It was an NFL week 4 that saw four wins, five losses, and two bye weeks between the sport's 11 UK alumni. Two Wildcat receivers found their way into the end zone, ensuring victories for their teams under must-win circumstances. Let's see how they and a few other headliners did.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers Former First-Team All-American Randall Cobb had a Sunday to remember. In a 38-17 win over the Chicago Bears, Cobb caught seven passes for a team-high 113 yards. He also secured two touchdown receptions, bringing Cobb's total to five on the season. Fellow Kentucky alumnus and Packers teammate Tim Masthay failed to see the field in only the second game without a punt in NFL history.
Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers Stevie Johnson's lone Week 4 reception was an acrobatic 12-yard touchdown catch midway through the third quarter to bring his team within one point. The grab was Johnson's first-ever TD as a 49er, aiding his team in a 26-21 victory over the previously unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles.
Avery Williamson | #54 LB | Tennessee Titans Tennessee rookie linebacker Avery Williamson recorded seven combined tackles -- the most of his young career -- as well as a career-high six solo tackles Sunday. However, the Titans were blown out by the Indianapolis Colts, 17-41.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 LB | Tennessee Titans Despite his team losing by at least 24 points for the second consecutive week, Wesley Woodyard was able to shine defensively on the road in Indianapolis. The seven-year NFL veteran's afternoon was highlighted by the sixth interception of his professional career. Woodyard also tallied nine combined tackles and six solo tackles in the Titans' loss.
A lack of energy has never been a problem for John Calipari.
Even coping with the unique demands of coaching at Kentucky, Calipari is always ready and raring to go for the next practice, the next recruiting visit, the next event. But with the start of the 2014-15 season approaching, something has Coach Cal even more fired up than usual.
This two-platoon thing you've heard so much about? It's really happening.
"I'm doing things I've never done as a coach," Calipari said. "And I'll be honest with you, can you tell I'm excited about it? Like, this has got me stirred."
Calipari's excitement was plain to see and hear on Monday as he spoke at the annual Wildcat Tipoff Luncheon hosted by the Greater Louisville UK Alumni Club, where he was joined by UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell.
Coach Cal didn't speak at length about how the two-platoon system will work - there will be plenty of time for that when games begin - but he did reveal his reasoning for it. In short, it's the next step in the evolution of his players-first philosophy.
"If it's not about those guys, we're playing eight of these guys and those other two or three, you're out," Calipari said. "But if we're about them and all of them, this is the only way you can do it. Well, it's never been done before. Well, it's going to be done now."
Breaking new ground, however, will bring growing pains. Coach Cal is ready for them and he did his best to prepare the more than 1,000 in attendance on Monday.
"We have a chance of being really good, but we're doing it a different way," Calipari said. "What we do early may be at the expense of winning some games making sure we're figuring this out. And if that happens, I'm telling you, I'll be fine with it. You won't, but I will be fine with it."
Ultimately, the people who matter most to the success of the two-platoon system are the players, not the fans or even Calipari. Fortunately, Coach Cal has some recent past experience to call on in guiding them through the challenge, different as this one may be.
"How in the world do you get McDonald's All-Americans to sacrifice and play for each other?" Calipari said. "And how do you get them to do that as freshmen? Would you say you'd like to know? Because I'm asking it everywhere. They trust we have their back and their best interest so they will share and they will sacrifice for each other because we have their back, we have their best interest."
Calipari confirmed UK will start the season using the platoon system in the same way as on the Big Blue Bahamas tour, but he knows he'll need to be ready to change on the fly.
"What happens at the end of the season if it's not quite happening the way that we want?" Calipari said. "We can make adjustments. Doc Rivers told me, 'What if one of the guys needs a few more minutes a half? You're going to have to give it to them, Cal.' I said, 'I know that.' So if two guys are playing a little bit better, we'll give them a little bit more minutes."
