Kentucky No Longer A Cupcake

FAYETTEVILLE -- In years past, Kentucky was one of those series no coach circled on the schedule as an important weekend. They didn't have to. That series usually was chalked up as a win well before Southeastern Conference play began.

But times have changed since John Cohen took over the Wildcats' program three years ago. Attendance is at an all-time high and so are expectations.

After getting off to its best start in the program's 102-year history, Kentucky (25-9, 7-5 in SEC play) cracked the top 25 for the first time since 2000 earlier this season. The No. 19 Wildcats are coming off a series win against Florida heading into this weekend's series at Arkansas, which begins at 7:05 p.m. today in Baum Stadium.

"I think he's done a great job," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, whose team is 25-9 overall and 6-6 in conference. "They're right there. They're a championship-type team because they can hit, pitch, field and run and we've been watching some video on them and they've done a great job.

"We've really got our hands full this weekend."

The No. 12 Razorbacks' pitchers and defense will be challenged the most against a team which leads the SEC with a .519 slugging percentage. Sophomore Nick Schmidt (6-2, 1.91) will pitch tonight against fellow 6-foot-4 left-hander Aaron Tennyson (4-1, 3.38), a senior. The rest of the Hogs' starting rotation will be Trey Holloway on Saturday and Shaun Seibert on Sunday.

Cohen has stacked the Wildcats' order with sluggers after leadoff man Antone DeJesus, who leads the SEC with 40 runs scored and is 7-for-7 on stolen base attempts. They're hitting .301 as a team while more than doubling opponents in scoring 286-139. Only one player in the starting lineup hasn't homered.

Those lofty numbers were unheard of before Cohen arrived and he said the key has been simple.

"Better players," Cohen said. "We have more talent. We have kids that have been around the league and I've got to be honest with you, when we first got here, that just wasn't necessarily the case. When we got here, about 20 percent of our club was SEC players and I think that that number is a lot higher."

It's higher because of in-state recruiting, especially in the Lexington area. There are 12 Wildcats from Kentucky, including contributors such as Michael Bertram (.346 batting average, 11 doubles, 3 homers) and Collin Cowgill (.327, 8, 8). Saturday starter Craig Snipp (4-2, 2.09) and top reliever Brock Baber (3-0, 4 saves) also are homegrown talent.

Van Horn and his assistants often run into Cohen and his staff on the recruiting trail. He said they even lost a Kentucky prospect to the Wildcats this past year.

"It's similar to when we got to Nebraska and all the kids from Omaha and Lincoln and all over the state were running off, going to junior colleges and SEC and other Big 12 programs," Van Horn said. "You just have to build a relationship with some of the area coaches and I think John has done the same thing.

"You look at his lineup and he's got some kids from out and about, but there's four or five kids that are right in the middle of it who are from the Lexington area or within 100 miles of that."

Cohen came to Kentucky after spending two years as a hitting instructor and ace recruiter at Florida. He previously was head coach at Northwestern (La.) State (1998-2001) and an assistant at Missouri (1992-97).

A Tuscaloosa, Ala., native, Cohen honed his hitting knowledge and a hunger to win while playing at Mississippi State under coach Ron Polk. The Bulldogs advanced to the regionals in each of his three years and to the College World Series in 1990. He finished his career among the top 10 in several MSU offensive categories.

"He was sometimes a difficult guy to handle because he was so intense," said Polk, who Cohen still calls often for advice. "He was always upset when we didn't too well which is fine. But sometimes it got carried over to the point where I had to talk to him. He's matured a lot since that time, but he's still intense.

"He's a great coach and a good communicator. He's got good information that he can pass along to a player.

"He's going to do a great job at Kentucky."

Already has.

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