The women's golf team heads to Birmingham, Ala., this weekend for the SEC Championship. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When Golda Borst took over the Kentucky women's golf program, the Wildcats were 77th in the country in the polls. Today, the Wildcats sit at 32nd.
Things have changed a lot since Borst took the job three seasons ago, and while she's striving to mold UK into a perennial Southeastern Conference contender, this team, in particular its four seniors (Ashleigh Albrecht, Betsie Johnson, Heather Lott and Megan Moir), have much to be proud of.
"We have a group of girls that are very proud of this program and how far we have come," said Borst. "When the freshmen came in, they made sure that they knew that and how far we'd come. They have been really clear in where we want to go."
On the flip side, Borst has brought in two talented freshmen with Cylia Damerau and Sarah Harris having earned spots in the lineup this spring. It hasn't always been smooth sailing as the youngsters learn the ropes and make their mistakes, but every day out on the course with the upperclassmen has contributed to their development.
Borst said it was very important for this crop of freshmen to have this season with the seniors to not only learn what life is like as a collegiate golfer at Kentucky, but what this program was all about to help steer them in the right direction.
The Wildcats, after an up-and-down start to the spring on the heels of a successful fall, appear to finally be hitting their stride, and just at the right time.
UK is riding the momentum of a fifth-place finish at Oxford, Miss., in the M&F Bank Rebel Intercollegiate in which Kentucky bested four other SEC squads. It's been a long time coming, but the tournament in Oxford provided the Cats with exactly what they needed headed into postseason play.
"I must say, the golf course there is pretty similar to what we play at home," said Borst. "It was pretty open off the tee. You still had to play good approach shots and have a good short game, but it was a really good course to get our confidence back up."
It wasn't just about playing better and fixing mechanical flaws. Kentucky had to change its mindset to get to this point. While the Cats wanted to do well for each other, the pressure of performing well for one another was proving to be just too much to deal with.
Things had to change.
"We had to do something different. What we were doing wasn't working," Borst said.
Instead of hoping things would get better, Borst made her team have a players-only meeting to talk about changes that needed to be made.
Borst challenged her team and said, "This is your team. You chose the University of Kentucky. How far do you want to take us?"
So the team sat down, talked and decided that instead of working on team goals, they would focus more on an individual approach and worry about themselves and know that in the end, their collective scores would afford the team greater success . Kentucky's finish in Oxford would suggest that the Wildcats are headed in the right direction. Now, they have their sights set on the SEC Championship this weekend with a goal to improve on their finishes in each of the last two seasons when they finished in 10th in 2011 and ninth in 2012.
"With the team that we have, I think a realistic goal is top seven," said Borst. "Looking at the team, looking at the stats, looking where they are and how we're doing, looking at the two freshmen that we have that are strong, I really think that's a realistic goal. Then, it's individually what do you need to do to prepare for this week?"
If Kentucky needs one area of improvement on the course, it's in the short game. The athletes have done a fine job of driving the ball and putting themselves in favorable situations, but they haven't been able to deliver with their wedges and putters in clutch situations for much of the spring.
"At the end of the day, you have to hit the ball closer and take advantage of the opportunities that you have," said Borst.
While the weather hasn't always cooperated this spring in Lexington for the Cats to get out and work on their short game, it's a mental block more than physical that's keeping UK from executing.
"When I took this job I strongly believed we had the facilities that we need to be the best team in the country," said Borst. "I don't think that the weather is that big of a deal. Is it a disadvantage? Yes, a little bit. But if you prepare the best way you can and you're mentally ready, you can go play just as well as a team down south. You just have to be ready for it and adjust quickly."
The last week of practice leading into the SEC Championship in Birmingham, Ala., has been encouraging as the short game appears to be sharpening in practice rounds.
"We've worked a ton on our wedges," said Borst. "We're starting to make those strides the last couple weeks and I'm really excited about that."
And taking down four different SEC opponents heading into championship play?
"I think that was, again, great for their confidence," Borst said. "Is it going to be tough to beat them again at SECs? Yeah, because they are great teams. They do have some girls that are more experienced in bigger and better events than us, but it gave our team a little bit of a taste of what that felt like and that they can do it."
This weekend, Kentucky has a chance to take this program even further. It will be the seniors' last opportunity to compete at the SEC Championship, but the first for the UK freshmen. It will be an experience that could benefit not only the present, but the future of this program for years to come.
"I want to build upon (the current culture), but also change it to win the championship," Borst said. "There always that glass ceiling and Kentucky's never been there, so that's what we're working for and I think it's good for the freshmen to be with these seniors and now try to move it forward and do great things."
This year's recruiting class was already regarded as the best in 2013. Now, with three more highly talented signees, John Calipari and Kentucky may have pieced together the greatest recruiting class of all time.
Kentucky announced the additions of Julius Randle (Plano, Texas), Dakari Johnson (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Dominique Hawkins (Richmond, Ky.) on Wednesday. Randle, Johnson and Hawkins join fall signees Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, forming what many are calling the greatest recruiting class ever.
"I think it could be the best class of all time in terms of offensive efficiency," ESPN analyst Paul Biancardi said after Randle's verbal commitment on March 20. "This class can score the basketball. They can shoot the 3-point shot. They can beat you off the drive. They score the basketball from their respective position as well as any class that John Calipari has had at Kentucky. ... This class is going to need some help, but as this class stands alone, it could be the best of all time."
