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Underdogs this year, Kentucky women’s track and field team plots happy ending

Oregon’s Hannah Cunliffe wins the women's 60-meter dash over Kentucky's Javianne Oliver during the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. Cunliffe will not run in the Outdoor Championships because of a hamstring injury. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Oregon’s Hannah Cunliffe wins the women's 60-meter dash over Kentucky's Javianne Oliver during the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. Cunliffe will not run in the Outdoor Championships because of a hamstring injury. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke) AP

After last season’s disappointing 11th-place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, the University of Kentucky women’s track team has embraced a new role going into nationals this year.

Ranked fifth in the latest U.S. Track & Field Cross Country Coaches Association’s poll, the Cats have embraced an underdog role heading to this year’s meet in Eugene, Ore..

“I definitely agree that we’re the underdogs this year,” sophomore pole vaulter Olivia Gruver said. “Last year we were coming in No. 2, No. 1, so coming in No. 5 this year is definitely a totally different outlook. I think we’re a lot more confident this year, too, so I think it’ll benefit us so we can come on top this year.”

Many expected the Cats to do well last year after they climbed to No. 1 in USTFCCCA’s rankings 5½ weeks before the outdoor championships. It was the first time the Cats have been ranked No. 1 in program history.

However, the Cats coudn’t live up to the high expectations. UK athletes had some great performances, but it was not enough to keep up with eventual national champion Arkansas.

floreal
Coach Edrick Floreal at a UK track and field practice at Nutter Fieldhouse Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 12, 2017. Floreal’s women’s team is ranked No. 5 heading into the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Pablo Alcala palcala@herald-leader.com

A year later, the Cats are ready to do some damage at nationals despite lower expectations.

“I’m all about underdog, man. I believe that the underdog is probably a little bit more fierce competitor than the person who’s favored,” Coach Edrick Floreal said. “I think the underdog is the person you got to watch the most ’cause they just feel that sense of ‘I got nothing to lose, if I lose I was supposed to lose anyway, if I win then I proved the world wrong.’”

However, pulling off the upset won’t be easy.

In the past seven seasons, the No. 1-ranked team has won the title five times. In both those situations, it was the No. 2-ranked team (Texas A&M both times) that took home the title.

I think we’re a lot more confident this year, too, so I think it’ll benefit us so we can come on top this year.

Olivia Gruver

Oregon is ranked No. 1 heading into nationals this week. The Ducks finished second last year, and they won the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships just a couple months ago.

Despite the challenge that Oregon presents, Floreal sees holes where the Cats can attack.

“You got some teams that are down, some people’s relays didn’t get the batons around at the West Regionals, so there’s some gaps,” he said. “There is some big-time people on the Oregon team and Arkansas team that are not going to compete for whatever reason, so I think if we can just all show up and take care of business we can hopefully come out with some hardware.”

The last time the Cats brought home hardware was in 2015, when UK finished nine points behind No. 1-ranked Oregon for second place. The Cats were ranked No. 3 heading into that meet, and were led by national championship performances from Kendra Harrison and Dezerea Bryant.

Leading up to nationals this year, Floreal sees similarities in the 2015 squad and this year’s team.

“I haven’t seen them in this sort of mindset before; it just seems to be a level of comfort that they can do something,” Floreal said.

Chris Leach: 859-231-1326, @chrisleach250

NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships

When: June 7-10

Where: Eugene, Ore.

TV: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (ESPNU), 8:30 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2), 7:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2), 8:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN) and 6:30 pm. Saturday (ESPN)

Competing for the Cats

Women: Katy Kunc, 3k steeplechase; Jasmine Camacho-Quinn: 100 hurdles and 200 meters; Jacklyn Howell, 100 hurdles; Kianna Gray, 100 and 200 meters; Destiny Carter, long jump and 100 and 200 meters; Olivia Gruver, pole vault; Sarah Blake, javelin; Sha’Keela Saunders, long jump; relays, 4x100 and 4x400.

Men: Tim Duckworth, decathlon; Nick Anderson, 110 hurdles ; Jacob Thomson, 10k; Ethan Shalaway, javelin; Fred Dorsey, long jump; Nikolas Huffman, shot put.

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