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Brad Szypka: A game of inches

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Szypka-Inches.jpgBy 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.

Breaking out

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.

2014 consistency

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.

Video: Floreal recaps day one of NCAA indoors

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Ally the Miler: Peare embraces middle distance

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Allison Peare (Mohammad Khursheed, TFV Media)Allison Peare (Mohammad Khursheed, TFV Media)
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.

Team Backbone

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) 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.

Video: Track and field NCAA indoor pump-up

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Kendra Harrison historic indoor track season is continuing in a big way in College Station, Texas, at the Southeastern Conference Indoor Championships. She set a meet record with a time of 7.94 in the 60-meter hurdles, which also happens to be the seventh-best time in NCAA history. UK went 1-3-4 in the race, with Kayla Parker joining her on the podium in third place.

Here's video.

Minutes later, Dezerea Bryant tied her own nation-leading time in the 60-meter dash with a 7.16 to claim another gold. Bryant later added silver in the 200. Take a look at her win in the 60.

The medals for Harrison, Parker and Bryant are hardly the only ones for UK on Saturday. Matt Hillenbrand completed a 3,000 meter-mile double by winning the indoor mile title for the second year in a row, Keffri Neal took gold in the men's 800, Brad Szypka won gold in the shot put and Allison Peare took bronze in the women's mile.

Edrick Floreal recaps Friday, previews Saturday

Matt Hillenbrand wins 3K title

Video: McCravy Memorial highlights

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McCravy Memorial a fitting tribute to a UK favorite

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UK will hold the McCravy Memorial in honor of former track athlete Rodriq McCravy. (UK Athletics) UK will hold the McCravy Memorial in honor of former track athlete Rodriq McCravy. (UK Athletics)
This weekend's track and field meet is named in honor of Rodriq McCravy, a former UK track athlete. McCravy, who quickly established himself as a leader with great respect and care for others, died in 1987 at age 19.

McCravy was just a sophomore, but he had already made a lasting impact on his teammates, coaches and the UK administration.

"He was such a great guy and an extremely well-liked member of our team," former UK track and field head coach Don Weber said. "He contributed in so many ways other than what he did on the track. He was really a unique person in that regard.

"The thing that really stands out was how universally, everyone had such a high regard for Rod. I've had a lot of great kids over the years, but I don't know if we've had anybody that everybody thought of him that way. It was people on and off the track team. He was an exceptionally unique person."

This weekend's Rod McCravy Memorial Meet, which was first held the year after McCravy died, extends his legacy and continues to teach others about what made him so special.

"He was a fabulous person," Weber said. "This is an opportunity to recognize Rod and also an opportunity to, each year, talk about Rod with the team. We talked about his qualities, and his impact and contributions to the team."

A graduate of Louisville Trinity High School, McCravy was a two-time state champion. Upon his arrival at UK, he set the freshman record in the 400-meter hurdles, finished sixth in the TAC National Junior Championships and was a member of the school-record 1,600-meter relay team.

Along with his actions away from the track, Weber remembers McCravy's demeanor as being just as positive on the track.

"He didn't have a negative attitude, in that 'They're defeating me.' " Weber said. "It was, 'They're helping me run faster and I have to do my best to run with them.' That, in a strictly athletic sense, Rod's story helped us, but also stressing the importance of all the qualities that Rod had and how those are important."

McCravy made a great first impression on Weber, who immediately saw something special in the high-school student during his recruiting visit to campus. McCravy was planning on competing for the Blue and White as a walk-on.

Instead, McCravy earned a scholarship based off his work ethic, attitude and leadership qualities. Weber knew he would make an impact not only on the track, but away from it as well.

"He came and visited," Weber said of McCravy's recruiting trip. 'We did not have any intentions of giving him a scholarship. I met with him and his dad in my office. His dad didn't say anything, he and I just talked. Over the course of our conversation, Rod impressed me so much with his leadership skills, him as a person that we ended up offering him a scholarship, mainly because of him as a person. That was the first non-athletic, 'people' scholarship that we gave out."

Now, 26 years later, the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet -- this year designated as the weekend's "best meet in the nation" by the United States Track Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) featuring perennial powers Oregon and Florida -- lives on, and so does McCravy's legacy. Current student-athletes and the coaching staff didn't know McCravy, but he continues to have an impact on the team and the track and field program. His influence lives on, even as the people he directly impacted move on.

This weekend as some of the nation's best track and field athletes compete at the Nutter Field House, McCravy will be remembered.

