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February 4, 2013

Baseball looking to continue momentum of 2012

The UK baseball team's momentum didn't end when the season closed in the NCAA regional. The ripple effects of a 45-18 season -- the most wins in a season in program history -- extended long after the Wildcats had returned from the tournament.

When players gathered for offseason workouts, they felt it. When practice began in January, they felt it.

"You walk around with a little bit bigger chest than you did after our freshman year," junior left-handed pitcher Corey Littrell said. "Winning like that last year, being the winningest team in the program history is an honor and you just want to walk around and show everyone 'This is our team. We did this.'"

This year's team, sophomore outfielder Austin Cousino says, could be even better.

It will certainly be different. The Wildcats' home run ability took a hit with the loss of players like Cameron Flynn, Thomas McCarthy and Luke Maile. But even without those players, there's something coming back last year's team didn't have. There's postseason experience and a taste of success.

"We know what it takes," Cousino said. "We know what the grind entails."

Grinding may have to be this team's strength. Cousino, a second-team All-America selection by Baseball America, spent the summer with the USA Collegiate National Baseball Team. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Year spent the offseason honing his small ball skills, working on his short game, bunting, and improving his defense.

He's hoping to bring those abilities back and help out a roster that includes 26 freshmen and sophomores among 36 players. Several of the Wildcats' key returners aren't known as power hitters, but could a smaller scale offense and a strong defense.

"I don't know that we'll change our style drastically," head coach Gary Henderson said. "Certainly, you may see a few more stolen bases, or a little bit more of a manufactured offense. But I wouldn't tack that on us from the start."

There's also the matter of rebuilding a bullpen. UK will likely start a trio of left-handed pitchers on the weekend as sophomore A.J. Reed, junior Corey Littrell and senior Jerad Grundy headline the starting rotation. Sophomore right-hander Chandler Shepherd could help provide a bridge in the bullpen to closer Trevor Gott, become the midweek starter, or do a little of both.

But the team will lean heavily on players like Cousino, Littrell, Reed and Gott, all of whom played major roles on 2012's NCAA tournament team. UK rose to No. 4 in the Baseball America rankings last season, its highest ever ranking. This year's team has its sights set on another first for the program. A return to the NCAA tournament would mark the first time the Wildcats have made the field in back-to-back seasons.

After getting a taste of the postseason in 2012, UK is focused on taking another step this season.

"There's unfinished business," Gott said. "Everyone wants to make it to the Super Regional and Omaha so bad."

That's where the Wildcats found momentum to spur themselves into 2013. UK opens the season at No. 11 in the Baseball America poll, their highest preseason ranking ever in that poll.

The momentum started last season, but will have to extend into 2013 for the Wildcats to achieve their goals. They'll be different this year, even if they hope the results are similar.

"We had such a successful season, it's hard not to think about last year," Littrell said. "But our coaches told us this is a new year, this is a new team and we've got new people. We still have one goal: we want to be better than we were last year. Last year was good for us to build on as a program, to show us that we are successful and give us confidence that we can win in this league."

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