Edrick Floreal and the Kentucky track and field program will host the SEC Championships this weekend. (Photo by Nick Agro)
The plan, initially, was for Cally Macumber to run only the 5,000-meter race at the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.
The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.
Sensing an opportunity to score important points, Macumber said she wanted to run the 10,000 as well.
"That's 25 laps," Edrick Floreal said. "I don't even know if I'm that courageous to volunteer for that."
Macumber has only recently gotten healthy, running in two races in April after coping with "dings and dangs," in the words of her head coach. It would have been understandable for Macumber to want to focus solely on the 5,000 with the end of her collegiate career fast approaching.
Instead, she abandoned self-interest for the sake of her Kentucky team.
"That's kind of the character of this team: People are beginning to volunteer," Floreal said. "That's what I want. I want the kids to come to my office and say, 'Hey, I think I can do this event and get a couple points for you.' That's kind of what we've got going on right now."
The timing couldn't be better.
UK -- its women's team ranked sixth nationally and the men ranked No. 19 -- is set to host one of the nation's best track meets Thursday through Sunday. It's a big moment in the growth of a program only just beginning to tap into the vast potential Floreal sees in it.
"We planted the seed and it just broke ground a little bit," Floreal said. "I know we're excited about that but in my wildest dreams, I want to run out of trophy space."
Floreal, from the moment he left his head-coaching post at perennial power Stanford to come to Lexington, has preached the importance of hosting elite meets. There's a caveat though.
"There's nothing worse than hosting it and not to be so good," Floreal said. "It sort of exposes you to the fans that, 'Oh, we're not very good.' But the fact that we're pretty good and we're a contender and having it home, it makes it even more special. That's really what I'm excited about, that the fans are going to get a chance to see some quality kids compete against the toughest conference in the country."
There's no disputing the strength of the SEC.
On both the men's and women's side, eight of the teams ranked in the nation's top 20 will compete this weekend. Three 2012 Olympians will be in action with many more sure to join them in 2016.
"It's a tough conference to be good but that's sort of the signature: If you can be good here, you're truly good," Floreal said. "You can go in another conference and be a winner and that won't be good enough to be top eight here at the SEC, and that's what I wanted. I want to challenge myself and know that I'm good enough to compete at this level."
Not even two full years in, Floreal and the Cats are proving just that.
UK's men and women each finished in the top five at SEC Indoors a little more than two months ago, a first for the program since 1988. Since then, numerous individuals have established themselves among the nation's elite.
"I think we're moving in the right direction with the bodies we have and the way our kids are performing, having the fastest woman in the world on the team is not a bad deal at all and having kids lead the nation in multiple events," Floreal said. "I guess for me the cool thing is that we're good a little bit all over."
Not only has Dezerea Bryant posted the best all-conditions 100m time in the world this season, but Andrew Evans has the top discus throw in the United States in 2014, Kendra Harrison the top 100m hurdles time and Raymond Dykstra the second-best javelin throw. Hurdlers Kayla Parker and Leah Nugent, distance runners Matt Hillenbrand and Allison Peare are expected to contend for medals as well, but UK is even deeper than that.
"There's a bunch of kids of the team that you've probably never heard about that you're going to see this weekend that are going to shock the crap out of you," Floreal said.
Floreal says home-field advantage will help on that front. With a sense of comfort and family and friends in the stands, he expects many of athletes to reach another level.
"You know the track like the back of your hand, and that's good," Floreal said. "You go to somebody else's facility and the turns might be a little tight or the sand might be a different texture. But when you line up here, every day you train here so the nervousness kind of goes out of the way."
Some nervousness has been reintroduced by the cooler, rainy forecast for this weekend. At practice on Tuesday, Floreal overheard some such talk. He quickly put an end to it.
"I told the kids yesterday, they were kind of hoping that it doesn't rain, and I said, 'Stop,' " Floreal said. "We're not going to hope nothing. We're not going to hope that it doesn't rain or that it's sunny. We're going to hope that the race goes off on time and when it does go we're going to perform and compete.
"The No. 1 thing you have to do is represent your university and your teammates, whatever the weather is."
