After a season in which coaches and players agreed they fell short of their potential, the UK men's soccer team reconvened.
In returning from the holiday break, the Wildcats discovered their head coach was just a little different.
"I've been extremely demanding," Cedergren said. "I'm not a very nice guy. I'm very impatient and the guys have put up with me and now we're sitting here seeing the end result."
The end result has been a special 2014 season.
Riding a nine-match unbeaten streak, UK (10-3-4, 5-0-2 Conference USA) is set to host its regular-season finale on Friday against Charlotte at 7 p.m. at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. With the Wildcats sitting a point ahead of the No. 5 49ers, UK can clinch the C-USA regular-season championship with a win or draw.
Though it all comes down to 90 minutes on Senior Night, UK's path to a potential title started back in January with a meaner Cedergren. In spite of being picked sixth in the conference before the season and relying on a roster that features 20 freshmen or sophomores and only two seniors, the Cats have responded to Cedergren's tough coaching and embraced his high expectations.
"We worked a lot with the players becoming problem solvers, being disciplined, selfless, humble and having a UK attitude," Cedergren said. "That means focusing on all the little things, having belief no matter where we go, no matter who we play and whatever happens we do things together."
UK's togetherness has been tested repeatedly this season, first through a challenging early-season schedule that brought two losses in its first three games. The Cats then responded with a 1-0 win at Notre Dame, the defending national champion.
More recently, UK has played four of its last five matches on the road, the only home match coming against defending C-USA champion and ninth-ranked New Mexico. All the Cats have done is win four times and draw once.
Considering all that, playing in what amounts to a conference championship game shouldn't faze this team.
"We have a lot of experience to look back on to prepare us for Friday," Cedergren.
The fact that UK has a defense that's allowed a school-record and conference-best 0.55 goals per match doesn't hurt either.
Cedergren knew junior Callum Irving would be the anchor of the unit, calling his goalkeeper one of the best in the country in the preseason. Irving has been as advertised, but Kaelon Fox, Jordan Wilson, Charlie Reymann and Matt Quick have made the defense elite.
"He's been as good as I know he can be," Cedergren said. "I think what has been exceeding my expectations is the back four, the guys that are in front of Cally."
On offense, UK relies on sophomore Napo Matsoso, who is second on the team with 12 points and consistently leads the Cats in distance covered during games. Cedergren estimated that 80 percent of UK's attacks involve Matsoso in some way.
"As many games as I've watched, I can't say that I've had a better playmaker on a team," Cedergren said. "So Napo is huge for us."
"Friday, we're hoping we can get north of 2,000 people to come out to the game and support us, which is I think very, very doable," Cedergren said.
With a loud crowd behind them, Cedergren and the Cats are out to make a special season historic.
"We've put ourselves in a place where we have everything to play for still," Cedergren said. "We need to finish strong. The Kentucky men's soccer program hasn't won a title since 2004, so it's about time for us to do it again."
Kentucky continued its work ahead of a Senior Day matchup with Georgia on Wednesday. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot left the practice field happy with the Wildcats' effort.
"We had a good day of practice," Eliot said. "Kids were into it, flying around, good and physical. It was a good Wednesday; it's what we're looking for."
The coaching staff is getting what it wants out of practice on the heels of a performance at Missouri that Mark Stoops said was among the most disappointing of his two-year tenure. Unsurprisingly, that drew Stoops' ire in the team's first meeting of the week on Monday.
"It was ugly," senior Bud Dupree said. "Coach Stoops said he was going to give it to us and he did exactly what he said. But we needed that. You need a reality check sometimes."
Dupree certainly would rather have avoided that reality check, but he knows it was necessary.
"At the end of the day, he still cares," Dupree said. "But that shows a lot that he cares that much about us that he really thought we could win the games that we've been losing. It was coming and the time couldn't be at a better point in the season."
With three games remaining and therefore three more chances at gaining bowl eligibility, Eliot says the Cats have "responded well."
"They got the message and they came out in practice all week and have focused on being disciplined and doing the little things right, practiced hard and paid attention to detail," Eliot said.
UK will call on that work on Saturday at noon ET when the No. 17 Bulldogs come to town.
"Georgia is very multiple on offense and they can do a lot of things in a lot of different way with different players," Eliot said. "So you have to prepare for them and be able to defend them in a lot of different looks and versus a lot of different plays. So that's quite a challenge."
The last three weeks have summed up the challenge facing Neal Brown.
To start the stretch, Kentucky's offense was ineffective in a blowout loss at LSU, but the Wildcats bounced back with one of their better efforts in a hard-fought game against No. 1 Mississippi State the next week. What followed was a lackluster performance at Missouri.