Calipari spoke first on Monday, a departure from tradition in past years at the event. With a recruit in town, he had to get back to Lexington in short order, a fact Mitchell used to playfully jab his good friend.
"Cal stole one of my oldest tricks in the book, about recruiting," Mitchell said. "The recruiting trick. Gotta leave, gotta leave. Got a big recruit coming."
Once Mitchell moved on from making the sellout crowd laugh, he expressed similar optimism about his own team.
"This season, I think we have a great opportunity to have a good team," Mitchell said. "... I think we can land in a really, really great spot and I'm excited to see what comes of this team and this 2014-15 edition."
Coming off its first Southeastern Conference win in three years, the Kentucky football team is beginning to generate an aura of excitement not seen around these parts in years. But with said recent success comes mounting challenges.
The stakes for the 3-1 (1-1 SEC) Wildcats only ratchet up from here, beginning with a visit from South Carolina on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on SEC Network.
The Gamecocks (3-2, 2-2 SEC) have played one of the toughest schedules in the country, with a win over No. 13 Georgia in Week 3 as proof of the talent of Steve Spurrier's team.
Mark Stoops is fully embracing, but still wary of, the challenges that go along with trying to win two straight games in the nation's toughest conference.
As happy he was with his team -- especially his defense -- in delivering his first SEC win as a head coach over Vanderbilt last Saturday, he's looking to improve on multiple fronts.
"We're far from where we want to be, but we are drastically improved on fundamentally how to play football," Stoops said. "I think we need to continue to work on that."
Playing fundamental football was a major theme of Stoops' Monday lunchtime press conference, where he previewed Saturday's matchup with the Gamecocks.
"A big part of (Kentucky's defensive improvement this season) is just fundamentally playing better," Stoops said. "That's what I've always prided myself on is teaching the guys how to play. ... Our team is starting to get that at times, but it comes down to being a fundamental football team on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
"We just need to continue to improve and worry about ourselves and get better at what we're trying to do."
One area the Wildcats will look to improve is on offense.
While UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown had plenty to be happy about -- namely a 13-play, 99-yard touchdown drive to open the game, a 66-yard scoring drive to end the half and 201 passing yards for quarterback Patrick Towles -- a game in which UK's defense allowed its fewest yards in a SEC game since 1996 was still closer than it may have needed to be.
The Wildcats put 17 points on the board in total, which it should be said was enough to win by double digits, but UK's head coach was eager to point out areas where his team can improve.
"We got behind the chains with certain things, you know," Stoops said. "Whether it be a fumble or a penalty and just silly things, just got behind the chains, and we missed some shots. We had our opportunities, and we just missed them slightly. ... So we've just got to be more precise and execute better."
Stoops would also like his team to play sharper in front of the home fans, who have been coming out in bigger numbers of late and will have a chance of seeing UK go 4-0 at Commonwealth Stadium for the first time since 2008 on Saturday. A season-high 56,940 members of Big Blue Nation watched last Saturday's win, and UK will look to repay the favor with a strong showing this week in the season's first night game, and a blackout to boot.
"We're trying to play as best we can every week, no matter where it is," Stoops said. "You heard me talk about it a couple weeks ago. Sometimes we're playing some of our better football on the road at times. We've got to get back to playing the best we can here."
Kentucky began the bounce-back process on Friday night.
On the heels of back-to-back overtime defeats, the Wildcats took care of business in a 3-0 win over Mississippi State. Their mission for the weekend, however, was far from complete.
On Sunday, UK finished the job with a 2-1 win against Auburn.
"Pepperdine and Arkansas really stung," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "We needed to find a way to not only win two games, but win a game like this. This is exactly the kind of game that we've been letting get away from us. To play a great team like Auburn and such a well-coached team and to find a way says that there's something in us that we want to find a way to respond."
The game, as Lipsitz said, was hard-fought from start to finish, but UK came out on top. In doing so, the Cats (7-3-0, 2-1-0 Southeastern Conference) swept a crucial conference home weekend.
