CBB Column: Kentucky a Rising power in the SEC?

New Head Coach Gary Henderson

New Head Coach Gary Henderson (UK Athletics Photo)

The University of Kentucky had a great season in 2008 where they went 44-19. They ended up finishing in 3rd place in the Eastern Division in the SEC with a conference record of 16-14. The NCAA Baseball committee rewarded the team with the third seed in the Ann Arbor Regional. The Wildcats were knocked off in the first game of the Regional by the hosts Michigan but bounced back with a victories over Eastern Michigan and the University of Michigan in a rematch. They ended up in the championship game of the regional against the Arizona Wildcats which they lost 5-3 to end the season.

After the season was over, Head Coach John Cohen decided to leave Lexington for Mississippi State to take over for legendary head coach Ron Polk. He was replaced by longtime assistant coach Gary Henderson who spent the last five years as an associate head coach and pitching coach bringing the Kentucky program into the national spotlight. The Wildcats pitching staff under his leadership was able compile an SEC low ERA of 3.71.

The Kentucky offense will need to replace some of the top players in the conference with Sawyer Carroll, Collin Cowgill, and Greg Dombrowski all deciding to move on with their careers at the next level. Carroll led the Wildcats with a .419 average and tying for the team lead with 19 homers. Collin Cowgill hit .361 for the season and tying Carroll for the team lead in homers. Dombrowski started in 15 games (16 appearances) for the Wildcats accumulating a 6-1 record with a 4.10 ERA. These are three key players that will need to be replaced by Henderson during his inaugural season in charge of the program.

The best news that Henderson got over the summer is that Chris Rusin decided to return for his senior campaign after being selected in the 23rd round by the Oakland Athletics. He was honored by the SEC as a first-team conference pitcher after going 6-3 with a 3.33 ERA in 13 starts. His ERA is actually inflated for last season as he experienced a minor injury at the end of the season which saw him not pitch in the SEC Tournament. He returned to the rotation for the opening game of the NCAA tournament against Michigan but lasted only 1.1 innings as he was not at 100 percent. If you throw out that game, his ERA drops down to 2.84. He was also a road warrior in 2008 accumulating a 2.63 ERA including two complete game losses to Auburn and Vanderbilt.

A few of the returning players have received some awards from their respective summer leagues.

Logan Darnell looking to make an impact in 2009 (UK Athletics Photo)

Logan Darnell looking to make an impact in 2009 (UK Athletics Photo)

Logan Darnell, a sophomore left handed pitcher out of Joelton, TN, was named the Top Prospect in the NYCBL by PGCrosschecker and Baseball America after pitching in eight games (starting six) accumulating a perfect 3-0 record with a 1.82 ERA. He was used out of the pen during the 2008 season where he did not have a decision in 15 games with a 4.08 ERA. He was wild during his innings of work as he allowed 14 walks in 17.2 innings but his opponents hit a measly .182 against him. Coach Henderson recently said “Logan Darnell is a completely different guy then he was last spring.” It looks like Darnell will be one of the guys that will step right into the rotation in 2008.

Marcus Nidiffer was named the 14th best prospect in the Valley League this summer after hitting .305 with 13 homers and 31 RBI for the Covington Lumberjacks. He was a master behind the plate with the Lumberjacks as he threw out 10-13 runners. He ended up winning the Valley League All-Star MVP award after going 2-5 with a homer and three RBI. He split the catching duties with senior Tyler Howe but saw action in 47 out of UK’s 63 games. He had a batting average of .263 with five homers and 16 RBI. Coach Henderson said “Marcus Nidiffer is a stronger catcher. He’s had a very good summer and hit some home runs in the Valley League.”

The Kentucky Wildcats were able to have one of the best recruiting classes in the history of the program in the incoming class. They were able to land five incoming freshmen who were named HS All-Americans either by Louisville Slugger or Aflac.

This is led by Alex Meyer out of Greensburgh HS in Indiana. He is a 6’7 200 pound righthander who was drafted by the Boston Red Sox with the 622nd overall pick but according to many sources was looking for Top 10 overall pick money to sign with the club. We have two great profiles of him from Minor League Baseball, Perfect Game, and BrewerFan.net Coach Henderson had this to say about Alex “At times it looks like I just need to stay out of his way and let him play. He is a high school kid who has just made the transition. He is very talented, he has pitched four innings with us [this fall] and has done extremely well. I’m always concerned about the young guys and giving them expectations they can’t handle emotionally. Alex has done well and he will be a good player.”

The other incoming freshman that has turned some heads already is Andy Burns out of Fort Collins Colorado. He was named to the Aflac All-American team after his senior year of high school. Baseball America had him listed before the 2008 MLB Draft as 3rd-5th round material but he slipped to the 25th round where the Colorado Rockies picked him. He ended up turning down the contract to attend Kentucky. He spent the summer in the Northwoods League which is a premier collegiate summer league. He struggled at the plate as he only hit .225 with 22 runs scored, six doubles, two homers, and 19 RBI. He was also solid on the basepaths where he had 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts for the Duluth Huskies. Baseball America ended up rating him as the ninth best pro prospect in the Northwoods League.

The rest of the All-Americans are Cory Farris (Florence, Ky., Boone Co. HS), Braden Kapteyn (Lansing, Ill., Illiana Christian HS), and Michael Williams (Knoxville, Tenn., Farragut HS). They also picked up commitments from All-State players Sean Bouthilette (Elizabethtown, Ky., Elizabethtown HS), Chase Green (Nicholasville, Ky., West Jessamine HS) and Chad Wright (Paducah, Ky., Heath HS). They will welcome three junior college transfers to the program in 2009 with Will Campbell (Bellevue, Wash., Bellevue CC), Gunner Glad (Pahlequah, Okla., Eastern Okla.), and Nick Kennedy (Los Angeles, Calif., East Los Angeles) joining the squad.

Kentucky lead the SEC in fielding during the 2008 season with a .974 fielding percentage. Gary Henderson says “I think that part of defense is fielding percentage and part of it is range and making the play. Obviously, we were very pleased with Collin Cowgill and Ryan Wilkes [defensive performance] last year. We’re going to be a better club defensively; it’s quicker, it’s faster.” I can’t believe that they actually think the defense could be better then a conference leading squad. We will see how good the 2009 Kentucky Wildcats can pick it once the season starts up.

Kentucky had a weak out of conference schedule in 2008 which did not have a weekend series against any power programs. The biggest weekend OOC game they played was against South Alabama in the Coca-Cola Classic tournament in Mobile Alabama. Coach Henderson said the following about upgrading the strength of the schedule “The schedule is firmer this year. The first weekend will be on the road and the next two weekends are at home. In terms of the philosophy behind that, the weather isn’t much different from anyone else in our region. Since that is the case, we might as well be at home. Playing at home can be a benefit the first few weeks in SEC play, and there isn’t much difference unless we are traveling south.”

Thanks to Brent Ingram of UK Athletics for helping us get some of these great quotes from Coach Henderson. We will be interviewing Coach Henderson in the coming months to get some more insight into his observations about the 2009 Kentucky Wildcats.