Floreal will accept no excuses. In fact, he wants the Cats to use the weather as another advantage.
"For me, I hope it rains cats and dogs. I hope everybody in the conference gets so tickled, so nervous because it's not perfect weather that our kids go out there and shine."
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.
Entering this the third weekend of the outdoor track and field season, members of the team will have perhaps their best chance this year to perform at their best,
A select group of Wildcats produced times/marks in the first two weeks of the year that will be good enough to rank in the top-32 of the Region and qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary Championships.
The rest of the Wildcats have but one goal this regular season: to record a qualifying time/mark.
Pretty much nothing else matters until that mark is recorded. Only after getting a mark does the focus shift toward tapering training in preparation for the championship season.
And almost all of the Wildcats who got their qualifying times early are now in search of qualifying in other events.
Should the forecast hold, this weekend could be as good a time as ever to get those so-far elusive times and marks.
The majority of the top Wildcats will compete at the Florida Relays in Gainesville, Fla., where the weather on Friday is expected to be in the 80s and sunny. Three of UK's top distance runners have traveled to Stanford, Calif., to run against the nation's elite when it comes to multi-lap races.
Head coach Edrick Floreal chose those two meet locales for this weekend quite consciously. During the spring months in the United States, the time of year upon which the heart of the collegiate track and field season resides, weather is unpredictable.
At least of Friday in Florida it will be sunny and warm. In Northern California Floreal knows as well as anyone that sunshine seems to be a permanent condition, even if it may be a bit cool.
"You don't know what the weather is going to be the rest of the year," Floreal told the team on Thursday. "Everything else could be rained out. The rest of the regular season, our meets are mostly in and around Kentucky and we have the Penn Relays in Philadelphia and Triton Invitational in San Diego for throwers.
"You never know what the weather is going to be like. It could be really cold and rainy the rest of the year. This weekend we're going to have good weather so my suggestion is to take advantage."
Indeed bad weather will not be an excuse for the Wildcats competing on Friday. Similarly, competition level will not be a category worthy of complaint.
Both the Florida Relays and Stanford Invitational boast fields that rival any meet all season. Both are littered with national champions and All-Americans.
The Florida Relays has a strong reputation as one of the best early-season meets for the top sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers and throwers.
The Stanford Invitational, in contrast, is widely considered the nation's top early-season meet for elite distance runners. Many of those distance standouts will make their outdoor debuts there.
Floreal is all too aware of this. After all, he was largely responsible for building and enhancing the Invitational's reputation when he was director of track and field at Stanford for six seasons between 2006-2012.
Both the ideal weather and competitiveness of the Florida Relays and Stanford Invitational could mean the UK track and field teams are in for some eye-catching results this weekend.
At least that's the plan.
What to Watch Kendra Harrison's 400m hurdles debut Kendra Harrison ran the fastest 100m hurdles time by any American this season last weekend at the Texas Relays. She will follow that up this weekend by debuting in the 400m hurdles at Florida Relays.
After hurdling only over 60 meters throughout the indoor season, the UK coaching staff has now determined she has developed the stamina needed for what many consider track and field's most grueling event: 400 meters over hurdles.
Harrison's debut will be eagerly anticipated across the country. She is the top returner from the 2013 NCAA Championships in the event. She placed fourth; the top-three finishers were seniors. Bryant's first 200 meters outside Dezerea Bryant, the 2014 NCAA Indoor 200m Champion, will compete at the distance for the first time outdoors this year.
The 200m at Florida Relays will provide Bryant with a nice early test. The field's other headliner is Kyra Jefferson of Florida, who was runner-up to Bryant at the NCAA Championships.
Bryant certainly showed she's still in strong form last weekend at Texas Relays. She ran the fourth fastest all-conditions 100m dash in the world this year, a wind-assisted 11.13 (+2.7).
Kayla Parker's Florida homecoming The Florida Relays will provide a homecoming of sorts for team captain and All-American hurdler Kayla Parker.
Parker is a native of Port Saint Joe on the Panhandle. She is scheduled to compete in the 100m hurdles, in her home state for the first time in a few years, certainly since she emerged as one of the SEC's best.