"We had to," Lipsitz said. "Sometimes your back is up against the wall and you have to find out who you are. When you fall, the question is, are you going to continue to fall or are you getting up?"
UK claimed a first-half lead when Jade Klump scored her fifth goal off a rebound from a shot by Arin Gilliland. It was the second goal the Cats scored off a loose ball in the box this weekend.
"It's not an accident," Lipsitz said. "We do a lot of drills that work on that."
But less than three minutes later, the Tigers (6-4-1, 0-2-1 SEC) responded with a game-tying goal. For the next 36 minutes the two teams would battle to a standstill before Zoe Swift headed in a Cara Ledman corner kick that Alex Carter served back in front of the net.
"I was wide open," Swift said. "I was like, 'If I miss, Jon's going to yell at me.' No, I'm just kidding. I saw I had to put it in the goal, do the details that we talk about in practice."
Open as she may have been, Swift delivered on a week of hard work with the game-winning goal.
"Zoe's been in a little bit of a lull right now and she's very hard on herself," Lipsitz said. "So we've been building her up and saying, 'Look, we know you can do this,' but it comes from work, it comes from doing the basics and she's really had an amazing week of training. I'm not surprised at all that she got one."
UK wasn't surprised to win either, but the Tigers - a "great team," according to Lipsitz - didn't make it easy. In the tougher moments, the Cats remembered they were playing for something bigger on Sunday.
"We just knew that Auburn was a great team and we've been training hard all week," Klump said. "We really enjoyed battling against them, but this was a Kick Cancer Match so we really wanted to come out and battle like those who have battled with cancer."
As part of the annual Kick Cancer Match, UK wore special Nike Volt jerseys that will be auctioned off to benefit the Dance Blue Clinic at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. The team also honored cancer sufferers by placing yellow roses on the goal line after the game.
The postgame ceremony was the second of the night, as UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Honda's manager of corporate community relations Erik Wedin were in attendance to present Arin Gilliland with the Honda Inspiration Award.
Entering the weekend, Lipsitz didn't hide from the importance of games against Mississippi State and Auburn to his team. What happened after the game served as a reminder that there are more important things still.
"Win or lose, that is secondary," Lipsitz said. "The game is secondary."
Mark Stoops celebrates his first SEC win with Stanley "Boom" Williams. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown had just watched the same game.
The perspectives of the Kentucky head coach and offensive coordinator couldn't have been more different.
"That was a thing of beauty," Stoops said. "For a defensive guy, it was."
"Obviously not a thing of beauty on offense, without question," Brown said.
UK had just toppled Vanderbilt, 17-7. The victory came in spite of a sputtering second half by the Wildcat offense and primarily because of a defense that dominated the Commodores (1-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) from start to finish. It's understandable, then, that Stoops and Brown saw the game so differently.
What they shared was joy in their first SEC win together and the first for Kentucky (3-1, 1-1 SEC) since 2011.
"It's great to get a victory," Stoops said. "It was nice to see our team fight through adversity. It wasn't easy. We had to dig in. We knew it wasn't going to be easy to come away with a victory."
"The positive thing is we did overcome it and win the game," Brown said. "And we're going to enjoy it. It's hard to win an SEC game. ... We're going to be excited about it and then we're going to get this stuff fixed and worry about getting better tomorrow."
The UK defense will try to improve starting on Sunday as well, but the Cats will be hard pressed to outdo their performance on Saturday.
UK didn't allow a single point to the Commodore offense and limited Vanderbilt to eight first downs and 139 total yards, the fewest the Cats have allowed in an SEC game since 1996. The Cats applied constant pressure on Wade Freebeck, sacking the true freshman quarterback four times and hitting him many more.
"Our guys have right now have an attitude and a mentality and a confidence about them, and that goes a long ways," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "These guys are playing very hard and playing together and they really showed it today and I'm very proud of them."
