All-around champion Audrey Harrison led UK to an Excite Night win on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With nerves rattling and his Kentucky gymnastics team still very much still a work in progress, Tim Garrison knew Excite Night wouldn't go perfectly.
Hosting the season's first meet, that was actually the point.
"What we wanted to see was fight, grit," Garrison said. "If they struggled to not let it affect them. And that's exactly what we saw tonight."
It was on display within the first few routines.
UK opened on vault and the second and third Wildcats up -- Kayla Hartley and Shelby Hilton -- posted scores of 9.400 and 9.600, respectively. But rather than let the early disappointment affect them, the Cats responded with solid routines by Shannon Mitchell, Kenzie Hedges and Holly Cunningham.
"They very easily could have put their heads down and given up on them," Garrison said. "They didn't. They took a step forward, pulled their chest up and performed well for the rest of the way."
With vault behind them, the No. 21 Cats went on to take down No. 15 Penn State (193.975), West Virginia (193.700) and Ball State (190.875) in Memorial Coliseum. The 5,839 fans in attendance loved every moment, from pre-meet festivities to the final routine on floor.
"It was electric," Garrison said. "It was a fun night. When one of our athletes would hit a landing, the whole place would just go crazy. That's what we want to bring back three weeks from now when we come back and compete here."
UK's final score initially came in at 194.900, but an inquiry into two different starting scores yielded an extra tenth of a point and gave the Cats a 195.000, as well as a psychological boost.
"It makes a big difference hearing 194, even if it's a 194.9, to a 195 because we wanted to at least get a 195,"Audrey Harrison said. "It wasn't our best at all, but it's definitely good start."
Harrison won her 12th-career all-around title on Friday with a 39.075, turning in a performance representative of her team's. She was disappointed in her bar routine after she scored a 9.700, but was undeterred. She followed it up with a 9.850 on beam and a 9.825 on floor, her two best scores of the night.
"Tim was telling us at the end and all throughout that he liked the fight because we didn't give away anything," Harrison said. "Someone could have fallen but they didn't and they saved it. We saw that on each event where people were trying not to give away anything to get the highest score possible."
Though Harrison was in a familiar role as UK's top all-arounder, many of her teammates found themselves in new positions.
Hilton competed in all-around for the first time as a Wildcat, scoring a 38.700. She will surely post higher scores as the season goes on, but Garrison called her effort "special" nonetheless. Mitchell, meanwhile, had a 9.725 in her first vault routine and true freshman Montana Whittle a 9.775 on bars, her first college routine.
"It's just a good experience," Harrison said. "We had a lot of new people out there tonight, so having this meet under their belt's going to help. We're just to take that excitement, keep the fight and then just give away even less next time."
Throughout the offseason, Garrison has said he wants consistency to be the hallmark of his team. In terms of technique, the Cats aren't there yet. But as they prepare for arguably the nation's toughest schedule, their approach is looking good.
"We were consistent because we were consistently fighting," Garrison said. "We didn't hit everything. It was definitely not a flawless night, but it was a night where we were able to come back from subtle mistakes that were made and make a good show of it."
For more than nine months, the No. 21 Kentucky gymnastics team has thought about this moment.
After UK's record-setting 2013 season ended with a program-best score in the NCAA Regionals, Tim Garrison and the Wildcats immediately set their sights on their 2014 debut.
At Friday's annual Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic, the long wait ends.
"It's the first meet of the year and we're obviously very excited about the opportunity to get out here and compete," head coach Tim Garrison said. "We have been training, going on four months now, so the girls are kind of chomping at the bit to get going."
Garrison has been pleased with his gymnasts' approach throughout the offseason, including at UK's Blue/White Meet last month. There, the Cats got a flavor for what meets will be like. Some athletes proved to themselves they were ready for the big stage; others learned they had some fine-tuning to do.
With No. 15 Penn State, West Virginia and Ball State set to offer UK its first live competition of the season at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, Garrison expects the Cats to step up.
"I think we have some competitors on this team that are excited about the work, but are more excited about the competition," Garrison said. "Once you get on the competitive floor, most of the time they are going to bring their game to a different level and that's what I am looking for out of this group."
