Keith Hayes successfully battled through multiple injuries en route to one of the best seasons in UK track and field history, but a loving threat from an Olympic Medalist might have been the biggest reason he was so successful the past few weeks.
Following a loss in confidence resulting from a hamstring injury at the Southeastern Conference Championships, Hayes got a phone call from an even more decorated athlete: the 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist in the 100-meter hurdles. That former world-class hurdler also happened to be the wife of Hayes' head coach, LaVonna Floreal.
That drop in self-belief was quickly dispensed with after Hayes received a stern talking-to, which included that threat.
The sprint hurdler sent off a string of tweets shortly after he suffered the injury expressing disappointment about missing two SEC finals and doubting his prospects for recovering in time for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which were just two weeks away.
Soon after seeing those tweets LaVonna Floreal gave Hayes a call.
"After the setback at SECs we had a good talk and to be honest my wife actually called him," UK coach Edrick Floreal said. "She told him, 'I'm an Olympic Silver Medalist and if you ever do that again I will personally kick your butt. You don't that, I don't care if your leg is broken and blood is pouring out of it.' "
That conversation was apparently just what Hayes needed as the senior ended up clocking a season-best time in one of track and field's most grueling events, the 400m hurdles, just 11 days later. He then qualified for the NCAA Semifinals with another season-best time in the 110m hurdles two days after that.
Hayes would go on to reach his first NCAA Outdoor Championship Final in the 110m hurdles where he finished fourth, but his road to All-America status was filled with even higher obstacles than the 42-inch barriers on the track.
Indeed Hayes enjoyed perhaps the best hurdles season, and by extension career, in UK track and field history in 2013. He was All-American in the 60m hurdles indoors setting the school record in the process before he broke the UK 110m hurdles record at the NCAA Championships.
Hayes lowered that all-conditions record to 13.30 seconds last weekend at the United States Track and Field Championships where he ran alongside the world-record holder and 2012 Olympic Gold and Silver Medalists, among others.
Performing on the biggest stage
After what Hayes himself would admit was a difficult indoor season, he came through when the pressure was greatest time and again.
(Spencer Allen, Sports Image Wire)
Entering the last weekend of the indoor season Hayes had yet to produce one of the national top-16 times required to earn a spot at the NCAA Championships in the 60m hurdles. Yet Hayes was undeterred competing with one last chance to qualify for NCAAs.
He showed as much when he broke two-time Olympian Mikel Thomas' 60m hurdles record during the semifinal heat to post the nation's No. 9 time and make the NCAA Indoor Championship field.
At NCAAs, Hayes lowered his personal-best time to 7.69 in the semifinal and then picked up First-Team All-America status in the final.
He also displayed just how much doing well for the team meant to him as he was the UK men's team's only participant at the NCAA Indoor Championships. He ensured the Wildcats didn't get shut out at the National Championships with a top-eight finish to get UK on the team scoreboard.
Indeed Hayes' indoor performance prompted his head coach to call him a "one-man team" in a plea for more Wildcats to perform at the NCAA Championship level.
Producing top performances on the biggest stage - in fact record-breaking ones - when the pressure was greatest became a trend for Hayes.
"The cool thing about Keith is the more the tension rises the more he focuses," Floreal said. "Some people lose sight of what's important when the tension rises. That's the difference between the great ones and the other ones. In the heat of the moment they still stay true to the process. In the end if they can just repeat to themselves the things they've done and how confident and ready they are they'll be fine."
He went on to break another of Thomas' school records, this time outdoors in the 110m hurdles, as he ran 13.32 to reach the NCAA Championship final. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Hayes had run season-best times in two events at the NCAA Preliminary Rounds, less than two weeks after suffering an injury that often lingers with sprinters for weeks if not months.
"Breaking Mikel's records meant a lot to me because I know what an impressive career he has had," Hayes said. "I really enjoyed training with him during my first season at UK. He texted me congratulations after I got the 60m hurdles record. We still have a great relationship. It means a lot when you get a record that belonged to someone who has been to two Olympic Games."
