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A special two weeks are ahead for the Kentucky volleyball team.

Before sunrise on Monday morning, UK student-athletes and coaches began the first leg of a journey to China for a cultural exchange trip. After a long day of travel, the Wildcats will arrive in Shanghai around 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday.

From there, the team has a packed schedule, combining learning, competition and sightseeing.

The Cats will study at Shanghai University, learning about Chinese culture and sharing some of their own as well. They will also play six matches over the course of two weeks against some of the top volleyball teams in the world. And when they aren't in the classroom or on the court, the Cats will be taking in some of China's most famous landmarks, from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square.

Traveling with the team is UK's Andrew Maske,  an art history professor who specializes in the arts of Asia. Professor Maske spent time with the team for the week leading up to the trip, teaching the team some basics about Chinese philosophy. The team also practiced tai chi and brush calligraphy to prepare to head to the Far East.

Throughout the trip, the Cats will be chronicling their experience through a series of blogs. We will be sharing them here -- as well as other social-media, photo and video content -- on Cat Scratches. We've also created a special URL -- UKVBtoChina.com -- so you can find all of the entries in one place.

To get it started, here are some tweets from right before the team departed and the week of preparation for the trip.




Sylver Samuel's inside-the-park home run resulted in UK's first run of a 10-1 win that clinched a Super Regional berth. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Sylver Samuel's inside-the-park home run resulted in UK's first run of a 10-1 win that clinched a Super Regional berth. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team's bats had been held at bay for much of the weekend at the NCAA Regional, including in a 2-1 loss in the first game of Sunday's regional final.

That all changed in a win-or-go-home game two.


The Wildcats exploded for 10 runs in the first three innings, including six in the second to down DePaul, 10-1, and advance to their third NCAA Super Regional in the last four seasons.

DePaul had already lost once in the double-elimination tournament, so the Wildcats needed just one win Sunday in two chances. The Blue Demons prevailed in game one, 2-1 in 10 innings, to force a second game, and that's when the UK bats came up bigger than ever.

"Our hitters decided to put the team on their back and go out and score runs," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "In the other games, I think (Kelsey) Nunley did a good job of putting the team on her back and I thought we had good defensive play but I think that the mindset of the team offensively was we need to get this done."

UK advanced to the regional final with an unblemished 2-0 record, with a 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday and a 2-1 win over James Madison on Saturday. In the two victories, Kentucky rode Nunley's stellar pitching arm while scoring just enough runs to win.

After game one's 10-inning loss, the Wildcats had their backs against the wall and knew the offense had to come through in order to earn a ticket to Super Regionals.

"Coach just basically talked to us and said it was time to get it done," sophomore Christian Stokes said. "This is make-it-or-break-it, this is your opportunity right here, just go out here and have fun and take hard cuts."

In the bottom of the first inning of game two, Sylver Samuel got things going for the UK offense with an inside the park home run. The first homer of Samuel's career was a grounder up the middle through a drawn-in outfield that rolled all the way to the center field wall.

By the time the DePaul center fielder, who was playing in shallow left center, could get to the ball, Samuel was nearing third and thinking of home. Samuel circled the bases and a throw was never made to try and get her out at home plate.

"There were a lot of holes and a lot of people had shifted so I was just trying to get something started," Samuel said. "I was thinking more about making sure my timing was right and everything and finding a hole. I saw people still running when I was going to second. I saw that they hadn't gotten to the ball yet so I saw (Kristine) Himes running and I was like, 'Well, she's waving me,' so I just went for it." 

Samuel's home run was the only run of the first inning, but it sent momentum and confidence into Kentucky's dugout.

"That was huge for our team," Stokes said. "We needed something that would get our momentum going and I think that was a huge at-bat. We scored a run on one hit, so that is huge. I think that got it started and then hits were going all around."

Nunley retired the side in order in the top of the second inning, and it was time for the UK bats to get back to work in a big way.

With two outs and the bases empty, the big inning almost didn't happen, but senior Emily Jolly reached on an error. Krystal Smith followed with a single and sophomore Ansley Smith walked to set up Stokes with the bases loaded.

Stokes sent a ball deep to left field that bounced off the top of the wall for a double. Just a foot short of clearing the fence, the bases emptied and gave UK a 4-0 lead.

