Dancing in The Swamp

(GAINESVILLE, Fl.) – Where were you the night of September 8, 2018? Like the moon landing, the Challenger explosion, and the Laettner shot, all of BBN will now remember where they were and who they were with when Kentucky Football finally broke the interminable 31-year losing streak against those haughty Florida Gators.

Hopefully you were either at the game or watching on TV late Saturday night as the Wildcats exorcised the ghosts of heartbreaks past by finally capturing that elusive win. You knew the streak had to end sometime, right? After all, who loses thirty-two games in a row to anybody in anything?

For all their loyal, die-hard, never-say-quit fans, “Kentucky 27, Florida 16” never sounded so sweet. To any and all who have suffered through those last-second Florida touchdowns, those ever-present botched coverages, those mysterious phantom penalties, those inopportune turnovers, that bizarrely frustrating clock management, or those inexplicable extra celestial meltdowns—this one’s for you.

Enjoy it—because it’s arguably one of the greatest victories in UK Football lore. Granted, as with any emotional win, we’ll need the benefit of hindsight to rightfully judge. But looking back, will this streak buster be the biggest win ever in program history?

“It was a great win, a breath of fresh air no doubt, dramatically needed for Mark Stoops era,” said Oscar Combs, the torchbearer for chronicling UK sports in my lifetime as a fan. “But I’d like to think wins over No. 1 ranked teams and Top 10 victories are bigger. If this should spur UK to a history-making season in 2018, I would agree. Games left to play yet.”

Larry Vaught, another giant of Kentucky sports journalism weighed in similarly. “It was big, but that win over eventual national champion LSU was big too,” he said.

Either way, I’m sure Larry and Oscar would agree that debating momentous UK victories beats the heck out of arguing about soul-deflating defeats.

For me personally, my trip down to Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was a life altering experience. As a long-suffering Kentucky football fan, I was fully expecting ground zero of Gator Nation to be a life-draining experience. However, in a completely unexpected twist of fate, the Wildcat’s upset over heavily favored Florida at “The Swamp” morphed into a night that karma came a knocking. It sucked the life right out of the Gator football team and sent a large segment of Gator Nation into a dungeon of despair. “Well, there’s always basketball and baseball,” said one dejected fan leaving the stadium.

I don’t mean to gloat—but remember—these are the same fans, when asked over the years what they respected about Kentucky Football, disdainfully replied, “Punting and tailgating.” Well, a mid-afternoon torrential downpour kept the tailgating in check, putting a definite damper on those dismissive fans anticipating another mouth-watering Wildcat barbecue. As they filed out of the stadium in utter humiliation, their Tim Tebow statue stood sentinel-like, silently apoplectic over the Cat’s current coronation.

Immediately after the final horn sounded, I high-tailed it down for the postgame celebration. It’s usually hot and humid at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, often unbearably so. The iconic structure was originally built in a sinkhole, so the playing field is below ground level. Steep stands ratchet up on nearly all sides, trapping not only the heat and humidity, but the crowd noise inside the stadium as well. On this glorious night, as Benny Snell, Jr. saluted the crowd, only Kentucky faithful were left making any noise. With temperatures in the mid-seventies and a refreshing tropical breeze, the setting was magical (and the punting still sublime).

There’s nothing like the feeling of redemption after these big wins. Unfortunately for Kentucky football fans, those feelings are too few and far between. So, whether you’re gloating, reveling, or just downright giddy, savor it thoroughly because—as we all know—there may not be another one for a while. But realize also, it’s only because we’re Wildcat football fans that these seminal moments remain so scintillating. It’s impossible to feel the ecstasy unless you’ve fully experienced our agony.

Benny said it best at the postgame presser, summing up the emotions of a euphoric Big Blue Nation. “There’s no feeling like this,” he gushed. “During the week, I was just thinking about the moment the game ended—all the fans leaving. It was what I dreamed about, you know what I’m saying? It was the best feeling in the world. I can barely talk, I’m so happy.”

Me too, Benny. So much so that I’m going dancing in “The Swamp.”