Garrison will also be looking for consistency. With the Cats still building toward routines with a higher degree of difficulty through training and recruiting, he knows success will come from steadiness.
He wants that to be just one part of his team's identity.
"I want them to be an excited group," Garrison said. "I want them to be a tough group. I want them to be fighters. I want them to be scrappy. I want them to come out of the meet tomorrow knowing if something happens or there is a slip-up here or there, that the next five will take care of it and make their routines."
It's Garrison's hope that that resilience is so plain to see that the big crowd there for Excite Night festivities will leave Memorial thinking about it.
"That is another thing that I asked the athletes to do is develop an identity, but not only for themselves, but for the fan base," Garrison said. "I want them to be excited, even if someone has a slip-up here and there. I want that fan to come back because they saw that athlete and how they reacted after and anticipation for the next time knowing they are going to hit it."
The athletes hitting those routines for UK will be familiar to fans.
Audrey Harrison -- who led the Southeastern Conference in all-around titles a season ago -- will once again anchor the lineup as a senior. Redshirt junior and All-SEC performer Kayla Hartley will likely compete on vault, bars and floor, where she will serve as UK's anchor.
Returners Holly Cunningham, Kayla Sienkowski, Shelby Hilton, Tiara Phipps, Marissa Beucler, Kenzie Hedges and Shannon Mitchell will all play a part as well, but it's not yet clear how UK's lineup will look. That will make Friday a learning experience for everyone, from athletes to coaches.
"Even though we have a lot of returners from last year's team, we are still playing around with some lineups and changing things around and will be very fluid even through the warm-up tomorrow," Garrison said. "We're going to learn a lot and they are going to learn a lot and it will make us better in the following weekend."
For that reason, Garrison won't measure his team's success this season until much later.
He hopes to settle on a lineup sometime around Sara Shipley's anticipated return from injury in late February or early March. Since UK is facing what many believe to be the nation's toughest schedule, some bumps in the road are surely in store for the Cats because of that.
"Trust me; I want to win worse than anything," Garrison said. "I don't like losing. It is not my makeup. But, at the same time, we are competing against tough competition and we are getting better every weekend and are really building this team for the future."
Whenever Garrison refers to the future, his meaning is twofold.
First, he's looking to lift his current team to its fullest potential. That was proven by the Cats posting their highest-ever Regional Qualifying Score in 2013, as well as setting a record with a 196.775 against the same Penn State team that will compete in Memorial on Friday.
But second, Garrison's goal of making Kentucky a perennial power on both the SEC and national scenes is never far from his mind.
"Part of this group right here is going to be there when I think that comes to fruition, so we want to go against tough competition every weekend," Garrison said.
Tim Garrison will begin his third season as Kentucky gymnastics head coach in January. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Nearly three years ago when he was named head coach, Tim Garrison spelled out his vision for Kentucky gymnastics.
He emphasized the importance of training and conditioning. He talked of confidence and raising his student-athletes' expectations for their own performance.
Though he knew nothing would happen overnight, Garrison still had a clear picture of what the future would hold.
"Success breeds motivation," Garrison said in April 2011. "Once you get a little success going, you start to get wins against some SEC teams that we are going to be seeing. That's how you take those steps."
Two seasons in, what Garrison foresaw is beginning to come to pass.
The Wildcats are fresh off a 2013 season that, by almost any measure, was the best in school history. UK posted a record Regional Qualifying Score of 196.06 and knocked off three conference opponents for the first time ever.
Nearly every gymnast from that record-setting team returns in 2014, creating a sort of cycle of success.
"You can call it motivation, you can call it whatever you want, but I think what it is is they expect to do well now," Garrison said on Friday. "So they're motivated because they want to do well. In order to do well, they've got to work hard."
As UK prepares for its season-opening Excite Night meet on Jan. 10, the Cats aren't out to duplicate what they did a year ago. They want much, much more.
For example, Kentucky is ranked No. 21 in the GymInfo preseason coaches' poll. It matches UK's final 2013 ranking and is the highest preseason ranking in school history, but Garrison's reaction to it is not what you might expect.
