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Sophomore Sylver Samuel and Senior Lauren Cumbess
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Head coach Rachel Lawson
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After Andrew Evans took the discus title on Saturday, Keffri Neal, Ray Dykstra and Kendra Harrison -- who completed the hurdles double at 100 and 400 meters -- followed with gold medals of their own on championship Sunday.
Only one Wildcat, however, did something that Edrick Floreal simply couldn't explain.
"What Ally Peare did, that's just unheard of," Floreal said.
Within 90 minutes, Peare in ran in the finals of both the 1500m and 800m. To make things even more difficult, she had to qualify for the two grueling races in the preceding 48 hours.
The challenge is so great, in fact, that Floreal hesitates to even ask a student-athlete to face it.
"That's one of my greatest fears, to put somebody in the eight and 15, because the second one is always kind of god awful," Floreal said. "The kid is so lactic acid loaded up."
Defying biology, Peare managed second-place finishes in both. She tallied 16 points for her team, playing an important role as the UK women placed fourth, their best finish at SECs since 1983.
"It was a really great weekend for me," Peare said. "It's been really exciting and I'm just glad I was able to score a lot of points for the team."
Knowing the nature of the double, the coaching staff adjusted their projections for Peare's point-scoring down a bit entering the weekend. The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.
"I was only expected to score nine points," Peare said. "I even talked to Coach and I was like, 'I think I can score more than that.' "
She nearly eclipsed nine in her first race, finishing with a school-record time of 4:15.14 in the 1500. Afterward, women's distance coach Hakon DeVries pulled her aside to strategize for the 800.
"I had a lot of confidence in myself from Coach DeVries," Peare said. "He told me beforehand, that going into the 800, five other girls were coming back from the double of the 15. He said, 'I believe you can run 2:04.' "
Her time? 2:04.13.
Peare surged to the finish, nipping Georgia's Megan Malasarte by a mere tenth of a second.
"I thought, 'Man, no way you can come back after that 15 and do that.' " Floreal said. "And then when they took off in 57 (seconds through 400 meters), I thought, 'So much for us.' And then all of a sudden this little gal kept coming and then kept coming and then kicked in the home stretch. You're not supposed to be able to kick after running a 15. Your legs are not supposed to respond. I'm just so impressed."
For a little added perspective on Peare's feat, you needn't look any further than her UK teammate Keffri Neal. The junior won the 1500 and attempted the same double Peare pulled off, but finished eighth to account for 11 points. It was a more than respectable effort, but only makes Peare's all the more impressive.
"It takes a strong physical body and a strong personality as well," Neal said. "Maybe I'm not at that level yet but I'm trying to get there. She's a very good runner and I'm happy that she could run that fast."
Her coach, clearly, felt the same way.
With the women finishing fourth and the men coming in sixth -- their best SEC outdoor finish since 1996 -- the Cats turned in the clearest proof yet of the program's progress under Floreal. True to his nature, Floreal had already moved on to the next step when asked about it.
"Obviously the biggest trophy you get is the one you get at the NCAA," Floreal said. "We want to get ready for that and then position ourselves to do as best as we can and hopefully be a podium team at the NCAA. That's the goal of a program. That's what's going to define us."
Peare is on board, but she has so more immediate concerns to tend to first.
"I'm going to sleep very well tonight after I get a very good meal," she said.
Then the athletes had a choice. They could either hear how many points they were expected to score or go into the weekend blind.
The former option, in Floreal's eyes, was the better one.
"You've gotta be able to embrace that pressure," Floreal said. "When somebody tells me, 'I don't want to know what you expect from me,' that's not very good. I want them to make the decision."
For senior discus thrower Andrew Evans, the decision was easy.
"The team has expectations of us," Evans said. "They asked us if we wanted to know what expectations they had for us in points and discus was (to score) 10 (points). So I knew they wanted me to get it done."
And get it done he did. Evans won the second SEC title of his career, turning in a throw of 64.09 meters/210-3 on his final attempt in front of a large crowd there to watch a loaded discus final.
"We initially had the throwing set up on the infield, which is kind of absent the crowd right on top of you," Evans said. "Then we moved it to the outside throwing facility where everybody's right on top of you and expectations are right on top of you as well."
