Kelsey Nunley allowed two runs - both unearned - on one hit in UK's 6-2 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kelsey Nunley is nervous every game she plays. She admitted as much after she pitched UK to victory in her first-career NCAA Tournament start on Friday.
Even so, she had little trouble dealing with the uneasiness against Marshall. Nunley tossed eight innings - allowing just one run - without once stepping into the circle with a lead.
After she pitched into extra innings with her back against the wall the night before, Nunley's teammates gave her and her nerves a reprieve on Saturday, pounding out seven hits and two home runs against Virginia Tech.
"I'm more confident in myself when we have runs," Nunley said. "That helps."
Nunley looked the part.
The freshman tossed her second complete game in less than 24 hours, carrying UK to a 6-2 victory over Virginia Tech at John Cropp Stadium. With the win - a school-record-tying 40th of the year - the Wildcats move into Sunday's final in the Lexington Regional. UK will face Notre Dame, Virginia Tech or Marshall at 1 p.m. ET with a chance to advance to a second Super Regional in three years with a win.
It's close to a lock that Nunley (26-8) will toe the rubber in that game. Considering she has allowed just one earned run on seven hits and three walks against 10 strikeouts in 15 innings of work on Friday and Saturday, it certainly makes sense for Rachel Lawson to ride her workhorse.
"We've been using and I feel confident with both Kelsey and (Lauren) Cumbess going in there and then Katie Henderson's given us some really good innings," Lawson said. "But with that said, Kelsey's won so many games for us it would be nice to see her finish the tournament tomorrow."
If not for a play in the second inning that was initially called an error but eventually changed to a hit, Nunley would enter Sunday looking for her second no-hitter in a row.
Nunley started the frame with a 2-0 lead after Lauren Cumbess hit a two-run first-inning home run, but walked the lead-off batter. The next at-bat resulted in a tapper back to the pitcher that Nunley charged. As she reached for the ball, she tweaked her left ankle and could not make the play, committing an error.
If not for the fact that Nunley is from a small town called Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and played basketball and volleyball growing up, Lawson would likely have been much more concerned about her star pitcher when she came up lame.
"The one good thing about having a country girl on your team is their parents usually just strap 'em up," Lawson said. "They don't have athletic trainers out there or anything, so they don't know any different. They just get back out there."
That's exactly what Nunley did, taking one warm-up pitch to test the ankle beforehand.
She retired the next two batters on a strikeout and groundout before hitting Kiara Ota with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. Nunley then coaxed a grounder to shortstop that looked like would end the inning, but the hard-hit ball took a big hop that Christian Stokes could not corral. After a scoring change, the play would cost Nunley a no-hitter.
"One hit, we won," Nunley said. "It doesn't matter."
Nunley is thinking much more about the way UK's ascendant offense performed.
After the Wildcats were handcuffed in a loss to South Carolina in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Lawson made it clear to her hitters that they would need to improve for UK to advance in the postseason. After pounding out 10 hits against Marshall star Andi Williamson on Friday and showing some power against three different Virginia Tech pitchers, the Cats have proven the were listening.
"I think we came out knowing that this is our time, this our stadium and we have to make sure that we own it," said Krystal Smith.
Entering the matchup with Virginia Tech, the UK second baseman had not homered in a month and a day. But on Saturday, Smith counted a two-run home run among her two hits. The blast landed on top of the batting cage over the fence in left field and provided Kentucky's final 6-2 margin.
"We've been practicing all week on the pitches that we were going to be expecting to see," Smith said. "So I think I went up there with a lot of confidence in my swing."
Confidence is a word that comes up a lot in talking to the Cats right now. If they can sustain it, UK could make a lot more noise in this NCAA Tournament.
"The fact that we came out and hit the ball hard against such a good pitcher and then today to be able to have so many different looks and to hit a couple home runs, hit the ball hard, do that is really encouraging as we move forward," Lawson said.