"I didn't feel too much pressure," Stokes said. "When I got up there and I was on deck I knew that we had to get it done right here because this was a huge opportunity for us. I came up in the first game and didn't get the job done so I knew I wanted to help out my team and get it done on the second chance."

The runs didn't stop, however, as Samuel tripled to score Stokes and, after sophomore Nikki Sagermann walked, junior Griffin Joiner doubled down the left field line to score two more.

After UK scored a total of five runs in the previous 24 innings, the offense had just rattled off seven in the span of two innings.

With the hits, five of them in the first two innings, came momentum for both the offense and Nunley in the circle.

"I think the momentum definitely shifted towards us once we started getting hits," Samuel said. "That picked us up a lot and I think it just got our offense rolling and I think it gave Kelsey (Nunley) confidence that she didn't have to put the team on her back as much."

Along with the Wildcats' ability to make adjustments at the plate in the second game, the key to their offensive success in the second game was the fact that they moved on quickly from the first game's loss.

A team with four sophomores in the starting lineup, including the first three in the order, was able to forget about game one and quickly shift its focus to getting key hits in game two.

"You just have to move on," Lawson said. "You have to bounce back if you want to keep going. The nice thing about our team is that they love softball. They are able to adapt, adjust and move on. What we lack in certain offensive numbers, I think we make up for in terms of mental toughness and sure grit."

That mental toughness and grit is what has helped UK to a school-record 47 wins in 2014, the program's first-ever trip to the SEC Tournament Championship game and now a second consecutive NCAA Super Regional appearance.

The Wildcats, seeded 14th in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, head to Los Angeles next weekend to face third-seeded UCLA in a best-of-three series.

To advance to its first Women's College World Series in team history, Kentucky will need the hot bats that came to life in Sunday's second game. That, and more of the toughness and grit that got them there in the first place.

Allison Peare's late-race kick propelled her to a second-place finish in the 800m after she finished second in the 1500 earlier on Sunday afternoon. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Allison Peare's late-race kick propelled her to a second-place finish in the 800m after she finished second in the 1500 earlier on Sunday afternoon. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Impressive performances came from all over the place for UK at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Championships this weekend.

After Andrew Evans took the discus title on Saturday, Keffri Neal, Ray Dykstra and Kendra Harrison -- who completed the hurdles double at 100 and 400 meters -- followed with gold medals of their own on championship Sunday.

Only one Wildcat, however, did something that Edrick Floreal simply couldn't explain.

"What Ally Peare did, that's just unheard of," Floreal said.

Within 90 minutes, Peare in ran in the finals of both the 1500m and 800m. To make things even more difficult, she had to qualify for the two grueling races in the preceding 48 hours.

The challenge is so great, in fact, that Floreal hesitates to even ask a student-athlete to face it.

"That's one of my greatest fears, to put somebody in the eight and 15, because the second one is always kind of god awful," Floreal said. "The kid is so lactic acid loaded up."

Defying biology, Peare managed second-place finishes in both. She tallied 16 points for her team, playing an important role as the UK women placed fourth, their best finish at SECs since 1983.

"It was a really great weekend for me," Peare said. "It's been really exciting and I'm just glad I was able to score a lot of points for the team."

Knowing the nature of the double, the coaching staff adjusted their projections for Peare's point-scoring down a bit entering the weekend. The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.

"I was only expected to score nine points," Peare said. "I even talked to Coach and I was like, 'I think I can score more than that.' "

She nearly eclipsed nine in her first race, finishing with a school-record time of 4:15.14 in the 1500. Afterward, women's distance coach Hakon DeVries pulled her aside to strategize for the 800.

"I had a lot of confidence in myself from Coach DeVries," Peare said. "He told me beforehand, that going into the 800, five other girls were coming back from the double of the 15. He said, 'I believe you can run 2:04.' "

Her time? 2:04.13.

Peare surged to the finish, nipping Georgia's Megan Malasarte by a mere tenth of a second.

"I thought, 'Man, no way you can come back after that 15 and do that.' " Floreal said. "And then when they took off in 57 (seconds through 400 meters), I thought, 'So much for us.' And then all of a sudden this little gal kept coming and then kept coming and then kicked in the home stretch. You're not supposed to be able to kick after running a 15. Your legs are not supposed to respond. I'm just so impressed."

