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Things were just getting started.
Kentucky was center stage all season in both men's and women's basketball, culminating in nine combined wins in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, the men took home the big prize, while UK Hoops advanced to its second Elite Eight in three seasons.
As if the tournament runs weren't enough on their own, Kentucky is still reaping the benefits of all the March victories in the Capital One Cup standings. The national championship earned 60 points for UK in the men's standings, lifting the school all the way to second with 66 points, trailing only North Carolina. In the women's standings, UK now sits in a tie for 23rd place with Virginia, meaning Kentucky is one of eight schools in the NCAA to rank in the top 25 of both men's and women's standings.
With baseball and men's tennis ranked each ranked in the top 10, UK is poised to make a run at the top spot in the men's standings this spring. Capital One will award a combined $400,000 in student-athlete scholarships and the Capital One Cup trophy to the winning schools at the ESPY awards in July.
Learfield Sports has also released updated standings in the race for its prestigious Directors' Cup, which combines both men's and women's sports. Contributions from men's and women's basketball, rifle and men's and women's swimming and diving have carried UK all the way to No. 21 in the latest standings.
The Wildcats really wanted to win a fourth consecutive title in 2011. You can call them greedy, but when UK was dethroned by Alabama last season at the College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships, the Cats had no intention of experiencing second place again anytime soon.
"We won three in a row and just weren't able to get that fourth one," head coach Jomo Thompson said after the 2011 competition. "We just have to use it and focus hard on next year."
For the following 362 days, the Wildcats prepared for the 2012 Universal Cheerleading Association National Championship fueled by the disappointment of falling short. On Sunday, the UK cheerleaders returned the title to Lexington, Ky., yet again.
"I thought the kids did really well," Thompson said. "We had a good performance. We still had a couple mistakes, not major ones, so it wasn't quite the perfection that we wanted but it was good enough to beat our competition."
That pursuit of perfection is part of what has made UK cheerleading the dynasty that it is. Kentucky has won 19 of 28 UCA national championships dating back to 1985 and 15 in the last 18 years. UK won eight in a row from 1995-2002 and three straight twice in 2004-06 and 2008-10.
Thompson has now won seven championships as UK's head coach to go with the six he won as a team member and assistant. Each of the three times the team has fallen short of the title in his 10-year tenure, the Wildcats have rebounded to win the following year, which says all you need to know about the character of everyone involved with the program.
"I know most people would be happy with second place, but at Kentucky, we're used to getting first place and that's our goal," Thompson said. "When we don't get it, it's not that we're not appreciative of being up that high, but our goal is always to win the competition. That's the level of expectation that we have for this program. To always be able to come back and answer says a lot."
To answer in 2012 meant UK had to up the ante in its already difficult routine. The judges in 2011 awarded the title to Alabama largely because they perceived the stunts the Crimson Tide performed as more difficult than UK's. This time around, the Cats weren't going to let that happen.
"That's one of the critiques that the judges had: that Alabama did more than us last year," Thompson said. "We wanted to make sure we had the most stunts and the most difficulty out of anyone. We did that."
Even with all UK's historical success, but the talented group of coaches and team members is constantly challenging themselves to innovate.
"It's a creative process," Thompson said. "It's getting all the kids together, thinking about things, brainstorming and coming up with new and exciting ideas. I've been doing this for going on 13 years now and think sometimes we'll run out of ideas, but every year we're able to come up with things that have not been done."
Kentucky's difficult routine was not without a couple mistakes, but the fact that the Cats were able to perform in a high-pressure situation makes them deserving champions. While most athletic teams have dozens of chances to compete and hone their craft, the cheerleading title is decided in one weekend and just a few routines.
UK prepares for the pressure by performing in front of big crowds at high school events. The Wildcats also had a sort of final dress rehearsal at the last men's basketball home game in Rupp Arena on Jan. 7, which helped alleviate some of the anxiety once they were in competition.
"There's nothing like the actual experience of doing it, but if you can kind of trick yourself into thinking, 'Alright, this is it, I've got to get this done,' it makes it a little bit easier to cope when you actually get down there and it's time to do the real thing," Thompson said.
With the title now won, the cheerleaders will have a much-needed week off to rest of focus on schoolwork. Once they do return to practice, the Cats will assume their traditional role at UK events. In traveling with UK's second-ranked men's basketball team throughout a potential tournament run, the cheerleaders fully expect to be performing in late March and early April.
"We'll try to do some new things for the basketball games because we firmly believe our basketball team is going to bring home a national championship this year," Thompson said. "We want to make sure that when we go out and we're in tournament play and in the (Southeastern Conference), that we're the best cheerleaders along with the best basketball team."
On Sunday, Kentucky cheerleading returned the Universal Cheerleader Association Championship to where it has spent most of the last 28 years.
For a record 19th time, the Wildcats won the UCA national title at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. UK finished ahead of second-place Alabama, who ended a streak of three consecutive Kentucky titles in 2011.
"Kentucky has climbed the mountain once again and we stand alone," UK coach Jomo Thompson tweeted. "Championship #19 is coming home!"