Looking to find the form that escaped his team in Columbia, Mo., Brown and his offense have gone back to work.
"We're going to be hard on them all week and probably need to continue being hard on them," Brown said. "Some of that is youth. Some of it is guys just not stepping up and making plays in the moment. We're going to get through it, and we will play better this week and hopefully this will be the last time that we have to talk about consistency."
Naturally, much of the talk after the loss to the Tigers was also about Patrick Towles, who struggled a week after out-producing Heisman frontrunner Dak Prescott. Neither Brown nor Towles is ignoring that the sophomore quarterback needs to improve entering a tough matchup with No. 17 Georgia, but so do the players surrounding him.
"I think he was in a little bit of a fog," Brown said. "I think he recognizes it. I wish there was a magic pill, and for whatever reason, things didn't go real well early, and I don't think he ever really snapped out of it. He was disappointed, I was disappointed. If he would have played better, would we have had a chance? Yes. But a lot of things were out of his control."
Brown and Towles on Tuesday and Mark Stoops on Monday each mentioned a six-step out route that a receiver ran incorrectly on a second-half fourth down as an example of just that.
"We were just really undisciplined at Missouri," Brown said. "It wasn't necessarily 11 guys at once. It was one guy here on a key play, and (then) another guy. On offense -- I think I said this after the game -- you've got to have 11 guys on the same page doing their job. On defense sometimes one tremendous player can go make a play. It just doesn't work that way on offense."
Youth and inexperience may be reasons for UK's fits and starts on offense, but the Cats are refusing to use them as excuses.
"We've just gotta be more consistent as a whole," Towles said. "We've had some really good games; we've had some not-so-good games. We just gotta holistically execute better."
UK took a step in that direction on Tuesday with a solid day of work. The Cats are taking to heart Stoops' message that they need to step up and choose to play disciplined football, regardless of the circumstances.
"This is a tough league," said Towles, who returned to the Nutter Training Facility for interviews on Tuesday after a test. "We're playing great teams every week. So we gotta execute no matter who it's against. We gotta be able to run the ball against big guys and we gotta be able to throw the ball against athletic secondaries."
The Cats don't have to wait long before their next such opponent and Towles and the Cats are hard at work preparing for it.
"That last period we had before I left for my exam, I probably had the best period I've had," Towles said. "And it was a blitz period, so we're improving and I'm looking forward to another opportunity on Saturday, for sure."
Shelby Workman had 10 kills in UK's sweep of Morehead State on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
A scheduling quirk made for a strange week for the Kentucky volleyball team.
The Wildcats, accustomed to having matches on Fridays and Saturdays, spent their weekend practicing instead of playing following a sweep of rival Tennessee on Wednesday.
"Pretty unusual, actually," head coach Craig Skinner said. "It's kind of weird going through a weekend without playing a match."
For that reason, UK scheduled a match with in-state foe Morehead State on Monday to bridge the gap between the Tennessee win and the Cats' return to Southeastern Conference play on Friday against Georgia. Kentucky came in the heavy favorite and performed accordingly in a sweep.
"When on paper you should win a match it's hard to always be focused the entire way," Skinner said. "For us to--I don't think we had any hitting errors in set three. ... For us to be able to do that and sustain it through three sets I think is good."
After a competitive first set, the Cats were dominant. UK outscored the visitors 50-26 in the final two sets behind an efficient offensive effort. The Cats hit a season-high .449 as a team in reaching the 20-win plateau for the seventh time in eight seasons and fourth in a row.
"I guess I don't think a whole lot about it, but it's the next win," Skinner said. "As we go down the stretch, I think some matches down the road are more important, Georgia obviously being the first one this weekend (in the) middle of a home stretch, which is nice to kind of get some confidence, get some training in."
UK used Monday's match as a training ground of sorts, testing out a new scheme with its two middle blockers, playing 13 total players and getting some important work for Shelby Workman.
"We were able to try some different things," Skinner said. "We've been trying to smooth some things out with Shelby and trying to get some people some playing time in different scenarios. We were able to do that and rest a couple people that have been banged up a little bit. So it was nice to be able to take care of business."
Workman responded, hitting .444 and tallying 10 kills. She trailed only Lauren O'Conner, who followed back-to-back 19-kill performances with an efficient 11-kill effort. O'Conner, it seems, is intent on making the final weeks of her decorated UK career count.