Throwers look to continue progression Kentucky boasts a strong group of throwers littered with All-Americans.
But for the first few weeks this year, few of those Wildcats have performed at their best so far this outdoor campaign. That's not something to panic about, it's still quite early and even below their best, some have already posted qualifying marks.
Still UK's throwers are a competitive group. They want to win. This weekend will provide such an opportunity.
Distance outlook Matt Hillenbrand and Adam Kahleifeh finished 1-2 in the SEC Indoor 3,000m Championship. They'll make their 5k debut at the Stanford Invitational looking to take advantage of a fast field.
Mackay Wilson will look to do the same in the 3k steeplechase as he races that event for the first time since the 2013 NCAA East Regional.
Those three traveled to Stanford separate from the rest of UK's elite runners, who journeyed to Florida. for one basic reason: to run fast against other fast runners.
Kentucky track and field head coach Edrick Floreal speaks often about the importance of "making an impression."
The thinking goes that Kentucky teams, so often considered an afterthought in recent years at Southeastern Conference and NCAA championships, must prove their worth time and time again on big stages before they can be considered "relevant."
For those familiar with Floreal, relevance is another focal point he often hammers home to the Wildcats.
To that end, Floreal's Wildcats are solidly on the way to relevance given their indoor performances, but they're not there yet.
Despite both teams finishing in the SEC top five for the first time since 1988, the women's team placing in the top 10 at the NCAA Indoor Championships for the first time in 25 years and also earning a school-record ranking No. 6 during the indoor season, much remains to be achieved.
After the SEC Indoor Championships, Floreal admitted to the teams that by his nature it's doubtful the Wildcats will ever satisfy him no matter how good they get -- though he did concede he would be quite happy with a SEC team championship as a start.
Nonetheless starting with the 2014 outdoor track and field season, which begins of Friday, UK will have plenty of opportunities this outdoor season to begin the journey toward reaching their coach's goals.
Floreal for his part has now dubbed the 2014 outdoor season the "quest for relevance." The first step in that quest will begin this weekend as the Wildcats are taking spring break in a warm and ideal setting given the winter they just went through in Lexington, Ky.
The setting is typical of many college students' Spring Break: Tempe, Ariz., but the purpose is a little less so.
While they will have ample opportunity to sit by pools and enjoy the desert sun, almost to a person, the Wildcats will compete on Friday and Saturday, pushing their bodies beyond the limit most people would consider comfortable.
Such is the life of a track and field athlete, not to mention those who compete for teams looking to challenge for national prominence and especially those who compete a coach as demanding as Floreal.
"This weekend will be one of many steps we must take on our march toward NCAA outdoor track and field relevance," Floreal said. "Our purpose going into this trip is twofold. No. 1 we want to set some early NCAA East Preliminary Championship qualifying marks. No. 2 we need to reacquaint ourselves with outdoor track and field while we build and strengthen our team under some much-needed sun rays."
What to watch for: Arizona State Baldy Castillo Invite (March 21-22, 2014)
The action will begin Friday evening and the only running events that night will be the men's and women's 1,500m in addition to the women's hammer throw, the only field event in which UK has entries.
Hillenbrand and Peare look to get back out there Matt Hillenbrand and Allison Peare both made the mile finals last weekend at the NCAA Indoor Championships, but neither earned the top-8 finishes needed to score points. As such they are both likely to be eager to get back out there and post impressive times.
The men's field will be very deep with UK runners coming off strong indoor seasons. Keffri Neal will race for the first time since his SEC 800m Championships, likewise, Adam Kahleifeh will hit the track for the first time since he claimed the SEC 3k Silver Medal, only behind Hillenbrand who also won the conference mile.
Peare will be joined in the women's mile by Chelsea Oswald and Hiruni Wijayaratne. Oswald was the 2013 SEC 5k and 10k Champion last season, but will make her debut this outdoor season apparently looking to build a base of foot speed before going after the longer distances.
Long throwers debut Part of the optimism for both of UK's teams to do even better than their monumental indoor season comes from the additional events on the outdoor track and field program that are not possible indoors, chiefly the discus and javelin throws.
