DRAFFENVILLE -- University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart had a number of reasons to restart the old Wildcat annual tradition of fan outreach and the "Big Blue Caravan."
One reason, and perhaps the most heartbreaking, stands above the rest.
Echoed by his well-known coaches in Mark Stoops and John Calipari, Barnhart and his athletic staff expressed a hope to embrace the west Kentucky region following January's tragic events surrounding a fatal school shooting at Marshall County High School that took the lives of two youths -- Bailey Holt and Preston Cope -- and injured several others.
So on a hot, sticky Monday night in Draffenville, the noted Wildcat dignitaries -- alongside a host of popular players like Benny Snell, Josh Allen, PJ Washington and Kash Daniel -- began a trek that started in the Jackson Purchase and will end in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on Friday.
"We felt a strong desire here to spend some time in Marshall County, with what they've gone through and what this community has gone through," Stoops said. "The Kentucky Wildcats, we're all in this together. We certainly felt (for the area) back in January, and feel for (it) now. Our players wanted to be here, and I wanted to be here, and so it's nice to spend some time."
"It's just so important to let people know that 'we're coming to you; you don't always have to come to us,'" Calipari added. "I think that's what the caravan does. For Mark and I to be here with his schedule and my schedule, I think we both picked this one and I'm glad we came down. On the plane, we even said 'I wonder if we will see any of the victims' families.' And we did. We saw the Copes and got to spend some time with them."
"I don't think there is anybody that can embody the spirit of Kentucky and what the people of Kentucky mean to one another than what went on in the last five months," Barnhart said. "To hear the stories, the way that they've impacted and come together through 'Marshall Strong' … that's an amazing, amazing deal. I'm sure there's a lot of heartache, but there's also an unconditional outpouring of love, and that's critically important to recognize that, and that is a good place to start here."
Several hundred fans -- ushered inside to the school's auditorium because of the unbearable heat index -- were able to line up in droves for autograph and picture opportunities with some of their favorite coaches, athletes, mascots, cheerleaders and trophies.
The caravan will make four more stops: Madisonville, Elizabethtown/Fort Knox, Somerset and Pikeville.
The Vick effect
Barnhart was able to mention several other reasons to get the "Big Blue Caravan" -- which hadn't rumbled in a couple of years -- back on track.
He expressed a pending need for his coaches and players to "unplug" from social media and cultivate personal relationships with the fan base … simply because things like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram "aren't enough" to keep fans engaged in the success.
But another big reason to kickstart the caravan, Barnhart said, was to rediscover the hope created with visits to potential in-state athletes -- who later on could build on their early love of Kentucky and maybe one day play for the school.
In fact, he'd already drawn this very inspiration from a local Paducahan in former McCracken County softball star Bailey Vick -- who just wanted to walk on at Kentucky as a baserunner, but is now the team's intrepid starting left fielder. "We had a young lady from Paducah who plays on our softball team, and there was a caravan picture from early on," Barnhart said. "I think she was 3 or 4 years old. And there's a picture of her in a Wildcat uniform.
"She's now our starting left fielder, and she's here today as Bailey Vick. She walked on to our program, and she's always talked about how much it meant for her to be a Kentucky Wildcat. And I said that we 'need to get back out there and do the things that we do best.' And that's to get out there and show how much the support means to us."
Vick, who was sharing laughs alongside another former McCracken County star and UK softballer in Kelsee Henson on Monday, said it was "unreal" to be on the other side -- nearly 15 years after taking a photo with her dad and Barnhart at one of these events. "I've been a Kentucky fan since I was born," Vick added. "In that picture, I was like … 5 years old, maybe? I came to campus, got to meet everyone … and now it's crazy to believe that I'm here signing these autographs.
"It's just a dream come true."