For months now, the Kentucky Wildcats have worked toward the Blue/White Spring Game.
It's been since November that the Cats have taken the field in front of a crowd, first dedicating themselves to UK's High Performance program and most recently toiling through a month of spring practice.
But with barely 24 hours to go before fans pack Commonwealth Stadium, the Cats weren't about to let a Friday practice go to waste.
"I think the guys are excited," Mark Stoops said. "It gets a little long towards the end of spring here at the end of our fourth week. But I was very pleased with the work we got done. I think we made progress even again today. It was good."
UK moved its final practice before the spring game indoors due to rain, working without pads. Stoops reported it was an efficient day, particularly in the passing game.
"Starting to make the routine plays look routine," Stoops said.
It's Stoops' belief that the progress UK has made since the end of the 2013 season will be on display on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. The thousands of fans expected to fill Commonwealth -- which will have a reduced capacity of approximately 42,500 due to ongoing construction -- certainly deserve a show.
"Appreciate the support," Stoops said. "I think the 40-some thousand that come out there this year are going to have more fun than they did last year when we hit 50. We'll be better. There will be more to cheer for. We look forward to it, appreciate the support. It's so helpful in so many ways, so we're going to have a good time."
Injuries have piled up as the spring has gone on, creating some stress for Stoops ahead of the spring game. But with Ryan Timmons, Thaddeus Snodgrass and Joey Herrick all expected to participate, UK will be "all right" at wide receiver -- the position hit hardest -- according to offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
The Cats will play this year's spring game with a very similar format to the one held last April. The game will pit first stringers vs. the rest of the team "for the most part," with a handful of players able to change sides if need be. The game is expected to feature 12-minute quarters.
"The first half will be normal outside of just shortened a little bit," Stoops said. "So we'll get after it the first half. The second half, if we're getting enough plays we may run the clock a little bit in the fourth quarter. But for the most part, it's gonna be a normal game outside of the live kicking situations."
There will be no returns on punts, no rush on field goals and no kickoffs. Quarterbacks will be protected from contact.
Speaking of the signal callers, a year ago Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles all were on the field for the spring game's first play. The move was both a show of the coaching staff's sense of humor an evidence of just how even the quarterback battle was.
This year, only one quarterback will be on the field to open the game. By no means is that quarterback guaranteed to start come August, but Stoops admitted the significance of the spring game starter should not be dismissed.
"I think it gives you a little indication," Stoops said. "I mean, sure. I'd be lying if I said (otherwise). Last year it really was a toss-up. This year, I think we're starting to narrow it down. We'll put the person out there with the first group that we think has earned the right to go out there with the first group tomorrow. I think it's very close still -- it's very close -- but we'll see."
Close as the battle still may be, improved quarterback play has been a consistent theme this spring. That, however, isn't the biggest reason for encouragement. The culture surrounding the program, as Stoops has always wanted, continues to change.
"I love the leadership," Stoops said. "I like the energy of our team. I think we're learning how to work, learning how to go about our business, and fundamentally we're improving. Because we're getting the leadership, we're getting the guys challenging guys, we're getting out there with a purpose and getting some work done."
The announcement triggered a torrent of excitement on the part of UK fans, an understandable feeling given the key roles the two 6-foot-6 twin brothers played in leading their team to the national championship game.
Explaining his decision to return just two days before the NBA's deadline to declare for the draft, Aaron Harrison cited that NCAA Tournament run.
"I'm coming back for a second season in large part because last year's title run was special, but we still have unfinished business," Aaron Harrison said.
Aaron Harrison started all 40 of UK's games as a freshman, averaging 13.7 points and 3.0 rebounds. Memorably, he hit game-winning 3-pointers against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to lift UK to within one victory of the ninth national championship the Cats will pursue again in 2014-15.
Andrew Harrison -- who started 39 games at point guard and averaged 10.9 points and a team-high 4.0 assists -- had that on his mind when he decided to bypass this year's draft.