The proof is in the numbers: six McDonald's All-Americans. Kentucky's top two high school players. Six consensus five-star athletes. Seven top-150 Rivals signees. A combined 36 stars in the Rivals ratings system.
It all adds up to the nation's No. 1 recruiting class -- Coach Cal's fifth straight, according to Rivals -- and one collective commitment to return UK to the top of college basketball next season.
"The thing I like most about this group is its competitive spirit and its will to win," Calipari said. "These guys are All-Americans and award winners, but more importantly they're world champions, national champions and state champions. They know what it takes to win. The size and talent of the group will allow us to have tough, hard-nosed practices which will carry over to the games. I'm excited for the opportunity to coach this group."
"The final straw that came to me was the system, and I felt like the system at Kentucky was a great system. They have a lot of great players there going in there so you're going to have to battle, but I think like they did the year before with that team being a unit. I play USA Basketball with a lot of great players so I think I'll adjust well. I think it's the best fit for me. That's where it was in my heart or I wouldn't be at Kentucky."
"To be able to battle with those guys every day in practice is only going to make me better, help me prepare for the next level. Playing with great players with a plus for me; it wasn't a negative at all."
"Julius is another hard-working player who is a great student and person along with being a dominator on the court. He has that will to win that the players I've had who have become special have all had. That motor will be important to our success next year. Julius has the skill set to be an inside-outside guy for us. He has the ability to put it on the floor and beat guys off the dribble, but he's also got the toughness, size and ability to score against bigger defenders. At the end of the day, he's a true leader whose personal drive is off the charts."
What they're saying about Randle
"He dominates the game with his physicality. He's explosive, strong and powerful at the rim. His body, it's ready for the college game right now. And he's best in the paint by scoring and rebounding. He can dominate the action. When you think about Julius Randle, you think about a dynamic athlete. The bottom line is this: His versatility, skill level and athletic ability are uncommon for a player his size. Once his game gets in motion, it's hard to stop or contain him. He creates fouls and finishes at the rim. He's going to impact the college game next season." - Paul Biancardi, ESPN
"I've seen Julius since he's been probably a ninth, 10th grader, and the thing that jumps out is his ability, his physical size. I think Paul hit it on the head (with the) Wayman Tisdale (comparison). He's got a little bit more perimeter game. He can handle the ball. He can shoot the jump shot. And the thing I like about him is his maturity." - Matt Doherty, ESPN
6-10, 265-pound center from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Ranked No. 9 overall by Rivals, No. 11 by ESPN and No. 18 by Scout
Consensus No. 1 center
Led Montverde (Fla.) Academy to the 2013 National High School Invitational title
Named MVP of the 2013 National High School Invitational
Member of the 2012 USA Basketball U17 World Championship Team
Finished with 12 points and five rebounds in the McDonald's All-American Game
Chosen for the Jordan Brand Classic
Posted eight points, four rebounds, two assists and one block in Jordan Brand Classic
"I just want to win a national championship. I want to win a high school championship, then a college championship and hopefully an NBA championship."
"(The coaches) were just honest people from the get-go. They told me that this wasn't the place to come if I were selfish, if I wanted the ball all the time or I didn't want to work hard. But I want to work hard, I want to get pushed. I want the pressure on me because that makes me a better player."
"Dakari's improvement over the last year and a half has been phenomenal. His ability to be a true low-post threat adds an important piece to what our team will really need. He's patient when he gets the ball on the block and has a great understanding for how to use his size for a kid his age. Dakari is a great student and a great kid. He's won a high school championship, a world championship with Team USA, and he said he wants to win a national championship with us and an NBA championship. That statement says a lot about the type of winner he is."
What they're saying about Johnson
"Johnson is a true center and will be the low-post anchor for the Wildcats right from the start. He has tremendous size, hands and work ethic and is an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor. Johnson has worked extremely hard to mold his body into excellent shape, and it has really helped him become more productive and consistent." - Reggie Rankin, ESPN
"Dakari Johnson (is) a true low-post center. He'll give the Wildcats a physical presence on the glass, blocking shots and scoring in the low post. Offensively he's just scratching the surface of his ability." - Paul Biancardi, ESPN
6-1, 170-pound guard from Richmond, Ky.
Ranked a three-star recruit by Rivals, Scout and ESPN
Named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball
Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year
Led Madison Central High School to the Kentucky state championship
Named MVP of Kentucky's Sweet Sixteen tournament
Averaged 26.8 points and 8.8 rebounds during the Sweet Sixteen
Scored 29 points against UK signees Andrew and Aaron Harrison on Dec. 1
Averaged 20.9 points during his senior season
Joins Derek Willis as the second signee from Kentucky in the 2013 class
" I was basically shocked once they offered because they do nothing but get the best players. I know I'm a good player but I wasn't expecting it, but I guess I am a great player now that Kentucky offered me. It's amazing."
Nobody's guaranteed a spot. You've just got to come in and compete and that's what you do at every school. Nobody gets a spot just because they're an All-American. You've just got to come to compete."
"I kept hearing about Dominique from Marquis Estill and my good friend Dr. Robert Palmer. When I watched him play, lead his team, and play with a will to win and fight, I was totally sold. At the Sweet Sixteen, he made sure he got his teammates involved and was always happy with their success, but when it was time to take over the game - when it was winning time - everyone in the building knew they were going to play through Dominique, which they did, and they won. The last UK player who was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball and won a state title in the same year was Darius Miller. He went to two Final Fours, won a national title and is now playing in the NBA. My hope is Dominique will be on the same path."
