By the time Gary Henderson learned he had been voted Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year by his peers the sting of being snubbed for hosting a regional in the NCAA Tournament seemed like a distant memory.
Taylor Rogers will take the hill for Kentucky's NCAA Tournament opener
Henderson's mindset: What's done is done. Worry about what you can control, not what you can't.
“What are you talking about?” Henderson playfully responded when asked if his Kentucky team was over the disappointment. “I was as honest as I can be (Monday) and we didn't talk about it (Tuesday) and won't talk about it (anymore). You've got to move forward.”
If there is a club in the 64-team field that has a legitimate reason to play with a chip on its shoulder, Kentucky certainly resides at the front of the line. The Cats were the first team in the nation to reach 40 victories, finished with 20 wins against SEC competition, won seven of 10 series inside the conference and went 6-3 against national seeds Florida, LSU and South Carolina.
Yet, the Cats were bypassed for one of the 16 regional sites and shipped to the Gary Regional, where they will face a Kent State team riding a 17-game winning streak in Friday's 4 p.m. opener at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind. Henderson said the key now is making sure his team is focused on the task at hand instead of the anger of not hosting.
“Oh, it's a fine line. I don't want them angry or out of control,” Henderson said. “I want them to be poised and confident. We talk about a chip of the shoulder but even that needs to be directed the right way. We'll be fine. Our kids will show up and we'll be right where we need to be mentally. You can't guarantee wins but our kids will show up.”
GOLDEN FLASHES ON FIRE
The game of baseball is all about momentum and few teams enter the NCAA Tournament with more juice in their dugout than Kent State, which is riding a 17-game winning streak and just capped a 24-3 bulldozing through the Mid-American Conference. It's the longest current streak in the country.
Furthermore, the Golden Flashes have been here before after earning a No. 3 seed in last season's tournament. Kent State won its first two games and needed only a single victory to reach the Super Regionals before Texas defeated them in back-to-back games.
“Not this time of year you can't (take anyone for granted),” Henderson said of Kent State's success. “All it takes is one pitcher with a curveball and it's game on and it's a tight game. As you guys now, we haven't played many lopsided games either way recently. The percentage of games that are one-run games are as high as it's ever been and we've been in more than our share.”
The Golden Flashes have just the type of ace who could make life difficult for the Cats. Left-handed starter David Starn is 10-3 with a 1.77 earned run average and 112 strikeouts in 102 innings pitched this season. Opponents are hitting just .205 against him and he's allowed just three home runs.
“Three pitch mix, command, older,” Henderson said of Starn. “Reminds you of (former UK star) Craig Snipp in terms of approach. Very similar. Any time you've got an older kid that's got three pitches it's going to be competitive. That's about all you need to know. It's left-handed, it's offspeed, will not overpower you.”
Kentucky will send junior lefty Taylor Rogers to the mound in the opener. Rogers was the Cats' Friday night starter all season and has the most experience of the three weekend starters, although that wasn't necessarily the reason he was tabbed for the start.
“I just did it because he's been our Friday night guy,” Henderson said. “I just didn't see any reason to switch it or overcoach it.”
PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE
The double elimination format of the NCAA Tournament certainly allows some wiggle room for teams but losing the opener of the four-team regional makes recovering to advance to the Super Regionals a daunting task. The Cats lost the opener in both 2006 and 2007, fought back with two victories after that before getting eliminated by the Regional champion.
“It's huge,” Henderson said of winning the first game. “We've got enough pitching to come out of the loser's side of the bracket but we're certainly hoping not to have to do it and prove me right.
“You're going to do everything you can to win the first game. It's a tremendous difference. We need to win the first ballgame. You need to try and make it as easy on yourself as possible because it's tough enough as it.”
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