"I'm returning for my sophomore season because I want to win a national title." Andrew Harrison said.
Calipari will of course be looking to coach UK to that national championship, but his first thought was about how he expects them to develop as they come back to Lexington.
"I'm excited about Aaron and Andrew's decision to return for next season," head coach John Calipari said. "Their postseason play was a result of the improvement they made all season and displayed what they're capable of doing on the court. I look forward to having the opportunity to work with them during the summer and watch them lead next year's team."
The team they will lead features a remarkable stockpile of talent. The Harrison twins are among nine McDonald's All-Americans on UK's 2014-15 roster. Willie Cauley-Stein -- who likely would have been a first-round draft pick this season had he declared -- is not included in that group.
Cauley-Stein was the first of six Wildcats to announce he would return to UK and was followed by Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and finally the Harrison twins.
They will combine with fellow scholarship returnees Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins to give Coach Cal his most experienced Kentucky team. Players responsible for 64.6 percent of UK's minutes played in 2013-14, 59.3 percent of its scoring, 54.2 percent of its rebounds and 67.3 percent of its assists will again be in the fold.
They will be joined by yet another highly touted recruiting class featuring Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Not long after the twins' decision, three of those incoming freshmen had already weighed in on social media, among others.
Even with the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Championships still to come, the Kentucky track and field teams can expect to compete in front of the biggest crowds they will see this season at this weekend's University of Pennsylvania Relay Carnival.
With over 100,000 fans annually in attendance over the duration of the week-long Penn Relays -- including an expected crowd more than 40,000 on Saturday -- the Penn Relays is arguably the most visible meet in collegiate track and field, although the championship meets are plenty prestigious.
So even with four weeks remaining till the start of the track and field postseason, the Penn Relays will mark the start of the home stretch for Kentucky's 2014 season.
As such, the meet will serve as a major benchmark for the Wildcats.
"The Penn Relays is a big-time event with big-time crowds," head coach Edrick Floreal said. "It truly is a track and field carnival unlike anything else. It's organized chaos. We go into this meet hoping its very competitive field as well as huge crowds and fast pace help prepare our team for what's to come in future weeks."
The organized chaos Floreal refers to is mostly a result of just how many athletes compete at the Penn Relays. There are entries from 1,020 high schools and 252 colleges, meaning not a minute is wasted in the meet schedule and as a result the positioning of runners to be in place for the start of races is intense.
But the UK coaching staff is hopeful the hectic atmosphere can help prepare the Wildcats to handle plenty of distractions when the time comes to race.
Six of the top 10 teams in the nation will compete at the Penn Relays, providing a similar level of competition to the 10 top-25 men's teams and eight top-25 women's teams in the SEC that will compete at the Conference Championships, hosted by UK in mid-May.
The main draw among collegiate races at the Penn Relays are the "Championship of America" relay races, from which the winners receive the famed Penn Relays wagon wheels.
Kentucky has won two Collegiate Championship of American wagon wheels all-time, but not since the 1996 men's sprint medley relay. The Wildcats won the woman's DMR in 1986.
This year the Wildcats boast their best chance in years to claim a Wagon Wheel from multiple relays.
Arguably their best chance will be in the women's sprint medley relay (Friday, 6:05 p.m. ET), where the Wildcats are the top seed after running an NCAA-leading 3:43.20 at the Florida Relays earlier this month.
The sixth-ranked Wildcat women's team also boasts top-10 4x100m and 4x400m relay teams, meaning they can be expected to field solid lineups in each of those events in addition to the 4x200m relay.
The UK men's team will also field some intriguing distance relay squads with entries in both the DMR, where they finished fifth at the SEC Indoor Championships last month and the 4xmile relay, which will be televised Saturday afternoon on NBCSN.
The Penn Relays will also include some intriguing individual events, including two-time SEC Champion Cally Macumber's 5,000-meter season debut (Thursday, 8:40 p.m. ET) and two national top-25 100m hurdlers in Kayla Parker and Leah Nugent (Friday, 4 p.m. ET).