What they're saying about Hawkins
"He's a very good athlete. He's a guy who I think could turn into a really good defender. Offensively I think his strength lies in his ability to hit midrange shots. Areas for improvement would be becoming more consistent with his long-range jump shot. What I like about him is his how hard he plays, his toughness and his athleticism." - Evan Daniels, Scout (from Courier-Journal)
Head coach Brian Craig (right) looks for his team to find their strokes at the SEC Championships this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It has been a season full of this, that and the other for the Kentucky men's golf team. Not once has head coach Brian Craig seen his team put together a full tournament in which it completely fulfills the potential that each individual has within him.
That feeling can be awfully burdensome while trying to win golf tournaments and make a successful run in the postseason. There is also a positive perspective to consider, and that's the attitude that Craig has chosen when looking forward to this week's Southeastern Conference Championships.
"I feel like we're ready to play well. We've just kind of tread water this spring," said Craig. "We're in good shape for the postseason. I feel like our best golf is in front of us. We just haven't been able to get all the guys playing well at the same time, so maybe this will be the week."
This team is certainly capable of winning and playing well. They did so multiple times during the fall season and added one of the top European amateur players to the lineup this spring in junior transfer Ben Stow.
The spring weather has been unseasonably unkind in the Lexington area with cooler temperatures, rain and snow, and unkempt golf courses that have hindered the development of the Kentucky golfers. Less time out on the course means less repetitions and experience to prepare for tournaments during the season.
Craig and his team refuse to use the conditions as an excuse, but it's a fact. With better weather finally on the way in the Bluegrass state, UK is looking for their swings to come around much like the warmer temperatures and heat up at the right time.
"The weather's finally breaking, so we can get on grass a little bit more around town here, which should help," Craig said. "It's just a matter of time, but it would be fun to see it happen this week."
Where Kentucky golfers have struggled most is with themselves. The field isn't too tough, and the UK players are plenty talented. If anything, they are trying too hard to find their desired level of success.
Craig wants his guys to stop trying to be Superman out on the golf course and make smart, calculated shots instead of going for the home run on every swing. If everyone buys into that, the results will come.
"Everything that's costing us and holding us back is unforced errors. It's things that are pretty simple, pretty basic, under our control," said Craig. "We're putting good pressure on the golf course to shoot low scores - that's the mark of a good team - but we've had a lot of errors that have been real basic."
After building a solid foundation in the fall, it's possible that expectations for the spring may have gotten the best of the UK golfers. Mounting pressure of living up to the successes of the fall season may have contributed to Kentucky's struggles so far. Stow was looked at as a difference-maker in the lineup, and maybe it was too much to ask so soon.
So Craig has been working individually with his athletes, whether on the course or in private one-on-one sessions trying to get his players to play within themselves and to play together, rather than trying to do everything on their own. While expectations can be good, he doesn't want them to outweigh the enjoyment of playing golf.
"I think that's one of the challenges Cody (Martin) had. We talked about that," said Craig. "He's just got to focus on what he can control. I think Ben's done that. We've talked about that too where he just has to settle down and focus on the process of playing golf and not be burdened by any kind of expectations."
Craig also made sure to let his players know that golf isn't like other sports. Hustling will not cure a golfer's ailments on the course.
"You don't grit and bear and it makes it better. It actually makes it worse," said Craig. "It's not football. It's not basketball. You don't hustle harder and it makes it better.
"It's a whole different deal, a whole different mentality of being able to let it go and relax, be confident, trust. That was you can swing freely and confidently."
Despite the struggles, Craig is still confident in his team. His team is confident as well. If anything, their confidence may have played a small role in their inconsistent play this season.
"I don't think for one minute that this team doesn't believe in itself," said Craig. "If anything, we might be a little overzealous in that category in not choosing the right strategies on the golf course because you feel like you can hit that shot or you should be doing this, when actually you shouldn't be. If anything, we go that route, as opposed to being able to dial it back a little bit."
That's why Craig continues to feel excited about his team's chances headed into SEC and NCAA Regional play. The effort, will, and desire to win are there. They are playing well enough to win, so now, they just need to put it all together at the right time.
"It's not like we're out there scraping around trying to get it done," Craig said. "We're playing well, we just haven't scored nearly as well as we've played.
"Normally when that happens, it's just a matter of time. That's why I'm encouraged."
A'dia Mathies is moving to the WNBA after scoring 2,014 points during her four-year UK career. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As she proved throughout her four-year Kentucky career, there just isn't much that rattles A'dia Mathies.
Her facial expression - no matter the circumstances - hardly changed and Matthew Mitchell said he could never quite get a handle on what she was thinking.
But as the WNBA Draft moved into the latter half of the first round, Mathies admits that her normally imperturbable pulse quickened a bit.
"I think I was excited so much I was just sitting on the couch and once they got up into the seven, eight, nine area, my heart started beating fast when every single pick was called," Mathies said.
Watching Monday night's draft at her grandmother's house in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., Mathies still wasn't showing much emotion as she waited to hear her name called. But when the Los Angeles Sparks took her with the 10th overall pick, the same could not be said about most of her family.
"My mom started jumping around," Mathies said. "I haven't seen her jump around like that in a while so I know she was excited."
Not only had Mathies become the highest draft pick in UK Hoops history, but she would be joining an organization that has won two WNBA titles in the league's 17-year history and moving to the hometown of someone she has looked up to for a long time.
"Pretty much everybody who thinks about the WNBA they automatically think of the Sparks," Mathies said. "Just to be going there and my brother lives in L.A. and being with him and I miss him and I'm just very excited right now."