Of Kentucky's three outdoor male scorers at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships, two return: Andrew Evans and Raymond Dykstra.
Evans will throw the discus in collegiate-competition for the first time since claiming the NCAA Bronze last season.
Dykstra will throw for the first time in competition since placing fifth at last season's NCAA Outdoor Championships.
UK will also look to turn out a formidable cast of outdoor throwers.
Rebecca Famurewa ranked No. 3 nationally in the discus for much of 2013 as a freshman after earning points in the weight throw indoors.
Madison Jacobs, who was an SEC All-Freshman performer in the shot put indoors, also has great potential as a discus thrower as she had a national prep top-10 mark last year.
Women's sprint options Kentucky boasts a talented array of women's sprinters led by 2014 NCAA Indoor 200m Champion and 60m runner-up Dezerea Bryant. Given her recent success, as well as that of SEC 60m hurdles champion Kendra Harrison, the duo will not compete at the Castillo Invite after logging heavy loads at last weekend's NCAA Indoor Championships
Even without Bryant and Harrison's services this weekend, the Wildcats will still boast a formidable corps for relays this weekend, including transfer standout Dominique Booker and 2013 Second Team All-American in the 100m dash Keilah Tyson.
Bryant and Harrison will likely make their outdoor debuts at the upcoming Texas Relays.
Records in play Many Wildcats made significant strides during the outdoor season, and as such multiple school records could fall this weekend.
Kayla Parker headlines the list of candidates to take down a school record this weekend. Parker owns the 100m Hurdles record, 13.16w, set at last season's NCAA Championships. Coming off a NCAA Indoor Championships where she did not make the 60H final and given her drastic improvement since last outdoor season began -- and especially over the course of the most recent indoor campaign -- now would be as good a time as ever for Parker to lower that mark, especially because Harrison will have a great chance at it when she makes her outdoor debut in the upcoming weeks.
Michelle Canterna will also have a chance at her outdoor school record.
Canterna set the UK pole vault mark last outdoor season, and raised the all-conditions mark to 3.97m/13'0.25" at her last outing, the SEC Indoor Championships.
Charles Moushey will have a shot at the UK outdoor freshman pole vault record, after he broke the indoor mark in a fourth-place performance at SECs.
Ibn Short and Justin Kretchmer will also have a shot at the Outdoor Freshman Record in the high jump.
By its very nature, track and field is a sport which comes down to fractions of inches or seconds.
Shot putter Bradley Szypka was on the losing end by a matter of inches twice in 2013. The disappointment of his near misses has motivated him ever since.
During the indoor season, he finished about four inches short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Come the outdoor season, he made the National Championships, but ended up three inches from the final.
The motivation of being so close so many times with so little to show for all that work apparently translated into more driven training, which culminated in a fifth-place performance at last weekend's NCAA Championships.
"That was such a short distance and such a big difference in outcome," Szypka said of his near misses in 2013. "Maybe it was one extra rep in the weight room or something. This offseason my motivation was that I don't want that to happen again. I'm certainly never going to miss it by a matter of inches again."
This past indoor season, which concluded at last weekend's NCAA Championships, he didn't. Szypka was the lone scorer for the Kentucky men's team at the 2014 Championships, the culmination of a stronger focus built from hours -- if not days -- of contemplation about what could have been.
"I think the important thing people forget sometimes is the attention to detail," UK throws coach Andrew Ninow said. "The attention to details can make large differences. Obviously he missed nationals by something around four inches indoors, and he missed scoring outdoors by about four inches. I think it has made him more focused on all of the details of his training. That's been a big help to us making a big breakthrough this year."
Indeed the 2014 NCAA Championships signaled a sort of arrival for Szypka, who also became Kentucky's first SEC shot put champion in 10 years at the conference meet.
Yet his emergence as one of the nation's best throwers was not the result of a journey devoid of ups and downs.
Head coach Edrick Floreal took over the program prior to Szypka's sophomore season in the summer of 2012. A decorated high school thrower, Szypka struggled his freshman year and the new start under Floreal's staff, notably throws assistant coach Andrew Ninow, proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
"The way his body moves in the ring works well with what I want to happen in the shot put," Ninow said. "There are different theories out there, but I think he's very much an aggressive thrower at the front of the ring. The technique that we teach is very much more of an aggressive-type movement. I think that sort of fit his mentality well."