Nikki Sagermann had two hits and the walk-off RBI in UK's 2-1 win over Marshall on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Heading to the eighth inning, Nikki Sagermann was due up fourth as the Kentucky softball team looked to break a 1-1 extra-inning tie against Marshall at John Cropp Stadium.
She watched from the dugout as Griffin Joiner led off with a double and Lauren Cumbess was intentionally walked. Sagermann was in the on-deck circle when runners advanced to second and third on an Andi Williamson wild pitch and she quickly realized it would all come down to her.
When Marshall opted to load the bases with a second straight intentional walk, the freshman third baseman was left pondering how she would approach her potential game-winning at-bat.
"I was just thinking, 'Get a sac fly,' " Sagermann said. "Because if they catch it, they can run home easily."
But just before she strode to the plate, her head coach pulled her aside. Rachel Lawson wanted her to think in even simpler terms.
"Coach told me to get behind the ball and get the ball on my barrel," Sagermann said.
Sagermann did exactly that, delivering a clean single up the middle to score pinch runner Sarah Frazer and give UK its first-ever postseason extra-inning win and school-record-tying seventh on the season.
"I got a hit, so it's even better," Sagermann said.
Sagermann - who went 2-for-3 in her NCAA Tournament debut - did a lot more than just hit on Friday. Against a Marshall team intent on keeping the ball on the ground and capitalizing on its speed, Sagermann's glove was put to the test. She responded with a team-high six assists and three more putouts, the last of which - a leaping catch of an Alexandra Bayne line drive - preserved a tie in the top of the eighth and stranded runners on second and third.
"That was crazy," Sagermann said. "That was a lot of emotions going on. I was really happy, still am."
Sagermann's happiness was clear as she fielded questions from reporters with a nearly constant smile, though she was a bit uncomfortable talking nonstop about what an excellent game she had just played.
"She's so used to me yelling at her all the time, she doesn't know how to take all this," Lawson said.
Through the first half of the season, most of that yelling was about Sagermann's defense. Her role was mostly limited to a role as designated hitter early in the year due to defensive limitations, but Lawson believed she was capable of more. One practice, Lawson told her that she could be UK's regular third baseman by simply being consistent with the glove.
"Since then, she's been making the plays," Lawson said. "And so as a coach it was really cool for me to see her - not just that last catch that she had - she made a lot of catches in that game. To see how far she's come in such a short amount of time has really been something special."
Sagermann was joined in the postgame press conference by fellow freshman Kelsey Nunley, who pitched all eight innings to move to 25-8 on the season. Three more classmates were also in the starting lineup: shortstop Christian Stokes, centerfielder Sylver Samuel and leftfielder Maisie Steed.
"I love our freshman class," Sagermann said. "We're a big family. We love each other and our team is really accepting of us. They had really had to teach us and make us adapt to be better."
But without the commitment by the freshmen to improve, none of the five would be in this position and their team likely wouldn't either.
"It's nice to see all their hard work pay off in the postseason and win their first game," Lawson said.
A victory in their first game now sets up an opportunity for their second on short rest. UK will take on Virginia Tech - which defeated Notre Dame 4-3 - at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday. But for at least a short while, Sagermann is going to enjoy this first one.
"I just lived the dream, and I'm still living it and I have three more years of it," Sagermann said.
So how does a college freshman celebrate one of the best nights of her career?
"I usually just hang out with my family and eat," Sagermann said.
Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin are both participating in the NBA Draft Combine this week in Chicago. On Thursday, Draft Express posted a video interview with Noel - the potential No. 1 overall pick. Watch it below.
Kentucky will host an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history at John Cropp Stadium this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the University of Kentucky softball team will get back in action as the Wildcats host their first NCAA Regional in school history. UK earned the No. 12 national seed in the tournament and will square off with Marshall on Friday evening at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium. No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Virginia Tech will kick off the four-team regional at 5:00 p.m. on Friday.
Kentucky (38-18) played a tough non-conference schedule to go along with its difficult Southeastern Conference slate of games. To put in perspective how competitive the league is, the SEC had a NCAA-record 11 teams make the field of 64.