Johnny Mathies is a few years older than his sister and played basketball at Creighton from 2003-06. A'dia says she grew up trying to be her own player, but that her older brother was the person she most looked up to.
"He knows basketball and he gives me pointers all the time, especially when I was playing at UK and things I need to work on and I think that's really going to help me out a lot," Mathies said. "He's going to support me so I know I have somebody I can trust and I think it's going to be really beneficial to have him there."
Also already helping Mathies in her transition to the professional ranks is Ukari Figgs, UK's assistant athletics director for women's basketball. Figgs played five years in the WNBA, including three with the Sparks, so she has a good idea of what's in store for the second-leading scorer in Kentucky women's basketball history.
"She has just been giving me the basics right now like getting an agent and really helping me out with the draft experience since she has been through it," Mathies said. "We will talk more about it as far as what it's like to play out there and being a WNBA player. We have been working out a little bit and we are just going to take it step by step over the next couple of weeks."
Mathies will take any help she can get right now because of how much she has on her plate. She is slated to graduate with a degree in psychology in early May and will head west immediately after for training camp. The Sparks play their first regular-season game on May 26.
"Right now (her head is) on cloud nine, but I'm going to come down very soon," Mathies said. "Just stay grounded and humbled. I had a great workout today with the team and Coach Figgs. ... It's real great to see how everything is coming together and I'm just trying to stay focused and do everything right and try to be the best that I can."
That's really no big change for Mathies.
Just as she'll enter the WNBA intending to do nothing but make the most out of her ability, Mathies came to UK four years looking to be the best version of herself. By doing that, Mathies became unquestionably one of the best players in the history of her soon-to-be alma mater, helping to bring the program to national prominence in the process.
"It's very humbling to see somebody like me to actually get that accomplished and just doing the things that I've done here," Mathies said. "When I first came here, I never would have imagined I would be top in this and doing this and even getting drafted this high. The work that we put in as a team and individually I think it's definitely paid off and I'm just happy and humbled that it actually happened and it's a great time in my life and I'm very excited."
Even though her college career is over, A'dia Mathies continues to find ways to rewrite the Kentucky women's basketball record books.
On Monday night, Mathies was selected with the 10th overall pick in the WNBA Draft by the Los Angeles Sparks, becoming the highest draft pick in UK Hoops history. She is UK's second first-round pick in the last three seasons, joining former teammate Victoria Dunlap.
Mathies will begin her professional career after cementing herself as one of the all-time greats at UK with a stellar four-year career. She ranks second in program history with 2,014 points and is in the top 10 of 13 different career lists, including steals, games started and games played.
Even more importantly, her arrival in Lexington marked the beginning of the renaissance of the UK program. Picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference before her freshman season in 2009-10, Mathies helped lead her team to the first of three Elite Eights in four seasons that year and a league title in 2011-12.
"All of us are thrilled for A'dia," UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She did so much for the Kentucky program while she as here and we had no doubt she was one of the top players in the country. Being chosen as a first-round pick just shows what she did for us and how hard she has worked to get here. I think the Los Angeles Sparks made a great pick."
She will now look to make an impact at the next level, though she likely won't be asked to carry as heavy a load as at UK. The Sparks reached the WNBA Playoffs a season ago and appear poised to once again compete for a title in the upcoming season, which begins on May 26.
"She will be a good player to come in," analyst Carolyn Peck said on ESPN2's draft coverage. "She doesn't have to shoulder the weight of responsibility of providing all of the offense."
From day one, Mathies will have a relationship with Mitchell in common with her new head coach. Carol Ross - in her second season with the Sparks - is a former head coach at Ole Miss and Florida and hired Mitchell for his first collegiate assistant position while with the Gators.
Though Mathies will be far from the Bluegrass - where she has spent her whole life first as a Louisville native and later at UK - she won't have to look far for a familiar face. The Sparks share their home court at the Staples Center with the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Playing for the Lakers is former Wildcat Jodie Meeks and playing for the Clippers is Eric Bledsoe, who arrived at UK the same season as Mathies.
With Tennessee's Candace Parker and other former college stars like Nneka Ogwumike of Stanford and Kristi Toliver of Maryland on the roster, Mathies will play a supporting role. Though that's something she never did while at UK, her time as a Wildcat did prepare her well for one facet of being a successful role player.
"You know that you're going to get that defensive effort because she's going to bring that Kentucky defensive style," Peck said.
UK head coach Gary Henderson and the Wildcats look to take the season series with a win over Louisville on Tuesday (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When No. 17 Kentucky and No. 8 Louisville tangle for the second time this season on the diamond, UK head coach Gary Henderson would like to see his team take the field with a little more purpose and focus - and perhaps a little more confidence - in the Wildcats second and final meeting with the Cardinals this season.
The Wildcats, who are coming off of a disappointing weekend that saw them drop two of three at home to Tennessee, are looking to get back on track with a win over one of their biggest rivals. Heading into yet another difficult Southeastern Conference road series with South Carolina, it's going to be important to head into Columbia, S.C., with a good taste in their mouth.
"Just like every time you lose a weekend series, it's important to come back and get the mid-week game. You can't deny that," said Henderson. "To play well, that's important. To get a 'W' is important. Get your confidence back at the plate; clearly we're going to need to do that."
The Kentucky offense over the last two weeks has been lackluster. Save a nine-run performance in the second game of the Tennessee series when UK scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth, the Kentucky bats have rung hollow.