For a little added perspective on Peare's feat, you needn't look any further than her UK teammate Keffri Neal. The junior won the 1500 and attempted the same double Peare pulled off, but finished eighth to account for 11 points. It was a more than respectable effort, but only makes Peare's all the more impressive.

"It takes a strong physical body and a strong personality as well," Neal said. "Maybe I'm not at that level yet but I'm trying to get there. She's a very good runner and I'm happy that she could run that fast."

Her coach, clearly, felt the same way.

With the women finishing fourth and the men coming in sixth -- their best SEC outdoor finish since 1996 -- the Cats turned in the clearest proof yet of the program's progress under Floreal. True to his nature, Floreal had already moved on to the next step when asked about it.

"Obviously the biggest trophy you get is the one you get at the NCAA," Floreal said. "We want to get ready for that and then position ourselves to do as best as we can and hopefully be a podium team at the NCAA. That's the goal of a program. That's what's going to define us."

Peare is on board, but she has so more immediate concerns to tend to first.

"I'm going to sleep very well tonight after I get a very good meal," she said.

Andrew Evans won his SEC discus title in three years on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics) Andrew Evans won his second SEC discus title in three years on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Before the Southeastern Conference Championships, Edrick Floreal and his Kentucky coaching staff sketched out how they expected the meet to go. They went event by event, assigning points based on how they thought each athlete would perform.

Then the athletes had a choice. They could either hear how many points they were expected to score or go into the weekend blind.

The former option, in Floreal's eyes, was the better one.

"You've gotta be able to embrace that pressure," Floreal said. "When somebody tells me, 'I don't want to know what you expect from me,' that's not very good. I want them to make the decision."

For senior discus thrower Andrew Evans, the decision was easy.

"The team has expectations of us," Evans said. "They asked us if we wanted to know what expectations they had for us in points and discus was (to score) 10 (points). So I knew they wanted me to get it done."

And get it done he did. Evans won the second SEC title of his career, turning in a throw of 64.09 meters/210-3 on his final attempt in front of a large crowd there to watch a loaded discus final.

"We initially had the throwing set up on the infield, which is kind of absent the crowd right on top of you," Evans said. "Then we moved it to the outside throwing facility where everybody's right on top of you and expectations are right on top of you as well."

His coach's expectations were far from the only ones Evans had to shoulder competing Saturday in front of his home fans.

Just two weeks ago, Evans won National Athlete of the Week honors after his throw of 66.37m/217-9 at the Tennessee Challenge. The mark is the best in the NCAA this season and third best in the world this year, but brought with it the pressure to back up that "magical moment," as Floreal called it.

"You have to be able to perform when people expect you to do it," Floreal said. "I'm really happy that Andrew was able to get it done with all the pressure. Everybody that was over there, they expected one thing: Andrew Evans to win the discus. And he fought off the demons and delivered the goods in a big way."

Emerging atop a field that featured three of the top four throwers in the country, Evans received his gold medal from former discus national champion and UK alum Rashaud Scott. With his nation-leading throw two weeks ago, Evans took over the school record from Scott, who graduated in 2009.

"Rashaud and I are good pals," Evans said. "He let me have it when I took his record, so we just kind of go back and forth."

Scott started a streak of five consecutive SEC discus titles for UK athletes in 2008, a streak Evans continued in 2012 but ended a year ago when he finished second. In his final home meet, Evans is happy to restart the streak and continue a Wildcat tradition.

"It feels good to win again and bring it back to Kentucky, because Kentucky is such a storied discus school," Evans said. "Hopefully we can use my results to bring in big discus recruits to keep making the program better."

If his younger teammates can mimic the way Evans handles the weight of expectations, UK track and field will continue to blossom under Floreal.

"Being counted on, that's good," Floreal said. "You don't want to not exist. Nobody expects anything from you, who wants to live that life? I want a life where I know that people expect stuff from me. We expect you to do something here."

"My interest is having people around me that they are OK with that, they can live with that, they can stand up under it and be OK with the outcome."

Delivering when he was supposed to, Evans became UK's first 2014 SEC outdoor champion. Behind him, UK is fifth with 21 points in men's standings through three days, while the women are currently in ninth with 13.

It wasn't an ideal day -- Floreal said Saturday started without the "zeal" the Wildcats had on Friday -- but it was another step in the growth of a program.