The championship is UK's fourth in five years and seventh in nine. UK has failed to win the national championship just three times since 1995 and has reclaimed the title in the following year each time.
UK's title-winning routine can be seen above and full results of the competition can be seen here.
The Kentucky dance team also participated in the final round of national competition this weekend. Coach Dawn Duncan Walters and the Wildcats brought home a sixth-place finish in the Pom category and eighth place in Hip Hop.
Congratulations to both the cheerleading and dance teams!
Between volleyball's trip to the Sweet 16, the return of women's soccer to the NCAA Tournament and both basketball programs earning top-10 rankings nationally, it was a banner fall for University of Kentucky athletics.
However, the field of play wasn't the only place where UK excelled in the first semester of the 2011-12 academic year.
The Wildcats were truly student-athletes this fall, as Kentucky's 20 Division I teams combined for a mean team grade point average of 3.086 among student-athletes on scholarship. The average scholarship student-athlete GPA for the fall was 2.979, just short of UK's goal of a 3.0 GPA across the department.
"We had more than 50 kids with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and we almost got to the 3.0 as a department so I'm pleased with our effort," Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said. "We came dangerously close again and we want to get past that. I thought everybody gave great effort. I thought the kids showed improvement and have clearly taken interest in their academics."
Of those 20 teams, 15 posted a GPA of 3.0 or better. Leading UK were 36 scholarship athletes and 56 total student-athletes with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Moreover, 185 scholarship athletes and 243 total student-athletes earned a 3.0 or better.
***See below for complete grade information for each sport***
Conventional knowledge about college sports says that success in athletic competition comes at the cost of academic performance, but that's something Barnhart and the UK administration are unwilling to accept.
"We want to put to bed the myth that you can't do both, that you can't be in athletics and do well academically because you can't focus on both," Barnhart said.
In talking to UK student-athletes and coaches about the state of the program, the word "community" is nearly inevitable. The Wildcats do not exist on an island separated from other athletic teams or the university as a whole, and a commitment in the classroom is a key component in that sense of community.
"We talk about the pillars of our program and clearly education is a big piece of that," Barnhart said. "Our job is to prepare them to compete well and have an opportunity to walk out and be a viable member of society. They cannot do that without their degrees."
To succeed in the classroom, UK student-athletes rely on the guidance of the Center for Academic and Tutorial Services (CATS). From the moment each student-athlete arrives on campus, CATS advisers are a key component of the academic experience.
CATS takes an active role in the academic success of UK student-athletes, but without coaches delivering the message of the importance of excelling in the classroom, this fall's high GPA would not have happened.
"The wonderful thing about what we have is that our coaches are committed personally to education," Barnhart said. "Having coaches that buy into it and believe in it and make the commitment to make sure student-athletes are performing off the field makes it possible."
While fall 2011 gives reason to pause and celebrate what the Wildcats have done both on the field and in the classroom, it's not an endpoint. Barnhart has his sights set on the elusive goal of a 3.0 GPA across the department as a whole for the entire school year, but his aspirations don't end there.
"Having an entire department, all our athletes above 3.0 at the University of Kentucky would be a great thing," Barnhart said. "That doesn't mean that's the ceiling."
|Sport||All Student-Athletes||Scholarship Only|
|Men's cross country||3.19||3.30|
|Women's cross country||3.47||3.51|
|Men's swimming and diving||2.71||3.03|
|Women's swimming and diving||3.34||3.35|
|Men's track and field||2.87||3.00|
|Women's track and field||3.41||3.46|
|Average by sport||3.066||3.086|
|Average by student-athlete||2.932||2.979|
On Thursday, Kentucky deputy director of athletics Mark Coyle accepted an offer to become the new athletics director at Boise State University. In July of 2010, Coyle succeeded Rob Mullens, who left Kentucky to become the athletics director at the University of Oregon.
"I'm incredibly excited for Mark and his family," Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart said. "Mark has been a great asset to the University of Kentucky over the last seven years and I'm happy that he's getting this opportunity. The work he's done in terms of facilities and donor relationships has been tremendous. Boise State made a great choice and he'll be missed by the Wildcat family. Mark is ready and capable to lead a Division I program. We wish him, Krystan, Grace, Nicholas and Benjamin nothing but the best."
Coyle played a key role in the functions of UK's athletic department, assisting Barnhart in its overall direction. He also oversaw the day-to-day activities of Kentucky's tradition-rich basketball program.
Before stepping into his role as deputy director of athletics, Coyle served as the senior associate athletics director for external affairs, directing the marketing, fundraising licensing and ticket units of the department.
Coyle joins Mullens and Scott Stricklin as understudies of Barnhart to move on to athletics director jobs. Stricklin is currently in that role at Mississippi State University after serving as associate athletics director for media relations.
Coyle arrived in Lexington in 2005 from the University of Minnesota, recognizing what Barnhart was building at UK.
He graduated from Drake University in 1991, where he was a three-year letterman as a wide receiver on the football team. He subsequently earned graduate degrees from Drake and Florida State University.
Coyle will move to Boise, Idaho with his wife and three children.