How Kentucky responds from here will ultimately determine the significance of this win. For a team that can still lose to anybody remaining on the schedule, the upcoming home game versus Murray State is about as automatic as a win can get. The Racers come in at 0-2, having lost to Southern Illinois 49-10 and Central Arkansas 26-13. They’ll be no let down on Saturday, as there’s just way too much at stake for the season at hand. Kentucky 43, Murray State 10.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. He’s currently working with former LEX18 sportscaster Alan Cutler on his new book. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

 

 

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What if Joel Osteen Coached Kentucky Football?

Joel Osteen, megachurch pastor in Houston Texas, is a popular man. His inspirational books and TV sermons have impacted countless individuals worldwide. With his dark flowing hair, fluttering eyes, and pearly white teeth, he’s a consummate modern-day TV evangelist—with over 8.5 million Twitter followers drinking from his prosperity well.

Mark Stoops, head football coach at the University of Kentucky, is a cautious man. Beginning his sixth year at the Wildcat helm, he realizes that hope springs eternal this time of the year in the hearts of all Kentucky faithful. With his balding pate, stocky build, and unflinching demeanor, he looks the part of a football coach as he parcels out his words carefully to the media masses.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Stoops’ press conference on Monday prior to the upcoming season opener. He seemed more reserved than usual, unwilling to be goaded into setting expectations too high. Coincidentally, I’ve sensed a similar caution among all of BBN this year, as if they’re preparing themselves for a mediocre season. After all the botched coverages, bumbling refs, and Gator chomps in years past, who can blame them for being a bit exasperated?

The Kentucky fan base needs a shot of positive adrenaline, and who better to provide it than Joel Osteen. He’s probably too comfortable to take a pay cut, but what if he signed on to coach UK Football? One thing’s for sure—the press conferences would take on an entirely heavenly aura.

The following Mark Stoops answers are actual quotes taken from his Monday press conference. The following Joel Osteen quotes are fake but should be read out loud with a ‘Joel Osteen’ voice.

What Mark Stoops said about the quarterback competition: Terry Wilson will open up game one as the starter. He’s won the quarterback battle. It has been an on-going battle, as you know. I have great respect for all of our quarterbacks. I feel like we have a great quarterback room. With the other quarterbacks, with Gunnar and Danny in particular, they’ve put up a great fight and they’ve done a lot of things in a lot of ways to win the job as well.

What Joel Osteen would have said: I anoint Terry Wilson as the starter this weekend. He is my quarterback, and with him I am well pleased. He’s the son of the most high God. With Touchdown Terry, we may just go undefeated this year. After all, if God be for us, who can be against us? But lest you forget, God created the big picture. And he’s positioning both Gunnar and Danny—as valuable, noble, and worthy reserves—to carry out His divine purpose for our team. BBN needs to trust in me knowing that I’m ordering their very steps.

What Mark Stoops said about Central Michigan: They’re used to playing very good football teams. They’re a winning program. I believe they won eight last year, 8-5 last year. They’re a good football team that’s well coached. They do a very good job of not beating themselves and kind of sticking to what they do and play it well.

What Joel Osteen would have said: The enemy has a good football team. We must be on guard against the enemy. But God’s favor on our team will cause us to accomplish more than them. His blessing will bring divine receptions. If we have enough faith, he’ll guide that football right into our hands. All we’ll have to do is hold on.

What Mark Stoops said about the ‘unknowns’ regarding his team entering the season opener: I can’t answer that. It’s an unknown because you don’t know what’s going to happen. If I knew something about it, I’d try to head it off. I do appreciate your effort, though. You always do a good job of trying to get me. (He chuckles and nods at me.)

What Joel Osteen would have said: Brothers and sisters, don’t worry about unknowns. The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. Worry is a thief. If you allow it, worry will rob you of your destiny. Do yourself a favor and put God back on the throne. (He flutters his eyes and points upward)

What Mark Stoops said about the attendance at Kroger Field: I’m very, super appreciative of the people that are coming because we need them, and we need the atmosphere and encourage all folks that we need all hands on deck because it makes a difference…so we need some people there, and I appreciate the people that are coming because I realize it takes a lot.  

What Joel Osteen would have said: The things that seem impossible to you, God is saying, “Look again. I’m working behind the scenes to fill those seats.” This is not the time to get discouraged. This is not the time to let circumstance get you down. Mitch Barnhart, this is not the time to raise ticket prices. You’re closer to your sellout than you think. With man, this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.