Entering the season and led by seniors Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, the UK defenders styled themselves the "Bad Boys." Stoops won't ever lead a charge to print t-shirts bearing the nickname, but he also can't argue with the results after the Cats didn't allow a touchdown on defense for the fourth straight game.
"I like the way they're playing," Stoops said. "I like their attitude, and they mean well, and I've said it, they've got a good heart and they played with a good mind today. You play with a good mind and a good heart, you got a good chance to play good defense."
If you ask Dupree - who tallied 1.5 sacks in the win - that new mentality has more to do with Stoops and his staff than the Bad Boys moniker. Dupree played on a 2011 defense led Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy that had some special moments - including in that last SEC win over Tennessee - but this 2014 group is at another level because of its belief and balance.
"The difference I see between us and my freshman year is the will to make plays," Dupree said. "Everyone's playing together. It's not just me making plays; it's not Z making plays."
That belief carried the Cats even though the second half brought plenty of moments that made the 59,940 fans in Commonwealth Stadium groan.
UK raced out to a 7-0 lead after a defensive hold and a clinical 99-yard touchdown drive capped by a 20-yard scoring strike from Patrick Towles to Ryan Timmons. Towles completed 9-of-9 passes on the drive and his next two as well, but then made his biggest mistake of the season so far in the shadow of his own goalposts. Looking left, Towles made the wrong read and threw in the flat. Darrius Sims jumped the route and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.
Towles would bounce back, eventually leading a scoring drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the first half to stake UK to a 17-7 lead. But in the second half, Towles held the ball too long too often and fumbled twice in addition to another in the first half.
"It's just a combination of sweat and just gripping the ball too tight," Towles said. "I tend to try to fit balls in windows and grip the ball too tight and it just slips out of my hands. That's on me. That shouldn't happen. It's inexcusable and it won't happen again."
Those miscues and a Demarco Robinson muffed punt put the defense in perilous positions, as Vanderbilt began three fourth-quarter drives in UK territory. The Wildcat defense, however, was undeterred. Relying on blitzes and interceptions by A.J. Stamps, Marcus McWilson and Ashely Lowery, UK rarely bent and never broke.
"We were able to finish plays, which we've been harping on all offseason, and take advantage of opportunities to get turnovers," Eliot said. "I was very excited about their play this afternoon."
The Cats were opportunistic in moments when they wilted during that conference losing streak. Once again, Dupree credits the UK staff.
"I think it's a different mindset Coach Stoops has just brought to the team," Dupree said. "The last couple years, people gave up in certain situations. When adversity hit, we went the other way. But now we run to the war."
For all UK's defensive dominance, the 10-point margin remained unchanged throughout the second half. The Cats couldn't deliver the knockout blow until the game's final drive, which started with a 10-yard run by Braylon Heard to bring his game-high total to 62. From there, Brown went to the Wildcat formation for eight straight plays.
Jojo Kemp played sparingly before then, but carried seven times in eight plays - handing to Timmons on the other for no gain - and gained all 60 of his rushing yards to run out the clock.
"The worst thing we could have done once it was very clear that we were struggling and that Patrick was struggling was to lose the game, is to really do something, turn the ball over - which we tried, alright - but really to lose the game and try to force-feed something that we weren't doing very well," Brown said.
Facing No. 13 South Carolina next Saturday the Cats will surely need more out of their offense and Towles specifically, but 17 points were enough to trigger a raucous celebration following the win over Vanderbilt. Towles described the volume of the locker-room scene as a "12" on a 1-10 scale. It likely hit a fever pitch when Stoops broke out his dancing shoes for his team for the first time.
Dupree called his coach a "horrible" dancer, but Stoops fortunately has other things going for him.
"He usually jumps up and down (after wins), but this time he tried to do a little dance move," Dupree said. "He's a great coach though."