Reaching new heights under Floreal
While Hayes had enjoyed an impressive career before his senior season - he was a three-time All-American going into 2013 - he reached a new level of success in Floreal's first year at the helm of the UK program.
Hayes drastically improved in 2013, but making the adjustment to a new coach didn't happen overnight.
"I had to buy in," Hayes said. "I didn't do it smoothly at first because I second-guessed myself coming off injury having redshirted last year on my mind, but it came together."
When Floreal began coaching Hayes, the first step was finding the best way to communicate with one of the team's only athletes with All-America credentials. In Hayes, Floreal inherited an accomplished athlete coming off a foot injury that kept him out for the entire 2012 season.
Floreal is happy to admit that one of the biggest challenges in coaching hurdlers is striking the right balance between working on technical race elements and encouraging athletes to relax so they don't stress about executing the technical aspects of a race.
Striking the right chord in Hayes' training proved to be a unique challenge for the UK coach.
"There are some adjustments you have to make," Floreal said. "The hurdles are so complicated that you have to make some changes. Some athletes require the information, but others require the confidence and the information is not that important.
"When you come in and look at what he's accomplished you're like that guy needs a lot of information, we've got to get him technically sound. Then we realized we just needed to give him confidence and when we did that you started to see the results."
Perhaps the greatest example of Floreal's coaching choice paying off was Hayes' school record during the final regular-season meet indoors.
Floreal in fact did not travel with Hayes to Virginia Tech, instead having assistant coach Roderick Dotts make the trip alongside the veteran hurdler.
"It was one of those things where me and Coach Flo had a conversation and decided I may have been struggling because I was overthinking it," Hayes said. "I needed to be more comfortable. He sent Coach Dotts with me to chill and have fun with it. We did everything under the sun to try not to think about that race."
While Floreal stayed in Lexington as his hurdler was off getting ready to run a personal-best time and book a spot in the NCAA Championship field, the two did remain in contact.
"By that point in the season he just had to figure it out for himself," Floreal said about his leap of faith. "We texted back and forth that whole day where he'd tell me he just finished his warm-up, how he was feeling good and I just said 'great.' There was nothing I could do except nod my head.
"If I would've gone with him to that last-chance meet I would have just been a crutch. My not being there helped him kind of figure things out."
Hayes earned a great deal of his coach's trust that weekend in Blacksburg, and he cashed it in at the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic, Kentucky's first home outdoor meet since 1997.
On top of being the first outdoor competition in Lexington in 16 years, the UK track and field program also celebrated Senior Day for the first time ever.
Given the novelty of the day, Hayes wanted to perform for the home fans as much as he could. As such, he asked Floreal to enter him in four events, despite the fact that one of the season's biggest meets, the Penn Relays, was just a week away.
That level of trust has certainly paid off in 2013.
"It's become more of a father-son relationship," Hayes said. "He has expectations of me, but he doesn't always have to tell me. He will tell me 'you know what to do, right?' That comes with being a senior.
"It's really good to know when he's confident in me. Before he used to be very technical with me, but he realized I think a lot when I'm training and racing. I've been running four events every weekend and I like it. I love to compete especially when I can hear my teammates cheering me on."
Hurdles along the journey
Despite all his success in 2013, many goals remain unmet.
By all accounts - in terms of reaching goals - he came up just short of a major one this past weekend at the USA Championships where he placed 16th overall in arguably the world's deepest National Championship fields.
The senior finished second in his USA Championship prelim heat, ahead of the aforementioned defending World Champion and 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist Jason Richardson to reach the semifinal as the fifth-fastest qualifier.
Races with U.S. World Championship team berths on the line are not decided in the prelims, however. Hayes learned that the hard way at his first major race competing head-to-head with world-class professionals.