What Mark Stoops said about the success of the walk-ons: We’ve been pleased. I am proud that we’ve had quite a few guys that have been walk-ons and earned scholarships and contributed to the football team.

What Joel Osteen would have said:  Even walk-ons are made in the image of almighty God. They all have seeds of greatness. David Bouvier is full of talent and creativity. Miles Butler was created to kick, to accomplish his dreams, and to finally earn that heavenly scholarship.

Well there you have it—the Big Blue prosperity gospel according to Coach Osteen. Whether talking free safety or free will, false prophets or false starts, spiritual conversion or two-point conversion, his prayers are always welcome for this Kentucky team. They’ll certainly need God’s favor to spring an upset or two along their difficult journey. The excitement starts this Saturday. Joel Osteen talked a good talk, but I’m putting my trust in Mark Stoops. Kentucky 31, Central Michigan 17.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group, Bluegrass Sports Nation, and Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

Coach Bobblehead

The term “make or break” is far too often used to describe a season poised on the slippery slope of either astounding success or demoralizing failure. Once again this year, a tortured Kentucky football fan base is perched precariously on such a slope—with emotions running high and patience running low. Whether he likes it or not, head coach Mark Stoops finds himself in that proverbial make or break year entering his sixth season at the Wildcat helm. A 26-36 (12-28 SEC) won-loss record and back-to-back bowl appearances is nothing to scoff at, but neither is it something that will put talk of buyouts and hot seats to permanent rest. This is the year to poop or get off the pot, fish or cut bait, win big or strike out.

Stoops’ most lasting off-the-field legacy may just have been his ceremonial pitch at the Lexington Legends game this past summer. The 51-year-old Youngstown, Ohio native threw a perfect strike from the top of the mound. Not coincidentally, that evening was also Coach Mark Stoops Bobblehead night. As one of the many fans gifted with a plastic replica of his nodding oversized noggin, I thought it appropriate to ask Coach Bobblehead the following questions that all True Blue inquiring minds want to know.

Q: The first question deals obviously with the starting quarterback mystery. With Stephen Johnson graduated and Drew Barker giving up football, Kentucky is left with four potential starting quarterbacks who have never thrown a pass in a real live game. In this age of automatic redshirts and well-planned transitions, how does that even happen? Redshirt sophomores Gunnar Hoak and Touchdown Terry Wilson are apparently neck in neck for the starting honors against Central Michigan on September 1. Redshirt freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood remain a couple of steps behind. Whoever emerges the victor will have to rely on a veteran offensive line with at least one returning player at every position to offset their own youth and inexperience. OK Coach, with that in mind, who’s going to start at QB this year?

Coach Bobblehead: (just nods)

Q: For somebody who built his reputation on coaching players in the secondary, Kentucky’s secondary under Stoops’ tutelage has been abysmal. Last season, the Wildcats finished 13th in the league in pass defense despite returning nearly every starter. The supposedly all-star caliber talent the likes of Chris Westry, Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, Darius West, and Lonnie Johnson gave up a whopping 3,271 yards—tied for the second most yards given up by a Kentucky defense dating back to the end of World War II. The good news this year is that Kentucky’s defensive line should be much better, thus taking some of the pressure off of the aforementioned secondary. Despite the supposed improvement in the defense across the board, the coach is still responsible for covering the Florida receivers, right?

Coach Bobblehead: (just nods)

Q: Kentucky’s conference schedule may once again be their undoing. As is usual and customary every year, the so-called experts pick Stoops’ troops to finish near the bottom of the pack. As if road games at Florida, at Texas A&M, at Missouri, and at Tennessee weren’t challenging enough, the Wildcats also face a murderer’s row of returning all-star caliber opposing quarterbacks. Missouri’s Drew Lock, Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur, South Carolina’s Jake Bentley, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald all are back after finishing in the top 10 in passing in the league last year. Hey Coach, if you couldn’t stop them last year, how in the world do you expect to contain them this year?