When the Kentucky took the field Friday night, the Wildcats weren't thinking about the heartbreak they felt last week in back-to-back overtime losses to Pepperdine and Arkansas.
All that mattered now was bouncing back and taking care of business. The Cats were intently focused on the one thing head coach Jon Lipsitz preached to his team all week in practice.
"We've just sort of gone back to the basics, talking about details," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz's team took the message to heart, evidenced by a 3-0 victory over conference foe Mississippi State at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. For Kentucky senior Arin Gilliland, straying away from the basics was exactly what caused the Wildcats to go winless in their previous two matches in spite of mostly solid play in both..
"We're keeping people hanging in the game, we're not doing the details, we're not getting there pressing the ball, and we're not finishing goals that we should be finishing," Gilliland said. "Those are details--those are little things. Today, we came out, we did the basics. To play soccer, you have to do the basics first, and soccer will come. We did that today. (Lipsitz) was right, once again."
Once Gilliland and her teammates implemented Lipsitz's game plan, results quickly followed. Gilliland, a Lexington native, scored her fifth goal of the season off of a perfectly placed cross by Cara Ledman at the match's 52-minute mark.
"It was a great cross by Cara Ledman," Gilliland said. "Every time she crosses the ball, I know exactly where it's going. So, I got to position myself perfectly. That finishing is what we did all week. I did the basics. I stayed over the ball, finished through the goal, and results happened."
After controlling possession for the majority of Friday's game, Kentucky was able to stay composed on the way to its sixth win of the season. Wildcat junior Courtney Raetzman, who scored two of UK's three goals, echoed Lipsitz's back-to-basics mantra.
"What we really focus on is details and doing little things that a lot of other teams don't focus on as much," Raetzman said. "Going back to the basics, we need to keep that simple, and not try to do all these fancy things--like trying to get that game-winning pass or that amazing shot off. More like, we need to play and do the basics. From that, great things will happen."
The Wildcats (6-3-0, 1-1-0 SEC) hope to carry their momentum into Sunday's annual Kick Cancer Match with the Tigers of Auburn University.
"(Auburn is) a great team--very dynamic, very exciting, and very athletic," Lipsitz said. "They're young... and doing great. I'm not surprised that Coach (Karen) Hoppa has them playing well. It'll be a fantastic game, a great challenge and a great event. Obviously, it's a fundraiser for us (to raise money) for pediatric cancer research. We need all of Big Blue Nation here--number one, for a great cause, and as a secondary reason, to root us on."
With a bye week following a triple-overtime loss at Florida, Kentucky has had ample time to suffer a lapse in focus.
Just two days before a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt, the Wildcats have shown no signs of any such lapse.
"So far, so good," head coach Mark Stoops said. "It's been a good week of practice. We had a good Thursday today. Guys seemed to be pretty locked in, energetic. So, looking forward to a good game here this weekend."
If anything, the Cats have gone the other way and ramped up the intensity before the Commodores come to town.
"Our coaches have been adamant about just handling our business and doing more this week, being more locked in, spending some extra time around here studying film and doing the little things," Stoops said. "So it seems like they've been very good around here. I hope they are when they leave. We have no reason but to be locked in and hungry for this game."
UK's practice on Thursday was a light one, continuing the coaching staff's new game-week plan of holding a walkthrough and meetings two days before game day and turning up the speed again on Friday. The change was designed to position the Cats to play faster on game day and to this point Stoops has been pleased with the results.
"It seemed to work so far, it really has," Stoops said. "We'll see. Each week is a different test, but I've been pleased. I've felt like we played fast and that was the objective. I felt like we were fresh and played fast in each game. In particular, going down to the Swamp with a big SEC test and playing in the three overtimes. I feel like it's given us what we want."
UK takes on Vanderbilt at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's long wait between games hasn't been any fun.
For two weeks, the Wildcats have had to stew over a triple-overtime loss at Florida. They've thought over and over about all the things, big and small, they could have done to turn a defeat that came by the slimmest of margins into a signature win.