"Like I always say, character is not what happens, but it's what happens after you get your butt kicked," Floreal said. "We lost some points, but we're going to be OK. In the end, we're still in a building stage trying to put ourselves in position. And I think we're a contender, but we're not there yet. We've still got some stuff we've gotta figure out. We still gotta get a little bit tougher, a little bit grittier."

Nikki Sagermann had the game-tying RBI and scored the game-winning run in UK's sixth inning rally. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Nikki Sagermann had the game-tying RBI and scored the game-winning run in UK's sixth inning rally. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
A staple of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to keep fighting and battle back, and it was never more prevalent than in UK's 2-1, comeback win Saturday over James Madison on the second day of the NCAA Regional.

The Wildcats were trailing 1-0 and being no-hit through four innings, but in the fifth, everything started to change.

All it took was a leadoff flyout from senior Emily Gaines -- the first ball from the UK bats to leave the infield -- and the offense and the Big Blue Nation responded.

Senior Lauren Cumbess followed with a single for UK's first hit of the game, and fellow senior Emily Jolly also notched a double. While UK would not score a run in the frame, the rally was officially in effect.

Credit goes to sophomore Nikki Sagermann and junior Griffin Joiner, who recorded the game-tying and game-winning hits, but the crowd certainly played a factor.

John Cropp Stadium was close to capacity for the second consecutive day, but the Wildcat faithful didn't have a lot to cheer about until Gaines' flyout in the fifth inning. That's when the momentum shifted, and the Big Blue Nation could be heard, loud and clear.

"I thought a lot of our adjustment the third time through the order was due to the fact the crowd really got into it, chanting 'blue' and 'white,' " UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "You could hear them really cheering when Sylver Samuel got that hit up the middle and everybody went crazy. I actually think the crowd was a lot of the reason why we adjusted. The crowd was the big difference, I thought they were tremendous and a lot of the reasons why we scored the runs at the end of the game."

The Kentucky runs came in the sixth inning, but it unofficially got started in the fifth with Gaines' fly ball to center.

"Gaines has sparked us all year, so that got us going, everybody got fired up," Joiner said. "The rest of the lineup started battling better in their at-bat."

"We finally saw someone get some solid contact on her, and we were like, 'Alright, we can hit it,' " Sagermann added.

In the sixth inning, the Wildcats sent the top of the order to the plate for their third time. Sophomore Christian Stokes led off with a strikeout, but Samuel followed with a single up the middle to set up Sagermann.

The third baseman doubled to right center to score Samuel and tie the game. Joiner kept the hot hitting going with a single to left to score Sagermann and give Kentucky a 2-1 lead.

It was the adjustments that Samuel, Sagermann and Joiner made in their third time at the plate that proved to be the key for the UK offense to score two and take the lead.

After the second time through the batting order, Lawson knew the top of the order needed to adjust and get in attack mode if the Wildcats were to mount a rally.

"By the time the second at-bat comes around, if they're not in attack mode, you know you can be in big trouble," Lawson said. "You'd better straighten them out and get them in attack mode, so hopefully their third at-bat through, they're ready to get after the pitcher, which is what happened today."

The Wildcats have scored more than two runs just twice in their last six games, but have managed to notch five wins in that span, in large part to their ability to make adjustments at the plate and get the key hit at the perfect moment.

The fact that pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who has won all five games in the circle for Kentucky, is the school-record holder with eight postseason wins, certainly doesn't hurt either.

UK will look to advance to its third NCAA Super Regional in the past four years Sunday at 1 p.m. at John Cropp Stadium against either James Madison or DePaul.

Senior Lauren Cumbess had two RBI in UK's 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday night at the Lexington Regional. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Senior Lauren Cumbess had two RBI in UK's 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday night at the Lexington Regional. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
On an unseasonably cool evening at John Cropp Stadium, Lauren Cumbess' bat heated up to fuel the Kentucky softball team to a 2-0 victory over Ohio in the first game of the NCAA Regional.

Cumbess, who went 0-for-11 at the SEC Tournament last weekend, but went 1-for-2 Friday with a home run and drove in both UK runs.

"There was no secret," Cumbess said. "We practiced hard all week and worked on hitting different pitches in the zone and it was all about the right place at the right time."

The junior captain got things started in the bottom of the second with a home run to give UK an early 1-0 lead. Cumbess sent an 0-1 pitch over the right-field wall for the Wildcats' first hit of the game.