Szypka wasted little time making his presence known to the rest of the nation as the 2012-13 season began, winning his first shot put competition of the season in December with a personal-best shot put mark, which ranked No. 1 in the NCAA going into the new year.
Szypka continued to improve under Ninow's direction in 2013, reaching a real threshold at the SEC Championships where he placed fourth. His PR mark from SECs finished the season short of the national top-16 list, which determines the NCAA Indoor Championships field by a margin of those difficult-to-stomach three inches.
Having placed high at the SEC Championships, emerged as a contender to qualify for NCAA Championships and built a solid rapport with his coach, Szypka entered the 2013 outdoor season optimistic.
Yet while he didn't quite struggle outdoors, he also didn't improve at the rate he had come to expect.
The low point came at the SEC Outdoor Championships.
Having placed fourth indoors, Szypka failed to make the final of the SEC outdoor shot put competition. He was at a crossroads.
Unlike the indoor season where regular-season marks qualify for the NCAA Championships, during the outdoor season the top-16 from the East and West Regionals Championships respectively make the NCAA Outdoor Championship Final Meet.
The regional meet provided Szypka with an opportunity for a measure of redemption. Szypka took his chance.
He produced a season-best performance to make NCAAs in the shot put, improving on all three of his throws in the final eventually hitting 18.33m/60-1.75.
And at NCAAs, Szypka improved his regional qualifying mark by nearly a foot, but again came agonizingly short of the major goal.
He hit 18.57 meters / 60-feet 11.25-inches, good for a 10th-place finish, one spot and three inches behind Michigan's Cody Riffle for the final place in the nine-thrower final.
Despite earning All-America honors for the first time (second team), Szypka was understandably disappointed.
Missing his NCAA Championship goal by so little once again was a last straw for Szypka, as he vowed to do whatever it took to avoid being so disappointed in the future.
While 2013 was a breakout year that never quite materialized into tangible results at the highest levels, in 2014 Szypka learned the benefits of consistency.
"The goal was to hit it big early, and be able to focus on improving up to the Championship meets," Szypka said in reflection on his 2014 indoor season. "I worked all offseason to focus on being able to get a qualifying mark during those first two home meets to get a mark that would get me in so I wouldn't have to worry."
And Szypka did exactly that the second weekend of the season at the home Rod McCravy Memorial Meet with a PR mark nearly three feet better than his previous best. Szypka remained consistent throughout the season, which included winning the shot put at the prestigious Tyson Invitational, one of the most competitive field-event meets of the year.
Szypka continued getting better throughout the year and entering the NCAA Championships he had won four-of-five competitions he had entered during the year, including the SEC Championship.
His head coach had taken notice.
"With Brad we just wanted him to find a way to score some points at the NCAA Championships," Floreal said. "He went in ranked No. 11 and only the top-eight score so it was maybe a bit of an upset, but he had been so consistent the whole season so we were optimistic. We weren't asking to finish runner-up or do something way outside his body, we just wanted him to finally get some points at the national meet.
"When you go to the NCAA meet you experience emotions that you've never experienced before. Now he has been to two and achieved scoring so as a junior he has three more NCAA championship meets where he can learn to calm himself down and compete to his fullest potential. He has a lot of room for improvement, but he also reached an important goal."
Satisfaction ... or lack thereof
Szypka did meet his coaches' goals at the 2014 NCAA Championships.
Szypka's first two throws were well below his potential and he sat in ninth place on the bubble of making the final going into his third attempt. With the pressure on, Szypka connected for a personal-best mark, 19.51m/64-0.25, which was his best of the meet and earned him his first points at a NCAA Championship.
In playing on Floreal's original goal for Szypka -- learning to control the emotions of such a high-pressure atmosphere -- Szypka met expectations. He proved he could come up with nearly a one-foot PR when he needed it just to make the final.
"It was great," Szypka said. "I went into the meet thinking that I had a shot to go top five just by how consistent I had been all year. Looking at the past marks, of all the other years it always took around 19.50 meters to be top five. Coach and I talked all week that if I could hit a PR around that on the first three throws I would be in the top-5, which eventually happened."