Kentucky will also have throwers competing at UC San Diego's Triton Invitational and multiple competitors at the Bellarmine Classic this weekend.
Welcome to UK Gymnastics Championship Central. Follow this page for daily all-access updates on the UK gymnastics team during its postseason competition. Videos, photos, news, commentary and more from team headquarters at the SEC Championships, NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships, can all be found right here.
UK Among the Nation's Attendance Leaders | 2:25 p.m. ET
The national attendance rankings for the 2014 season have been released, and once again Kentucky is among the NCAA leaders. For the first time in program history, the Wildcats averaged over 3,000 fans per meet.
In 2014, the Wildcats are one of just eight schools, six of them from the SEC, to average more than 3,000 fans per meet and have a season high crowd over 5,000.
An average of 3,265 fans watched the Wildcats in four home contests in 2014, which ranks eighth nationally. UK is one of seven SEC teams to rank in the top 10 in average attendance, while all eight league teams are in the top 17.
Kentucky opened the season with Excite Night on Jan. 10, when 5,839 filled Memorial Coliseum, the biggest crowd at home since 2007 and third-largest since at least 1997. The total is ninth in the NCAA rankings of school's highest home meet attendance.
Thank you to the Big Blue Nation for their continued support this season, and we look forward to seeing you back in Memorial Coliseum in 2015!
Monday, April 21, 2014
Countdown to the 2015 Season | 11:40 a.m. ET
While Kentucky's season ended Friday, the official end to the 2014 season was yesterday at the NCAA Event Finals. After Florida and Oklahoma shared the NCAA title on Saturday, four individual national champions were crowned Sunday. The 2015 schedule will be released early in the fall, but the countdown to next season officially begins today, 263 days ahead of the season-opener.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Photos from the NCAA Championships & Back in Lexington | 3:15 p.m. ET
As we arrive back in Lexington, check out the photo gallery from the last three days at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala., on UK's Facebook page. Additionally, if you missed it, a full recap from the NCAA Championships, where UK made its first appearance since 2010, can be found here on UKathletics.com.
The 2014 season came to a close for UK yesterday at the NCAA Championships, and now we are on our way back to Lexington. A complete recap from the NCAA Championships first session, where senior Audrey Harrison finished tied for 18th on balance beam is here.
Friday, April 18, 2014
NCAA Championships Recap | 7:30 p.m. CT
A complete recap, results, video and more from Audrey Harrison's performance on beam in the NCAA Championships first session can be found here. Harrison finished in a tie for 18th with a 9.800. The score is tied for sixth-highest NCAA score in UK history on the event.
In session one, Oklahoma, Georgia and LSU advanced to tomorrow's Super Six team finals. The second session of the NCAA Championships semifinals is underway, with host-Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA and Utah.
Harrison Ties for 18th with UK's Sixth-Best Score in NCAA History | 4:40 p.m. CT
Senior Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on beam to finish tied for 18th among 45 competitors in session 1 of the national championships. The score is tied for the sixth-highest on beam at the NCAA Championships in program history. Only Jenny Hansen, who won eight national titles as a Wildcat, has recorded a higher score.
Complete results can be found here, and we caught up with Audrey after the competition, and that video can be found here or below. Audrey, the coaches and staff are heading to dinner now, before tonight's second session. We'll have much more from Birmingham towards the beginning of the second session, at 8 p.m. ET.
Harrison Scores a 9.800 | 3:15 p.m. CT
Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on balance beam. She currently is tied for 11th, shy of advancing to Sunday's individual finals. Through four rotations, a 9.900 is needed to place in the top four and advance.
Underway at the NCAA Championships | 1:05 p.m. CT
The teams, along with UK's Audrey Harrison, have been introduced, and we are about to get underway in the first session of the NCAA Championships. Fans can watch the full competition here on NCAA.com, or follow along with live results. Harrison will compete on beam with Georgia, in the fourth of six rotations.