"I was just looking for my pitch and on that count it happened to be it," Cumbess said. "I swung at the first pitch, so I wanted to be aggressive and make something happen as the leadoff batter in that inning. I swung at the first one and missed it, and the second pitch looked like it was even more in my zone. I just went for it. It felt pretty good coming off the bat."

The homer was Cumbess' ninth of the season and third in NCAA Tournament play.

It came at the perfect time for the Wildcats, after starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley labored through the first two innings and allowed an Ohio baserunner to reach in the first two frames, each via walk.

Nunley allowed two runners to reach base in the third and one in the fourth, but she didn't allow a runner to score. As the sophomore continued to warm up, her pitches got even more effective and the Bobcat batters were retired in order in the fifth and sixth inning.

Three outs away from an opening-game victory, Cumbess once again helped plate a valuable insurance run in the sixth. Senior Emily Gaines led off with a double down the right field line. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner and stole third to set up Cumbess.

Cumbess flied out to right field, but it was enough to score Steed and put the Wildcats ahead 2-0.

"Especially after Maisie's delayed steal, I knew I had to get something, really stay behind it," Cumbess said. "It was either go up the middle or somewhere in the outfield and I knew she would score. Maisie is a smart baserunner, so I knew if I did my job and put it anywhere relative to where she could score, she could do it."

The 2-0 lead was all Nunley needed to secure the win and her seventh shutout of the year, good for second most in a season in program history. The win also gave Nunley seven postseason victories in her career, which extended her program-record mark.

The first win is always important, and puts the Wildcats in a good position going into Saturday's winner's bracket game with James Madison.

"It's important that you always get the first win in the tournament," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "That way you can kick the tires a little bit and get a little bit looser. Anytime you can get the first win in a postseason tournament I think that helps. It helps your pitching, it helps your defense relax a little bit and it helps the girls sleep a little bit better."

Going forward, the road doesn't get any easier. Kentucky will face James Madison on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. JMU downed DePaul in the regional's first game, 6-1.

The winner advances to Sunday, while the loser will play at 6 p.m. against the winner of Saturday's second game, between Ohio and DePaul at 3 p.m.

At stake in the double elimination tournament is a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals. The Wildcats, seeded in the top 16 in the 64-team field for the second consecutive season, will look to make their third trip to the Super Regionals in the last four years.

Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart embraces Cally Macumber after her second-place finish in the 10k on Friday at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart embraces Cally Macumber after her second-place finish in the 10k on Friday at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For a normal person, preparing to run more than six miles is a months-long undertaking.

Cally Macumber needed only a few days after she decided to run the 10,000-meter race at the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.

"It wasn't originally the plan to run the 10," Macumber said. "Kind of a last-minute decision to try and get some points for the team."

The decision paid off for both Macumber and her Kentucky team. She ran the 10k in 34:01.52, finishing second behind Arkansas' Dominique Scott to pick up eight important points for the Wildcats.

"Anytime you gotta be crazy or courageous enough to volunteer to run a 10k, you're a special athlete," UK head coach Edrick Floreal said. "She performed very special."

The performance was even more special considering Macumber's history in the 10k. A year ago, she finished seventh at SECs in the same race.

"It was a hard decision to make not having the best track record with it," Macumber said. "But I knew it would really help my team and once you think about that, it's worth it, the 25 laps."

It's that willingness to sacrifice for her team, in fact, that paved the way for her record effort.

"Getting them to the point where it's their idea is so important," Floreal said. "Had I forced her to do it, it would have been a different story. But she wanted to do it."

Macumber has always been a good teammate, but her attitude has undergone a change that represents the culture shift brought on by Floreal's arrival two summers ago. A promising, albeit inconsistent, performer in her first three years at UK, Macumber has transformed into an All-American under Floreal and women's distance coach Hakon DeVries.

"It's been crazy to watch," Macumber said. "Everyone, just as soon as Coach Flo stepped on campus, it was like a transformation with everybody, everyone's attitudes. It's been so exciting and without them I wouldn't have seen the improvements I've seen and I know the other kids on the team wouldn't have seen as big of improvements either."

Ibn Short and Nathan Donnellon joined Macumber as Friday point-scorers for UK, finishing fifth and seventh in the decathlon, respectively. Dezerea Bryant, Keilah Tyson, Kendra Harrison, Keffri Neal and Allison Peare, meanwhile, advanced to finals to put Kentucky in good position -- third on the women's side with 13 points, sixth on the men's with six -- entering Saturday and Sunday of a loaded SEC meet.