"We were disappointed with that," he said.
It's not that Garrison isn't pleased with the progress his team has made. He is. He knows the work it's taken to reach this point because he's been there every step of the way.
What his words reflect is a steadfast refusal to accept the status quo, even when the status quo is UK's best ever. Even as the Cats set a school record with a 196.775 to cap off their first ever streak of four consecutive meets scoring a 196 or better, Garrison saw even more potential for immediate growth.
"For me, I look at where we could be and the things that we gave away and the things that we need to correct," Garrison said. "It's always about improving and I think our team has taken that on also."
Fully embracing that attitude is a senior class that will be called on to set the tone for the team.
In Garrison's first two seasons, UK had to cobble together leadership from unlikely sources. But now, with Audrey Harrison, Holly Cunningham, Kayla Sienkowski and Kayla Hartley (a redshirt junior) having established themselves as consistent performers, Garrison will look to his seniors.
"They've just grown up a lot," Garrison said. "They've grown up and matured, which is something we were looking for. I don't think they knew what was up and down when we first got here. Now they know what to expect and they can help others with that perspective they've gained."
Harrison will be called on to be UK's top overall performer once again. As a junior, she led the SEC in all-around titles. Cunningham will look to post big scores on beam and vault and Garrison believes she could score a perfect 10 on the latter. Sienkowski will be asked to provide a steady presence on beam and floor, while Hartley will compete on bars, vault and -- most importantly -- floor, where she will be UK's anchor.
The leadership of the group was put to the test last week by some preseason adversity, when UK learned that All-SEC performer Alexis Gross had been lost for the season to a torn elbow ligament. When Garrison told the team the news last Thursday, he got exactly the response he wanted.
"We talk about that, but they already accept it," Garrison said. "They didn't, any of them, seem like they were devastated by it. Obviously we feel bad for Alexis first, we feel bad for the team second, but we're going to get through it."
Gross's absence will hurt depth, but it has not changed expectations.
As Garrison continues to recruit, UK will incorporate more and more difficulty into its routines. For now, it's about consistency.
"This year, we're looking for clean and consistent," Garrison said. "Hopefully what fans are going to see is us hitting every routine with rare exception, sticking landings and just executing very, very well."
That doesn't mean fans won't be in for plenty of entertainment in Memorial Coliseum this winter.
On floor, Garrison is pleased with UK's enhanced choreography and music. His belief was further reinforced at the team's Blue/White Intrasquad meet, when a judge came away with a similar feeling.
And once again, UK will face one of the nation's best schedules. The Cats will play host to four ranked teams in 2014, including top-ranked and defending national champion Florida. In addition, UK will take on No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Georgia and No. 10 Nebraska away from home.
"We're just gluttons for punishment, basically," Garrison said. "We ask for it."
It all begins at home against No. 15 Penn State, West Virginia and Ball State.
"The nice thing about starting this year in a quad meet is the fact there's a lot to watch for the people that are going to be in the stands," Garrison said. "That's going to be a fun environment just to have gymnastics going on everywhere."
Last season, UK fell to Penn State in posting that school record and saw West Virginia at NCAA Regionals, meaning Excite Night will present an immediate test.
That's the idea.
"We go against tough competition, but at the end of the year we're going to be that much tougher," Garrison said. "Nothing's going to surprise us. We should go into the SEC Championship and say, 'Alright, here we go. This is just another one.' "
Gymnastics coach Tim Garrison finally took some time off this summer after a record-breaking season in 2013. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Usually vacation for UK gymnastics coach Tim Garrison and his family is just a recruiting visit masquerading around as a trip to a new and exciting location. The Garrisons have been to Florida, Virginia and even Hawaii among other places on trips that each was planned around something gymnastics-oriented.
This summer, the Garrisons were off to California, not to recruit, but to attend a wedding of one of Tim's former club gymnasts that had asked his children (Taige 12, Teagan 11 and Reece 3) to be a part of the ceremony. It was yet another gymnastics-centric trip, even though no actual work was scheduled.