On Saturday against Vanderbilt, the Cats finally get to take a shot at washing away the sour taste that's stayed with them for too long.
"This is a great opportunity for us to go out and showcase what we have (done) over the break that we had, to make up for the mistakes that we had during the Florida game and to show that we fixed it," Bud Dupree said.
In Dupree's mind, UK's defense against the power run game is where the most unshakeable mistakes happened. The Cats allowed 237 rushing yards in the 36-30 loss, the majority coming on simple runs by the bruising Matt Jones, who piled up 156 yards and a touchdown.
With that in mind, Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) is a fitting next test for UK (2-1, 0-1 SEC) at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. Under first-year head coach Derek Mason, the Commodores use the same big sets with multiple tight ends and extra offensive linemen that have been staples in Stanford's ascent among the college football elite in recent years.
"It used to be that spread offensives were unique and now it's kind of the other way," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We just don't see a lot of that stuff, so we've got to make sure that we're playing sound."
As much of a throwback as the style may be, the Commodores are about much more than brute force.
"There's more to it than just lining up with an extra big body in there and an extra tight end and things like that," Mark Stoops said. "(People) think it's all just about power and things like that (but) they're creative in what they do, in creating extra gaps, and there's most definitely some very effective play-actions off that. That was evident this past week where they were able to get some good yardage out of some runs and also hit some play-actions off their big heavy sets."
The combination of power runs and play-actions helped Vanderbilt put together its best performance of the season in a 48-34 loss against South Carolina, rushing for better than five yards per carry and gaining 379 total yards. The Commodores built an early lead on the No. 14 Gamecocks and nearly pulled off the upset behind two kickoff return touchdowns by Darrius Sims.
"I thought they played with great energy this past week," Stoops said. "You could see the excitement. They played hard. They're getting better and better, playing more confident."
On defense, Vanderbilt returns much of a front seven that allowed just 262 yards in a 22-6 win over Kentucky last season, though the Commodores have switched to a 3-4 system anchored by defensive tackle Adam Butler and linebacker Caleb Azubike.
"The thing that sticks out is they got a lot of returnees up front on defense --defensive line, linebackers," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They're new in the secondary, but those guys up front really gave us issues last year. They're big."
Vandy uses that size, first and foremost, to stymie the ground game. Brown, with his deep and talented backfield, refuses to concede that UK won't be able to run effectively, but he knows that's the Commodores' aim.
"That's their style of defense," Brown said. "Coach Stoops and Coach Eliot have gone to a very similar style and it's hard to run the football. They take away your edges. They do a really good job at Stanford playing against the run and they've done that well. If we have to throw the ball then we have to throw it."
With Patrick Towles at quarterback, throwing the ball hasn't been a major concern for Brown.
Towles is coming off an outing in which he threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in his first road start. As he builds experience, he only figures to improve.
"He's giving us a chance, there's no question," Brown said. "He's done a good job. Can he be better? Absolutely. Can he do some things fundamentally better? Absolutely. Am I pleased with his progress through three games? Yes."
The same is true for UK's receiving corps. The group has combined for four touchdowns through three games, all of which have been scored by true freshmen.
"They're getting sharper on their routes and they're also getting smarter," Towles said. "That comes with experience. They've played three big-time college football games, so they've recognized what works and what doesn't work and they're starting to cut off some slough. It's really, really helping."
UK will rely heavily on those young wide receivers on Saturday as the Cats look to end a 17-game SEC losing streak that dates back to a win over Tennessee in the final game of 2011. Included in that streak is a pair of defeats to Vanderbilt, the first of which came two years ago by a final tally of 40-0.
The Cats don't deny those things are on their mind, but their primary focus is narrower than that.
"We just need a win," Towles said. "We've got that bad taste in our mouth from Gainesville and we're working every day so we do get that win. An SEC win is important. We haven't had one in a while. But that's going to come. We're just going to try to do everything we can to win this football game on Saturday."