Kayla Parker (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kayla Parker (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kayla Parker's career at Kentucky changed on a team bus trip in Nebraska in February of last year.

The UK track and field team was just a few months into head coach Edrick Floreal's first year in charge of the program and much of the team had not yet adjusted to the concepts the new staff was trying to instill.

Parker -- who experienced mixed results on the track in her first two years in Lexington and struggled to find a signature event, even trying her hand in the grueling pentathlon and heptathlon -- for her part was one of the first Wildcats to buy into the novel "Floreal" ethos.

With the Wildcats riding back from Nebraska's indoor track after a meet performance below the team's expectations, certain team members were acting as though they weren't upset about the lackluster results.

Parker, knowing the coaching staff would not take kindly to seeing the team in such good spirits after competing so poorly, stood up in front of her teammates to voice her disapproval.

"It seemed like people didn't care, and it kind of frustrated me," Parker said. "People were nonchalant. We just lost, why are you still laughing and joking? That was when I stood up and said something. Usually I talk to people individually, but that day was different. I can't repeat what I said on the bus, but I think the team got the message."

Word of Parker's talk with the team certainly got around and her head coach took notice, seeing the intervention as an initial turning point in the UK track and field culture.

"If we're going to win anything as a team the athletes have to be the ones who take ownership," Floreal said. "Kayla was one of the first people to do that. She took ownership on that bus. I was riding separate from the team, but later I heard Kayla had said something to the team and some team members were worried at how much the meet had affected her.

"My reaction was the opposite; I thought, this is perfect. We're starting to get people who think of it as 'my team.' She was making sure there was accountability."

Parker's sense of accountability translated into results shortly after her speech, as she began running head-turning times in the 100-meter hurdles.

Whereas in 2012, she failed to even make the final at the Southeastern Conference Championships, she finished fourth overall in 2013. Then she qualified for the NCAA Championships and broke a decade-old school record.

She has continued to wow early this season as Parker ran the nation's second-fastest 60-meter hurdles time last month, 8.24, breaking another school record in the process.

Parker attributes her success to buying into her coach's philosophies and moreover, holding herself accountable to the same standards she asks of her teammates.

The team's new standards were difficult to adjust to at first, and could explain why it took until the 2013 outdoor season before the hard work really started to pay off.

And the team has bought in too. Led by Parker, the UK women's team is ranked No. 6 in the preseason poll, released Monday.

"It was just too easy not to do everything in your power to get better before," Parker said. "Now we know the coaches' expectations are higher, and in turn our teammates expect more of each other too. You notice the difference in training, but also off the track. Everyone is just committed to the cause."

Parker led the way in changing her attitude toward the sport and competition. Kentucky's recent influx of talent into the program has only hastened the rest of the team's shift in outlook.

UK's ascent to national contender status, due in large part to Parker's emergence and a 2013 recruiting class ranked No. 5 nationally by "Track and Field News," has brought a level of competition to practice sessions previously unseen.

Parker certainly was challenged in training by teammates like transfer Kendra Harrison -- a seven-time All-American and six-time Atlantic Coast Conference Champion -- which seems to have translated into results given her top-class start to the season.

"As coaches we try to explain to the kids the things they need to do to be successful, but you can never fully impart that wisdom just by talking," Floreal said. "When you have members of the team that have been to the highest level the rest of the team gets a glimpse and that work ethic rubs off. That is important as you try to build a winning culture.

Like her coach, Parker knows preseason rankings do not make a successful year a given. Plenty of work -- as well as speeches to the team, should they be necessary -- remains.

"It's just the beginning," said Floreal of the strides his team has made in the past year, largely because of the steps Parker and other have taken to improve. "We're not there yet. Things like preseason rankings are small steps, but we have to put in the work to perform when in counts."

An initial test of how the many dividends the the team's hard work will yield comes this weekend when UK hosts the Kentucky Invitational at the Nutter Field House.

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  • Floyd Ballard: CONGRATULATIONS!! I watched the run Saturday on TV, and you looked fantastic. read more
  • Walter Leonard: President? Why would Cal want to take such a drastic pay cut? As long as he can still coach here, read more
  • BJ Rassam: Many of us are looking forward to the team Coach Cal will be putting out this upcoming season. read more
  • Tom Minney: Nice story about 3 outstanding young guys and the power of love. Debre Libanos is an outstanding place to visit, read more
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  • Trublususu: I can't imagine what you guys are experiencing. Sounds like your first day was memorable. That woman will remember you read more
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  • Robert L Jones Jr: I just want to say that I think coach Mitchell did a grate job explain what has happened to one read more