Coming off a record-setting season which saw his club win 45 games and at one point climb to a national No. 1 ranking, Gary Henderson could not be faulted for toning down the expectations for 2013.
As we learned Monday, however, those anticipating cautious optimism from Kentucky's head baseball coach may find themselves waiting in vain.
“Last year’s group had a pretty good chip on their shoulder,” Henderson said during UK’s baseball media day. “I think we’ll have the same type approach. You’re losing a couple personalities that really helped – older, mature personalities – but there’s growth within the program. We have a lot of guys that are a part of that. I think we have enough personality as a club to carry the expectations.”
The Wildcats enter the season with their highest preseason ranking ever bestowed by Baseball America: No. 11. They have a trio of stars returning in the form of centerfielder Austin Cousino (last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year), starting pitcher Corey Littrell (an All-SEC selection) and two-way star A.J. Reed, who, like Cousino, was a Freshman All-American a year ago. They’ll lead a team deep in pitching and bolstered by another nationally-ranked recruiting class that has UK thinking about taking the next step.
Asked if the program is starting to think about a run at the College World Series, Henderson said: “Yeah, but I don’t talk about it much. You talk SEC Championship, you talk going to Omaha. I think you touch on all of that stuff. I am just a big believer on needing to take care of today, today. And take care of tomorrow, tomorrow.
“I think if you spend all your time talking about what is going to happen in June, it is easy to forget what you need to be doing in February. And that is just my approach... If you really buy into the process of what is going on daily and you maximize your abilities, continue to improve your focus and your concentration, your work habits – if you keep getting better at those things – you have a chance to have some really good things happen.”
In essence, that’s how Kentucky’s 2012 season unfolded. The Cats were picked to finish near the bottom of the rugged SEC, but came within one game of winning the league by methodically grinding out one series win after another.
If it was able to a year ago, UK will no longer be able to sneak up on opponents, but the Cats are carrying some extra motivation. Despite its impressive credentials, the team was snubbed out of playing host to an NCAA regional and sent on the road to Gary, Ind., where it lost a grueling 21-inning affair to Kent State in the opening round. That game lasted six hours and 37 minutes and sent the Wildcats to the loser’s bracket with a hole too big to escape.
UK showed its resiliency in bouncing back for wins over Valparaiso and Purdue, but fell to Kent State again in a heart-breaking 3-2 loss that included a controversial three-run homer by the Golden Flashes in the eighth inning and ended the Cats’ memorable season at 45-18.
“I was actually thinking about it the other day,” said Cousino, who posted a .319 average with 20 doubles, nine home runs, 41 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 2012. “I remember what it was like seeing Kent State dogpile (in celebration) there at Gary… I think that we’ve got a bunch of players here that remember what it was to like to see Kent State, not steal the game necessarily – they played their hearts out (to win the regional championship – and we definitely remember it.”
“I think there’s a lot of unfinished business,” added closer Trevor Gott, who posted a 2.16 ERA and nine saves last season. “All of the guys coming back think we should be in Omaha this year.”
Littrell, a junior left-hander who went 9-2 with a 2.74 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 98.2 innings of work, said the Cats can use last season as motivation, but need to keep their focus on the future.
“Last year is good for us to build on as a program to show us that we are successful and to give us confidence knowing that we can win in this league,” he said, “but this is a new year and a new team, so we have to set new goals.”
The road begins on Feb. 15 in Spartanburg, S.C., against UNC-Asheville. The Cats open the home schedule on Feb. 26 against Murray State.