After wrapping up the regular season and SEC Tournament last weekend, the Wildcats are ecstatic to get the postseason underway and be rewarded for a year of hard work.
"It's huge for us, we've never hosted a regional and we have never been a national seed here at UK," junior Lauren Cumbess said. "It's great for the program and we have worked really hard for it so it's exciting."
For UK, it's a shot at redemption after being ousted in the first round of the SEC Tournament by South Carolina last Wednesday. The Wildcats had high hopes going into the weekend as they were hosting their first conference tourney in school history.
Kentucky came out a little slow and found itself in a hole, trailing the Gamecocks, 6-1. UK made an attempted rally in the seventh but the deficit was too much to overcome in a 6-3 defeat. The Wildcats didn't swing the bats well and freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley wasn't as dominant as she had been in the second half of the season. Having five freshman starters playing for the first time on a postseason stage didn't help matters.
The result didn't go in the Cats' favor, but UK has a rare chance to make up for the loss and give the Big Blue Nation a more deserving performance.
"I think they were shocked," Lawson said. "Last week was the first time we had played in that setting here so I think that was a great experience for our younger kids and I don't think they knew what to expect. I think they understood and I think they were very disappointed in their performance last week and they are looking for another opportunity to prove that they are one of the best teams in the country."
UK has had all week to prepare for the regional this weekend and players can go through several mood changes in a week's time. Coming off the loss to USC, one might think the Wildcats are questioning themselves, but Cumbess in confident that's no issue.
"We were all real excited when we found out we were going to host," Cumbess said. "Practice has been really upbeat and everybody is trying to get better and improve the little things each day. Everybody has been in a really good mood and we are having fun. We play our best when we are having fun."
The Lexington Regional is regarded as one of the toughest regions in the country. Marshall, the Conference USA Tournament champion, is no slouch as the No. 4 seed. The Thundering Herd gave the Cats all they could handle back on April 4 in Lexington in a game UK would rally to win, 4-3, on a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll. It starts in the circle for Marshall, where senior Andi Williamson (32-16) has a 2.01 earned-run average with an astonishing 344 strikeouts in 296 innings pitched.
If UK is fortunate enough to get past Marshall, the Cats will face the winner of Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. The Fighting Irish are making their 18th NCAA appearance and enter the game having won 17 of 20 games. Virginia Tech is also an experienced bunch that is playing in its sixth NCAA Tournament and second straight.
With such a tough region, it's going to be very important for Kentucky to play as few games as possible this weekend by staying in the winner's bracket of the double-elimination tournament.
"It's crucial to come out strong," Lawson said. "Certainly teams can come from behind, that has definitely happened before, but anytime you can stay in the winner's bracket, that means your pitchers are fresh and that keeps the crowd coming back and that's more of a confidence booster."
Senior Kara Dill has played sparingly for Kentucky due to a broken hand, but has seen at bats in the last two games, delivering a pinch hit against Alabama and filling in as designated player vs. South Carolina. Dill, who has been UK's leading hitter over the last couple of seasons, batted in the eight-hole against the Gamecocks and Lawson says with more repetitions this week she is considering inserting her back into the top of the order, which would help jumpstart Kentucky's offense.
The Wildcats' want to make a different impression on their fans this time around and as the host and the favorite of the regional, their goal is to make it to super regionals. The recipe for success for the Cats is simple.
"We are going to have to do a good job offensively and we are going to have to attack good pitches," Lawson said. "We have to execute, put the ball in play, hit behind runners, bunt and do all those things you need to do because every pitcher is good. Then I think we have to have a strong showing on the mound by both Nunley and Cumbess. I think in order for us to go further it has to start with those two things."
Kevin Lai (left) and Tom Jomby (right) will look to get UK off to a strong start in doubles Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Classes are out for summer, but the Kentucky men's tennis team has continued schooling its opponents thus far in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have outclassed both Western Michigan and Virginia Tech en route to yet another Sweet 16, the first under first-year head coach Cedric Kauffmann.
