Among the challenges during the University of Kentucky volleyball team's summer trip to China was food.
"The food ... was not typical as what we see as Chinese food here," junior setter Morgan Bergren said Tuesday during UK's Fall Sports Media Day. "It's not our great sweet-and-sour chicken and rice and stuff. But it's what they eat and it's what they enjoy so it was very interesting to see just how different our cultures were."
There were chicken feet, snails and more. Sometimes the Wildcats felt challenged.
"Challenging is a good word," Bergren said. "Because they present it in a way that's not super-appetizing to us. We had pigeon one night and the pigeon was literally still in the shape of a pigeon with the head and the beak and everything. The fish, it still had all the bones in it, had the head. You could like play with its mouth. So it was a challenge trying to find things that we actually liked. But it was interesting. We tried a lot of different things. ... It was a really neat experience."
Oh, the trip was also beneficial on the court.
"The biggest reason to do a trip like that is you want it to improve your team and the program," Coach Craig Skinner said. "Lauren (O'Conner) made the comment this morning that 'we're already beyond some places that we were at this time last year because we had a chance to train and compete for three weeks.'"
UK volleyball, No. 19 in the AVCA Preseason Coaches' Poll, is coming off a school-record ninth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Cats open the season Friday in Memorial Coliseum, facing Wichita State as part of the four-team Bluegrass Battle.
Skinner, beginning his 10th season at UK, is the program's second all-time winningest coach, his 202 victories being just seven shy of tying the mark set by Kathy DeBoer from 1984-92.
Women's soccer senior Arin Gilliland, a two-time All-American and three-time All-SEC honoree, is poised to come close to school career records in shots, goals, points, assists, games played and minutes played. She already has the single-season record for shots.
Home, sweet home
UK's new $7.7 million Wendell and Vickie Bell Soccer Complex will see its first action Friday night and will be dedicated Sunday at noon. The facility has separate areas for the men's and women's programs, including team rooms, player lounges, locker areas and coaches offices, with a press box atop the new grandstand.
Friday, the women will take on Francis Marion.
Sunday, the women will face Ohio University at 2 p.m., followed by the men taking on Belmont at 5 p.m.
"Definitely we are very appreciative of everything that the athletic department, the university, what the Bells have done for this program," women's senior midfielder Stuart Pope said. "And we're really going to show that respect and that gratitude to them on the field this weekend. We have an amazing facility, probably one of the best in the SEC now, and we're going to take full advantage of it and give them the respect and the work ethic they deserve."
The UK women return nine starters from a team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
The UK men, who play at Wright State on Friday, are coming off an appearance in the semifinals of the 2013 Conference USA Tournament last year, after advancing to the NCAA tourney in Coach Johan Cedergren's first season at the helm in 2012. UK returns first-team all-C-USA goalkeeper Callum Irving.
"It's definitely the youngest squad that we've had. I think 21 of the 27 are underclassmen," Cedergren said. "But at the same time there's lots of experience. A lot of the sophomores played a lot last year. Callum ... even though he's a junior, I think he has a lot of experience that he can bring."
Cats on the run
The UK cross country teams will begin a third season under Coach Edrick Floreal in Friday's Belmont Opener at Nashville. UK was picked by SEC coaches to place eighth in both men's and women's cross country.
"A lot of young faces, a lot of new faces, and that's always the excitement," Floreal said. "The potential that they have is pretty cool because, No. 1, you're never really sure if it's going to materialize. It's kind of like Forrest Gump says — like a box of chocolates, you just never know what you're going to get from the freshmen.
"But also the exciting thing is that they're so full of energy and so excited for the process to begin that we also get kind of caught up in their excitement. ... Our goal is to do better than the previous year."
SEC Network impact
Count Skinner as a backer of the new SEC Network. Of UK's 31 volleyball matches, 27 will be televised, including every home contest and all of UK's SEC road matches.
"That's unprecedented," Skinner said. "It's already affected our recruiting. It's great for our athletes that parents live in various parts of the country, that they can see their daughter perform and friends perform."
Said women's soccer coach Jon Lipsitz: "Everything we're doing now is watched. And that's exactly what we want. We want to be on display to the entire country. We want to be on display for all of you, for all of the recruits. Everything's out there now. That's a dream come true for us. ... Look, we all know that ESPN did not come after the SEC for women's soccer. That's great — thank you, SEC football. It's fantastic and we're getting the same benefits."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @MarkMaloneyHL. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.