Mark Story: 'Women power' is fueling best all-around year in UK sports history

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 29, 2014 

By one measurement, we are living through the most successful University of Kentucky sports year ever.

Presently, UK stands 16th in the nation in the Learfied Sports Directors' Cup standings. Those ratings — designed to measure the overall strength of a college athletics department — assign point totals in each sport based on how a school performs in NCAA team championships. Before finishing 25th last season, UK had never cracked the Top 25 in the Directors' Cup.

To a large degree, what is fueling this overall Kentucky success is the power of UK women's sports.

Thursday night, Coach Rachel Lawson's softball Wildcats (49-17) beat Louisiana-Lafayette in UK's first-ever appearance in the Women's College World Series.

Whatever happens in the double-elimination event, Kentucky softball making it to the biggest stage in a sport not traditionally associated with UK was a "breakthrough moment" for the Wildcats athletics department.

"I feel a sense of accomplishment for our school and university," Lawson said Wednesday at a news conference in Oklahoma City. "They have put a lot of time and resources and effort into women's athletics and softball."

Almost across the board this school year, Kentucky women's programs have left big marks. The UK women's track and field team enters the preliminary round of the NCAA's outdoor championships this week ranked No. 5 in the country.

Women's basketball advanced to its fourth NCAA tourney round of 16 in five years. Volleyball and women's soccer each made the second round of their NCAA Tournaments. In indoor track, the Kentucky women finished ninth in the NCAA championships, the school's best finish ever.

Of Kentucky's 701.5 total points in the current Directors' Cup standings, UK's women's teams have accounted for 57.7 percent (404.5) — and that does not take into account the 85 points earned by the coed UK rifle team.

UK male athletes have supplied some stellar moments too, of course. Most notable are John Calipari's men's hoops Cats' thrilling run to the NCAA title game and UK baseball star A.J. Reed's bid for National Player of the Year honors.

Yet in many ways this bountiful UK sports year has been defined by extraordinary achievements from women athletes.

Kentucky softball's sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley threw every inning (481⁄3) of UK's NCAA Tournament drive to the Women's College World Series, compiling a 0.87 ERA.

UK track's junior sprinter Dezerea Bryant, a transfer from Clemson, clocked what was the fastest women's 200-meter dash (22.82 seconds) in the world in February.

In what was arguably the most-discussed regular-season women's basketball game of 2013-14, UK guard Jennifer O'Neill poured in 43 points to ignite a four-overtime victory over Baylor.

Wildcats women's soccer All-American Arin Gilliland — she of the three game-winning goals last fall — has just been recalled to the U.S. Women's National Team Under-23 training camp.

Those are just four. We didn't even mention volleyball star Whitney Billings being named second-team All-America for a second straight year. Or women's basketball standout DeNesha Stallworth being chosen in the WNBA Draft.

Or distance runner Cally Macumber winning the 5K at the Penn Relays. Or track star Kendra Harrison, another Clemson transfer, becoming the first SEC athlete to sweep conference outdoor titles in the 100- and 400-meter hurdles since 1999.

That so much of Kentucky's all-around sports success is being driven by women's athletics speaks well of Mitch Barnhart's tenure as UK athletics director.

Barnhart has had some misfires on high-profile coaching hires. He does not always handle the public relations aspects of being an SEC AD with ease.

Still, since he arrived from Oregon State in 2002, Barnhart has transformed UK into something it had never been before: a comprehensive, SEC-level athletics department (which, yes, still needs to improve at football).

Last season, Kentucky women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell was asked what has allowed his program to flourish. Said Mitchell: "Mitch Barnhart said, 'We're going to have good sports across the board,' and, in particular, (he) really invested in women's basketball in a significant way."

This school year, UK's investment in its women's sports programs is producing boffo returns.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: Twitter: @markcstory. Blog:

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