He was unluckily drawn into a stacked semifinal heat, which featured Richardson, World Record-holder and reigning Olympic Gold Medalist Aries Merritt and former American Record-Holder David Oliver.
Hayes got out of the blocks about as well as any of the top professionals and was right there with all three midway through the semifinal race before he began hitting hurdles, and eventually did not finish.
The disappointing result left the Wildcat alumnus looking for more in future races and seasons.
Despite the tough end to his UK career, LaVonna Floreal offered up some more advice at the first sign of Hayes venting via Twitter on Sunday evening. Floreal (@SilverMedal2) told her talented protégé (@HurdlingYoMamma) he was just beginning his "hurdling" journey.
Indeed the next step in that journey remains to be taken, but given the trajectory of his career in recent months the future certainly looks bright.
Last week in Sandestin, Fla., UK's Megan Moir (women's golf) and Chelsea Oswald (track and field/cross country) were recognized at the Southeastern Conference's Spring Meetings.The two videos below were shown before Moir accepted the SEC's Brad Davis SEC Female Community Service Leader of the Year and H. Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year awards. Take a look.
Senior Luis Orta will compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at nationals in Eugene, Ore., beginning Wednesday. (UK Athletics)
Over the last five years, distance runner Luis Orta has been a mainstay for the Kentucky track and field team. Orta, a senior, will compete in his final event this week for the Wildcats with a chance to leave one final mark.
Orta is going to do everything in his power to advance to the finals and go out with a bang this week. No matter what, he knows he has laid everything on the line every day and has given his best effort day in and day out. He couldn't ask for anything more.
"Whatever happens if I make it to the final or break the school record again or not I will be very pleased with my college career," Orta said. "It's been five beautiful years. I've met awesome people and have had incredible experiences here. I wouldn't choose another school if I could go back, UK has been awesome to me and I'm happy with whatever happens this weekend."
Kentucky travels to Eugene, Ore., this week to compete in the NCAA Outdoor Championships. UK, which had just three athletes compete in last season's nationals, will send 10 this year, including Orta.
The Caracas, Venezuela native will race in a 3,000-meter steeplechase semifinal on Wednesday at 9:45 p.m. ET. The semifinals consist of two 12-person races with the top-five finishers from each advancing to the final, along with the next four fastest times. The 14-athlete final will take place on Friday at 8:40 p.m.
Orta qualified for nationals by breaking the school record in the steeplechase at the NCAA East Preliminary Championship. He crossed the finish line with a time of 8:42.22, good enough for seventh place in the event and an automatic bid to Eugene.
With the days dwindling in his illustrious UK career, Orta is after that record once more.
"I want to try to break the record again and try to run under 8:40 and make it to the final," Orta said. "If I am able to do that then hopefully I can run in the low 8:30s in the final."
In his first season at UK, Orta broke the freshman school record in the steeplechase at the Southeastern Conference Championships with a time of 8:52.39. After finally reaching his goal at regionals by surpassing the overall school record, he had assistant coach Hakon DeVries go over and double-check the final result following the race to ensure the time was correct. From there, Orta has turned to Jason Dunn - the coach with whom he's primarily worked all season - to help him make a run at breaking the record again.
Orta has been a strong distance runner for UK in several events, but the steeplechase is his best. He finished second at SECs as a freshman, sophomore and junior and has qualified for nationals for the second consecutive year.
He finished 22nd at nationals last year, falling short of the finals. Orta will be the first to say he didn't have a good race last season. He was nervous and just wasn't comfortable during the event - something any coach will tell you is very common amongst first-time competitors at nationals. This week could prove to be different as the new coaches have implemented different training methods and, having already competed in one national competition, he thinks he will be more at ease when he steps up to the starting line.
"The training has been so much different," Orta said. "We are actually training for the steeplechase whereas last year was more of a middle-distance type of training. I've been hurdling a lot and working on my mobility and doing a lot of workouts in hurdles and over the water jumps which is important. I think I'm more comfortable when I'm racing which helps a lot."