NCAA Championships Meet Day is Here | 7:45 a.m. CT
The wait for Audrey Harrison and UK is almost over, the NCAA Championships begin today. The competition begins at 2 p.m. ET, and Harrison will compete in the fourth rotation on beam. Notes, stats, historical records and more are all available in the preview and meet notes on UKathletics.com. Harrison will be the first Wildcat since 2010 to compete at the national championship meet and the 10th UK gymnast in program history. She is the fourth to qualify on an individual event and the first on beam.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
NCAA Championships Notes | 4:20 p.m. CT
Notes for the NCAA Championships, which include info on UK's qualifier Audrey Harrison, Kentucky's NCAA Championships history, a recap of the 2014 season and more are available here and by clicking on the first page of the notes, below.
Championship Practice About to Begin | 1 p.m. CT
The practice session is wrapping up, and UK senior Audrey Harrison had a good practice on balance beam, her event at tomorrow's NCAA Championships semifinal. She will be in the same rotation as Georgia, so the practice also gave Audrey the opportunity to meet their team. We are heading to lunch now downtown, before having the rest of the afternoon and evening off.
Championship Practice About to Begin | 11:15 a.m. CT
The first NCAA Championships practice session, which includes UK senior Audrey Harrison, is about to begin here at the BJCC Arena in Birmingham. It is familiar territory for Harrison and UK coaches and staff, after the SEC Championships were held in the same venue nearly a month ago.
We just returned to the hotel after a great banquet in downtown Birmingham with the rest of the teams at this year's championships. The dinner had a great view of the city, and we were able to enjoy the end of a beautiful day outside, mingling with everyone before dinner. After dinner, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, a Birmingham native, performed. It was a great event to kick off a fun next few days here with the nation's best collegiate gymnasts.
Off to Birmingham | 11:45 a.m. ET
We are officially on the road to Birmingham, Ala., for the 2014 NCAA Gymnastics Championships. The travel party includes senior Audrey Harrison, head coach Tim Garrison, assistant coach Mary McDaniel, trainer Jake Smith and myself, Charlie Healy, the team's media relations director. The drive is expected to take about six and a half hours, and upon arrival in Birmingham, we will all go to the NCAA Championship banquet, with the other teams and individuals competing this weekend. Assistant coach Chuck Dickerson, along with many of Audrey's teammates, will join us on Friday.
It was a family reunion of sorts at the Nutter Training Facility on Wednesday, as Mark Stoops was joined on the practice field by brothers Mark and Mike.
Oklahoma -- where Bob and Mike serve as head coach and defensive coordinator respectively -- wrapped up spring practice earlier this month, so two of Mark's three older brothers took the opportunity to pay a visit to Lexington.
"We're going to go watch film and all that right now and everything," Mark Stoops said. "They came in last night and talked some football with us. It was good to have them."
Of course the Stoops brothers will spend some time catching up and enjoying themselves, but media watching the first half of practice on Wednesday saw firsthand that Mark Stoops will be calling on his brothers' expertise.
"That's what there here for," Mark Stoops said. "I mean, they're not here just for fun. You know, we've got to put them to work. ... We talk about ideas, ways to do things, different change ups, how they may play a certain formation or a certain adjustment. So it's good to have them here. I'm definitely going to utilize them while they're here to go watch some film of this practice and some previous spring practices and get some work done."
Bob Stoops even traded his normal crimson and cream for a UK pullover.
"They like to support us," Mark Stoops said. "He's proud to wear it. I'm sure he'll take that home with him."
Stoops reported the Wildcats had another "good, physical practice" with his brothers and John Calipari watching, including a period of solid work on short-yardage situations. UK continues to plug along through the final week of spring, battling through a number of injuries on both sides of the ball.
"It just happens," Stoops said. "That's the way it is. Some of them were through the winter with surgeries and some of them were dinged up in practice. The good news is, I think there's nothing major -- knock on wood -- nothing that's gonna keep guys out for the year. So we should be at 100 percent if we don't have anything new happen."