So the Garrisons packed up, drove up I-71 to the Cincinnati Airport, and boarded the plane in late May on their way to the West Coast.
Garrison's wife Rachel - at the time six months pregnant - began to feel light headed once the cabin closed and the plane began to pressurize. So Garrison alerted the flight attendants and got Rachel some oxygen. All was well.
The plan began to approach the runway. The pilot took to the intercom system to address the passengers and alert them that they were next for takeoff. But then Rachel began feeling faint once again.
So for the second time, Garrison pressed the button to alert the flight attendants. It was becoming less and less likely that the Garrisons were going to make it to California. Garrison ultimately made the decision that that would be the case, and the plane turned around and was taxied back to the gate.
Flying was not an option, and the Garrison's weren't going west.
Unsatisfied with the thought of staying put, Garrison left traveling up to Rachel.
"I said, 'Well, forget that. You find a place we can drive to and we're going," Garrison said to his wife.
So Rachel settled on two destinations: Destin, Fla. and Hilton Head, S.C. With Memorial Day weekend on the horizon, Destin was out of the question, so they settled on Hilton Head, and it couldn't have worked out much better if they had planned that out from that start.
"I mean you talk about the best vacation ever," Garrison said. "We sat on the beach, the hotel was right on the water, had three or four different kinds of pools. They had a cafe right on the water and a wooden deck overlooking the beach."
The best part about all of it? No gymnastics. Well, for the most part, anyway.
"Rachel understood when I had to take a phone call because I was only gone for five minutes and then back to vacation again," said Garrison.
In the past, he was happy just to get away from the office and spend some time with his family, but with limited work obligations, Garrison never realized just how crucial it was to spend legitimate time to recharge the batteries.
"I don't think I knew how important it was until I did it," said Tim Garrison. "It was one of those deals where you go through it and you're like, 'Yeah, that was needed.' That kind of thing. Yeah, it was nice to not have anything to do with it for a week, even though I was still answering emails and calls.
"It was great because I got to connect again with my family and not go recruit and rush off from the hotel. I didn't have to leave at all."
As enjoyable and relaxing as Hilton Head was, that wasn't the only family time that he was able to spend so far this summer. Last Christmas, Garrison bought his daughters tickets to the One Direction concert in Louisville, Ky. The concert just happened to fall on a weekend: a Sunday.
One Direction, if you're not familiar, is a huge hit boy band with quite a following that is made up primarily of girls in the age range of 8-16 (roughly). The date of the concert was not only a Sunday, but it also happened to land, unbeknownst to Garrison, on June 16, otherwise known as Father's Day.
"I had no idea. Had no idea," said Garrison. "But really, it was a great Father's Day because they were so happy."
Taige and Teagan as sisters could not have much more different personalities. Garrison describes Taige as a "girly-girl" that can be shy until you get to know her. Tegan, on the other hand, is like, "Whatever, dude. That kind of girl."
So as One Direction was introduced to the stage -as the screams of tens of thousands of screaming girls pierced the eardrums of the patrons occupying the KFC Yum! Center - Garrison took video footage of his girls instead of watching the introduction itself. And those exact personalities manifested on camera.
"It was so funny to watch, if you didn't know them at all, their personalities were revealed as soon as One Direction was introduced," said Garrison. "It was cute. I'm filming them and not paying attention to what's going on the stage and Taige bawls. She is just bawling and crying. Real tears streaming down her face. And Tegan is just like, 'Yeah!' and jumping up and down. And that was perfect. That was them to a T."
Garrison also said that after that experience that it might be his first and last One Direction concert.
"I think I'd rather stick my head into a jet engine rather than do that again," Garrison said. "I actually really enjoyed the show, but once that Harry (Styles) would start talking it was like someone had an ice pick drilling into my ears."
The fun and games are for all intents and purposes over for the summer, however, as Garrison and his staff make their final preparations for camp, which is up to 145 campers, and the third straight season in which the camps have grown. The growth is no surprise, however, after Garrison has made great strides in just two seasons at UK as his Wildcats have rewritten the record books.