Coach Bobblehead: (just nods)

Q: Back in the summer, Coach Stoops described the drug related arrest of former safety Marcus Walker as something that really hurt the program. That’s probably an understatement given the fact that police found more than $95,000 in cash and 52 grams of cocaine inside Walker’s apartment near campus. Although swiftly dismissed from the team, it simply was not a good look for everyone involved. The incident with sophomore offensive tackle E.J. Price and his bizarre tweets this past spring also wasn’t a good look for the program. There’s been so much speculation about what happened during the few hours that Price was apparently off and then mysteriously back on the team that I thought Coach Stoops might want to enlighten us.

Coach Bobblehead: (just nods)

Well, there you have it—an interview chocked full of as much information as if the real live Mark Stoops were here answering the questions. As you can see—just like the real Coach Stoops—Coach Bobblehead has remained fairly mum about many aspects of his team and how he expects the season to play out. Perhaps he’s feeling the pressure of the upcoming “make or break” year. It’s more likely that he’s biting his tongue right before unleashing his sixth-year juggernaut on an unsuspecting football world.

Despite inexperience at quarterback, an underperforming defensive secondary, a murderous schedule, and some off the field turmoil, Kentucky counters with potentially their best running back, their best tight end, and one of their most talented receivers to date in their inglorious history. Benny Snell, C.J. Conrad, and Lynn Bowden together with a drastically improved defensive line could easily flip the script on this team from “break” to “make.”

Do I think it’ll happen? It’s still a bit too early to tell. A lot will depend on quarterback play. Once Kentucky returns home from Gainesville after their tilt with the Florida Gators, things will begin to crystallize. That’s only the second game of the season, but I think we’ll know something by then. Any final thoughts, Coach?

Coach Bobblehead: (nods and winks)

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

 

Big Blue World

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Although basketball is already big in China, Kentucky Basketball has yet to make a splash in the land of Genghis Khan and Chairman Mao. Beginning this upcoming season, however, that’s all about to change. Chinese fans from Beijing to Binzhou, from Shanghai to Shanxi, from Tiananmen Square to the Terracotta Army will now be able to tune in to Mandarin based broadcasts of UK Basketball games distributed through the JMI Sports Network.

How big is this news? It’s huge—let me tell you why. Chinese people have always loved basketball. Unfortunately, we’ve just never been any good at it. Most of us are short, slow, and we can’t create our own shot to save our life. Other than Yao Ming, name me one other Chinese player who made it to the NBA. Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer were outright busts. Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue never panned out. Jeremy Lin was a flash in the pan, and many don’t even classify him as a real Chinese. Just by sheer numbers alone, a country of 1.4 billion people should have produced more than this small handful of professional prospects.

Despite our shortcomings, Chinese people are no different than anyone else. We all love a winner—and who better a winner than the school currently laying claim to the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. You heard it here first. Once these audio game broadcasts are available, hundreds of thousands of Chinese basketball fans worldwide will flock to the antics of PJ, EJ, and DJ. They’ll learn all about our 8 national championships, the house that Rupp built, and the colossal devotion of the BBN. They’ll absolutely fall in love with Coach Cal’s magical touch as they quickly succumb to the Chinese version of his blue Kool-Aid.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. UK AD Mitch Barnhart has always claimed that his athletic programs serve as the front porch for those wanting to become a part of the University of Kentucky. If that’s truly the case, imagine all those future potential enrollees in China, developing an early allegiance to the Big Blue, while listening to the Wildcats claw their way to Championship Number Nine. They’ll be quick to learn that Lexington, Kentucky is also where their NBA heroes—such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Karl Towns played their college ball. Trust me, in subsequent years they’ll be beating down the doors to admission, adding to the coffers of the ever-growing UK treasury. Sponsors should also be forming a line as we speak. You think McDonald’s and Coca Cola would be interested in adding a billion people to their marketing base?

Don’t believe me yet about the magnitude of this broadcast reach? Let me introduce you to Haotian (Austin) Zhang, the talent who’s been tabbed to handle the primary broadcasting duties during these games. Some of you may already know Austin as the prominent Asian dude donning the Kentucky Jersey in the front row of the ERUPPtion Zone. Austin recently graduated from the school of his dreams with a business degree in management. Fortunately for all of us, he’s been accepted into the UK Master of Science in Finance program and will be around for quite some time. Already one of the biggest UK basketball fans I know, he’s looking forward to the challenge of being the first Chinese Cawood Ledford.

