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Posts from Tuesday, Sept. 8

Junior outside hitter Sarah Mendoza had a season-high 22 kills Tuesday night against Cincinnati.

Junior outside hitter Sarah Mendoza had a season-high 22 kills Tuesday night against Cincinnati.

Cats get much-needed test

Posted at 10:30 p.m. EDT – Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

Kentucky was down 2-0 an hour into its match with Cincinnati on Tuesday night. Craig Skinner was unhappy with the head official, the fans were in utter shock and the Cats looked perplexed.

The program’s best start since 1993 was turning sour – and fast. Funny thing is it was exactly what the Cats needed.

In marching to a 6-0 start to the season, things had been too easy for Skinner’s team so far. The Cats had surrendered just two games all season, and even those matches were never in question.

“I think that we had become really relaxed,” said junior outside hitter Sarah Mendoza, who finished with a season-high 22 kills. “I guess you could say it was a reality check.”

It was a 6 a.m. wake-up call right in time for the Cats’ biggest test of the season, an upper echelon tournament at Kansas State next weekend against the likes of top-25 KSU and a strong Purdue team.

Really, the more experienced, more talented Cats were doing what they were supposed to in beating inferior opponents the previous six matches. In two tournaments – the Kentucky Classic and Indiana Adidas Classic – the Cats had beaten, stomped and spiked just about every opponent they had faced so far.

But every once in a while you need a test of fortitude, something to check your resolve. The Cats got it from their feline counterparts up north as the Bearcats played the part of the stronger team for two sets.

The first two sets were nail-biters down to each set point – the Bearcats won 25-21 in the first and 29-27 in the second – but Kentucky looked lethargic and out of it. Serves were going into the net, players were committing net penalties and questionable calls were frustrating the team.


 

 

But in between the second and third sets, the Cats completely reversed their fortunes. UK dominated the third set – don’t let the 25-23 score fool you – squeezed out the fourth and then slammed on the door shut with the help of reserve Blair Hiler’s punishing kills.

The most overused cliché in all of sports is a tale of two halves, but Tuesday’s night’s UK win was nothing short of a tale of five sets. UK played like the team that faltered in big situations in years past in the first two sets before becoming the team it will have to be to take the step in the program.

“We learned how to beat good teams,” head coach Craig Skinner said. “It can’t be just by showing up. Talent doesn’t win you close matches. It’s about how you play the game. How we played the game that last half match is what it’s all about.”

No one ever wants to trail and Skinner’s Cats are no different, but eventually the Cats were going to get pushed up against the wall. Whether it was going to be the first game of the season, the always monumental Florida match or next weekend’s Kansas State Tournament didn’t matter – it was how the Cats responded to that shove that would determine the grit of this team.

What we found out Tuesday night is that the Cats’ experience will be unmatched by very few teams. The poise and leadership of Rumely is a missing element this team has never had. When Kentucky appeared to be headed to its first loss of the season, Rumely and the Cats looked in the mirror during the 10-minute break between the second and third sets and found out what they’re made of.

“Being in that situation really matures our team and shows us what we need to work on,” Rumely said. “We’re a team of veterans now. In the past we’ve been youngsters, but we’ve all been here before. Being down 2-0, we said ‘We’ve been here before. Let’s just come out, do what we do and play Kentucky volleyball.’ ”

Kentucky volleyball, lately, doesn’t lose.

 

Locked and reloaded

Junior running back Derrick Locke ran for a game-high 61 yards and a score Saturday.


Posted at 2:09 p.m. EDT - Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

Thirty, 20, even 10 years ago, a torn ACL and MCL would have likely signaled the end of a football career.

That's no longer the case with advancements in modern medicine and today's physical conditioning of athletes, but there were concerns after Derrick Locke's devastating knee injury in last season's Arkansas game that he could be the exception.

"They told me I would never play again. That hits you deep," Locke said. "I was sitting there thinking and asking, `After I do rehab and get healthy, will I be ready?' They said, `I'm not going to lie you, you still might not be ready.' I was thinking `What's the point of doing it then? What am I going to do, just rehab?' I hated coming up here (to the practice facility to rehab)."

But through his trainer's advice and coaching, Locke rehabbed day after day, week after week for hours at a time. The goal was to get back on the field as fast as possible, without missing another year.

"I was ready to come back," Locke said. "I felt like once I got my head right, I'm ready to play. Once I got where I could run and I could catch, I told them I have to come back. I did not want to sit out another year. Sitting out half a year was grueling enough. I needed to be out there with my boys playing."

Locke had his doubts at first. The shredding of both his ACL and MCL in his knee put not only his 2009 season in question, but his entire career.

"When it first started, I had my doubts. Who wouldn't? Especially with my injury and how bad they were telling me it was," Locke said.

Even more amazing was how Locke managed to keep his head on straight when tragedy struck at home during Locke's return. Just days before summer camp opened, Locke's sister died and he missed the first three days of practice.