Yet even with the strong result, Szypka was slightly disappointed that he failed to get a fair throw in the final.
"I never hit my big throw, which was kind of disappointing for how good I felt, but it definitely leads me to feel like I have a lot more in the tank for outdoors," Szypka, who earned First-Team All-America honors with the fifth-place finish, said. "There I will have higher expectations. I'm going to be shooting for top three, just because I know there's a lot more. I have always thrown better outdoors, with last season as an exception (because of the better footing in outdoor rings), hopefully I can transition well to pick up a few more feet."
So Szypka's strong indoor season afforded him a measure of advantage -- or at least an opportunity to catch up -- in the mostly friendly rivalry that has developed amongst Kentucky's elite throwers.
Entering the 2014 indoor season discus thrower Andrew Evans (the 2012 SEC Champion, 2013 NCAA Bronze Medalist and two-time First Team All-American) and javelin specialist Raymond Dykstra (a two-time SEC Runner-Up and two-time First Team All-American had a leg up on Szypka, a meager one-time Second Team All-American.
With his SEC Championship and First Team All-America status, Szypka now has some bragging rights on Dykstra, one of the team's most vocal leaders.
"Just the other night I saw Ray in the hallway and I was bugging him a little bit because Ray has gotten second (in the javelin throw) twice now at the SEC Championship whereas Brad has now won a conference title," Ninow said. "He is getting his (SEC Championship) ring here pretty soon, so I was kind of bugging Ray like, 'Hey man, are you going to get that ring or is Brad the only one who's going to get the ring this year?'
"He was like, 'Oh, I'm getting the ring this year Coach. I'm getting two rings, conference and NCAA,' so there's definitely an inter-team competition. Who can acquire the most All-Americans, who can score the most points? There's definitely a competition amongst the throwers to see who can be the overall winner when this is all said and done."
Entering the outdoor season where the discus and javelin are part of the track and field competition program the UK throwers will have plenty of opportunities to one-up each other. The more they do, the better off the team is likely to be.
Allison Peare has emerged in recent weeks as a serious contender in the mile at the NCAA Indoor Championships, which begin on Friday. The senior's ascent to elite status amongst collegiate milers is all the more impressive considering she didn't even believe the distance to be her ideal race until just a few months ago.
For much of her career Peare considered herself an 800-meter runner. She had experienced modest success in the race in her first two seasons at UK, but nowhere near the heights she's reached in recent weeks.
Soon after head coach Edrick Floreal took over the program in summer 2012, and brought in women's distance assistant coach Hakon DeVries, Peare was put on a path that in many ways diverged from her initial athletic plans.
The change may have been the best thing to ever happen for Peare's career, she just took a while to embrace the new direction.
"Ally for her entire career identified herself as an 800 runner, and it took me about a year to convince her she was a middle-distance runner," DeVries said. "I wouldn't say she completely believed me until two minutes after the 2013 SEC Outdoor 1500 final (the outdoor mile equivalent). I had tried her in a 1500 and a Mile earlier in the year and she didn't have nearly the success I thought she could, but that day it finally clicked and was a huge confidence boost."
The confidence only began to really pay dividends in a noteworthy national manner within the last month.
"My increased confidence started from Hakon and Coach Flo," Peare said. "When you have both of your coaches telling you that you have something special and that they believe in your abilities, it eventually starts to sink in. Every time I walk by Coach Flo at practice, he looks at me and says 'Ally the Miler.' Also, in one of my very first practices with Hakon he told me that I was going to be a great 1500 runner, I just didn't believe him."
Peare's newfound belief was on full display in mid-February at the Iowa State Classic, where she broke 1989 SEC Mile Champion Lisa Breiding's school record (4:38.37 in 1989) by more than two seconds. She then lowered it to 4:38.14 in a Bronze Medal performance at the SEC Championships.
She enters the NCAA Championships as the No. 5 national seed in the mile, and will be able to focus on the event, as opposed to also running the 800 as she did at the Southeastern Conference Championships two weeks ago.