With their success and a more visual presence on television and other media outlets, the word is spreading about Garrison's program. As soon as camp is finished, it will be time to get back in the gym and continue to build on the foundation that's been laid in the past couple of seasons.
"All of these things that point to us being better this year, we've got to avoid thinking like that," Garrison said. "Other than gaining confidence from it, but thinking you're good to the point that you're inactive, that's what we need to avoid."
If Garrison's team can remain as active and enjoy their time in the gym as much as he has this summer, Kentucky will be in for a banner year in 2014.
The University of Kentucky celebrated its 146th May Commencement on Sunday. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
During the University of Kentucky's 146 May Commencement on Sunday, 49 UK student-athletes received degrees. Forty-seven earned undergraduate diplomas and two received graduate degrees.
(Note: Includes student-athletes who received degrees after their completing eligibility.)
Baseball Thomas McCarthy Zac Zellers (Will complete coursework this summer)
Football Aaron Boyd La'Rod King Quentin McCord Craig McIntosh Kevin Mitchell Matt Smith Taylor Wyndham (Note: 2012 seniors Mikie Benton, Gabe Correll, Gene McCaskill, Morgan Newton, Cartier Rice, Collins Ukwu, Steven Duff and Sam Simpson graduated previously.)
Gymnastics Caitlyn Ciokajlo Storey Morris Whitney Rose
Men's basketball Twany Beckham Marquis Estill Jon Hood Jarrod Polson (Graduated in three years) (Note: Jamal Mashburn also received an honorary doctorate of humanities.)
Men's golf Joseph Barr
Men's soccer Pedro Andreoni Gabriel Conelian Barry Rice
Men's swimming and diving Jon Bullock Jon Keltner Ben Russell
Rifle Heather Greathouse
Softball Chanda Bell Kara Dill (Graduate degree in exercise science) Alice O'Brien Erika Silence
Track and field Katy Achtien Keith Hayes Ben Mason (Will complete coursework this summer) Chelsea Oswald Shiara Robinson Josh Nadzam (Masters of social work) Danielle Sampley Rashaud Scott Samantha Stenzel Hiruni Wijayaratne Megan Wright
Volleyball No graduates this weekend, but seniors Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann had already graduated.
Women's basketball - The 2012-13 season was the most successful in program history with school records of 30 wins and eight victories over top-25 opponents. The Wildcats tied a school-record with 13 Southeastern Conference wins and advanced to their school-record fourth Elite Eight in the last four years, including second straight. - UK has charted 25 or more wins in a school-record four straight seasons. - Seniors A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson leave as the winningest class in UK Hoops history with a 111-30 record (.787). - Mathies ends her career as UK's all-time leader in steals (320), games played (140) and started (139), while ranking second in scoring (2,014), 3-point field goals made (177) and field goals attempted (1,687), third in field goals made (712), free throws made (413) and attempted (590) and ninth in assists (349).
Gymnastics - The Kentucky gymnastics team posted the program's highest-ever NCAA Regional team score with a 195.575 on Saturday. - Kentucky finished in fourth-place overall just .45 outside of second position. - Audrey Harrison finished in a tie for third for the individual all-around title with a score of 39.2, but tied for the highest AA score among competitors not on a team advancing to regionals. - Alexis Gross earned a career-high all-around score 39.05, in her first meet competing in all four events during a single meet this season. Softball - The Kentucky softball team finished a 3-1 week with a sweep over Southeastern Conference foe South Carolina over the weekend, moving its SEC winning streak to a school-record tying six games. The streak began with a sweep of Mississippi State a few weeks ago. - True freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend with a 2-0 record and a 2.50 ERA. Nunley is an impressive 17-4 on the year with a 2.09 ERA with her 17 wins moving her into a tie for fourth on UK's single-season wins list with Morgan Marr, who had 17 in 2001. Nunley is the first UK pitcher to post 17 or more wins in a season since Chanda Bell had 18 in 2010. Junior Lauren Cumbess went 1-0 on the weekend, clinching the sweep with a strong seven-inning performance on Sunday, allowing three runs on seven hits with four strikeouts. Cumbess led UK at the dish over the weekend by going 5-for-10 with a double, two home runs and four RBI. - Cumbess tied the game Saturday with a two-run homer and tied Sunday's game with an RBI single. Freshman Nikki Sagermann also went 5-for-10 with a double and home run, while junior Ginny Carroll, senior Alice O'Brien and freshman Christian Stokes also hit home runs. Sophomore Griffin Joiner had three hits and three RBI.
