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It began with practice at a training center in Nanjing before a lunch the team very much enjoyed. After four days of trying authentic Chinese food, the Cats ate at a Western-style restaurant. Burgers, fries, pasta cheesecake and coffee never tasted so good.
Well fed, the team then went to a museum in Nanjing for an educational tour. In the first picture at the bottom of the post, you can see the jade suits put together gold thread in which some members of the upper class were buried.
For dinner, it was back to authentic Chinese cuisine. The Cats ate with the heads of the training center where they are staying in Nanjing and exchanged gifts. The final second photo below shows Craig Skinner giving a UK volleyball t-shirt to one of the Cats' hosts.
Monday is set to be another busy day for UK. The Cats will play a match in the morning before traveling by train from Nanjing to Beijing and then by bus to Baoding. Check back in on Monday for an update on UKVBtoChina.com.
Game tomorrow morning at 9:30 vs Nanjing-- Jackie Napper (@jackieNaps15) May 25, 2014
Losing five times in six games to end April and begin May, the Wildcats suddenly found themselves in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament after a hot start to 2014.
"The thing that's so great about athletics is that you can't hide," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "You are what you are and we did what we did. We went 1-5 in two weeks and that puts you on the bubble."
Now, try and include UK in a bubble conversation with any expert and laughter is sure to follow.
The Cats closed the regular season by taking four of six games in their final two weekends of the regular season against Auburn and Georgia. They followed that with three victories in three days over top-25 teams to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament before falling just shy of a title-game trip in a 6-5 loss to top-seeded Florida.
"We were just a run short," Henderson said. "I'm really proud of our kids."
Henderson has good reason to be proud. Responding in the face adversity, the Cats came together when they easily could have fallen apart.
"Our kids, they bought in," Henderson said. "They bought in to themselves. They bought in to the coaches. They bought in to each other. It's been awesome. Anybody that's watched us, you can feel it, you can see it."
Even in defeat, that was on display Saturday. Facing the Gators -- the league's regular-season champion -- just three days removed from beating them, the Cats never gave in even though arms were in short supply.
They raced out to a 3-0 lead, but Florida scored two runs in both the third and fifth innings to take a lead. But in the sixth, a single by Austin Cousino and a double by Max Kuhn put UK ahead, 5-4. The Gators, however, would score runs in the seventh and eighth against Andrew Nelson and Chandler Shepherd -- both of whom pitched for the second time this week -- for the final tally.
All told, Henderson called on 10 pitchers in four games this week. Seven were pitching for the first time in the postseason, making the fact that UK combined to allow just 15 runs all the more impressive.
"We've also really, really improved in poise overall in the program and the poise, especially on the mound, over the last month has been tremendous," Henderson said. "That piece of it's really gratifying because you pound it. Since August 25th you pound that."
After all that pounding, it seems to have finally sunk in. That makes for a confident team.
"Right now we're swinging the bats really well and our pitching's coming around, so it's looking good for us," A.J. Reed said. "Our last conference series at Georgia and our four games here, we played really well."
Because of that, UK is safely in the tournament and potentially a No. 2 seed when the bracket is unveiled at noon ET on Monday. How Henderson will set up his pitching staff and where UK will play remain up the air, but the Cats' mentality isn't changing.
"I think we've got some momentum going into regionals and we're excited to see where we go," Reed said. "We feel like we're a team that nobody wants to face right now."
The team then checked into its new hotel. The Cats were impressed.
Along the way, the players got some attention from locals and met a volleyball great.
Just reached Nanjing and I'm in heaven. Nicest hotel I've ever seen in my life-- Jackie Napper (@jackieNaps15) May 24, 2014
UKVBtoChina.com to stay updated. A big day of sightseeing is ahead of Sunday, so we hope to have plenty of good stuff to share.
It was another busy day in China for the Kentucky volleyball team, as the Wildcats moved to a hotel in downtown Shanghai during a packed day of activities.
Friday began with 90 minutes of study on campus at Shanghai University followed by lunch. It was then off to Shanghai Training Center to play with the Shanghai Juniors, the team the Cats beat in their first match on Thursday. Afterward, the Cats took a riverbank tour of Shanghai and saw the Chenghuang Temple, as well as the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Spotty Internet kept the Cats from posting any thoughts about the day, but they did manage to sneak a few posts out on Twitter and Instagram.
Some internet issues here in our hotel today.The blog may not get updates until tomorrow. Great day at the Pearl Tower #UKVBtoChina-- Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 23, 2014
Adventurous night in Shanghai to say the least-- Jackie Napper (@jackieNaps15) May 23, 2014
With true freshman Zack Brown starting opposite Mississippi State ace Ross Mitchell, the Bulldogs had a clear advantage on paper, an advantage the Wildcats paid little attention to.