With the spring semester in the rear view mirror, Kauffmann's players have been able to put their sole focus on the game of tennis and making a deep run into the postseason.
"I think they're a little bit more relaxed. They're done with their exams," said Kauffmann. "We had an excellent semester in the classroom (men's tennis scholarship student athletes combined for a 3.12 grade-point average). It was kind of a busy spring with both tennis and school, so I think they're a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more smiles, but we have a tough task ahead."
That tough task goes by the name of a familiar heated rival: Duke.
The UK vs. Duke rivalry is always a heated matchup on the hardwood and this Sweet 16 matchup between No. 8 Kentucky and No. 9 Duke at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., should live up to those standards.
The Blue Devils, perceived as one of the nation's top teams in the preseason, have won 18 matches this year in which they did not surrender a point to their opponents. The Wildcats, by comparison, have only managed eight such victories, although they play the Southeastern Conference, a tennis powerhouse.
"They're a very, very talented team," said Kauffmann. "I think at the beginning of the year they were kind of projected to be a top-three, top-four team. I think of all the matches they've played, 16 or 17 have not gotten a point off them. It's going to be a tough match."
Kauffmann says the key will be taking the first point up for grabs in doubles. From there, it will make the task of bringing Duke down and advancing to the Elite Eight much easier. So far in the NCAA Tournament, that's been the first part of UK's lesson plan
In each of the first two rounds, Kentucky has jumped out to a quick one-point advantage with doubles victories thanks to the play of duos Tom Jomby and Kevin Lai; Beck Pennington and Ryuji Hirooka; and Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra. Each tandem has been instrumental in either the first or second rounds in helping UK achieve the doubles point.
"I think it's good because we won the doubles in both, so we have a little bit of momentum," said Kauffmann. "Only one player lost and Beck (Pennington) was hurt, so nobody in the singles round lost a match. If we had anyone playing in the lineup that had lost two matches, it might hurt us a little bit just because there may be doubts, but everyone is playing pretty good."
Most importantly, Kentucky's No. 1 and No. 2 players in Rossi and Jomby have answered the bell in the first two rounds. Rossi battled WMU's No. 1 in a match that was eventually abandoned when junior Grant Roberts clinched the first-round match on the court beside Rossi. He then went on to dominate Virginia Tech's No. 1 player, making quick work in straight sets. Jomby has overwhelmed each of his opponents playing No. 2.
The Wildcats' one-two punch will give them a chance against anyone they play in this tournament.
"They have one of the best No. 1s in the country, but on our end we have one of the best No. 1s in the country," said Kauffmann. "We believe in Rossi. We believe our one-two punch can play with anyone in the country like I said in the first couple rounds."
As UK advances deeper and deeper into the tournament, the pressure will mount. That's OK according to Kauffmann because they've been preparing for pressure moments like this all season.
"I hope it mounts a little bit because I think they understand it's the end of the year and if we lose, we're going to go home," said Kauffmann. "We try to put pressure on every match through the year through the fall and the spring.
"I hope because we've done that, there's not going to be a big gap in the difference of pressure between September, January, until now. I hope there's a small jump, but not a big jump. If it was a big jump, I'd tell you my guys will play really tight. We kind of stress that every match."
Kentucky doesn't expect to be able to roll over its opponent Thursday night. While the Cats have been able to put strong matches together and win 4-0 and 4-1, Kauffmann is still looking for his team to play strong across the board for all seven points. Going up against an opponent like Duke, there would be no better time than now for his team to put together a complete match.
"We've got to be ready and we've got to play seven points," said Kauffmann. "If we're only going to play four or five points against a team like Duke then we're not going to get through."
For that to happen, it's all going to come down to just how much his freshmen gained from their first two matches in the NCAA Tournament and their first collegiate season. With three freshmen in the starting lineup, it's going to be up to them if Kentucky is going to maximize its potential.
"I think our youngsters have gone through the first and second rounds and know what it's about," said Kauffmann. "I'm still waiting for our seven points to be played and I hope it comes Thursday."
