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Kentucky freshman Gray, top-ranked Cats pack untapped potential

Kentucky freshman sprinter Kianna Gray holds the fourth-fastest 100-meter time in the NCAAs during this outdoor season, just 0.01 seconds off the time of junior teammate Destiny Carter.
Kentucky freshman sprinter Kianna Gray holds the fourth-fastest 100-meter time in the NCAAs during this outdoor season, just 0.01 seconds off the time of junior teammate Destiny Carter. UK Athletics

At 11.12 seconds, Kentucky freshman sprinter Kianna Gray has run the fourth-fastest 100 meters in NCAA competition this outdoor season. That’s just 0.01 off the best time of junior teammate Destiny Carter and only 0.15 seconds off the No. 1 spot.

But, according to UK track and field coach Edrick Floréal, she’s not anywhere close to her potential.

“Technically we’re probably a C-minus if I’m being generous,” Floréal said last week of Gray's technique as his team rested and prepared for this weekend’s Southeastern Conference outdoor championships. “It’s more like a D-plus technically as far as understanding the race and execution. She’s just a big ball of talent. I think she’s going to be, once she figures it out, even better.”

Gray holds Kentucky state records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters for North Hardin High School in Radcliff. She was a three-time state Gatorade track athlete of the year and an 11-time state champion. But that didn’t prepare her for the success she’s had, so far, at Kentucky.

“Honestly, I did not know how fast I was,” she said. “Every time I PR (set a personal record), I’m still shocked. Never in high school had I ever thought I would be running this fast.”

Her state record time in the 100 meters was 11.73, 0.61 seconds slower than her best mark at UK less than a year later. The workouts and the competition are far more intense. And while the adjustment to college, Coach Floréal and SEC competition was difficult, at first, she’s embracing the challenge.

“Coach is really hard on me,” she said. “In high school I didn’t really have that. I had a coach that pushed me, but our coach is like 10 times harder. At first I hated it, but now I love it.”

Gray is part of what has become the nation’s No. 1 ranked women’s track and field team heading into the conference and NCAA outdoor championships. It’s not a position some would expect of a team that lost NCAA track athlete of the year Kendra Harrison and last year’s NCAA 200-meter champ Dezerea Bryant among others. But Floréal, who led the Cats to a runner-up finish in the NCAA outdoors in 2015 and coached last year’s Team USA in the World Championships, said he thought this team would have the opportunity to be even better.

“I think the good thing about our team is that we’re pretty diverse,” Floréal said. “We got jumpers, sprinters, hurdlers, pole vaulters, steeple chasers and distance runners. As far as the makeup of the team, we’ve got a much better balanced team than everybody else does. … We just have people scoring in every event area and that’s a cool thing in that if one area is kind of down, then we’ve got other people that can step up.”

In addition to Gray and Carter, junior Javianne Oliver has cracked the top 10 in the 100 meters. Gray and Carter are top 25 in the 200 meters. Junior Ariah Graham has posted the eighth-fastest 800-meter time. Freshman Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, who’s already made the Puerto Rican Olympic team, and sophomore Jacklyn Howell, have posted the second- and fourth-fastest 100-meter hurdle times, respectively. Junior Kiah Seymour ranks third in the 400 hurdles.

Kentucky also has a top-15 pole vaulter in freshman Olivia Gruver and the No. 2 long jumper in junior Sha’Keela Saunders. Carter’s long jump is ninth best this season. Freshman Marie-Josée Ebwea-Bile and Saunders are both top-20 triple jumpers.

The list goes on: senior Beckie Famurewa is top 10 in both the discus and hammer throw with sophomore Adriana Brown posting the 13th-farthest discus throw this season.

And Kentucky’s 4-by-100 relay, which includes Gray, Carter, Oliver and junior Precious Hitchcock, has posted the third-fastest time, just 0.46 seconds behind Oregon’s best mark of 42.68. The Cats’ fourth-ranked 4-by-400 relay also includes Gray and Carter, along with Seymour and junior Jasmine Mitchell.

Even with all that, “we haven’t really completely unleashed the beast,” Floréal said. “I think we’ve got a lot more in the tank, and I think their confidence is just now growing a little bit, which is good. But it’s still not to the level that it needs to be.”

Floréal expected his women’s team to come together sooner and he hoped for some hardware during the indoor season.

“The girls performed well in the testing and they showed that they were gifted, but they never actually made the change to performing up to their testing and up to their training,” he said. “So, I had to make some adjustments outdoors to reach them and get the girls to buy into the process, and that we’re actually pretty good. …

“Most of the process is not so much the coach, but just to get the athlete to believe what the coach is saying. I told them that could take awhile.”

Now that the work has begun to pay off, Floréal doesn’t relish being No. 1 headed into the postseason.

“I’d rather be the guy in the bushes, somewhat like last year when we were ninth coming in and everybody thought we had no shot until the meet started and it was like ‘uh-oh,’” he said. “When you’re dealing with young people, when they accomplish some things, they think that No. 1 means we’re going to win. And now No. 1 means that everyone knows we have a chance to win. … It can be motivation for everybody else. I’d rather be dead last coming in and win, because people don’t see it coming.”

Whatever the expectations, Gray has learned that every competition matters as she works to get faster and earn podium spots for herself and her team.

“It’s definitely been a challenge versus high school,” she said. “So, it’s kind of still adjusting to the fact that OK, yeah, I was really good in high school, but competing every weekend against people who were the best in their state, as well as the best nationally, it’s definitely a learning challenge. You can’t really slack off this meet. Someone else who trains just as hard as you and wants it just as bad as you will just take it away.”

This weekend

SEC Track and Field Championships

When: Thursday through Saturday

Where: Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Online: SEC Network Plus

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