LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kentucky senior outfielder Storm Wilson has a secret that he’s kept for his entire Kentucky career. At a press conference on Thursday, Wilson’s secret finally slipped out.
“That rivalry kind of hits home with me,” Wilson said when speaking of the Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry. “I was a Tennessee fan growing up (because of) my dad.”
But Wilson’s Volunteer fandom quickly faded, and, having been a Wildcat now for five years, the Somerset, Ky., native now enjoys playing against the team he once cheered for, Tennessee.
“I’ve always liked playing them, it always kind of sparks something for me,” Wilson said. “It’s always exciting to play them and to have them coming to town.”
Fellow senior Marcus Carson, who is from London, Ky., was much the opposite growing up, having never liked Tennessee.
“Zero Tennessee fans in my family, or anybody I associate with,” Carson said. “It’s a good rivalry. We don’t really like them, don’t like the color, but we’ve just got to take it one game at a time.”
The Cats and the Vols square off in a three-game, SEC series this weekend, with Senior Day festivities for Carson, Colton Cleary, Connor Heady, Gunnar McNeill, Zach Reks, Logan Salow and Wilson set for Saturday.
No. 9 Kentucky is very much in the SEC race with two weekends left. The Wildcats are 33-16 overall and 15-9 in league play, just one game behind league leaders Florida and Mississippi State.
After dropping two of three against Georgia at home last weekend, the Wildcats hope to get back on track against the Volunteers.
Reks knows that he and his team will take a simple approach this weekend, hoping to avoid the same results as last weekend.
“Just go back to the basics,” Reks said. “Working our fundamentals, fielding ground balls in the outfield, doing some extra hitting, trying not to think about it as much and just go out there and play our game.”
Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione knows this weekend is very important for his team, especially after last weekend.
“I wouldn’t say pressure,” Mingione said when asked if his team was feeling any heat in the midst of the SEC race. “I love the fact that we’re even having this conversation with two weeks to go in the year, and we’re talking about an SEC race. My message has been the same. It’s the most important game of the year, starting tomorrow, because that’s the game we’re playing that day. I’m just so excited that we are even having this conversation.”
The three-game set begins on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. ET. Kentucky will send sophomore righthander Sean Hjelle (pictured) to the mound against Tennessee’s Hunter Martin. Hjelle is 7-2 on the season with a 3.46 ERA, while Martin is 5-5 and sports a 3.15 ERA.
On Saturday, Zach Logue will be Kentucky’s starter, while Tennessee will counter with Garrett Stallings. Logue, the junior lefthander from Mason, Ohio who earned a win in his start against Georgia last Saturday, is 6-4 this season with a 4.41 ERA. Stallings is 3-2 with an ERA of 2.85.
Kentucky will start Justin Lewis on Sunday, against a Tennessee starter that’s to be determined. Lewis, a redshirt sophomore righty, is 6-2 with a 3.12 ERA on the season. The Vols could start Zach Warren (2-4, 5.69 ERA), Will Neely (3-1, 3.75 ERA) or Zach Linginfelter (3-4, 3.53 ERA).
At the plate, Kentucky is paced by junior Evan White, who leads the team with a .394 batting average. Despite missing 13 games this season due to injury, White is second on the team in doubles (17) and third in homers (six). Sophomore Tristan Pompey has also been swinging a hot bat. Pompey is batting .379 on the season, including a red hot .443 in SEC games, where he has hit all seven of his home runs this year.
Tennessee (26-19, 7-15 SEC) is battling for a spot in the 12-team SEC Tournament. The Vols’ top hitter is Jordan Rodgers, who leads the team in batting average (.354), home runs (eight) and RBIs (33).
Mingione knows that Tennessee will pose a big challenge for his team.
“This is a competitive group,” Mingione said of the Vols. “They are fighting for something different than we are, but they want to make the tournament, they want a chance to make the postseason. They have a couple of things that they do very well. We’re going to have our hands full, there’s no question. This is a really quality opponent.”
As for Wilson, there is no lingering orange in his life, and especially not in his closet. When asked if he had any Tennessee shirts remaining, he was quick to answer.
“Heck no,” Wilson said. “I didn’t have many to begin with, honestly, but I got rid of all of them, don’t worry.”
Wilson, Carson and the rest of the Kentucky senior class would like nothing more than to end their SEC regular season careers with a series win against the rival Volunteers.
The weekend series can be seen on SEC Network Plus (online).
UK Athletics Photo