Baseball - Kentucky suffered its first series loss of the year at the blistering-hot Tigers, previously owning series wins over Florida, No. 14 Mississippi State and Georgia. - UK earned a thrilling 5-4 win over No. 9 Louisville in 10 innings in front of a UL school-record crowd, with freshman Kyle Cody turning in a quality start and freshman Kyle Barrett driving in the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th. - Freshman Kyle Barrett drove in the game-winning RBI against Louisville in the top of the 10th inning, completing the dramatic late inning comeback. - UK has been led offensively by junior J.T. Riddle, who has hit .322 with six doubles, one triple, one homer and 17 RBI, stealing five bases. Sophomore A.J. Reed has belted eight homers and has 33 RBI, batting .319.
Men's tennis - Kentucky dropped the first match of its three-match road trip to conclude the regular season at No. 14 Vanderbilt, 4-2. - Kentucky won the doubles point with wins on courts one and three to get the early 1-0 lead, but were unable to hold on in singles play. - Beck Pennington gave UK the early 2-0 lead as he won on court six. The Bowling Green, Ky., native is undefeated in singles play this season, with an 8-0 record, and is 2-0 in SEC play. - The Wildcats finish the regular season at Florida and South Carolina this weekend before traveling to Oxford, Miss., for the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats defeated both UF and SC in 2011.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team fell 5-1 at home on Friday to No. 19 Vanderbilt. - Freshman Nadia Ravita improved on her already impressive freshman season, defeating No. 61 Lauren Mira in straight sets. The 24th-ranked individual won the match on court one 7-5, 6-3. - Kentucky will host No. 2 Florida on Friday and No. 29 South Carolina on Sunday to round out the regular season.
Track and field - A small contingent of Wildcats competed at the Bellarmine Invitational on Saturday. - Joanne Imbert placed second in the high jump with an outdoor season-high clearance of 1.72 meters/5'07.75". - Michelle Canterna finished as the runner-up in the pole vault, with a top clearance of 3.80 meters/12'05.5" - Shelby Kennard cleared 3.5 meters/ 11'05.75m, tying her outdoor season-high pole vault, before being unable to get over the bar at 3.65 meters /11'11.75".
Women's golf - The UK women's golf team finished fifth at the M&F Bank Rebel Invitational last week in Oxford, Miss., shooting 22-over for the tournament. The Cats recorded the third lowest round on the final day to propel them into fifth place of the 18-team field. - Junior Liz Breed, who competed as an individual for the Wildcats, charted one of her best performances of her career, tying her career-low with a 54-hole score of 2-over-par, 218 and equaled her best finish, tying for eighth place overall. - Senior Ashleigh Albrecht tallied her third-lowest score of the season, finishing tied for 12th at 1-over-par. Freshman Sarah Harris also had an impressive tournament, posting a career-low 7-over-par, 223, including a personal-best 1-under-par, 71 on the final day. She finished tied for 24th.
Monday, April 8 Men's golf at Gary Koch Invitational (Tampa, Fla.)
Tuesday, April 9 Men's golf at Gary Koch Invitational (Tampa, Fla.) Softball hosts Marshall - 5:00 p.m. Baseball hosts Austin Peay - 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 10 Softball at Eastern Kentucky - 2:00 p.m. Softball at Eastern Kentucky - 4:30 p.m.
Audrey Harrison and her teammates will look to advance to the NCAA Championships with a top-two finish at the Morgantown regional. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After the Kentucky gymnastics team suffered a setback to its historical season with an eighth-place finish at the Southeastern Conference Championships, head coach Tim Garrison hasn't done very much coaching.