The latest injury is to sophomore wide receiver Jeff Badet, who broke his fibula on Monday. Stoops called the injury a clean break, meaning no surgery will be needed. Badet is expected to miss two-to-three months but heal in time for fall camp.
"He was alone," Stoops said. "It was a good play-action pass; he was wide-open. He kind of got underthrown and just a freaky accident."
Badet's injury is another short-term blow to UK's wide receiver depth, as is A.J. Legree's decision to transfer, which Stoops announced on Wednesday. As a result, Stoops is considering ways to minimize injury risk at Saturday's Spring Game while also still putting on a show for fans.
"It looks like I'm gonna split it up ones against everybody else," Stoops said. "So the only thing it'll change as far as the fans and things like that -- and most people do it -- you're gonna speed up the game somehow. We can't afford to take a whole boatload of reps. We're just thin. So we'll iron out all the details and tell you, but it'll be very similar to last year. Some type of abbreviated schedule."
It was never going to be a pitchers' duel on Tuesday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
With the nation's top offense in town and a brisk wind blowing out to left field, Kentucky would have to put up some crooked numbers to take down Tennessee Tech.
"You could tell in BP the wind was blowing out pretty good to all fields, really," Matt Reida said. "Both teams in BP, you could really tell it was going to be an offensive night. It was going to be a challenge for the pitchers."
It certainly was, as No. 17 UK (27-14) won a 15-13 slugfest.
"I am a guy that's in tune with which way the wind's blowing when we're playing," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "So, yes, I knew which way the wind was blowing and I knew we had a chance for this. I wouldn't have dreamed it would be quite like this."
Looking to sustain the momentum built last week in three road wins in four tries, UK turned to its offense to get the job done after facing a 7-1 deficit. Rather than fall into the trap of swinging for the fences, the Cats kept their disciplined approach and the runs followed.
"I thought we stayed very positive in the dugout," Henderson said. "I thought we stayed very patient in the box. A couple of times it got tight where we really needed a hit to get back into it and we got it."
UK chipped away with three in the bottom of the fourth, using three walks, two hits and a hit-by-pitch. The Cats would then pull to within one in the fifth with a two-run shot by JaVon Shelby. In the sixth, UK took its first lead with five runs an evening that featured 31 hits and 10 home runs.
"A great win by us," Henderson said. "Not a great game to watch, but a great win by our kids."
In the middle of everything was Reida.
The senior shortstop entered Tuesday night mired in an 0-for-11 slump, his batting average falling to .207 in the process. The lefty found his stroke early, doubling to left in the second inning, but it was his patience that got UK's rally started.
He walked to lead off the fourth and fifth innings, coming around to score both times. In a spot where pressing for extra bases would have understandable, Reida stayed within himself.
"They were throwing a lot of off speed to all of our guys," Reida said. "So it's tough to be patient, but we have such a good offense any type of lead for another team isn't a big concern for us, especially early."
If triggering the UK offense wasn't enough, Reida was rewarded in the sixth. With the bases loaded, Reida smoked his second double over the head over Tech centerfielder Jake Rowland to score the game-tying and go-ahead runs. An inning later, he added his first home run in 348 at-bats -- a stretch that dates back to his sophomore season -- on a solo shot.
"We always kind of give Matt a hard time about hitting home runs because he thinks he's a big power hitter," said a smiling A.J. Reed, the nation's leading home-run hitter. "So we were happy for him to get one. Finally he can back up a little bit of what he says."
The homer gave UK a 12-8 lead, but by no means was it safe. Tennessee Tech scored four in the top of the eighth to tie it on two-run blasts by Zach Stephens and Dylan Bosheers.
The Cats would answer in the bottom of the inning as Micheal Thomas hit a two-run homer. Later, Reida would add an important insurance run on a single to finish off his 4-for-4, four-RBI night before Kyle Cody closed it out with his fifth save.