Falling behind on three separate occasions and relying on a depleted pitching staff throwing for the third time in three days, a UK victory seemed unlikely to most anyone at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
But inside the UK dugout, it was another story entirely.
"The fight was outstanding," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "It wasn't terribly clean there a few different times, but I thought the fight and the competitiveness and the spirit was outstanding."
Ever the perfectionist, Henderson was likely still thinking about some of those miscues as he fell asleep in the wee hours of Friday morning. Everyone else, however, was surely too busy reliving the way the Cats had, against all odds, just advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 7-6 win in 12 innings.
"The game was an absolute war," UK shortstop Matt Reida said. "Mississippi State played an incredible game and so did we and we just kept coming at each other. It could have gone either way."
At various points, it very nearly did go the Bulldogs' way.
Mississippi State jumped out to a 4-1 lead and it was that narrow only because Brown, Sam Mahar and Zack Strecker were effective in damage control. Had Mahar not escaped a two-out, bases-loaded jam when he relieved Brown in the fourth, the Bulldogs may have run away and hidden.
"What it really came down to was our pitching staff today," Reida said.
Instead of it becoming a runaway, UK and an offense coming on strong late in the season remained within striking distance.
"It really says a lot about our guys and the belief we have," Reida said. "We think that we have a really good team and there's a lot of belief, especially with our offense."
That belief first manifested itself in the form of a Micheal Thomas home run that briefly tied the game at 1-all. After MSU answered with two runs in the fifth and another in the sixth, UK had an answer of its own with an RBI double by Ka'ai Tom, a sacrifice fly by Storm Wilson and an RBI single by Thomas Bernal.
"I thought the quality of our at-bats was really good," Henderson said. "You gotta be really, really pleased with Reida offensively, Micheal Thomas. Those guys came through in a big way."
Reida was in the middle of a UK rally in the eighth to tie it at 5-apiece with the first of his two doubles in a 4-for-6 performance. Thomas, the other senior in the Wildcat lineup, was 3-for-5.
"There's some production, there's some energy, there's some vocal leadership, there's some words in the dugout," Henderson said. "All of it. Those two guys did a great job."
They were far from the only ones to contribute to the win.
Austin Cousino may have gone hitless in six at-bats, but he had the play most likely to make a few appearances on SportsCenter on Friday. Runners on first and third with only one out, C.T. Bradford sent a fly ball into center that seemed poised to plate the go-ahead run.
Cousino had other ideas, uncorking laser of a throw.
"I've seen him do it every now and then," Reida said. "It seems like every big spot Cousi will just kind of pull one out of nowhere. I was right behind second base when he threw it and as soon as he let it go out of his hand I saw the trajectory and I thought, 'Oh wow, it has a chance.' "
More than a chance, because Thomas caught the ball on the fly and slapped a tag on the speedy Derrick Armstrong to complete a double play and end the inning.
It wasn't the last time UK gunned down the potential go-ahead run at home either.
Two innings later, Cody Brown took advantage of a throwing error after a single and advanced to third with one out. The infield came in as Armstrong stepped to the plate and Reida fielded a grounder just to his left. He delivered a perfect throw home, Thomas blocked the plate and the Cats escaped again.
Spencer Jack was the beneficiary of both plays at home, but he deserves plenty of credit for UK's win too.
"The story, pitching wise, is Spencer Jack," Henderson said. "That was a phenomenal effort in this environment against that club."
Jack (4-1) came on in the ninth, allowing an unearned run right off the bat. He followed it up with three straight scoreless innings and only looked better as his pitch count climbed.
"Early on I worked off my slider a lot and I was struggling with it early," Jack said. "After I think the first or second inning I just said, 'I've just gotta let the thing go, trust it.' "
He had to place similar trust in his offense and the Wildcat batters rewarded him in the 12th.
Reida, of course, started the proceedings with an opposite-field double. He then moved to third on a wild pitch before Dorian Hairston drew a walk. Opting to load the bases, Mississippi State next intentionally walked Cousino. Kuhn struck out, forcing Henderson to make the last in a series of tough coaching decisions.
With star A.J. Reed on the bench after he was lifted for pinch runner Marcus Carson, who came around to score the game-tying run in the ninth inning, Henderson called on Zach Arnold to bat in the No. 3 spot. With the bases loaded and one out, Arnold took a simple approach to his at-bat.
"Put the ball in play," Arnold said.
The sophomore backstop did just that, singling to shortstop to score Reida and trigger a raucous celebration in foul territory near first base.