With 10 athletes making the trip northwest, Kentucky has improved immensely from last season. With so many teammates with him on the trip, Orta hopes to draw inspiration from his fellow Wildcats.
"If they do good I feel like I have to do something good," Orta said. "I don't want to go home and feel like I didn't do as good as them. It definitely helps to see my teammates do well because it helps me get focused for the race."
In just one year, head coach Edrick Floreal has helped UK's track and field program make remarkable strides. Not only are the Cats sending additional athletes to nationals this year, but the team showed progress with its finish at the SEC meet. The men and women each finished seventh at the conference championships, jumping several spots from last season's performance.
There is no doubt in Orta's mind that Floreal is taking the program in the right direction and UK will be among the elite in the coming years. Even though he will no longer be competing as a collegian as the program develops, Orta has played a role in building a foundation that will allow that to happen.
"With Coach Floreal, it's different. He wants to move this program forward and he's working for it right now," Orta said. "I'm sure it's going to get better and better and in four years from now or even less than that. We are definitely going to be a top-five program in the nation. No doubt in my mind it's going to improve a lot."
Orta is currently working on a master's degree in sports leadership. After one more year of school, he would like to stay involved in sports once he's done running for UK and wants to work in the administrative side of sports.
However, he will not give up on his true love of running. Orta will continue training and hopes to try to make it to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Olympics, while also competing in marathons along the way.
He attributes much of his success to his time at UK and says he would not be the man he is today had he not attended school at Kentucky.
"I think this has prepared me for life because it shows you that if you work hard for something then you are eventually going to get it if you really want something and you work really hard for it," Orta said. "It teaches you that life is not easy and there are going to be people that are faster than you and there is nothing you can do about it, but keep trying and keep going. It's going to be hard to train, going to school and working but life is hard you have to man up and do it."
Last season, three UK student-athletes qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships. This year, 10 are in Eugene, Ore., to participate in college track and field's top event.
How's that for improvement under first-year head coach Edrick Floreal?
The meet lasts from Wednesday until Saturday and four Wildcats - Bradley Szypka, Chelsea Oswald, Keilah Tyson and Luis Orta - will compete today. Pac-12.com will broadcast all of Wednesday's events from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET, while ESPN3.com and ESPNU will show much of the competition on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For complete broadcast information and a meet schedule, check out the release on UKathletics.com.
Cory Weigel will have a story on Orta's final collegiate meet later, but in the meantime here are a few links to stories written this week about UK track and field's trip northwest.
Six men -- Andrew Evans (discus), Raymond Dykstra (javelin), Bradley Szypka (shot put), Luis Orta (3,000-meter steeplechase), Matt Hillenbrand (1,500 meters) and Keith Hayes (110-meter hurdles) -- will participate in the NCAA Championships for UK this week. They will be joined by UK women Chelsea Oswald (5,000 meters and 10,000 meters), Rebecca Famurewa (discus), Keilah Tyson (100 meters) and Kayla Parker (100-meter hurdles).
One year after sending just three athletes to the NCAA National Championships, UK team members credit the new coaching staff for much of the improvement.
"It's completely different," Orta said. "Now it's all about winning, performing well, doing good, running fast, running more. You can see the change now. We're all doing way better than last year. We're doing more miles, we're working harder, we're training twice a day and stuff like that, things that we were not doing last year."
Still, in Year One under Floreal, the Wildcats have doubled their number of NCAA-qualifying men (six) and gone from no female qualifiers to four, including junior Chelsea Oswald, who won the Southeastern Conference 10,000 meters in league-record time. She qualified for nationals in that and the 5,000 and is ranked top 16 among the 24 qualifiers in both events.