"It's funny; baseball's a crazy game," Reida said. "Two days ago I feel lost and today everything coming off my bat's dropping.
"It's just a back-and-forth game. You try to stay positive and keep grinding away and the game will reward you."
Julius Randle declared for the NBA Draft on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was more than a year ago now that Julius Randle committed to Kentucky.
Just a few months later, he arrived on campus and began practicing with his teammates. Big Blue Madness, a tumultuous regular season and a magical NCAA Tournament were next on the docket.
As Randle sat at a podium announcing his decision to declare for the NBA Draft on Tuesday, he couldn't help but wonder where the time went.
"This season, this year, the more I think about it, it just went by fast," Randle said. "I'm definitely going to miss it. Kentucky will always have a special place in my heart. Growing up as a kid, it's always been my dream to play in the NBA, and there's no better opportunity for me to achieve that goal than now."
When Randle came to UK, he put thoughts of playing professionally on hold. Instead, he focused on building bonds with his team and playing for college basketball's ultimate prize.
The Wildcats came up one win short of the latter goal, but succeeded wildly when it came to the former. That's why Randle was able to make the decision to leave Lexington with his head held high.
"I know I came one game short of winning a national championship - we did as a team - but everything we went through this year is just an experience that I'll never forget," Randle said. "That alone was enough, kept me at peace to leave."
Short of beating Connecticut, Randle couldn't have accomplished much more in his short time as a Wildcat.
The 6-foot-9 forward arrived with a five-star pedigree and delivered. He was a dominant force from the beginning of the season onward in spite of facing double and triple teams after a 27-point, 13-rebound performance against Michigan State. Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds, garnering Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors in the process.
"I would say my one year here was fantastic because (John Calipari) goes into your home when he recruits you and he says, 'It's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done,' " Randle said. " 'You're going to work the hardest you ever did.' You say OK, but you may not believe it. But once you're in the fire, what he said is true."
After surviving the fire, Randle moves on to the next challenge. He's the No. 5 prospect on Chad Ford's Big Board and the No. 4 overall pick in Draft Express's 2014 mock draft. No matter where he lands, Coach Cal sees a bright future ahead.
"I truly believe that Julius will be an even better pro than a college player," Calipari said in a release. "He was Shaq'd (Shaquille O'Neal) all year - in every way. I really appreciate all that he did for this program and how he represented all of us throughout the entire year. I cannot wait to watch him shine at the next level."
While Calipari watches his former pupil in the NBA, Randle will be watching his former coach's team next season.
He had no insight to offer about the pending stay-or-leave decisions of Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, but Randle had plenty of good things to say about next year's team.
"I mean, we have so much talent," Randle said. "Willie (Cauley-Stein) coming back. We have Marcus (Lee). He was huge in the tournament. All the incoming guys. We have so much talent coming in next year. We're definitely going to make another run."
The use of first person is particularly telling because Randle isn't about to stop being a Wildcat even though he won't wear the uniform next year. With that in mind, he had some advice to pass on to his UK brethren, who figure to shoulder some of the same expectations Randle and last year's Cats had to cope with.
"I think that's why I was able deal with the criticism myself, because I never really fed into or really read anything or believed anything," Randle said. "I just tried to stay in my own little circle or little bubble and focused on the team and that's all I really cared about. As long as you're invested into the team, that's your total focus, investing into being a student-athlete then you won't really won't waver too much from the criticism or expectations."
As I rode with our men's basketball team from the airport to the celebration of a remarkable NCAA Tournament run, I was reminded of the deep ties we share with our fans. I saw the blue you wore and the pride on your faces and couldn't help but think about how important the Big Blue Nation is to all we do.
It's a fact we have never forgotten, but it bears repeating: None of this is possible without you, the fans. Without you, none of us -- student-athletes, coaches, staff -- would be here.
With that in mind, I am asking everyone involved with UK Athletics to make a renewed commitment to our fans. We will honor those deep ties by making sure you have great experiences when you invest time and money to support your Wildcats. We are going to put you, the Big Blue Nation, first.