UK reached the midpoint of its preparations for a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
The Wildcats haven't played a game in more than a week with an open date over the weekend, but their energy isn't suffering because of it.
"We had a good practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around, communicating, playing fast. It was a good, physical full-padded practice, so we were pleased with the work ethic today."
UK is focusing more time than normal preparing for a physical Commodore ground attack, particularly considering the 237 yards the Cats allowed at Florida. Vanderbilt will put that work to the test with sets featuring as many as three tight ends and an extra offensive lineman.
"It used to be that spread offenses were unique and now it's kind of the other way," Eliot said. "You just don't see a lot of that stuff, so we gotta make sure that we're playing sound."
With only three scholarship tight ends on the roster, UK's scout team has had to adjust.
"We've just had to do it (to) the best of our ability with guys that maybe play running back, guys that maybe play big wide outs and the tight ends that we do have," Eliot said. "Try to simulate that pro-style offense."
Each week throughout the fall, each UK gymnast will share her thoughts about the upcoming 2015 season, what it's like being a Division I student-athlete at Kentucky and what makes being a Wildcat so special. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
First up is redshirt senior Kayla Hartley, a native of nearby Versailles, Ky. One of two captains on the 2014-15 team, Hartley talks about the team's fast start to preseason practice, helping the freshmen transition to life at UK and her excitement about coming back for one more year.
As the school year begins, so does the UK gymnastics team's preseason training. We've been practicing for a week and a half now, and it's been the best start to the season I've seen in my five years as a Wildcat. I feel like everyone has come in prepared and ready to go. We always want a fast start in the fall, as it makes the spring season easier because you're ready, and feel confident walking into an arena knowing you're going to hit your routines. Right now in the gym, we're working on getting the routines down. As preseason progresses, we'll slowly start perfecting these routines, and the faster that happens, the better our scores will be in the spring. Of course, it's always fun getting great scores.
Our fast start to the preseason was definitely evident with a 100-percent passing rate on this year's conditioning test. I was so happy to see everyone pass this year, I knew it would set the tone in the best way possible for the season. The conditioning test is the first time the team really comes together as one, supporting and cheering each other on. Knowing that we're all in this together helps push each other along. For the upperclassmen, we know the conditioning test is only the beginning of a season of conditioning. The conditioning test is time to show the freshmen that coming together and supporting each other will really help make preseason and all the conditioning a little easier. The way I see it, as a big family unit we suffer (conditioning mostly) together, we survive (conditioning again) together, and we succeed together (winning, or for the conditioning test, passing).
Not only can you see it in the conditioning test, but the notion that everyone feels they have a place on the team is a great sign. Everyone comes in knowing they have a job to do and they are going to do it. Breaking records is always fun but not as fun as actually making the goals. Our goal is always to make it the nationals. Last year Audrey Harrison made it and this year we want to make it as a team for the first time in program history. Everyone agrees that we can do it, we just have to stay on track and get ready and down to business.
We have an equal distribution of upperclassmen and underclassmen, which is going to be a good thing for this team. In the past we have mostly been a young team still learning how to compete. This year we have plenty of upperclassman leadership that will help the freshmen make the transition into the demands and expectations of being a Division-I student-athlete. Upperclassmen will be able to help the freshmen handle all the particulars of being a student-athlete with little tips we've learned along the way. Things like getting more study hall hours in on off days rather than on Thursday nights, when everyone is trying to get those last few minutes, and learning the back roads to avoid traffic and getting to class and practice on time are some of those tips that I've told the freshmen to make their first semester in Lexington easier.
I'm really excited for the opportunity to come back for one last season. I'm looking forward to being with these girls and competing with them all for the first or the last time. I'm ready to break more records and make history with this team, doing the sport I love, wearing the blue and white and competing in my home state. I'll always bleed blue.