Being one of the first in my family to not join the military right out of high school was kind of cool to see what they went through, how they lived their lives and what has led them to be the kind of people they are today."
After the tour of the sparkling new museum, the Wildcats ventured across the base to an indoor shooting range, equipped with electronic sensors and screens to replicate battle scenarios. Henderson and the Wildcats were instructed on loading and re-loading their high powered, automatic weapons, before beginning the training scenarios.
"This was a great opportunity to come out and see just how the army life is," UK senior right-hander Walter Wijas said. "I had never had this experience, I had never shot a gun before and it was just a great experience to learn how it is and see how difficult it is for our soldiers to live here and fight for our country."
The Wildcats went through several battle simulations scenarios on the range, while lying in the prone and kneeling positions. The players had to think on their feet in a battle simulation, deciding on the fly about potential threats and civilians.
After the visit to historic Fort Jackson, the Wildcats returned to Columbia with a new perspective thanks to an experience much more meaningful than an afternoon spent in a hotel room.
"To see this just makes me respect our soldiers even more then I already do," Wijas said. "To see what they go through on a daily basis, it makes me feel for the work to do, it really makes us feel grateful that we have the life we do. The chance to play baseball everyday has been given to us by the brave soldiers in our military."