His coach's expectations were far from the only ones Evans had to shoulder competing Saturday in front of his home fans.
Just two weeks ago, Evans won National Athlete of the Week honors after his throw of 66.37m/217-9 at the Tennessee Challenge. The mark is the best in the NCAA this season and third best in the world this year, but brought with it the pressure to back up that "magical moment," as Floreal called it.
"You have to be able to perform when people expect you to do it," Floreal said. "I'm really happy that Andrew was able to get it done with all the pressure. Everybody that was over there, they expected one thing: Andrew Evans to win the discus. And he fought off the demons and delivered the goods in a big way."
Emerging atop a field that featured three of the top four throwers in the country, Evans received his gold medal from former discus national champion and UK alum Rashaud Scott. With his nation-leading throw two weeks ago, Evans took over the school record from Scott, who graduated in 2009.
"Rashaud and I are good pals," Evans said. "He let me have it when I took his record, so we just kind of go back and forth."
Scott started a streak of five consecutive SEC discus titles for UK athletes in 2008, a streak Evans continued in 2012 but ended a year ago when he finished second. In his final home meet, Evans is happy to restart the streak and continue a Wildcat tradition.
"It feels good to win again and bring it back to Kentucky, because Kentucky is such a storied discus school," Evans said. "Hopefully we can use my results to bring in big discus recruits to keep making the program better."
If his younger teammates can mimic the way Evans handles the weight of expectations, UK track and field will continue to blossom under Floreal.
"Being counted on, that's good," Floreal said. "You don't want to not exist. Nobody expects anything from you, who wants to live that life? I want a life where I know that people expect stuff from me. We expect you to do something here."
"My interest is having people around me that they are OK with that, they can live with that, they can stand up under it and be OK with the outcome."
Delivering when he was supposed to, Evans became UK's first 2014 SEC outdoor champion. Behind him, UK is fifth with 21 points in men's standings through three days, while the women are currently in ninth with 13.
It wasn't an ideal day -- Floreal said Saturday started without the "zeal" the Wildcats had on Friday -- but it was another step in the growth of a program.
"Like I always say, character is not what happens, but it's what happens after you get your butt kicked," Floreal said. "We lost some points, but we're going to be OK. In the end, we're still in a building stage trying to put ourselves in position. And I think we're a contender, but we're not there yet. We've still got some stuff we've gotta figure out. We still gotta get a little bit tougher, a little bit grittier."
A staple of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to keep fighting and battle back, and it was never more prevalent than in UK's 2-1, comeback win Saturday over James Madison on the second day of the NCAA Regional.
The Wildcats were trailing 1-0 and being no-hit through four innings, but in the fifth, everything started to change.
All it took was a leadoff flyout from senior Emily Gaines -- the first ball from the UK bats to leave the infield -- and the offense and the Big Blue Nation responded.
Senior Lauren Cumbess followed with a single for UK's first hit of the game, and fellow senior Emily Jolly also notched a double. While UK would not score a run in the frame, the rally was officially in effect.
Credit goes to sophomore Nikki Sagermann and junior Griffin Joiner, who recorded the game-tying and game-winning hits, but the crowd certainly played a factor.
John Cropp Stadium was close to capacity for the second consecutive day, but the Wildcat faithful didn't have a lot to cheer about until Gaines' flyout in the fifth inning. That's when the momentum shifted, and the Big Blue Nation could be heard, loud and clear.
"I thought a lot of our adjustment the third time through the order was due to the fact the crowd really got into it, chanting 'blue' and 'white,' " UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "You could hear them really cheering when Sylver Samuel got that hit up the middle and everybody went crazy. I actually think the crowd was a lot of the reason why we adjusted. The crowd was the big difference, I thought they were tremendous and a lot of the reasons why we scored the runs at the end of the game."
The Kentucky runs came in the sixth inning, but it unofficially got started in the fifth with Gaines' fly ball to center.
"Gaines has sparked us all year, so that got us going, everybody got fired up," Joiner said. "The rest of the lineup started battling better in their at-bat."
