It was another busy day in China for the Kentucky volleyball team, as the Wildcats moved to a hotel in downtown Shanghai during a packed day of activities.
Friday began with 90 minutes of study on campus at Shanghai University followed by lunch. It was then off to Shanghai Training Center to play with the Shanghai Juniors, the team the Cats beat in their first match on Thursday. Afterward, the Cats took a riverbank tour of Shanghai and saw the Chenghuang Temple, as well as the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Spotty Internet kept the Cats from posting any thoughts about the day, but they did manage to sneak a few posts out on Twitter and Instagram.
Some internet issues here in our hotel today.The blog may not get updates until tomorrow. Great day at the Pearl Tower #UKVBtoChina
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.
Andrew Evans won his second SEC discus title in three years on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Before the Southeastern Conference Championships, Edrick Floreal and his Kentucky coaching staff sketched out how they expected the meet to go. They went event by event, assigning points based on how they thought each athlete would perform.
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."
Nikki Sagermann had the game-tying RBI and scored the game-winning run in UK's sixth inning rally. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
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.
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart embraces Cally Macumber after her second-place finish in the 10k on Friday at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For a normal person, preparing to run more than six miles is a months-long undertaking.
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."