"There's nothing like it, getting to enjoy the satisfaction of a big win like that with your teammates," Jack said. "You fight so hard with them, they're like brothers at that point. I can't describe that."
Arnold was at the middle of it all.
"There's just a really good feel to the team and that's really all it was," Arnold said. "It could have been anybody up to bat and that celebration would have come out no matter what."
The joy of coming out on top in a game as competitive as Thursday's was the reason for the celebration, but the Cats will enjoy the fruits of the victory all day on Friday. Instead of playing for a spot in the semifinal, UK will enjoy a day off and await the winner of Florida and Mississippi State.
"You know how bad we need it off," Henderson said. "It'll be nice to get a day off and give the pitching a rest."
After a much-needed night of rest, the team met in the morning to ride a bus to a Buddhist temple in Shanghai. Touring the grounds for two-and-a-half hours, the Cats learned about the traditions of Buddhism and took plenty of pictures along the way.
They then returned to their hotel near Shanghai University for lunch. The culinary adventures continued.
Continuing the educational portion of the trip, the team spent three hours studying at Shanghai University before dinner and the first volleyball match of the trip against Shangai Juniors. The Cats got the win in a performance that pleased head coach Craig Skinner.
Well tried some chicken foot for lunch... 😳 pic.twitter.com/B4sSRMQeON-- Lauren O'Conner (@LaurenOC12) May 22, 2014
Good to get off to a solid start in our 1st match beating Shanghai Jrs. #UKVBtoChina-- Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 22, 2014
Started slow in each set but closed well each time winning 3-0. Much to improve on during the trip. #UKVBtoChina-- Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 22, 2014
Make sure to continue checking UKVBtoChina.com for updates on the trip. On Friday, we hope to bring you some thoughts straight from one of the Wildcats.
"Griffin is everything to the program," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "When I went out recruiting, I'm very picky about who my catcher is, and Griffin fit the bill in every way possible. Most importantly because the way she is. Her blue-collar work ethic, how tough she is and the person she is on and off the field."
His earned-run average has hovered under 3 throughout 2014. Cody sported a perfect 3-0 record with five saves in the regular season to boot, but his sophomore year -- in his eyes at least -- was frustrating nonetheless.
After emerging as a rotation mainstay late as a freshman, Cody expected to lock down a starting spot behind ace A.J. Reed. Instead, forearm tightness forced him to miss three weeks after his first three starts and relegated him to a relief role.
"I wanted to do more for the team, obviously, but I stuck with it and kept getting better every day, every week and just kept feeling better," Cody said.
If Wednesday is any indication, Cody could be poised to make his stint in the bullpen a distant memory.
Pitching UK to a 4-2 win over top-seeded Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Cody tossed 5.1 innings -- his longest outing since February -- and allowed just two runs on four hits to move to 4-0. The 6-foot-7 right hander struck out four and yielded just one walk as Max Kuhn's 2-for-5 outing at the plate with a home run led a UK offense that scored enough to make Cody's performance stand up.
"Back to doing what we thought he was going to do at the beginning of the year, I think that's a shot of adrenaline for the kids, for the program," Henderson said. "That's the type of outing that Kyle is capable of having against that type of a team."
Cody sat comfortably in the mid-90s with his fastball, but that's been the case all season. The difference for Cody was his restored confidence in the pitch he all but abandoned for six weeks.
"Probably a month ago we started getting back into it and week by week it just kept getting better and better," Cody said. "By last week, it started to look really good."
Until Cody became comfortable again with the pitch, he wasn't going to be capable of anything more than short relief.
"It was quite the tiptoe getting him back," Henderson said. "It's just been very cautious, a day at a time, don't throw any breaking balls for six weeks. All of it. For him to be able to go out today and one inning getting three outs with off-speed stuff is just fantastic."
When Cody departed in the sixth with runners on first and second and one out, it was a pitcher who's dealt with similar frustrations this season who replaced him and escaped the jam.
Chandler Shepherd missed three weeks himself with a forearm laceration and allowed 11 combined runs in three outings after his return on April 26. Including the 3.2 shutout innings he tossed to pick up his first save against Florida, Shepherd has now thrown 9.1 scoreless frames over his last three appearances.
"Had a couple of opportunities there to fold and didn't," Henderson said. "Made big pitches when it mattered. Clearly not as sharp early on in the performance as he has been, but he really showed tremendous poise and just got it done when it really mattered."
Shepherd, like Cody, views the postseason as his opportunity to put a spring that didn't go as planned squarely in the past.
"All the incidents that have happened, whatever it may be, it's over with," Shepherd said. "We gotta move forward. We're playing really well together, obviously, right now and it just says a lot about our program to overcome stuff like that and come back and play baseball the way we know we can."