After scoring just six total runs at LSU including a pair of one-run outputs, the Wildcats are averaging just 3.7 runs per game. The pitching hasn't been up to UK standards either, as the Cats are allowing 7.8 runs per contest over that same seven-game span.
Kentucky is looking for both its bats and the arms to get right.
Life in the SEC can be rough, and it usually is for everyone for at least a few weeks at some point in the season. Right now, it's Kentucky's turn, like it or not.
"We've got a good club, but we haven't played very well for two weeks now," said Henderson. "That's the truth. The things that I think about are, we can get back to doing the things that we did.
"It's our turn now, unfortunately. We'd like for it not to be, but it is. You own up to it."
So Henderson brought in his three weekend starters on Monday morning and took a look back at the video from the series and talk about their approach. A.J. Reed had the most success of any of the three, allowing just two runs over 6.2 innings, and the Wildcats went on to win that night. Reed got stuck with the no-decision.
Henderson wants to make sure that his starters aren't trying to pitch a perfect game every time they take the hill and get ahead of themselves in the process. Instead, he wants his staffers to slow down and make the best pitch they can throughout the course of the ballgame.
Rather than trying to pitch a perfect inning and being upset with a hit, walk or run scored, Henderson wants his guys to manage the inning and keep damage to a minimum while keeping any frustrations on the backburner.
"You start with making sure those starting pitchers understand what they need to do in terms of just be who they are and do a good job of playing the game of a pitch at a time and don't try to do more than they should do," Henderson said. "We don't need anything more than what you can do and do a pitch at a time."
It's easier said than done, however. What Henderson does have going for him is that his team has been able to do already at points in the season. For the first seven weeks, his team was picking up the clutch hits in big situations. His pitchers were making great pitches and wriggling out of jams.
It's all just a matter of getting back to that and Henderson believes he knows what that's going to take.
"I'm just a huge believer in doing the basics and doing them well, and if you do that, you've got a chance to get back on track," Henderson said.
The key to getting back on track will be confidence. After LSU rattled UK's cage a bit, the confidence has seem to be a little bit shaken. Hitters are thinking too much at the plate. They are taking more third strikes now than at any point earlier in the season. They just aren't themselves.
"I think the indecisiveness, the lack of plan, the lack of clarity, those are the things that show a little bit of the stress, pressure and distraction," said Henderson.
"The indecision leads to chase, expanding the strike zone when you don't need to. I think it also leads to those called thirds. We didn't have a lot of those early on. All of a sudden those are popping up."
The uncharacteristic traits UK has exhibited over the last two weeks were fairly familiar to Henderson, though they weren't necessarily attributed to his own team. Actually, Henderson thought that his squad resembled another SEC team, one that UK took two of three from in March in Lexington.
"I thought John's (Cohen) team when they were here looked a lot like us this weekend. All of a sudden three weekends later they turn it around," said Henderson. "I knew John would get his guys going, he's got a good team.
"I really felt like when we got done this weekend we were Mississippi State three weeks ago."
Mississippi State is coming off a big three-game sweep on the road over Texas A&M after a slower-than-expected start to the season. The Bulldogs bounced back, so why not Kentucky? Henderson knows his team will.
There won't be a better way to do it than by getting back on right track with another win against the Cardinals on Tuesday. The Wildcats took the first meeting of the season in Louisville in an exhilarating 5-4, 10-inning win just two weeks ago.
An additional bump in attendance for Tuesday night's tilt may give the Wildcats an extra jolt in confidence when UK football head coach Mark Stoops throws out the first pitch. Additionally, fans that pack Cliff Hagan Stadium early can enjoy a cheap dinner with $1 hotdogs and drinks until 5:30. UK students can purchase $1 hot dogs and drinks the entire evening with a student ID.
With marketing efforts ramped up and the always-heated in-state rivalry in full motion, it's clear that there is plenty at stake. Though it's a non-conference matchup, this one, all things considered, is just as important.
"It's an important game. We want to win," said Henderson. "It's an in-state rival. We've never played a Tuesday or Wednesday game here where I didn't think it was important to win."
"It's a win against a good team if you can do it. It helps you in the postseason. It helps you in the RPI. Beyond that, it's another game against a good team."
Bud Dupree had 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As front offices have grown more sophisticated, three positions have emerged as the most important on NFL rosters.
Quarterbacks touch the ball on every snap and direct offenses that rely on the pass more and more. Left tackles protect those quarterbacks, ensuring they need not worry about getting hit from the blind side.
Defensive ends, meanwhile, are tasked with disrupting all of that.
If Saturday's Blue/White Spring Game is any indication, Kentucky might have a pair of ends with quite a talent for disruption in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith.
"They're both fast," quarterback Jalen Whitlow said. "They've got safety speed, almost. Bud is a freak and Za'Darius is long and strong and fast. They're both pretty good players."
When he was playing for the White team, Whitlow had to be constantly aware of where Smith and Dupree were. Smith had six tackles, including one for loss, while Dupree had a sack of Maxwell Smith. That production came in spite of the fact that two-hand-touch rules applied to the UK quarterbacks throughout the four-quarter scrimmage.
"If it was a live game and we were live on the quarterbacks, I think they could have created some havoc," head coach Mark Stoops said. "They did a nice job, they are very active and have been very solid all spring."
Since Smith and Dupree couldn't make their presence felt with hits, they made sure they were heard.
"They can't tackle us, so they talk to us a lot -- about how they wish they could tackle us and how they would do us if they could," Whitlow said.