“Coach Cal and John Wall makes me know UK,” Austin enthusiastically answers, when asked about why he chose the University of Kentucky. “Anthony Davis makes me love UK. Karl Towns make me proud of UK.”

Austin recently gained fame by directly asking John Calipari during his Coach’s show why he didn’t recruit Chinese players to UK. Knowing Coach Cal, he’ll use these broadcasts to get tabs on the next great Chinese Lebron, currently oblivious to Wildcat ways—but through the magic of the world wide web, will soon be a passionate disciple of the BBN. Kentucky recruit James Wiseman allegedly also speaks Chinese. Are you listening, James?

Watch out Chinese world, Big Blue Nation is coming for you.

John Huang is Chinese. He currently covers University of Kentucky Sports for Nolan Media Group. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Jumping Off The Cliff

Dear Cliff Hagan Stadium,

Goodbyes are always difficult, but your final farewell seems especially sorrowful. After nearly half a century of UK Baseball thrills, chills, and spills, you’re being patronizingly jilted for a sleeker and shinier home venue right up the hill. You’re older than your more famous cousins, Rupp Arena and Commonwealth Stadium, with undoubtedly as many indelible memories—but like many other citizens of BBN, I feel like I barely knew you. Playing third fiddle to basketball and football, tucked away in campus purgatory, and forever compared to your fellow SEC brethren can saddle even the grandest and most regal of baseball complexes with their own complex of shameful inferiority.

And yet, you persevered. With your 3,000 sun-splashed seats and iconic center field Cliff, you’ve gallantly stood your ground. Hundreds of wins, thousands of hits, and multiple coaching regimes are now all part of your lasting legacy. Over the years, names such as Doug Flynn, Jeff Abbott, Collin Cowgill, and A.J. Reed have become forever etched in your prominent lore. Just the other day, I shed a tear or two listening to legendary Coach Keith Madison wax nostalgically about Jim Leopold’s spectacular center field catch, Bill Sandry’s four homerun game, and the time his team swept number one ranked LSU—all within the confines of your stadium walls. Through it all, you’ve been the home to hundreds of players who have worked their tails off practicing on your hallowed grounds on their way to prestigious academic degrees, spectacular athletic careers, and lucrative professional contracts.

I still don’t understand why the powers that be have planned for your untimely demise. In my mind, you’re still good for another fifty years. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your playing turf, scoreboards, or your left field bleachers. OK, your elevator is a bit slow, finding a parking spot can be brutal, and the press box perpetually smells of fried food, but your mortgage is paid and your plumbing still works. That’s more than can be said of most of us of similar age.

Rumor has it that you’re being unceremoniously put out to pasture in lieu of a spanking new tennis facility. Seems like such a cruel ending for having poured out so many thrilling moments and memories. Forty-nine million dollars lavished on the girl next door while a fraction of that amount could have given you a makeover of your dreams. Such is life in keeping up with the Joneses in the collegiate sports world. I’ll never understand it. Seems like such a waste.

Hopefully in the end, you’ll provide us with one final shining moment—perhaps an unlikely victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. As a fulfilling coronation to fifty years of faithful service, I’d love to order up a walk off series winning homerun. Whatever happens, as you march off this weekend to join all the other baseball stadiums in the sky, it’s only fitting that a grateful Big Blue Nation bids you a resounding adieu.

Thank You. Goodbye Cliff. We barely knew you.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

Big Blue 4(0) Miler

Unlike Mitch Barnhart, I have no death wish. We’re both on the sunset side of our fifties, but unlike the University of Kentucky’s director of athletics, I’m not jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or scaling the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I do, however, periodically participate in something many consider just as torturous—I like to run. I’ll tolerate all sorts of blisters, shin splints, and the occasional bout with plantar fasciitis just so that I can choke down that entire pepperoni pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream guilt free. So when the opportunity came for me to participate in the inaugural Go Big Blue 4 Miler race, I eagerly plunked down my $30, laced up my sneakers, and showed up early on a blustery, overcast Saturday morning ready to see how fast and far my aging flat feet could still take me.