Based on the way the Wildcats have played over the last three weeks, they have reason to be confident.
UK took two of three in its final two SEC series against Auburn and Georgia and now has a pair of wins over top-25 wins in two days to advance to face the winner of South Carolina and Mississippi State on Thursday night.
"Now we're into week three of turning it around," Henderson said. "It's been really positive and good and it's like anything in life that's like that. Your thoughts change, your self-talk changes and you start to view yourself a little bit different.
"Once you start that synergy or that good karma, it's a positive thing."
At the heart of that success has been UK's innovative and nationally renowned Center for Academic and Tutorial Services.
One staff member at CATS has recently raked in a number of prestigious honors for his hard work, and the Wildcats' subsequent academic success.
The awards have gone to someone staff members across the UK Athletics Department couldn't consider more deserving.
With the renown, the praise for Mike Pirrman has now extended beyond UK to multiple academic advising professional organizations.
"Mike Pirrman is an incredibly caring person who puts the well-being of the student-athletes he advises above all else," Associate Athletics Director for Student Services Bob Bradley said. "Mike realizes that someday their athletic exploits will come to an end and that the quality of their educational experience will be of utmost importance to their future success. He takes their post-college quality of life very serious."
Pirrman, who serves as academic advisor for six teams within the cross country/track and field program, was honored earlier this semester as the recipient of the 20th annual University of Kentucky Ken Freedman Outstanding Professional Advisor Award.
The award recognizes outstanding service in the field of academic advising.
In addition, Pirrman was awarded the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Region 3 Excellence in Advising Award.
His accolades did not extend to just regional and state honors; he received a Certificate of Merit from the national division of NACADA.
The awards come as recognition for the hard work Pirrman has put in, which extends far beyond normal 9-5 hours. Such commitments come with the territory of advising college students, but still his efforts -- which go above and beyond those expected of an everyday professional -- have not go unnoticed by UK track and field and cross country head coach Edrick Floreal.
Floreal is known as a demanding coach when it comes to athletes' training, but his high standards also extend to the classroom. Thus he brings Pirrman on many of the team's road trips, which often occur at key points during the academic year.
Pirrman holds study halls in team hotels throughout those trips, sacrificing many a weekend during the year on behalf of the student-athletes he advises.
That sacrifice of possible personal time, and the positive results that time has had on many multiple Wildcats it not lost on Floreal.
But the influence of Pirrman's time and effort on the well-being of UK student-athletes are just beginning to be adequately documented.
"Mike's impact on the teams are supported by numbers that stand on their own," Floreal said. "Just look at the women's cross country team's perfect 1000 score in Academic Progress Rate. The women's indoor and outdoor track and field, and men's cross country all exceeded the national average in terms of APR. Also our women's cross country team's GPA was 3.667 GPA, which helped the entire athletic department to its best academic semester since 2002-03.
"His commitment to our team, student athletes and staff is always evident in the numbers that reach far beyond our student-athletes' four years at UK. It is something they will carry for a lifetime."
Other examples Pirrman's commitments are reflected in academic successes by the likes Chelsea Oswald.
Oswald graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the 2012-13 Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award as the Southeastern Conference's top student-athlete achieving success in the classroom and in competition. Oswald won the SEC 5,000 and 10,000-meter Championships in the 2012-13 year, also claiming three All-America honors.
"I've been given a great opportunity here at UK and I've just tried my hardest every day to make the most of it," Oswald said upon receiving the McWhorter award. "This award recognizes not only my achievements, but also all the great people, like Mike Pirrman, who have helped me along the way."
Luis Orta, meanwhile, was selected to give the commencement address at the University's 2012 December Graduation Ceremony. The Caracas, Venezuela native graduated with a dual degree in international studies and Hispanic studies.
Orta's journey to graduation was one of the greatest testaments to Pirrman's role in guiding student-athletes from enrollment to graduation.
In his first semester at UK, Orta successfully navigated a full course load even though he was only just learning English. Along the way, he broke three freshman records in competition. During his four years, Orta developed academically, so much so that he was the commencement speaker.
At graduation as well as during an acceptance speech for the "Mr. Wildcat" award at the 2013 CATSPY Awards, Orta expressed his gratitude for the guidance Pirrman had provided, and in fluent English to boot.
"Last year I got this award and I forgot to mention Mike Pirrman," Orta said in 2013. "I have to thank him so much. Four years ago, I had the great fortune to come to this country and pursue my dreams. It's thanks to him and my teammates that I was able to get through my first year even though I didn't speak English. I ended up graduating with honors and a double SEC Champion, and it's just been a blessing."