"All that stuff is good," Floreal said. "It's momentum. The kids in the locker room were very excited about where we are and about what their chances are of doing well. That's all I want. I just want them to give it their absolute best shot and where the chips fall, they fall."

All those laps behind her, Macumber will play a role in deciding where a few more of those chips fall. She will run as one of the favorites in the 5k late Sunday afternoon.

"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Macumber said. "I think I've got a little bit left in the tank. I have a day tomorrow to just cheer on my team, relax, chill out and then be ready to go Sunday."

The idea of running another three-plus miles in less than 48 hours might sound unpleasant, but it's exactly where Macumber wants to be.

"I love it," Macumber said. "I couldn't ask it for it to be in a better place my last year, going out on the home course with all my teammates and people supporting me. I'm just really happy to be here."


For the sixth consecutive season, the Kentucky softball team will compete in the NCAA Regionals and it will host the regional for the second year in a row.

But this year, it's different.


For the first time in program history, the Wildcats have momentum on their side as they open the 64-team NCAA Tournament Friday night at John Cropp Stadium.

UK won three games at the SEC Tournament last weekend in Columbia, S.C., and made it to the championship game for the first time in team history. Before this season, the Wildcats were 1-9 all-time at the conference tournament.

In two of the past three seasons, the Wildcats have gone 0-1 at the SEC Tournament only to turn around and advance to the NCAA Super Regionals the following weekend.

This year, coming off a 3-1 weekend at the SEC Tournament has proven beneficial as UK prepares for the Regional.

"Last week, playing four games against the toughest competition in our conference, and in the nation too, was really productive for us," junior captain Griffin Joiner said. "We could have been here practicing every day, so it was a really good opportunity for us to play in the SEC Tournament. When we got back, school has been out, so it's been all softball. We wake up every day and come out here and try to get the job done, getting ready for this weekend."

Even after a loss Saturday in the championship game to Georgia after a record-breaking run, the Wildcats are hungry for more.

The momentum from the tournament's three wins, combined with the disappointment from Saturday's loss has fueled UK in practice this week.

"After we got beat Saturday night, that was disappointing," sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley said. "We've come out this week and made adjustments and worked hard in practice. I think we're ready to go, we just have to bring our A game."

Sunday night, just hours after the Wildcats returned from Columbia, UK learned it would host the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. Lexington hosted the Super Regionals in 2011, the first time NCAA competition was ever played at John Cropp Stadium. Last season, Kentucky also hosted the NCAA Regional.

Earning a host bid is a big advantage. Not only does it mean the Wildcats are the highest seed among the four teams, but they will have the Big Blue Nation behind them.

"Over the past three or four years the Big Blue Nation has really shown up, and it's helped us in ball games," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "When we played Tennessee at home and beat them, I felt like the crowd gave us a big push. We've had record-breaking crowds every year, and I Kentucky fans are such good fans, it really helps us, especially in later games against opponents that aren't used to playing with that type of crowd."

The three-game series against Tennessee, the final home series of the regular season, drew a school-record 4,664 fans. The final two games of the series drew more than 1,600 fans, both standing-room only crowds.

Playing in front of packed stadiums is nothing new for the Wildcats in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. Seven of Kentucky's road contests in SEC play drew at least 1,000 fans, including every game of the SEC Tournament.

"It's awesome, it's what you want as a player," Nunley said. "I think the fans can really make the game more exciting. I think it's great to have a lot of fans here supporting us.

The good crowds no doubt will come to cheer on Kentucky, as they have all season.

Fans will see three great teams, in addition the hometown Wildcats. UK, James Madison and DePaul all won at least 40 games this season, while Ohio and James Madison each won its respective conference tournaments. DePaul is making its 18th NCAA Tournament appearance.

The action gets underway Friday at 5 p.m. ET with James Madison and DePaul, followed by UK's matchup with Ohio at 7:30 p.m. That's when the Wildcats look to keep the momentum going as they look for a third Super Regional berth in the past four seasons.

Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The importance of the leadoff hitter has never been more obvious than in the Kentucky softball team's Southeastern Conference Tournament run this past weekend.

