Mark Story

The coach most likely to produce UK’s next NCAA title? It might surprise you

Over the past three seasons, Edrick Floreal has coached the Kentucky women’s track team to finishes of 7th (2014), 2nd (2015) and 11th (2016) in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Over the past three seasons, Edrick Floreal has coached the Kentucky women’s track team to finishes of 7th (2014), 2nd (2015) and 11th (2016) in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. palcala@herald-leader.com

In its entire athletics history, the University of Kentucky has won 10 team NCAA championships.

UK’s women’s cross country squad ran its way to glory in 1988. The Kentucky rifle team, a coed operation, shot its way to the top in 2011. Wildcats men’s basketball teams have claimed eight NCAA crowns.

Given that five different head coaches have led UK men’s hoops to NCAA titles, that program is always the most likely to produce Kentucky’s next national title.

Yet there is a different UK team that might get there first. It would be an upset if it happens this year, but under Coach Edrick Floreal, the Kentucky’s women’s track and field program is pushing toward championship level.

Two years ago, led by senior stars Kendra Harrison and Dezerea Bryant, UK finished as national runner-up to Oregon.

Last year, the UK women were ranked No. 1 in the country for several weeks. That made finishing 11th in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships hard to stomach.

“Last year, we were a disaster,” Floreal says of UK in the NCAA meet. “The kids were not focused at all on doing well and were just kind of focused on other things. This (year’s) group is more astute or aware or cognizant of how well they have to do.”

UK will have 22 entrants — 16 in women’s events, six in men’s — in the 2017 NCAA outdoor championships this week (Wednesday through Saturday) at the University of Oregon.

If Kentucky had all its most talented women’s competitors healthy, Floreal thinks the Wildcats would be among 2017’s NCAA title favorites. Instead, injuries to Kiah Seymour (second last year in the NCAA outdoors in 400-meter hurdles) and Javianne Oliver (second in NCAA indoor 60-meter hurdles this year) make a championship this year unlikely, Floreal says.

“I think there’s a very long shot,” Floreal said of UK winning it all in 2017. “But I don’t think we have enough bullets to be able to do that. If Kiah Seymour is healthy and competing, and Javianne Oliver, then I think we have a legitimate chance and should be expected to do it. … Without those two, if we get top five, I think that’s realistic.”

Since Floreal came to UK in 2012, hurdlers have fueled Kentucky’s rise. A UK athlete — Harrison in 2015, freshman Jasmine Camacho-Quinn last year — has won the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA outdoor championships the past two seasons.

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Kentucky’s Jasmine Camacho-Quinn celebrated after winning the 100 meters hurdles last year as a freshman in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. This week, Camacho-Quinn will go for a repeat national championship. Ryan Kang Associated Press

Now a sophomore, Camacho-Quinn will try to keep that streak going. “Judging by the level of training she is doing, she is not going to go down there without a fight,” Floreal said.

UK’s hopes for a strong team showing also ride heavily on long jumper Sha’Keela Saunders and, because each is qualified for four events, sprinters Destiny Carter and Kianna Gray.

A senior from Suffolk, Va., Saunders won the NCAA indoor championship in the long jump in March. Carter, a senior from Danville, Ill., is slated to compete in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the long jump and the 4-by-100 relay.

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Kentucky senior Destiny Carter will compete in four events - the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and the 4X100 relay - at this week’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Mark Mahan

“Destiny Carter has to do about a thousand events and she has to do well in all of them,” Floreal said. “If she has any kind of a mishap, we’re dead.”

Gray was an 11-time Kentucky high school state champion at North Hardin. The sophomore is qualified for the NCAAs in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and will run on UK’s 4-by-100 and 4-by-400 relays.

“She’s a significantly better athlete than she is performing,” Floreal said of Gray. “I try not to put that pressure on her because she’s still young and a little fragile as far as expectations.”

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Kentucky sophomore sprinter Kianna Gray, the former North Hardin star, has qualified to compete in four events - the 100 meters, 200 meters plus the 4x100 and 4x400 relays - this week at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

For the Kentucky men, hurdler Nick Anderson, second last year in the 110-meter hurdles, and distance runner Jacob Thomson, sixth in 2016 in the 10,000 meters, seem the best hopes to medal.

Floreal says Kentucky’s goal of becoming a national track power is more advanced on the women’s side than the men’s because female prospects value different things in recruiting than do males. “Women tend to make decisions a little more based on relationships and loyalty,” Floreal says. “Guys make decisions based on (track and field) tradition.”

In November, the UK women’s program scored a recruiting coup when Kentucky signed New Jersey prep star Sydney McLaughlin. A 2016 U.S. Olympian in the 400 hurdles, McLaughlin is one of the most promising high school athletes — in any sport — in the country.

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Kentucky’s signing of teenage Olympian Sydney McLaughlin for 2017-18 could make the Wildcats legitimate NCAA championship contenders next season. Marco Jose Sanchez Associated Press

“I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do,” Floreal says.

Assuming there’s no unexpected roster attrition, the “championship window” for the Kentucky women’s track and field program should be open wide in 2018.

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