Three core concepts will guide this effort:
1. We will compete for championships and make our fans proud.
I am incredibly proud of the work our Wildcats have done to make Kentucky as strong overall as it has ever been, culminating in the first top-25 finish in national all-sports standings in school history. For them to do it while also excelling in both the classroom and the community is even more impressive.
Now, just as I am asking my staff to take the fan experience to the next level, I am challenging student-athletes and coaches to build on that solid foundation and work to be the best department in the country and to continue to do it the right way. That's what the Big Blue Nation deserves.
We all share in this.
As a department, it is our job to give our teams the resources they need to compete for championships. With new and under-construction facilities across campus, I believe we are doing this. In all those venues, I ask you to help us create the best possible home-field advantage for all of our teams. I have seen and heard our fans be the difference in more games than I can count. We need you now more than ever.
2. We will provide a first-class game-day experience.
We know your experience on game day begins well before you enter the stadium. It starts when you are making plans to attend a game, continues when you are parking your car and doesn't end until the moment you arrive at home. For that reason, we will be intentional and transparent in all we do, from our ticketing process to enhancing the action on the field with music, audio and video.
No matter the venue, we want to create an atmosphere that tells fans they are at a Kentucky event. We will strive to create memories for fans, not only through the action on the field but also through one-on-one interactions with each and every one of you.
3. We will create a shared family atmosphere.
From children experiencing their first UK event to students supporting their school to fans who have been attending games for decades, we will create an atmosphere everyone can share. In doing this, we will ask fans to take an ownership role in the game-day experience by observing good sportsmanship, interacting positively with fellow fans and helping to take care of our facilities.
We have the best fans in the world and that will shine through in all we do. We truly appreciate you, the members of the Big Blue Nation. We will demonstrate this appreciation by connecting you to Kentucky like never before, using technology to supplement the game-day experience before, during and after events.
Though we will strive to be on the cutting edge, we will never forget where we come from. We share an incredibly special history and tradition and will always honor what it means to wear a Kentucky uniform.
Guided by these concepts, I formed a Fan Experience Committee with staff members from event management, marketing, ticketing and communications as we began the new year. We are meeting regularly to assess all aspects of our fan experience, but we need your help.
We want to know how we can best serve you. We want to know what we can do to give you the game-day experience you deserve. We are already investigating and refining on our own, but we need your input.
What can we do better? What are we already doing well? What have you seen at other sporting events that we should implement?
No suggestion is too big and none too small. From concessions to promotions to music selection, we want to know what matters to you. We are going to use every outlet available to us to listen to your feedback.
UK began the final week of spring on Monday, holding its 12th practice.
With just five days before the Blue/White Scrimmage on April 26, head coach Mark Stoops continues to like his team's direction.
"I think we're improving, competing," Stoops said. "Had a good third-down period today. So overall, we're still grinding it out, getting better and better each day. I like where we're going."
The only exception is on the injury front.
"Just getting some guys nicked up, and that's starting to bother me," Stoops said. "Nothing major -- I don't think anything major. Just guys that are going to be nicked up and maybe miss this last part of spring practice here."
That's frustrating to Stoops for a couple reasons, first because the improving Wildcats can use all the work they can get.
"We just need it," Stoops said. "You know, we have the spring, we have time to get guys back, but you're trying to find that good balance where you're getting good work in and competing as hard as we can, with staying healthy just so we can have good practices."
Stoops also has the fans in mind when he considers the Cats' bumps and bruises because of the upcoming Spring Game.
"A lot of it's for the fans," Stoops said. "And you want to get out there and put a good product on the field and have some fun. But we need to see where we're at."
UK's already thin receiving corps has been hit hard, the latest blow coming as sophomore Jeff Badet twisted an ankle on Monday. The Cats have been without Javess Blue and Alexander Montgomery throughout the spring, while Ryan Timmons, Thaddeus Snodgrass and Joey Herrick are contending with minor injuries.