Going into last week's SEC Tournament, Kentucky was coming off a three-game sweep suffered at Georgia. The Wildcats scored just one run in each game, and Rachel Lawson was looking for a spark at the top of the order.

Enter sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes.

"What happened after the Georgia series was I thought we needed a change in tone, a different way to start off the game," the UK head coach said. "So we put her in the leadoff position and just her presence alone, I believe she set the tone for the entire tournament. She set the tone in all of our wins in her first at-bat of every game. It's the ability to be able to put everyone on your back and have great presence in the box from the get-go."

On the third pitch of the bottom of the first inning in UK's opening-round win over Mississippi State, Stokes sent a shot over the right field wall to give UK an early 1-0 lead. As her teammates poured out of the dugout to greet her at home plate, it was apparent the offensive spark that Lawson was looking for had been found.

In four games leading off at the SEC Tournament, Stokes' numbers were beyond impressive. She hit .429 with six hits, two home runs and three RBI. She scored a run in each of Kentucky's three wins and reached base a total of nine times for an on base percentage of .529.

The Chesterfield. S.C., native had a 1.000 slugging percentage in her home state. She was rewarded by being named to the SEC All-Tournament Team.

"Coach Lawson really wants me to work on my presence in the box, that's been a huge thing," Stokes said. "Starting off the game, showing a presence from the first swing is the main thing I've been thinking about. Just being confident, getting up there and doing my thing."

Stokes was 3-for-4 in that first game against Mississippi State, with another RBI and a double in the ninth inning to set up fellow sophomore Nikki Sagermann's game-winning hit.

The following day against Tennessee, Stokes was 3-of-4 again. She led off the game with a double, and her home run in the fifth inning put UK ahead 2-0 and gave sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley all the insurance runs she would need.

In Kentucky's win over LSU to send the Wildcats to their first SEC Tournament Championship Game in program history, Stokes was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning and scored the first of two runs in the final frame.

As the Wildcats prepare for NCAA Regionals this weekend at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Stokes hopes to continue her hot hitting. It will help that the confidence from the SEC Tournament can carry over into this weekend.

"Once you're confident, your confidence keeps on carrying for a few games or even the rest of the season," Stokes said. "It will help with my approach and all the things I'm doing well in the box right now. I think the presence is a big thing too, my presence will maybe help my teammates' presence as well."

The leadoff position was one of inconsistency in the regular season. Stokes led off 14 times and is one of six Wildcats to have hit in the No. 1 spot this season. None of them led off more than 16 times in UK's 55 regular season contests, and no one did it for more than six games in a row.

Going into the postseason, Lawson knew it was essential to have a leadoff hitter who could get things going for the rest of the offense. 

"You look at all the dominant teams in the country, they all have a strong batter in the leadoff position," Lawson said. "Christian's strength alone helped match what all the other teams did. In fact, this past weekend, she surpassed that. I couldn't be happier with it, and in my opinion, she and Kelsey Nunley were the MVPs this past weekend."

Stokes has started all 59 games at shortstop this season, but has batted in nearly every spot in the order. In addition to the 14 times she has led off, she has batted ninth 20 times, sixth nine times and second, fifth, seventh and eighth at least once.

Despite her spot in the batting order changing, Stokes doesn't find any added pressure with having to set the tone at the top of the lineup.

"I think it's easy, because everyone on our team steps up at different times, which is great," Stokes said. "I always know my teammates have my back, and they know I have their back, so it's easy to be a leader on our team."

It isn't hard to see that Lawson has been impressed with Stokes as a hitter, no matter her spot in the lineup.

"Her overall competitive spirit, and her presence in the box is something that really impresses me," Lawson said. "I love it, I think she does a really good job, she competes, she swings the bat hard, she runs hard. Just that overall attitude really helps the team get ready to hit. She's quietly been a leader. She's been getting big hits when we needed her to."

That competitive spirit and attitude will help lead Kentucky into the NCAA Tournament opener Friday against Ohio. Kentucky has made the NCAA Regionals in six consecutive seasons and advanced to the Super Regionals in two of the past three years.

After a grueling SEC schedule, things won't get any easier in the postseason, but Stokes presence and ability to get things started at the top of the order should help alleviate some of that pressure brought on by the NCAA Tournament.