Smith - who lined up at right end opposite left tackle Darrian Miller most of the evening - estimated he would have had "two or three" sacks had the quarterbacks been fair game.
"I don't even want to think about it just because that excites me when I make a sack," Smith said, adding the 50,831 fans in Commonwealth Stadium made following the don't-hit-the-quarterback rules even more painful.
It's no secret that the Wildcats have much work ahead of them at linebacker and in the secondary. But if Smith and Dupree produce at the level they believe they can, it could serve as an eraser of sorts for the defense as a whole.
"If you can get some pressure with four guys, then you can put another guy in the coverage," Stoops said. "So that's a big part of it and also in the run game, if you can learn to play the run game without numbers all the time, then that helps your defense, as well."
Avery Williamson is particularly excited about that prospect. The middle linebacker led UK by a wide margin in tackles last season, but he made just seven on Saturday.
"Last year it was kind of like I was making every tackle, so it was kind of weird not having to make every tackle," Williamson said.
The senior certainly doesn't mind if he doesn't match his 135 tackles from 2012.
"I'm just worried about winning," Williamson said. "The rest will take care of itself."
Smith admits he's worried about sacks too. The good news for UK is that wins are likely to follow if he and Dupree spend as much as time in opposing backfields as they believe.
"When we play in a real game, we feel sorry for the quarterback that we're going to play against," Smith said.
An estimated crowd of 50,831 watched Blue defeat White 24-23 in UK's annual spring game. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops had no way of knowing what kind of crowd would be in attendance for his first Blue/White Spring Game. He heard all about how tickets had been distributed at a record rate and felt the excitement around the program.
But until the day came he had no way of knowing how that would translate.
It turns out he was wise to withhold judgment, because no matter how optimistic he may have been, Stoops couldn't have foreseen what Saturday night would bring.
"I was amazed," Stoops said. "You felt that, you heard these numbers for the past couple weeks, and you know, you never know who is going to show up. It was overwhelming. It was fantastic."
What Saturday brought was a record crowd of 50,831 fans (estimated) that figures to rank among the top spring games nationally in terms of attendance. What Saturday brought was an environment that felt a whole lot more like October than April.
"I've said it a few times, but again, I really thank them for their support and their belief and their passion for this program," Stoops said. "It's tremendous. It does nothing but help us, and it also, you know, makes us want to do better. As players and coaches, we feel that passion and energy and we want to deliver."
And they felt it even before they set foot in Commonwealth Stadium. An hour and 45 minutes before kickoff, thousands of members of the Big Blue Nation lined the Wildcats' path from the Nutter Field House to Gate 1 for the first Cat Walk of the Stoops era.
"I feel it from the fans," defensive end Bud Dupree said. "The Cat Walk was unbelievable and that's for the spring game. Imagine the first game."
The Cat Walk and, later, taking the field in front of an almost completely packed lower bowl was so incredible, in fact, that it completely changed the team dynamic.
"When we ran through the tunnel and saw everybody in the stands, we really thought we were going to play a real game," Dupree said. "That whole practice mentality switched over and everyone was in game mode."
The result was a level of play closer to what will be demanded of the Cats in Southeastern Conference play than anything Stoops saw in four weeks of spring practice.
"I thought it was a great night for the program," Stoops said. "Really appreciate the fan support, just an unbelievable atmosphere. I thought the players played hard. Made some mistakes, but overall, pretty clean game."
The Blue team - composed of UK's first-team defense and second-team offense - built a two-touchdown lead, only to allow two scores in the final 7:52. White, however, couldn't convert a two-point conversion and Blue held on for a 24-23 victory.
"It seemed like (the coaches) were pretty happy," Williamson said. "There's always going to be, on film, mistakes, but we weren't being lazy out there I feel like. We were really flying around and making plays."
Even though UK had barely a dozen practices to install new offensive and defensive systems, the Cats committed only one turnover and two penalties in the four-quarter scrimmage.
Splitting reps evenly at quarterback were Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow. Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown were conscientious all spring about not tipping their hand in a quarterback battle that will likely last into fall, and they took that to a new level on Saturday. All three were on the field for the game's opening snap, only to split wide as Raymond Sanders took a snap in the Wildcat formation.
Each of the threw for at least one touchdown, but it was Whitlow who stood out. He completed 17-of-28 passes for 193 yards and two scores while carrying seven times for 49 yards.
"Jalen did a nice job, he has that dimension to run the football and pull it down when something is not there and create," Stoops said. "He did a nice job tonight. I was impressed with the way Jalen played."
Smith completed 11-of-18 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown while Towles was 6-for-14 for 65 yards, one touchdown and the game's lone interception.
"I have to go back and look at the film," Stoops said. "It was really hard for me to tell but I thought each of them had their moments and were consistent. We need more playmakers around them, and so it's not always on the quarterbacks. It's on the other ten guys that are out there playing with them."
The supporting cast certainly needs work, but there were impressive performances. A.J. Legree (seven catches for 68 yards) and Demarco Robinson (six catches for 93 yards) each scored a touchdown, though neither was much of a surprise. The same goes for running backs Raymond Sanders (45 yards rushing and a touchdown), Dyshawn Mobley (79 yards) and Josh Clemons (56 yards on just 10 carries)
Rashad Cunningham, however, had his best day of the spring with eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown of his own.
"This is the best he's played and that's good to see," Stoops said. "Again with the fans out here and the media out here and all that, to see him step up and make some big catches was good to see."