This isn’t just any ordinary, run-of-the-mill road race. Sponsored in part by Kroger, this unique run/walk event winds its way through seven different University of Kentucky south campus sporting venues. For die-hard, lifelong UK fans, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually be on the field of play—to retrace the footsteps of your Wildcat heroes, as you tread the same exact turf they did during all their glory years.

My race strategy is to start slow and ease back, but that’s easier said than done for this distinctive event. You see, I’m nowhere near my running prime, but I’m still prideful enough to want to show all these young whippersnappers a thing or two. I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be sprinting so hard that your body goes anaerobic as you bust a lung and pull a hamstring. Sure, these young guns in their spandex suits can run six-minute miles now, but show up when you’re sixty and let’s see what you’ve got. Plus, they don’t know that I’ll be running for the old Blue and White–scoring touchdowns, hitting dingers, and winning gold in my wildest Big Blue fantasies.

As we gather together in the parking lot of Kroger Field for the start of the race, I’m surrounded by about 500 other bleary-eyed competitors. I glance around and see the usual assortment of muscle bound dudes in tank tops and hot chicks in running tights that invariably gather at these Saturday morning events. Supposedly Mitch is here also, together with Ryan Lemond and a few other luminaries who look as if they’ve had one donut too many. My adrenaline spikes as I prepare to kick their tails while sporting my newly customized Anthony Davis UK checkerboard jersey.

It’s a stampede out of the starting chute as everyone jockeys for position. I begin the race in a semi sprint as the massive pack circles around the perimeter of the stadium. As we cruise onto the Football Training Facility practice field, I know we’re all going way too fast, as if we’re somehow being chased by linebacker Josh Allen while Coach Stoops looks on mockingly.

It’s not a good sign as my lungs are already burning in mile number one as we head uphill under the towering silhouette of the newly rising baseball complex. The $49 million price tag of this Taj Mahal palace is enough to inspire me onward as I picture myself comfortably lodged on press row next year, snacking on gourmet nachos and popcorn while watching Coach Mingione work his magic.

The Bell Soccer Complex is next. This field is a lot bigger than I thought it would be and there’s a heck of a lot of running to do. It dawns on me why I never played soccer. In my mind, I hear Coach Carry and Coach Cedergren egging me on, but I’m already sucking wind as I mercifully exit the stadium.

Next up is John Cropp Stadium. I’m pretty familiar with this softball venue and immediately begin to get my second wind. I pass a nine-year-old track star prodigy and a John Candy lookalike as if they’re standing still. All of a sudden, I’m Bailey Vick, effortlessly chasing down a fly ball on the outfield warning track. I’m a legend in my own mind as scores of fans gather on the newly constructed outfield berm, cheering me on.

Entering Cliff Hagan Stadium, I’m more than half way home and a wave of nostalgia hits me squarely in the jaw. It’s UK Baseball’s last season here at the Cliff and I want to make sure I give it a good sendoff. I immediately pick up the pace and start gaining ground on the group in front. Giving Coach Madison a well-deserved salute, I’m suddenly transformed into Troy Squires, rounding the bases after my grand slam homerun propelled me into UK Baseball’s exclusive 100-hit club.

As I enter the track and field complex, my feet suddenly gain even more traction on the blue synthetic running surface. I’m—you guessed it—Sydney McLaughlin setting another world record as the Chariots of Fire theme reverberates in my imaginary headphones. Yep, I’m feeling it. These are the moments you live for—those fleeting seconds where running becomes effortless, and everything seems right with the world.

Heading out of mile three, I’m abruptly jolted out of my reverie by the piercing screams of the UK Women’s basketball team. They’ve gotten up early to lend their enthusiastic support. “He’s one of those media guys,” I hear one of them say as I pass by, obviously surprised that this old Chinese guy with a ponytail still has a functioning motor.

And then, just like that…I immediately hit the wall. Coming back through Cooper Drive, it’s a wind tunnel as my feet feel like they’re stuck in concrete. Four miles feels like forty and I’m praying for the racing gods to put me out of my misery. As I enter Kroger Field, I make one final push for the finish line. I channel Lynn Bowden, imagining myself returning a kickoff a hundred yards to beat Tennessee. Tom Leach’s call blares through the speakers as my 15 seconds of fame flashes across the video jumbotron. Touchdown Kentucky!