Understandably so, Locke doesn't want to speak about his sister's death, but it's clear he hasn't let it affect his focus or his attention to getting back on the field.

Not even 11 months removed from being carted off the field and a month since his sister's death, Locke returned in his pads and helmet Saturday against Miami (Ohio). The junior tailback ran for a game-high 61 yards on eight carries, including an untouched touchdown run from the Wildcat formation.

"I felt productive and I felt like me," Locke said. "I'm not going to sit here and say I wasn't nervous because it's different from scrimmaging your teammates and then going out in the game. But after the first run, I was good. It wasn't like I was timid. You just do it and if something happens, it happens."

"I kept asking people after the game, `How did I look coming around the corner?' Sometimes you feel like you're running fast and it really doesn't look fast, so I asked, "How did I look?"

Locke looked better than ever. Amazingly, he appeared faster and shiftier than the freshman tailback that wowed fans two seasons ago with 521 yards and big-time kickoff returns. He made violent cuts, turned the corner and ran up field with little hesitation or fear.

"I'm as pleased for him as anybody," head coach Rich Brooks said. "He had contact coming off a very serious knee injury in fall camp, but there is nothing like getting out there and playing a real game. I think you can see the speed and explosion is still there. The Derrick Locke of (new) may be better than the Derrick Locke of old."

The typically confident Locke wasn't ready to go that far yet, but believes he's headed in that direction. During his time away from the field, he said he's learned to become a more complete back. To play at Kentucky, you've got have the whole package, he said.

"You can be the best running back in the world, but if you can't block here you won't play," Locke said. "That's something that's got to be second nature to you. You're not just a running back. You don't just run. You've got to know the calls, you've got to pick up blitzes, you've got to be able to catch the ball - you've got to basically be another coach, another quarterback. You've got to be able to do everything."

It's still unclear what role Locke will play the rest of the season. Conventional wisdom indicates he'll share the majority of carries with senior Alfonso Smith and junior Moncell Allen, but Brooks used five backs on Saturday, all five of whom were efficient.

 "I'm sure as we go through the season, if this season will be anything like the past ones, they'll all get maybe more opportunities than they got in that game," Brooks said. "But I'm hopeful that we can stay injury free at that position, and if we do, the top three backs would get most of the carries, obviously."

And maybe some more than others. Smith and Allen have proven to be very strong tailbacks and each offer something the other doesn't, but Locke has the best game-changing ability of any running back on the roster. If he doesn't suffer any setbacks - which he hasn't so far - there's no reason to think Locke's carries won't increase as the season progresses.  

 "I feel like I'm more humbled," Locke said. "If you're more humbled, that's got to make you a better player. You won't take anything for granted. It's not a me, me thing. It's more of a team thing. I came back not just for me, but for my team. In that sense, I'm a better player."

 

Some love in the football polls

Posted at 2:05 p.m. EDT - Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

The UK football team picked up eight votes in the latest USA Today Poll after Saturday's 42-0 rout of Miami (Ohio).

The Cats actually lost one vote from the preseason poll, but they technically moved up three spots from No. 42 in the preseason poll to No. 39 after the first week.

UK did not receive any votes in this week's Associated Press Poll. Five Southeastern Conference teams were in both polls' top 25.

Expect a lot of movement in the first few weeks as the national pundits try to get a gauge on the country's best teams.

 

Football notes

Posted at 11:43 a.m. EDT - Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

I'll have a short story on the return of Derrick Locke later this afternoon, but before we get to that, let's get to a few football practice notes from Tuesday's session.

  • Head coach Rich Brooks said they'll work on correcting fundamentals - in particular, busted coverages, busted assignments by the offensive line and kickoffs - this week before really getting into Louisville preparation. "There is a lot of issues," Brooks said. "If you don't get better, you get worse. If you stay the same, people pass you by. We have a lot of issues that we need to get better in execution and technique, and if we don't we'll pay the price as we move forward."
  • Brooks' initial impressions of Louisville are that the Cardinals are fast and quick. Brooks said Indiana State basically shut Louisville down, which he said is hard to do against any opponent. Brooks said Louisville would have scored a lot more points if it wasn't for all the penalties.
  • Brooks wasn't happy with Tuesday's practice, saying that UK can practice a lot better than what they did Tuesday.

    Linebacker Danny Trevathan played through a fractured wrist bone Monday.


  • Danny Trevathan, who had surgery Monday to insert a pin in a fractured wrist bone, is "in a lot of pain," Brooks said. He'll be in a cast for the foreseeable future and will likely be held out of practice until at least next Tuesday.
  • Brooks said he thought defensive end DeQuin Evans didn't cut it loose in his first collegiate game. Brooks said he, along with all of UK's defensive ends, were thinking too much. "All of our defensive ends need to be getting off on the snap a little quicker and reading on the go," Brooks said. "What we were doing is we were slow off the ball and reading before we took off. That negated any real up-field pass rush by that group."  Brooks called it paralysis by analysis.
  • What all did we see during the Miami (Ohio) game? Well, according to Brooks, not much. "We held back a whole bunch," Brooks quipped. "We've got a lot more offense, a lot more defense and a lot more tricks in the kicking game coming up."
  • Off to lunch for now. I'll check back in this afternoon.