UK has top-16 athletes in seven events: Rebecca Famurewa (No. 3 in women's discus), Andrew Evans (No. 5 in men's discus), Oswald (No. 10 in 5,000, No. 16 in 10,000), Raymond Dykstra (No. 12 in men's javelin), Keith Hayes (No. 13 in men's 100 hurdles) and Luis Orta (No. 14 in men's steeplechase). At the NCAA Championships, the top eight finishers in each event are first-team All-Americans, and the next eight earn second-team honors.
"With the new coaches, everything is different now," Orta said. "Now we're there to win, to get All-American, to make it to the finals. ... You can see the change now. We're all doing way better than last year. We're doing more miles, we're working harder, we're training twice a day, things we were not doing last year."
Ten UK track and field student-athletes will participate in the NCAA Outdoor Championships this week in Eugene, Ore. As Jake Most wrote on UKathletics.com on May 25, their qualification marked a "major step forward" for first-year head coach Edrick Floreal's program.
Look for a feature on the 10 Wildcats reaching the national championship meet - which takes place Wednesday through Saturday - on Tuesday. Before then, watch these videos from last week as Floreal, Chelsea Oswald, Luis Orta, Kayla Parker and Raymond Dykstra previewed NCAAs.
It's beginning to quiet down around the Joe Craft Center, which means we don't have as much to talk about at Cat Scratches. Ten Wildcats will be competing in the NCAA Outdoor Championships this week, but after that the 2012-13 season in UK Athletics will be officially over.
While most UK-centric websites shift their summer attention to recruiting, we are prohibited from doing so due to NCAA rules. Nonetheless, we are working on a few feature ideas to help you pass the time before Southeastern Conference Football Media Day next month.
In the meantime, we'll continue to cover any UK news that should come along and pass on links to stories from around the Internet.
Junior Kayla Parker set a PR and was .03 seconds off the school record in the 100-meter hurdles at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky track and field team travels to Greensboro, N.C., this weekend to compete at the NCAA East Regional, the Wildcats will look to improve on their Southeastern Conference Championships performance and send as many athletes to nationals as they can.
That's head coach Edrick Floreal's motto anyhow. The former Olympian (1988 and 1992), and 2012 U.S. Olympic Team jumps coach has tried to hammer home to his athletes that they can only compete to the best of their ability.
UK has a talented group of individuals, but it's the same team that finished near the bottom of the SEC Championships in 2012.
The Wildcats have grown immensely under Floreal. Kentucky finished seventh in both the men's and women's competitions at this year's SEC Championships, which was a major improvement from the previous season's results. UK may not have the caliber of athletes Floreal eventually wants across the board, but he is certainly getting every ounce of athletic ability out of his team in the meantime.
"I want them to step back up and do what they are capable of doing and if you do that and if that's not good enough then you have to get back to work and get better," Floreal said. "That's my expectation, that we are going to do what we think we can do and let the rest of the SEC and the region sort themselves out. If we do what we are capable of doing you can't really be disappointed with that."
The Cats met their head coach's goal of finishing in the top half of the conference with their seventh-place finishes at SECs. However, Floreal feels UK left a lot of points out on the table and could have finished even higher.
Despite battling the injury bug and some mental errors, Kentucky had a shot at finishing in the top five according to Floreal. Senior All-American hurdler Keith Hayes was a near guarantee to finish in the top three of his events before straining his hamstring in his first competition. UK's talented 4 x 100-meter relay team of Morganne Phillips, Tamyah Pipkin, Kayla Parker and Keilah Tyson was projected to score highly before being disqualified for passing the baton illegally.
"I felt like in several instances, we didn't do what we are capable of doing and that's where some of the frustrations are because we feel like we're so much better of a team and we want to prove that," Floreal said. "You have to earn your stripes like everybody else, especially in this conference. We are getting better, we're getting older, we're getting more mature and we will be able to handle difficult situations a little bit better."
Kentucky received several good performances from individuals who have provided them all year. Junior Chelsea Oswald took home the 10,000- and 5,000-meter titles, while Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand finished second in their respective events.