"She's just a veteran leader," Skinner said. "She's confident hitting any shot. She's just really proving herself right now as a true (No. 1 left-side hitter), someone that can carry the offensive load when you need it, which relieves some stress off your setter and also relieves some stress of your other hitters. She's playing well and playing with a lot of confidence."
Almost two years into his Kentucky tenure, Mark Stoops has become famous for his fire.
That passion, one of the driving forces behind the progress of the UK program, is most often seen on the sideline on Saturday, but this week it made an earlier appearance.
Stoops, at his regular Monday press conference, minced no words in evaluating his team's performance in a loss over the weekend and spoke in no uncertain terms about what the Wildcats need to do over the final month of the regular season.
The gathered media, noting his frustration, wondered what Stoops would be like when he met with his team later in the day.
"You can stand out in the street and you'll hear," Stoops said.
Stoops isn't angry for the sake of being angry either. He sees a UK team that has fallen to 5-4 (2-4 Southeastern Conference) but still has every opportunity to address the discipline issues that plagued the Cats in a deflating 20-10 loss at Missouri.
"I feel like our players and our coaches, starting with me, we have a choice in that matter," Stoops said. "We either choose to be disciplined or we choose to be undisciplined. We either choose to be a trained football team and us as a coaching staff need to train them."
To Stoops, that all comes down to details.
"If you're supposed to run a six-step out, run it six, not eight," Stoops said. "If you're supposed to follow the guard on a run play, follow the guard, not just run anywhere you want to run. That's what I mean by 'untrained.' It's creating those habits and training to play when you're under pressure. When we're under pressure, our habits come right to the surface and they're bad habits."
In the midst of three straight losses, the mood around UK football is much different than it was after a 5-1 start that generated talk of the Cats contending for the SEC Eastern Division crown. But just as things weren't as good as they seemed three weeks ago, they aren't as bad as they seem right now.
"We just need to be better," Stoops said. "We're inconsistent. The wheels aren't falling off; we barely had them on."
UK, in other words, is still very much in development mode.
"We've got to scratch and claw and fight and dig down for everything that we get," Stoops said. "To think that you're going to go out there and hope that they happen, we're mistaken. I constantly talk about that. We cannot wait for our moment. We've got to train to go take it and make our moment."
The Cats have three chances left to make their moment in the regular season, starting with a Senior Day matchup against No. 17 Georgia at noon ET on Saturday. The Bulldogs (6-2, 4-2 SEC) suffered a 38-20 defeat at the hands of Florida over the weekend, but remain a major challenge for any opponent.
"They bring a very good football team," Stoops said. "I think they bring a power running team that we know has hurt us in the past as well. They can run the heck out of the football. They're very talented. They can throw it. They're very balanced. They're playing great defense."
Georgia is the only team to rank in the top four in the SEC in both scoring offense and scoring defense, relying on a ground attack that averages 265.9 yards and a rushing defense that allows just 105.1 yards per game.
"Georgia is going to present a real problem to us because, first of all, they're not going to give you anything," Stoops said. "They're one of those aggressive defenses. They're very well coached. They're not going to give you anything easy. So you've got to go earn your yards. You have to win your one-on-ones."
In the wake of an offensive performance that saw the Cats gain just 258 yards, schemes and play calls have been popular topics, but not as much for Stoops. Of course the UK staff will work hard to craft a game plan that will position the Cats for success, but that's not the priority this week.
"There's no magical little scheme or anything like that," Stoops said. "You got to win. You got to block some people, get open, throw good footballs."
Depth chart update: Williams the new starter at running back
Following a game in which he accounted for 97 of UK's 258 yards from scrimmage, true freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams has moved by himself to the top of the depth chart at running back. Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton and Jojo Kemp follow him.
At wide receiver, there are numerous changes. Garrett Johnson is now listed as a starter at one of the four spots, along with Demarco Robinson, Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons. Joey Herrick has moved into a backup role behind Timmons, while T.V. Williams and Rashad Cunningham are no longer listed.
At quarterback, Drew Barker is no longer listed as a backup. Stoops confirmed on Monday the reason for that is it's too late in the season for the true freshman to burn his redshirt.
In the secondary, Fred Tiller and Blake McClain are still starters at cornerback and nickelback, respectively, in spite of suffering injuries at Missouri. Stoops said both are expected to be "fine" for Saturday.
Seeking to fill a football head-coaching vacancy nearly two years ago, Mitch Barnhart did his due diligence.
He met with candidates and evaluated many more. He called references and solicited the help of Tim Couch, the quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick who was there for some of Kentucky's best years. For more than three weeks, Barnhart worked behind the scenes to find the right man for the job.