"We're banged up a little bit at wideout," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Well, we're thin. Our numbers aren't where they should be. We've got to get -- we need more scholarship wideouts, we need more walk-on wideouts. We've got help coming. ... I think we're probably a year away from getting this thing, from a numbers standpoint, where it needs to be. We were grossly thin getting here, then we had some injuries this spring that definitely haven't helped."
The depth at receiver has added a wrinkle to the ongoing competition at quarterback between Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker. Brown has had to adjust on the fly to get them the work they need.
"That's why we were out here doing some extra work with me and (graduate assistant) Tyler (Sargent) catching the ball," Brown said. "Just because we don't have enough -- the quarterbacks aren't getting enough work right now, so we've got to build it in pre-practice and post-practice stuff to make sure they're getting enough reps of the stuff we're going to run." Brown on Monday practice
Nikki Sagermann's sixth-inning home run lifted UK to a 4-3 victory over Arkansas on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Rachel Lawson has gotten to know Nikki Sagermann well over the last two years.
So well, in fact, that Lawson can usually tell when her sophomore third baseman is primed for a good night.
"If she's comfortable and she's balanced and she's seeing the ball, you know you're going to get a good performance out of her through the entire game," Lawson said. "So I felt great about her from the get-go."
But through her first two at-bats against Arkansas on Friday night, Sagermann had only a walk and a hard-hit lineout to show for her coach's belief. Still, when she stepped to the plate to lead off the sixth inning in a 3-3 game, Sagermann was confident.
"I was seeing the ball really well and she got behind in the count," Sagermann said. "So I knew she had to come with something fat and I just jumped on it."
Ahead in the count, Sagermann capitalized, driving a 2-0 offering from Arkansas starter Sydney Wright over the fence in right center and propelling No. 8 UK (37-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) to a 4-3 win.
"She's just seeing the ball really well," Lawson said. "She's locked in, she's playing good team softball and it's coming a lot easier to her right now. Nikki's a great player for us and that's what she does well. Hopefully she'll keep it going."
Sagermann sustained the momentum she built last Sunday, when she hit two home runs in UK's sweep-clinching win at Ole Miss. The second of her homers came in the 10th inning, starting a seven-run rally.
Her three home runs in two games -- and back-to-back game winners -- are making her slow start to 2014 a distant memory. At the start of SEC play, Sagermann was batting .184 with just one home run. Now, she has nine homers, it batting .270 and has RBI in 11 of her last 15 games.
"It could be seeing more pitches because at the beginning of the year it's been a while since we've seen live pitching," Sagermann said. "But honestly I don't like thinking of the beginning of the season because obviously they're not great memories. I like to remember the good ones."
Lawson still remembers the slow start, but she's glad Sagermann has it going now.
"I hope she doesn't make it a habit over the next two years," Lawson said, "but what's important is once SEC play started, she's done a great job for us. She's a gamer, she really understands pitchers, she understands the game, she understands how to be a hitter and I think she's one of the better hitters in the league."
Starting the game similarly to the way Sagermann started her season, UK fell behind Arkansas 3-0 due to some sloppy defense and quiet bats. The Cats, however, capitalized on two Razorback errors to score three runs in the bottom of the fifth.
"What I liked is we put ourselves in a hole early with our poor defensive plays, but the team was able to stay focused, stay in the game," Lawson said.
Helping the cause was sophomore Kelsey Nunley, who excelled in an unfamiliar Friday-night bullpen role. Nunley (18-4) replaced Meagan Prince to start the fourth inning, pitching four shutout innings and allowing just one hit.
"She was throwing the ball hard," Lawson said. "She had command of all of her pitches. She looked good and you could tell. Arkansas is a great hitting team. They average seven runs a game. So the fact that she could come in here and shut them out really says a lot about her performance."
Nunley's performance kept UK in it until the sixth inning, when Sagermann stepped in fairly certain something good was about to happen.
"I just can tell when I'm seeing it and when I'm not," Sagermann said.