Posts from Tuesday, Sept. 8
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
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.
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.
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.