Those Cats have proven all year that they are ahead of the rest of the conference and Floreal expects them to compete hard and finish near the top of the field every time out. He admits he may take it for granted, but it's the borderline athletes with whom Floreal is working to get them to buy in and have the kind of breakthrough performances that really give him satisfaction as a coach.
Parker is one athlete who has bought into the system since day one and is now reaping the benefits of her hard work. The junior finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles final with a personal record time of 13.19 seconds, just 0.03 off the school record.
"Kayla is a role model and a team captain to make sure everyone buys in and has great leadership not just worrying about herself but worrying about everyone else," Floreal said. "You need people in there who are going to score 20 points and be leaders and you need people in there that are going to keep everyone in line and also be leaders. There are different leaders that you need to have a successful team."
UK will send 27 athletes to regionals this weekend (14 men and 13 women). While Floreal has searched for unique ways to motivate his team all season, his message for this weekend was simple and to the point.
"This weekend is more so advancing to the NCAA and less about a team competition," Floreal said. "Each individual has to take care of their own business. You can be first or you can be 12th it's the same thing. Just be top 12, let's move on and we'll do it again in two weeks at nationals."
Softball - For the fifth consecutive season the University of Kentucky softball team has received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament with the selection committee naming Kentucky as the No. 12 national seed and one of 16 regional host locations for the first time in program history. - This is the fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in school history for Kentucky, who made its first showing in the tournament in 2009. The Wildcats hosted a NCAA Super Regional in 2011, dropping a best-of-three set to highly ranked Cal. All-time, UK is 8-8 in the NCAA Tournament. All tournament appearances have come under head coach Rachel Lawson. UK is one of 23 schools nationally to advance to five straight NCAA Tournaments. - Kentucky has earned 38 wins this season - the second most in school history - against some of the best teams in the nation, posting a 13-11 record in SEC action. Before falling in the first round of the SEC Tournament last week, Lawson and Co., had a historic weekend in Tuscaloosa, Ala., taking two of three games from top-10 ranked and defending national champion Alabama. The wins in Tuscaloosa were the first in school history for UK and its first-ever series win against the Tide.
Men's tennis - Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-straight season, a program first. UK collected wins over Western Michigan (4-0) and No. 41 Virginia Tech (4-1) to book its spot in Champaign, Ill. - Kentucky won the doubles point for the third straight match as the newly-formed tandem of Juan Pablo Murra and Anthony Rossi went 2-0 on the weekend with an 8-1 win on Friday and an 8-3 victory on Saturday afternoon. - Kentucky will take on the Duke Blue Devils, ranked No. 9 in the country, in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m. ET. The match against the Blue Devils will be the Wildcats unprecedented 11th contest this season against teams that currently comprise the ITA top 10.
Track and field - Both the UK men's and women's teams finished seventh overall with 46 points each at the SEC Outdoor Championships. - The women's team earned its highest finish and point total since 2009 (sixth and 56th). - The Wildcat men's team had its highest finish and point total since 2011 (seventh and 54th). - Kentucky finished the 2013 SEC Championships with eight medals, two gold, three silver and three bronze. - Chelsea Oswald became the first ever Wildcat to win at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the same SEC Championships. - Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand all earned silver medals in the discus, javelin and 1,500 meters respectively.
Baseball - The Kentucky baseball team completed a grueling stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes with a three-game series sweep at the hands of No. 1 Vanderbilt. The Wildcats picked up a midweek win over Wright State, before falling in the three-game set at the hands of the record-breaking Dores. - The Wildcats picked up a 4-1 midweek win over Wright State on Tuesday behind a strong start from senior Jerad Grundy, in his midweek debut, and a three-hit game from freshman Kyle Barrett. - UK has been led at the plate by Barrett, who owns a .351 mark with four doubles, one triple, 14 RBI and four steals. - On the mound, UK has used the weekend rotation of Reed (2-7, 3.81 ERA), freshman righthander Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.82 ERA) and Littrell (5-5, 3.92 ERA) for two consecutive weeks. Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) has also made 12 starts with 71.2 innings and 58 strikeouts.