Through it all there was one coach who stuck out, and it was his plan that differentiated Mark Stoops.
Then the defensive coordinator at Florida State, Stoops met with Barnhart and presented his blueprint for success at UK at a meeting in Atlanta. It covered everything from recruiting to an innovative High Performance program and the detail was incredible, such that it almost seemed too good to be true.
Twenty-three months later, it's become clear that Stoops' plan was no fairytale.
"He has followed that to a t," Barnhart said. "Everything he said he was going to do, he has done, and it's on schedule and on task."
For executing his ambitious plan, Stoops was rewarded on Friday with a contract extension that will keep him at Kentucky through the end of the 2019 season, adding another year to a deal that was first extended in May.
Exciting news, #BBN. We've agreed to a contract extension with @UKCoachStoops that will keep him here through the 2019 season. #Yahtzee
The new contract bumps Stoops' average base salary to $3.575 million. The deal also includes a $250,000 incentive for each win beginning with the seventh win each season, as well as incentives for postseason appearances, winning the Southeastern Conference or national championship and team academic performance. New deals for UK's assistant coaches are also forthcoming.
"Mark is guiding our program in the direction we all want it to go and we are proud to reward that," Barnhart said in a release announcing the news. "I was confident Mark was right for this job when I hired him, but he has exceeded my expectations. From leading a group of young men, to recruiting, to fundraising, to becoming an important part of the Lexington community, Mark has embraced and excelled in all facets of being Kentucky football head coach."
In doing so, Stoops led a renaissance of the UK program. Immediately, Stoops made waves on the recruiting trail and awoke a fan base hungry for football success. The wins didn't come as quickly, as the Wildcats managed just a 2-10 season in his first year.
This season, however, has been another story. UK is 5-3 entering a trip to Missouri for a game at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, exceeding its win total from the previous two years combined. The Cats also have a pair of SEC wins after going nearly three years without one.
"I am excited about the progress our team has shown on the field, but this is as much about the next five years as it is the last one and a half," Barnhart said. "As I've said before, I believe we can compete at the highest level in the toughest conference. Mark is the coach to take us there."
Stoops' work at UK has already caused some national pundits and fans to connect his name to jobs that aren't even open yet. The contract extension curtailed some of that talk, but this was always about something deeper than that.
"This is about our relationship, and I don't ever want it -- I think people, when you start worrying about other folks, that's when you get distracted," Barnhart said. "And Mark is really good about not worrying about other people, and I want to make sure we don't get all hung up on worrying about other people."
It was Barnhart who initiated the talks and Stoops was receptive, mostly because he is "not interested in going anywhere."
"I want to show my commitment," Stoops said. "If you know anything about myself, about my family, past history -- whether it be with my brothers and different people -- loyalty's a pretty big thing with us."
Loyalty, when it comes to Stoops and UK, is a two-way street.
Since that initial meeting in Atlanta, Stoops and Barnhart have built a strong working relationship that's the foundation for that loyalty.
"Fairness is what I think Mark is really all about, and I love that," Barnhart said. "And I love the fact that I feel like he wants to for a good job for the University of Kentucky for all the right reasons. He's a solid, obviously, really solid, great football coach. I really love what he's doing with our football program, but more than that, he's just a great person."
"I just felt like it was always very easy conversations with myself and with Mitch, and I think we're both the type of people (that) what we say is what we mean," Stoops said. "I just felt very comfortable, and that's part of having any kind of success is just having good instincts on people and what you believe."
Relying on that shared relationship, Stoops and Barnhart have gone to work.
Beyond the results on the field and on the recruiting trail, UK's football facilities are being addressed in a big way. Stoops has helped pave the way for a $120 million stadium renovation that will be completed before next season and a new $45 million practice facility project that will break ground in January.
"Mark has energized our fan base, exhibited by the crowds we've been having at Commonwealth Stadium and the response we're getting in the seat reallocation process as we build into our new stadium for next year," Barnhart said. "That's exciting for us. He's been extremely helpful to our program in the fundraising area as we build our new football training center. We break ground on that in January. He's done a tremendous job in the fund-raising area as well and I'm appreciative of that."
As exciting as the future of Kentucky football is with the facility upgrades and his new contract, Stoops was a bit ill-at-ease standing at the podium on Friday. With a bus waiting outside to take him and the team to the airport for a flight to Columbia, Mo., as soon as his time with gathered media was done, it's understandable that his mind may have been elsewhere.
"Looking forward to getting on this plane and going to Missouri and trying to get this win," Stoops said.