Edrick Floreal and the Kentucky track and field program will host the SEC Championships this weekend. (Photo by Nick Agro) Edrick Floreal and the Kentucky track and field program will host the SEC Championships this weekend. (Photo by Nick Agro)
The plan, initially, was for Cally Macumber to run only the 5,000-meter race at the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.

The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.

Sensing an opportunity to score important points, Macumber said she wanted to run the 10,000 as well.

"That's 25 laps," Edrick Floreal said. "I don't even know if I'm that courageous to volunteer for that."

Macumber has only recently gotten healthy, running in two races in April after coping with "dings and dangs," in the words of her head coach. It would have been understandable for Macumber to want to focus solely on the 5,000 with the end of her collegiate career fast approaching.

Instead, she abandoned self-interest for the sake of her Kentucky team.

"That's kind of the character of this team: People are beginning to volunteer," Floreal said. "That's what I want. I want the kids to come to my office and say, 'Hey, I think I can do this event and get a couple points for you.' That's kind of what we've got going on right now."

The timing couldn't be better.

UK -- its women's team ranked sixth nationally and the men ranked No. 19 -- is set to host one of the nation's best track meets Thursday through Sunday. It's a big moment in the growth of a program only just beginning to tap into the vast potential Floreal sees in it.

"We planted the seed and it just broke ground a little bit," Floreal said. "I know we're excited about that but in my wildest dreams, I want to run out of trophy space."

Floreal, from the moment he left his head-coaching post at perennial power Stanford to come to Lexington, has preached the importance of hosting elite meets. There's a caveat though.

"There's nothing worse than hosting it and not to be so good," Floreal said. "It sort of exposes you to the fans that, 'Oh, we're not very good.' But the fact that we're pretty good and we're a contender and having it home, it makes it even more special. That's really what I'm excited about, that the fans are going to get a chance to see some quality kids compete against the toughest conference in the country."

There's no disputing the strength of the SEC.

On both the men's and women's side, eight of the teams ranked in the nation's top 20 will compete this weekend. Three 2012 Olympians will be in action with many more sure to join them in 2016.

"It's a tough conference to be good but that's sort of the signature: If you can be good here, you're truly good," Floreal said. "You can go in another conference and be a winner and that won't be good enough to be top eight here at the SEC, and that's what I wanted. I want to challenge myself and know that I'm good enough to compete at this level."

Not even two full years in, Floreal and the Cats are proving just that.

UK's men and women each finished in the top five at SEC Indoors a little more than two months ago, a first for the program since 1988. Since then, numerous individuals have established themselves among the nation's elite.

"I think we're moving in the right direction with the bodies we have and the way our kids are performing, having the fastest woman in the world on the team is not a bad deal at all and having kids lead the nation in multiple events," Floreal said. "I guess for me the cool thing is that we're good a little bit all over."

Not only has Dezerea Bryant posted the best all-conditions 100m time in the world this season, but Andrew Evans has the top discus throw in the United States in 2014, Kendra Harrison the top 100m hurdles time and Raymond Dykstra the second-best javelin throw. Hurdlers Kayla Parker and Leah Nugent, distance runners Matt Hillenbrand and Allison Peare are expected to contend for medals as well, but UK is even deeper than that.

"There's a bunch of kids of the team that you've probably never heard about that you're going to see this weekend that are going to shock the crap out of you," Floreal said.

Floreal says home-field advantage will help on that front. With a sense of comfort and family and friends in the stands, he expects many of athletes to reach another level.

"You know the track like the back of your hand, and that's good," Floreal said. "You go to somebody else's facility and the turns might be a little tight or the sand might be a different texture. But when you line up here, every day you train here so the nervousness kind of goes out of the way."

Some nervousness has been reintroduced by the cooler, rainy forecast for this weekend. At practice on Tuesday, Floreal overheard some such talk. He quickly put an end to it.

"I told the kids yesterday, they were kind of hoping that it doesn't rain, and I said, 'Stop,' " Floreal said. "We're not going to hope nothing. We're not going to hope that it doesn't rain or that it's sunny. We're going to hope that the race goes off on time and when it does go we're going to perform and compete.

"The No. 1 thing you have to do is represent your university and your teammates, whatever the weather is."

Floreal will accept no excuses. In fact, he wants the Cats to use the weather as another advantage.

"For me, I hope it rains cats and dogs. I hope everybody in the conference gets so tickled, so nervous because it's not perfect weather that our kids go out there and shine."

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