Yes, that sounds alarming. No, it's not as bad as it sounds. It, in all likelihood, is the best thing for UK gymnastics right now.
"I've done less coaching since that meet than I have at any point in the season prior to that, which is great," said Garrison of practice since SECs. "If I'm doing less coaching, that means they're doing more on their own. So I love that."
The Wildcats have responded, even if it's just in the practice gym. They've taken ownership of what happened in Little Rock, Ark., that day and have tried to get back to their old ways.
Confidence heading into the championships was at an all-time high for the Wildcat gymnasts, but the environment and the big stage may have been more of a factor than they had expected.
"I just think it just kind of fell apart a little bit," said junior Kayla Hartley. "I think nerves has a lot to do with is and going up on platform and not being used to it and not really knowing what to expect and how to adjust to being in that big of arena."
Kentucky wasn't sharp in warm-ups, and it showed in its first event. From there, it all kind of snowballed. A team that's been so used to getting off to solid starts for the majority of the season saw the opposite effect take place last weekend.
That led to Kentucky's second-lowest point total of the season as UK finished in eighth place with a 194.6, a surprising and disappointing performance.
"I was pretty surprised because we've been doing so awesome and going 196 four times in a row," said junior Audrey Harrison. "We were expecting to do it again, so it was surprising."
Kentucky would have loved to put up a huge score at SECs heading into the regional selections. It would have boosted its regional qualifying score as well as given Kentucky a full head of steam heading into NCAAs. Though the Wildcats couldn't accomplish those goals, there is still one big goal out there, one that they've had their sights set on from the beginning of the season: Nationals.
Kentucky was selected as the No. 4 seed for the Morgantown, W. Va., regional which is set for 6 p.m. ET Saturday on the campus of West Virginia. They will join top-seeded Michigan, No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Illinois, No. 5 West Virginia, and No. 6 North Carolina.
Saturday evening, Kentucky looks to be one of the top two teams in the regional advancing to Los Angeles, Calif., for the NCAA Championships, even if no one else does.
"We're not expected to make it. Other people aren't expecting us to make it," Garrison said. "But we're expecting to be the spoiler. That's what we're trying to do. That's kind of where we are."
The regional provides another chance, and UK's last chance, to prove to everyone how far this team has come. But the Wildcats have to get back to being themselves in order for that to take place.
"I feel like there is a chip on our shoulder," said Hartley. "We just really want to go out there. SECs was a mess-up. This is our do-over and this is what we're going to do, and we're just going to do what we do. We're not going to put on any extra pressure on ourselves because of that chip. We're just going to do what we do."
Garrison has noticed the chip as well.
"I think they have a bad taste in their mouth," said Garrison. "I feel like we went into SECs and they did not even close to what they are capable of or what they expected to do. They came out of it fired up and ready to go and I've noticed it in practice."
Harrison believes her team just had a really tough day at the championships. Hartley thought the environment and format of the event may have played a role. Garrison felt the slow start derailed the Wildcats for the rest of the day.
Whatever the cause, there's much to be learned from that experience going forward.
Garrison wasted no time in trying to figure out what happened that night, so he cancelled the team's dinner reservations, had the food ordered to go and held an impromptu team meeting in his hotel room. Just as shaken as the athletes were, Garrison asked the team what had happened.
"I just threw it to them and said, 'You guys tell me what happened. It was just as strange for me as it was for you. What happened?' " said Garrison. "There were a lot of good things that came out of it. One, they were upset. Not pouty upset, but mad upset, which is great. The leaders were especially upset.
"I think some good things came out of it. I don't want to dwell on this, but I don't want to forget about it either. If you want to use it as fire, great. If you want to use it as motivation, fine, that's awesome."
However the Cats have used the experience from the SECs, it appears to at least be working in practice, which is essential as UK looks to make one final run at nationals. But unlike the SECs, the Wildcats are looking to get back to who they are, not where or who they are doing it against.
"It means a lot because we all really want to make nationals really bad," said Harrison. "It does mean a lot to us, but I think we've just got to stay calm and confident going into it. Maybe not build it up as the most important thing, but just do what we do in practice and then we'll do great."