A few of those catches might not have been had defenders been able to hit the quarterbacks.
Even though they had just one sack between them, defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith consistently presented problems rushing from the edge. Smith was a factor against the run as well, accounting for six tackles and a tackle for loss.
"(Getting strong play at defensive end) does an awful lot, because if you can get some pressure with four guys, then you can put another guy in the coverage," Stoops said. "So that's a big part of it and also in the run game, if you can learn to play the run game without numbers all the time, then that helps your defense, as well."
Just as Dupree and Smith could serve as the foundation for UK's defense, spring practice and specifically the spring game could do the same for the Stoops era. Coaches had a chance to see how players reacted in a pressure-packed environment and the Cats now have an idea what to look forward to in Commonwealth this fall.
"I feel like we took a great step forward today," Williamson said. "It's good to have pressure on us because that makes everybody work harder. I know we're going to work hard. I'm going to push these guys as well as all the other defensive and offensive guys. We're going to push each other and we're going to grind it out this summer."
Stoops feels the same way.
"Nobody wants it more than that group of guys down there in the locker room, so we want to get this done and deliver for this state because we deserve to have a great program," Stoops said.
The Grand Opening Ceremony of John Cropp Stadium was held pregame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Let's go give this stadium and ESPN a show it deserves."
That was the direct quote from head coach Rachel Lawson while wrapping up her pregame ceremonial speech before the UK softball team went out and bested the third-ranked Florida Gators, 4-2 in front of a season-high 1,206 fans.
The ribbons have been cut and the banners have been dropped as the UK Softball Complex was reintroduced as the new John Cropp Stadium on Saturday on a day that will never be forgotten for the UK softball program.
The Wildcats gave exactly what ESPN deserved alright and showed the nation what UK softball is all about.
"The atmosphere was great," Lawson said. "The fans were into the game they loved it. I thought both teams played really hard and there were a lot of really exciting plays. I don't think we could have asked for a better game from us. I thought the whole thing was an incredible day for us."
Kelsey Nunley starred on the mound, tossing a complete game as she set the school single-season wins record with 20. It was Krystal Smith who a bulk of UK's damage at the plate two hits and three runs batted in, including a go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Before the upset win, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, Lawson and stadium namesake Associate Athletics Director John Cropp all spoke at the podium. The day has come where UK softball boasts one of the top facilities in all of college softball. There was a time where some thought it might never happen. That includes Cropp, who has been a large part of the program since its existence.
"I can remember our very first practice that took place in Woodland Park," Cropp said. "We didn't even have a field on this campus. Our first coach, she can remember well going over to Woodland Park and practicing softball. That was a long time ago but I don't think either one of us ever envisioned us being here today."
Lawson is in her sixth year as the head coach and what she has done since her time at UK has grabbed everyone's attention.
Barnhart noted that there are times when programs build a facility to increase performance and help gain a winning reputation and there are other times when teams are able to produce with what they have and are rewarded for their achievements.
That's exactly what Lawson has done in her tenure and she is now getting recognition for her accomplishments. Six years later, she owns the school's all-time wins record and has taken UK to unprecedented heights.
"We need to thank her for the five straight NCAA appearances and the college Super Regional that we hosted two years ago that gave us the ability to do these kinds of things and build this facility," Barnhart said. "To have 2,000 people in here on national television, gave our program the visibility we have not had."
Lawson's success has garnered attention from other schools during her time at UK. There was a point where she was interviewing elsewhere for jobs which, at the time, had better softball facilities than UK.
There was a day a few years back when Lawson remembers speaking to Barnhart on the phone about what this program needed to become among the best. Barnhart promised Lawson they would provide her with a new stadium and he stayed true to his word. Lawson decided to remain at UK and according to her, the stadium actually came a year before than expected.
"(Barnhart) actually did it a year earlier than he said he was going to do it," Lawson said. "To be around people who actually not only say things but actually come through with what they say they are going to do, that's exceptional and that's very special to me because we live in a world where not very many people come through with their promises. I will never forget that day so that's very special to me."
Lawson took time to thank multiple people, including Barnhart, Cropp, former UK president Lee Todd, current UK president Dr. Eli Capilouto and the rest of the athletic department. She also gave thanks to her associate head coach Kristine Himes and assistant coach Molly Johnson, who have both been with Lawson for every win at UK either as a coach or in Johnson's case as a player as well.
But Lawson gave special thanks to the Big Blue Nation, because without the fans, alumni and current players, Saturday's celebration would have never taken place.
"You can build an incredible stadium and I can't be more thankful for this stadium, but this stadium is only worth the people that are in it and work for it every single day," Lawson said. "The Big Blue Nation is awesome. We are one of the few softball programs in the country in that we had a large fan base prior to the new stadium.
"I think that's great that they are going to have some place where they can sit and see a game because each year we are putting up temporary bleachers. Not only do we fill those seats up but we have had to build more and more and more until we had 2,000 people at Super Regionals. So I have to thank the Big Blue Nation because without you we would not have this stadium."
The stadium is going to do some great things for the softball program. The obvious thing is it will enhance the recruiting and will give players and fans an atmosphere that they deserve for SEC softball.
However, what the new facilities bring is the ability for the players to become complete student-athletes and give them a home away from home where they can feel comfortable. Not only did the program get a new stadium, but a new locker room and hitting practice area is being constructed down the third-base foul area.
Lawson takes pride in her student-athletes' work on the field and just as importantly in the classroom. She wants the Cats to become great off the field when they leave UK. Lawson says the new locker room will give her players a place for them to go after class to study, practice, eat and then go home to get a good night's rest.