Women's golf - The women's golf team wrapped up its season at the NCAA East Regional last week at the Auburn University Club, May 9-11. UK finished in 12th place in the 24-team regional, shooting 33-over-par for the tournament. - With the top-eight teams from the regional advancing to the NCAA Championships, the Wildcats' 12th place finish concluded their season but was their highest finish at the regionals in head coach Golda Borst's three-year tenure. Cylia Damerau, Sarah Harris and Betsie Johnson all tied for 60th at 9-over-par. - Kentucky broke the single-season record with a team stroke average of 301.1, shattering the previous school-record of 304.73 set last season. - Senior Ashleigh Albrecht wrapped up her career as one of the most decorative women's golfers in UK history. Her season stroke average of 75.07 was the lowest all-time at Kentucky, surpassing Mallory Blackwelder's mark of 75.34 set during the 2007-08 campaign. She also tied her own record with eight par or better rounds in 2012-13 and finished her career with the most par or better rounds in school history with 26.
Tuesday, May 14 Baseball hosts Indiana - 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, May 16 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Men's tennis vs. Duke - 8:00 p.m. (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Friday, May 17 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball hosts Marshall - 7:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis vs. UCLA/Vanderbilt (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Saturday, May 18 Softball hosts Notre Dame/Michigan - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 6:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Sunday, May 19 Softball championship series - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Head coach Edrick Floreal (left) with senior sprinter Shiara Robinson (right). (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When the Kentucky track and field team gets ready to compete in the 2013 Outdoor Southeastern Conference Championships this weekend, the Wildcats will look very different from their conference counterparts. The blue and white uniforms, of course, will distinguish the Wildcats, but the real contrast won't begin to show itself until competition begins.
The SEC allows each university to bring 30 male and female student-athletes to compete at the conference championships. Instead of piling in 60 members from the UK track and field team and busing to Columbia, Mo., this week, first-year head coach Edrick Floreal chose to take a different approach.
Floreal made the decision to send just 35 athletes, 18 males and 17 females, to compete at SECs. This might seem to put the Cats at an immediate disadvantage, but Floreal knows his team better than anyone else. He has a clear picture of what a UK track and field athlete looks like, and the Wildcats he'll bring with him to Missouri have grown to fit that vision.
The biggest difference he has seen in this group over the course of the year hasn't necessarily been a boost in athletic ability or skill, but a change in their mentality.
"I just think it's been self-belief," Floreal said. "They believe they actually belong and I actually heard it from some of the coaches in the SEC that the kids that we have now act like they belong in the SEC and they can be competitive. That was a goal for the kids to feel like they belong instead of just letting them participate in the event.
"That's kind of why we took a smaller group of people that actually feel comfortable competing at that level as opposed to taking a large group that might not be ready when it comes to competing at that level yet."
One of the meets this year that has stood out to Floreal on that front was the Kentuckiana Border Battle in mid-April, when UK teamed up with Louisville in a meet against Indiana and Notre Dame. UK and U of L ended up winning both the men's and women's meets but more importantly, Floreal saw belief and determination out of his athletes.
Coaches from the three neighbor schools who were familiar with Kentucky and how the Wildcats compete were caught off guard by the Wildcats' new sense of self-confidence.
Creating that attitude has been one of Floreal's main goals since he arrived in the Bluegrass. He hopes for a similar reaction from UK's SEC brethren this weekend.
"I'm hoping for a little shock factor for the rest of the conference to exceed their expectation," Floreal said. "Not so much exceed their expectation in winning events but just from watching how hard our kids fight and how confident they are at that level more importantly than anything else.