 

Weekend wrap-up

Posted at 1:14 a.m. EDT - Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

Hope everyone enjoyed the holiday weekend. Apologies for no posts on Monday, but after a long weekend of live blogging, I needed a day off Monday. I'm sure you loyal followers can understand.

Anyway, wanted to pass along a couple of news notes that happened over the weekend.

  • Four players from the 2008 UK football class made NFL rosters after the final round of cuts. New England Patriots draft pick Myron Pryor, Washington Redskins defensive end Jeremy Jarmon and Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Garry Williams made the 53-man rosters for their respective teams. Also, linebacker Braxton Kelley signed a contract to play on the Denver Broncos' practice squad. In addition to the 2008 class, André Woodson made the Redskins practice squad after getting cut by the New York Giants. Factor in Wesley Woodyard (Broncos), Keenan Burton (Rams), Jacob Tamme (Colts) and Steve Johnson (Bills) and the Cats have now sent nine players to the NFL in the last two years.
  • The biggest story of the weekend was obviously the UK football team, which routed Miami (Ohio) 42-0 in the season opener in Cincinnati, Ohio. OK, the RedHawks are under a new coaching regime and will likely struggle this year, but did you expect a six-touchdown spread? Admit it, you came away from Saturday impressed. I certainly did. We heard all preseason long about the vast improvement of Mike Hartline and the offense, but it's hard to believe something until you truly see it. Well, the statements of Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips were more than qualified over the weekend and have given me reason to believe that the predictions of a 6-6 season could be setting the bar a bit low, even if the schedule is murderer's row. If you didn't read the coverage from Saturday on the blog, check it out here. Hope everyone enjoyed the live blog and the Big Blueprint Saturday. We had 1,600 folks on the live chat, including a surprise guest appearance from former UK wide out Derek Abney.  
  • The only downside to Saturday's game was the devastating loss of Marcus Davis. The junior center went down in the first quarter of the game with a broken ankle and will miss the remainder of the season. Davis was in the midst of his first career start in front of his hometown family and friends, so you can imagine how disappointed Davis must felt when he was being carted off the field at Paul Brown Stadium. In other injury news , linebacker Danny Trevathan had surgery Monday to insert a pin in a fractured wrist bone, but he is expected to play in two weeks against Louisville. Tony Neely has all the details here.
  • Sarah Rumely and the Cats are off to their best start since 1993.


    Has anyone noticed how impressive UK's collective fall teams have been so far? The volleyball team, which plays Cincinnati on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum, continued its early season dominance by improving to 6-0 this weekend at the Indiana Adidas Classic, its best start since 1993. Factor in the men's soccer team's undefeated start, the great start by the women's soccer team under new head coach Jon Lipsitz and the first football win and the UK athletics program is 11-1-1 on the young season. In my four or five years of covering the Cats, I truly believe it's the best athletics program from top to bottom that Kentucky has had. It could be a special year for the Cats and a definite improvement in the Director's Cup standings.
  • Jesse Witten's run in the U.S. Open finally came to an end Saturday in the third round, but it didn't come without some drama. The former UK tennis star went head to head with No. 4 seed Novak Djokovic and nearly had him on the ropes. Witten took the first set from one of the world's best players and even led in the third set when the match was tied 1-1. Eventually, Witten fell in four sets, but the week was easily the most successful of Witten's pro career. He defeated two top-100 players, won his first Grand Slam match and will most likely take a giant leap in the next tennis rankings.

  • It wouldn't be Kentucky without some basketball news. SLAM Magazine tabbed Kentucky No. 4 in its preseason rankings, including a well-written write-up on the team. I heard a few grumbles Monday that people weren't happy with the ranking, but one, it's just a preseason ranking, and two, I actually think it's a smart pick. I strongly believe as anyone that the Cats might have the most talent of any team in the nation, but I think everyone needs to step back a bit and take a look at reality. The Cats are not going to go undefeated this year. They aren't going to win every game by 30 points. Can they cut down the nets in April? They very well could. But remember, this is a new team under a new coach. They'll lose a game or two in the first months as they learn to play together. It takes time to get on the same page, no matter how talented these guys are. I sense something special with this group, but national championships aren't won in preseason magazines. No. 4 or No 1 in whatever preseason poll you can find, who thought we would be talking about a top-five ranking five or six months ago?
  • The Wildcats continued their individual workouts over the weekend. Head coach John Calipari has a write-up on his blog over at coachcal.com. I'm hoping to watch one of the sessions here soon and post my observations as well.

  

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