There you have it. Four miles in 31:36. Good enough for 36th place overall and 4th in my old man age group. Pass the ibuprofen, please. Donut anyone?

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or  follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

 

Wildcats, Mildcats, and Childcats

(BOISE, Idaho.) — A friend of mine from Boise described his hometown as the most desolate place on the face of the earth. It turns out that he was somewhat over embellishing, as I thought the snowcapped mountains provided for a gorgeously scenic backdrop to the bustling downtown vibe. But the reality is that Boise (pronounced Boy-see, not Boy-zee) IS a bit out of the way and difficult to get to. After three zigzagging flights across the country with a couple of harrowing connections in between, I finally found myself in the capital city of the potato state, following my beloved Wildcats through their improbable date with destiny.

Kentucky’s path through Boise was complex and fortuitous. In the first game on Thursday, it was Davidson versus Goliath as the 12th seeded Atlantic-10 Conference tournament champion Wildcats gave the 5th seeded and big-name SEC Champion Wildcats a run for their money. Davidson players, fueled by the proverbial chip on their shoulder playing against future NBA talent and a raucous “home” crowd, hit 11-33 three-pointers to nearly send Kentucky packing even before the tournament began. Kentucky, meanwhile, went 0-6 from behind the arc, ending their 30-year, 1047 consecutive game three-pointers made streak. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander saved the day with a 19-point, 8-rebound, and 7-assist performance as Kentucky narrowly prevailed 78-73. Kevin Knox led the team in scoring with 25 points on 8-16 shooting from the floor and 9-11 at the foul line.

Up next for Kentucky was a supposed date with the 4th-seeded Pac-12 Champion, Arizona Wildcats. Surprisingly, though, Coach Sean Miller’s team–fresh off FBI allegations regarding payments to star players–folded again like a cheap suit. So instead of the marquee, made-for-TV matchup with the talented mildcats from Tucson, substitute the Buffalo Bulls with their bombastic head coach—Nate Oats. Verbal sparring notwithstanding, when faced with the adversity of bright post-season lights on the big tournament stage, Kentucky’s Kiddie Cats rose to the occasion with a hugely inspiring 95-75 win. Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo played hero in this one, leading the team with 27 and 22 points respectively.

Let’s give John Calipari credit. He did everything he could to give this team a fighting chance—taking on the mantle of coach, mentor, and psychiatrist this season until he was blue in the face. From bringing in renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella, to his shameless public encouragement of struggling superstars, to his assurance that he wasn’t cracking despite record setting losing streaks, Coach Cal poked, prodded, and pushed his childcats to reach for their full potential. I confessed to Cal that I had my doubts during the losing streak in February. “You doubted me?” he countered. “Why did you tell me? I didn’t know. Now I look at you different.”

In the end, Calipari’s Sigmund Freud impersonation overcame his team’s youth and inconsistency. “This team, the youngest, most inexperienced team I’ve ever attempted to coach and at times the maturity level is—there’s something to be desired there at times,” he lamented right as post-season play began. “I’ve tried to build the whole season towards this, talk about the NCAA tournament all season, but I really don’t know. I have no idea what will happen.”

What happened was Kentucky moves on to the Sweet Sixteen next week, sending all of BBN scurrying to book hotel rooms in Catlanta. The anticipated influx of the Blue Mist together with Virginia’s shocking tournament exit has cleared the way for another improbable Wildcat march to the Alamo. Plus, the Cats are peaking at just the right time—playing their best basketball when it counts the most. “You never know with a young group like this, they’re playing as good as they have all year,” Cal grudgingly admitted. “But they could go out this next game and be freshmen.”

Leaving Taco Bell Arena, I felt the usual sense of exhilaration reserved for fans of teams left in the Big Dance—the immediate relief of surviving and advancing, the wanton excitement of another Final Four run, and the joyful anticipation of perhaps another National Championship. There’s still a long way to go, but I like our chances. We’ve got the X-factor in Coach Cal. Shame on me for ever doubting.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

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