"It is one thing when you are used to seeing Kentucky on the back and now they are next to you being competitive. That's what we are aiming for in every event. Whether somebody is fighting for next-to-last or fighting to make the final, I just want them to fight as hard as they can all the way to the finish."
What this week does for the Cats is give them an opportunity to compete at the highest level and gain experience for the 2014 SEC Championships, which will be held at the UK Track and Field Complex. Floreal is hoping that his athletes take this experience and develop some leadership for next year as well.
Kentucky has a large recruiting class coming in next year, with 25 male and 12 female athletes set to arrive in Lexington for the 2013-14 season. With such a massive group of newcomers, UK needs some leaders to step up so the freshmen have an example to follow.
"We just need to establish a group of leaders now so when the freshmen come they already know, 'Hey these people have gotten it done, we need to learn from them on what it takes to compete in the SEC,' " Floreal said. "You don't want the freshmen to come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely lost. You want them to come in and feel like they can talk to the All-SEC members and All-Americans on the team and learn from them."
Another goal of Floreal's is to improve on last year's performance - eighth for the men, 12th for the women - and see if the Cats can crack the top half. With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M this season, the Wildcats will need to place at least seventh to achieve Floreal's goal.
Last year junior Andrew Evans won the discus throw, while senior Luis Orta and sophomore Raymond Dykstra were runners-up in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and javelin throw, respectively. Floreal wouldn't mind seeing a few more of his athletes up on the stage accepting awards this year.
"We didn't have an exceptionally good showing last year and the No. 1 thing is to improve on that," Floreal said. "Anytime you can be in the top half of the SEC that's a big accomplishment. We want to see some people in that top five and top three and see some people on the podium. We just want the kids to compete hard and be competitive so it should be fairly clear who are the stars and who are not."
Baseball - Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning. - The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of nonleague play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action. - UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team recently completed one of the most successful weekends in school history, taking two of three games against No. 7 Alabama - the defending national championships - in Tuscaloosa. The series win was the first for Kentucky against the Tide in school history and also marked the first time UK had won in Tuscaloosa. - The wins moved UK to 13-11 in SEC play, earning the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has now posted three straight winning conference seasons under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson, advancing to five straight SEC Tournaments. The two wins over Alabama give UK nine against ranked foes this season and 40 against ranked foes under Lawson, including 24 against top-10 teams. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend, winning both games she started, throwing 15 innings, allowing only four earned runs with 11 strikeouts and a 1.87 ERA. Nunley shutout the Tide Saturday, marking the first time a pitcher had shutout Alabama at home since 2010. Fellow freshman Nikki Sagermann went 3-for-5 in the series finale with a school-record tying six RBI. Sagermann blasted a three-run home run in the eighth inning, giving Kentucky the win.
Track and field - Matt Hillenbrand finished as top collegiate finisher in the IU Billy Hayes Invitational 1,500 meters on Friday. - Hillenbrand ran a personal best time 3:44.66. - Adam Kahleifeh finished the same race fifth in 3:45.99. - Hillenbrand's time is second-fastest in the SEC this season. - Kahleifeh's time ranks No. 8 in the conference. - Keffri Neal posted No. 3 SEC time over 1,500 meters at the Stanford Invitational earlier this season. - Friday's race was Kentucky's final tune-up for the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin Thursday, May 9. - The conference championships will be held at the Audrey J. Walton Track Stadium at the University of Missouri in Columbia from May 9-12. - Kentucky will enter the SEC Championships defending one individual championship, as Andrew Evans claimed the event title last season in Baton Rouge, La. Upcoming schedule
Tuesday, May 7 Baseball def. Wright State, 4-1
Wednesday, May 8 Softball hosts South Carolina - 6:30 p.m. (SEC Tournament)
Thursday, May 9 Track at SEC Championships - 12:30 p.m. (Columbia, Mo.) Softball hosts Tennessee - 4:00 p.m. (SEC Tournament) Women's golf at NCAA Regionals (Auburn, Ala.)