Cats Making Floréal’s Vision Reality Entering NCAAs

Tell Edrick Floréal there’s something he can’t do and it’s likely he’ll try to go do it.

It’s happened with athlete after athlete in which Floréal has seen potential, but others have believed would never amount to much of anything.

It’s happened with his job as head coach of Kentucky track and field, a program most believed was forever doomed to be a doormat in the perennially rugged Southeastern Conference.

What is it about those kinds of challenges that attract Floréal? Not even his wife and former Olympic 100-meter hurdle silver-medalist Lavonna Martin-Floréal knows.

“You know what, my wife asks me the same question,” Floréal said. “That’s just my thing. I can’t explain it. That’s just what I’m drawn to.”

Floréal thrives on being the underdog and his teams have taken on that same personality at UK. The Wildcats did exactly that last year at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around. On the heels last year’s school-record second-place finish, UK’s women’s team will go into this year’s NCAA Championships – which take place Wednesday through Saturday in Eugene, Ore. – as anything but an underdog.

The goal, unmistakably, is the national title.

“That’s why we train,” Floréal said. “That’s why we have a program. That’s why we have facilities. That’s why we bring kids in. We want them to believe that this university can deliver the goods, can win a national championship.”

A look at the national rankings will tell you UK is capable. The Cats currently are ranked No. 2 nationally, just behind No. 1 Arkansas.

“It’s always a good pat on the butt, but beyond that it’s nothing else, if you really think about it,” Floréal said. “The same computer told us we weren’t any good in the beginning of the year. That computer told us, Kentucky ain’t no good. Now it’s saying we’re really good, so I try not to listen to that computer.”

A few short months ago, you see, Floréal was one of the only people who believed UK would be in this position. That computer pegged UK as the eighth-best team in America in the preseason and a young team struggled to find its footing with the two women who carried it to that second-place finish – Kendra Harrison and Dezerea Bryant – competing professionally.

Floréal, however, kept going back to the results of the Wildcats’ offseason testing, which were even better than those of Harrison and Bryant. Even through those struggles and a 12th-place finish at NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, Floréal kept preaching that belief.

Eventually, the team began to understand why.

Redshirt freshman Jasmine Camacho-Quinn started to emerge as a standout hurdler and sprinter. True freshman Kianna Gray tapped into the potential she showed as a high schooler at North Hardin in Radcliff, Ky. Junior-college transfers Destiny Carter and Precious Hitchcock found their footing in their first seasons at UK.

“Through the development of the year, people start to realize that, I think I can do this,” Floréal said. “And then they start seeing little snippets of, you know what, I might have a shot. And then all of a sudden, it takes fire.”

In the opinion of UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart – who will be in Eugene to cheer on the Cats this week – Floréal deserves much of the credit for the way an inexperienced group has developed.

“He’s a remarkable communicator with the young kids on his team,” Barnhart said. “What I think is unique about Flo is that he doesn’t coach every young person the same. The 30,000-foot view of what they do is the same throughout their team, but he coaches locally.”

Barnhart has watched Floréal closely since he hired him away from Stanford four years ago. Barnhart was one of the few to share Floréal’s belief that UK could compete at the highest levels of NCAA track, but even he has been surprised by how quickly Floréal has put the program in its current position.

“It’s happened, quite honestly, a little quicker than I would have guessed,” Barnhart said. “To finish second in the country last year in year three was a lot of fun, but to have a really deep roster like we’ve got this year with some young people in our roster, it sort of begins to grow and build our program for the future the right way and give us some footing, some foundational footing.”

That deep roster will now send 17 qualifiers to NCAA Championships, up from the 13 UK sent last year. More than that, the Cats will be relying on a team full of athletes to compete for a title, not two or three standout individuals.

“I feel more confident about this team because we just have more bodies, we have more athletes, we have more people, more opportunities,” Floréal said.

Floréal has built that depth in part on the strength of Harrison. Last year’s national champion in both the 60- and 100-meter hurdles is competing around the world – recently becoming the American record holder in the 100-meter hurdles – but still training in Lexington alongside the likes of Camacho-Quinn, who could follow in Harrison’s footsteps as a hurdles national champion.

Harrison’s example – both in terms of work ethic and how far she has come – is irreplaceable.

“The good thing about Kendra is she never believed she could do this,” Floréal said. “It helps Quinn realize, maybe this guy ain’t crazy. Maybe the stuff we’re doing and the development they’ve been having, maybe he’s serious. Maybe I can actually do it.”

But – with the exceptions of triple-jump qualifier Sha’Keela Saunders and hammer-throw qualifier Beckie Famurewa – Camacho-Quinn and her teammates are still competing for the first time at outdoor nationals. To overcome that inexperience, Floréal will be counting in part on the failure UK experienced at SEC Championships nearly a month ago. The Cats finished third there.

“I think what happened at SECs sort of helped us,” Floréal said. “If you want to get punched in the face pretty hard, you don’t want to get punched in the face really hard at the NCAAs. As much as I was disappointed that we didn’t come out with a win at SECs, I think it was the best thing for us.”

The Cats bounced back at regionals, but their youth and the newness of UK as a player on the national stage will make it an unlikely story should a national title happen, regardless of rankings.

Just how Floréal prefers it.

“I like that about people and I like that about this university,” Floréal said. “I like the fact that people don’t really think we should be there and we could be there. I just work extra hard to prove them wrong.”