The Kentucky women's track and field team has enjoyed a head-turning indoor season, rising to No. 6 in the country ahead of the National Championships.
Indeed, since Floreal took charge of the program before the 2012-13 season many have taken note of the team's improvement.
Peare scored in both the mile and 800m at the SEC Championships. She will compete only in the mile at the NCAA Championships. (Mohammad Khursheed, TFV Media)
Rightly so, much of the credit for the team's improvement has gone to the teams headliners. Floreal brought in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the nation prior to this season, highlighted by Dezerea Bryant -- the nation leader and SEC Champion in the 60m -- and Kendra Harrison -- the nation leader and SEC Champion in the 60m hurdles.
But one recruiting class does not a program make, especially one that aspires to compete for team national championships.
To reach elite status in the ranks of collegiate track and field, it takes more than just a few top athletes. A deep corps of athletes needs to put in tons of hard work and commitment to attain SEC and NCAA scoring levels.
And to build a roster deep enough at a place like UK -- which hadn't experienced a great deal of success in the seasons leading up to the onset of Floréal's tenure -- the coaches needed to find returning team members with the hidden talent and work ethic to become elite competitors.
Peare has become the poster child for Wildcats who have developed at a rapid rate in the past year and a half. In fact, her emergence as one of the nation's elite milers is very much attributable to her change in attitude in recent months. That change is in line with the broader change in team culture under Floreal.
During the 2012-13 campaign, Cally Macumber and Chelsea Oswald both went from often-injured squad members who had never really performed at championship meets to multiple-time SEC champions and All-Americans.
"I think that Cally and Chelsea were the best thing that happened to Ally," DeVries said. "They shouldered the pressure last year while Ally was developing and really showed her that training at a high level every day is what will get you to the next level."
Peare certainly made strides as a junior in 2013, including as the 800m leg of UK's All-American Distance Medley Relay team with Oswald and Macumber as bookends. Yet in many ways -- largely because she didn't quite experience the instantaneous success on par with Macumber and Oswald -- Peare didn't seem to rate herself quite at the level of her teammates.
"Cally and Chelsea put our distance program back on the map," Peare said. "Last year, I did not see myself quite on their level, but our DMR opened my eyes. After being at the national meet with them I wanted to prove myself. Having elite teammates like Cally and Chelsea makes you want to train harder, run faster and perform better to rise to their level.
"Cally not having indoor eligibility made it even more important for me to step up for the team this year."
Peare has really grown as a leader in 2014, as she was elected team captain before the season.
Her style as captain seems to be to lead by example. Exhibit A: running fast.
Holiday Turning Point
For all the prodding and convincing the coaching staff did to build Peare's confidence, she still hadn't fully committed to the new running identity her coaches had hoped she would embrace. The give-and-take between coach and runner came to a head last semester.
"Before I went home for winter break this year, Hakon and I had a good heart-to-heart meeting," Peare said. "He told me that I was going to have to decide if I wanted to be an elite runner and my winter training was going to determine what type of runner I'd come back as. All winter I knew that I was going to be focusing on the mile and I had to change my mindset going into every run and workout. Hakon's confidence in my abilities and his constant reminders have helped me turn the corner in my running."
Peare apparently took DeVries' mild ultimatum to heart in training, but she still didn't see immediate results in 2014.
She placed third in a stacked mile race at the home Rod McCravy Memorial with a personal best of 4:44.87, behind fellow All-Americans Megan Patrignelli (Oregon) & Agata Strasa (Florida).
Despite the PR time, Peare very much found herself at crossroads similar to the one she had reached just weeks earlier.
"She pulled me to the side right after the McCravy Meet," Flor4al said. " 'I need to be part of this, these girls are running so fast, what do I need to do to be part of this?' I told her, 'Run fast.' "
Within weeks, Peare started acting on her coach's directive. She didn't just run faster, she ran the two fastest mile times in school history, and the season isn't yet over. If things go to plan Peare will race over a mile two more times, Friday and Saturday.
"Her new name is Ally the Miler because so many times she told me, 'I'm not a miler.' Now she says I am Ally the Miler and I'm comfortable doing it," Floréal said.