"We finally saw someone get some solid contact on her, and we were like, 'Alright, we can hit it,' " Sagermann added.
In the sixth inning, the Wildcats sent the top of the order to the plate for their third time. Sophomore Christian Stokes led off with a strikeout, but Samuel followed with a single up the middle to set up Sagermann.
The third baseman doubled to right center to score Samuel and tie the game. Joiner kept the hot hitting going with a single to left to score Sagermann and give Kentucky a 2-1 lead.
It was the adjustments that Samuel, Sagermann and Joiner made in their third time at the plate that proved to be the key for the UK offense to score two and take the lead.
After the second time through the batting order, Lawson knew the top of the order needed to adjust and get in attack mode if the Wildcats were to mount a rally.
"By the time the second at-bat comes around, if they're not in attack mode, you know you can be in big trouble," Lawson said. "You'd better straighten them out and get them in attack mode, so hopefully their third at-bat through, they're ready to get after the pitcher, which is what happened today."
The Wildcats have scored more than two runs just twice in their last six games, but have managed to notch five wins in that span, in large part to their ability to make adjustments at the plate and get the key hit at the perfect moment.
The fact that pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who has won all five games in the circle for Kentucky, is the school-record holder with eight postseason wins, certainly doesn't hurt either.
UK will look to advance to its third NCAA Super Regional in the past four years Sunday at 1 p.m. at John Cropp Stadium against either James Madison or DePaul.
Cally Macumber needed only a few days after she decided to run the 10,000-meter race at the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.
"It wasn't originally the plan to run the 10," Macumber said. "Kind of a last-minute decision to try and get some points for the team."
The decision paid off for both Macumber and her Kentucky team. She ran the 10k in 34:01.52, finishing second behind Arkansas' Dominique Scott to pick up eight important points for the Wildcats.
"Anytime you gotta be crazy or courageous enough to volunteer to run a 10k, you're a special athlete," UK head coach Edrick Floreal said. "She performed very special."
The performance was even more special considering Macumber's history in the 10k. A year ago, she finished seventh at SECs in the same race.
"It was a hard decision to make not having the best track record with it," Macumber said. "But I knew it would really help my team and once you think about that, it's worth it, the 25 laps."
It's that willingness to sacrifice for her team, in fact, that paved the way for her record effort.
"Getting them to the point where it's their idea is so important," Floreal said. "Had I forced her to do it, it would have been a different story. But she wanted to do it."
Macumber has always been a good teammate, but her attitude has undergone a change that represents the culture shift brought on by Floreal's arrival two summers ago. A promising, albeit inconsistent, performer in her first three years at UK, Macumber has transformed into an All-American under Floreal and women's distance coach Hakon DeVries.
"It's been crazy to watch," Macumber said. "Everyone, just as soon as Coach Flo stepped on campus, it was like a transformation with everybody, everyone's attitudes. It's been so exciting and without them I wouldn't have seen the improvements I've seen and I know the other kids on the team wouldn't have seen as big of improvements either."
Ibn Short and Nathan Donnellon joined Macumber as Friday point-scorers for UK, finishing fifth and seventh in the decathlon, respectively. Dezerea Bryant, Keilah Tyson, Kendra Harrison, Keffri Neal and Allison Peare, meanwhile, advanced to finals to put Kentucky in good position -- third on the women's side with 13 points, sixth on the men's with six -- entering Saturday and Sunday of a loaded SEC meet.
"All that stuff is good," Floreal said. "It's momentum. The kids in the locker room were very excited about where we are and about what their chances are of doing well. That's all I want. I just want them to give it their absolute best shot and where the chips fall, they fall."
All those laps behind her, Macumber will play a role in deciding where a few more of those chips fall. She will run as one of the favorites in the 5k late Sunday afternoon.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Macumber said. "I think I've got a little bit left in the tank. I have a day tomorrow to just cheer on my team, relax, chill out and then be ready to go Sunday."
The idea of running another three-plus miles in less than 48 hours might sound unpleasant, but it's exactly where Macumber wants to be.
"I love it," Macumber said. "I couldn't ask it for it to be in a better place my last year, going out on the home course with all my teammates and people supporting me. I'm just really happy to be here."
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."
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