Barnhart appreciates the efforts Lawson has had on the made but he notices what she does in the community and the example she sets for the players for them to become the best human beings as possible.
"She has given a lot of young women in this community the dream that they can play in a place like this in a league like this," Barnhart said. "Maybe just maybe you get to the College World Series in Oklahoma City. On the way she has done an amazing job that her kids do a great job in the classroom."
This entire project took a lot of hard work from several different people. It's been a long process but it's now time to take the next step in UK softball history.
Cropp capped off the opening ceremony with the last speech of the three and he emphasized UK softball would not be here today without the leadership of the two standing right there next to him: Barnhart and Lawson.
"Athletics is a team, and it took the whole team to put this together," Cropp said. "But what else you have to have in athletics and life is leadership and the real reason we are here today doing this is because of the two people here standing beside me. They are the ones to make this happen."
Zac Zellers gave Kentucky a 4-2 lead with a clutch two-run single in the eighth. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
The first two hitters in a batting lineup are usually responsible for getting on base and scoring runs. Friday night in the series-opening 5-4 victory over Tennessee, the table setters wiped the bases clean to claim the come-from-behind win.
Since Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson inserted freshman Kyle Barrett at the top of the batting lineup, Barrett is batting .500 (5-of-10) in his first two games as the Wildcats' new leadoff hitter while driving in four runs.
"When you look at the scoreboard, we weren't exactly banging it around and someone's got to step up," said Henderson. "(Barrett)'s done it a few times for us."
Barrett drove home Kentucky's first two runs of the game, including a game-tying RBI double to knot things up at two in the momentum-shifting bottom of the eighth.
While Barrett was continuing his hot start in the leadoff role, Zac Zellers looked to be rediscovering his stroke as well in the two spot. Coming into the game hitting just .272 (15-of-55) with runners in scoring position, Zellers ripped a one-out, two-run single to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game and put them ahead 4-2.
Sophomore center fielder Austin Cousino, now the third batter in the UK lineup, added an important - and ultimately decisive - insurance run with an RBI double in the four-run eighth.
Barrett seems to be transitioning into a role that may look familiar. Cousino came in as a freshman last season and took the reins as the Kentucky leadoff man. With Cousino now in a position to impact the UK offense as a more prominent run producer in the middle of the lineup, Barrett is providing this offense with a sparkplug at the top.
"He's really aggressive and gives us a strong presence," said Henderson. "He's done a really nice job of making hard contact with guys in scoring position. He's a threat defensively, so they've got to come in at the corners to take away a bunt, but the thing I like the most about him is his presence."
As a freshman, it took Barrett a while to finally break into the lineup on a consistent basis. It wasn't until the second game of UK's first Southeastern Conference series in Florida when Barrett would put a stranglehold on a starting spot that he's yet to relinquish.
Now batting .343 with a .397 on-base percentage, Barrett is the ideal man to get the offense going.
"He looks like a winner when he plays," said Henderson. "He just makes you proud to have him on your team."
Though it took him a solid portion of the season to finally break into the everyday lineup, Barrett feels like that's where he belongs. And his play is backing it up.
"I was honestly just glad to be out here," said Barrett. "It's just an awesome experience. I got my opportunity and took advantage of it. I'm still the cheerleader in the dugout, even though I'm playing."
It took Barrett and the Kentucky offense a while to finally get something going. After being swept by LSU last weekend on the road, the Wildcats needed to take advantage of the Volunteers back at home. With A.J. Reed on mound for the opener, Kentucky had to feel pretty good about its chances.
Reed held up his end of the bargain, allowing just two runs over 6.2 innings before leaving the game trailing 2-1 in the top of the seventh. It could have been worse, but as Reed has done time and again this season, he battled through a big-time jam to leave runners stranded at second and third in the sixth to keep the deficit at one.
"He's been fascinatingly good at that all year," said Henderson. "He has probably done something exactly like that or very close to it five times this year. It's fascinating. That's not coaching."
After Reed was lifted, Chandler Shepherd came in and gave the Wildcats 1.1 scoreless innings in relief, finishing off the Volunteers in the seventh and leading the Wildcats to the bottom half of the eighth where they would do the bulk of their offensive damage.
After Barrett doubled in the tying run in eighth to pull even at two, Zellers stepped in with a chance to give the Cats their first lead of the game. Zellers has yet to find his stroke from the 2012 season, but he put a solid swing on Dalton Saberhagen's delivery to drive in two go-ahead runs to make it 4-2.
The hit came in a huge moment as Zellers picked up his teammates as they have done for him throughout the season.
"It's always good to be able to come through for your team," said Zellers. "A lot of guys got on before me. Kyle had a great at-bat. All the guys before him were able to get on base. I was able to get the pitch I was looking for and we scored two, and that's what it's all about: picking up your teammates."
Kentucky would need all four eighth-inning runs to pull out the Friday-night winner, as UK's all-time saves leader picked up Zellers after his costly ninth-inning error. After Trevor Gott took care of the first Tennessee hitter, the Vols got two runs on a single to left field that got past Zellers.
In a jam, Gott settled in and delivered back-to-back outs including a strikeout to clinch the series opener, 5-4. With two more games remaining in the series including Saturday's 2 p.m. ET matchup at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Cats were happy to get back into the SEC win column after they were swept last weekend at LSU.
"It's good to win on Friday," said Zellers. "We were able to get back on the right track, but we still have to win two more, though."