The true key for success will come down to if Kentucky continues to play its brand of tennis. The Wildcats have done that so far in the tournament, and it will be crucial for UK to continue to impose its will on its opponents the rest of the way.
When the Wildcats take the court against Duke, they'll look to play the role of professor and let the summer schooling continue.
"If we're playing our game, we're going to be fine and have a chance to win," said Kauffmann. "If we're playing someone else's game, it's going to be very tough. We're going to have to execute our game plan that we have given them for their game."
The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fifth as Kentucky head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The timing of John Calipari's Wednesday press conference was a bit strange.
It had been nearly two months since the end of the 2012-13 season, so there wasn't a lot to talk about on that front. Kentucky's underclassmen made their NBA Draft decisions well over a month ago, so those stories were a bit stale. As for Coach Cal's latest top-rated recruiting class, they all signed nearly four weeks ago and won't arrive on campus for another two or three.
Nonetheless, dozens of reporters packed the Memorial Coliseum media room to hear what Coach Cal had to say on a mid-May morning in a scene that would likely only happen in the Bluegrass.
"I don't even know what this is," said an amazed and unsurprised Calipari.
In effect, it was a mini-media day. Calipari was previewing a season of sorts similar to what he'll do during the real thing in about five months, but there weren't any games or even Big Blue Madness to discuss just yet. Instead, the summer - during which the Wildcats will lay the foundation for the team they'll become - was a primary topic of conversation.
The first step will be for Calipari to determine exactly how he will handle the Cats when they return to/arrive in Lexington in June. With that in mind, Coach Cal is taking the entire basketball staff on a retreat beginning next Monday.
"We're going to have a two-day retreat and what we're primarily going to be doing is (figuring out), 'What do each of these kids need from us?' " Calipari said. "Because every one of these kids we're bringing in need to be coached and they need something from us."
Molding his coaching strategy to each of his players will be a particular challenge this season, if only due to simple arithmetic. With eight newcomers and five returnees on scholarship, Calipari will have the deepest team of his UK tenure. That means the message of unselfishness he delivers every year will be even more important.
"More than any team I've had, shared sacrifice is going to matter in this group," Calipari said. "And they knew that coming here. I told every one of them, 'If you want to shoot 30 balls a game, you don't come here. If you want to be the only guy that's playing - the one guy that everybody's talking about - you wouldn't come here.' "
As well as every Cat might understand that in theory, putting into practice is another matter entirely.
"To bring that many together, really going to be a challenge," Calipari said. "The galvanizing part of this will start this summer."
That's why Coach Cal is so committed to pursuing every means to that end, even if he has to do things differently than he's used to.
"We have some other things that we're going to do as a team that I have not done in the past that I think will help this team come together," Calipari said. "Some of it is we will watch some movies together of some teams coming together, of what they had to do to sacrifice for each other."
Movies aside, he didn't reveal many details about his plans just yet, but you can rest assured they are informed in part by this past year. Calipari made sure to point out there were elements of UK's NIT season he is proud of, including one thing he believes could pay dividends in 2013-14.
"It's not just 'Did they get better?' It's 'Did they learn about themselves?' " Calipari said. "Because sometimes you learn about yourself in a season - Are you ready? Marquis Teague - and you change it in the season. Sometimes you can't. You're just too young.
"They learn about themselves in a season, know that this isn't going to work, they change and they get better. So part of last season was the beginnings of success for the coming year."
Calipari also did his share of learning during a trying year. He's not about to abandon his players-first philosophy, but Coach Cal has also come to understand shielding players too much can do harm.
"What you learn is you can't protect the players," Calipari said. "You can't protect them from competition. You bring in your group, and the guys that understand competition, that brings out the best. They strive and they get better."
He didn't say the exact phrase as he so often does, but it's clear Coach Cal "likes his team" once more. That begins with the personality he expects it to have.
He was asked on Wednesday about UK's signees saying at the McDonald's All-American Game - where six future Wildcats played - there would be fights at practices next season and Calipari said he likes that mentality, so long as those fights are forgotten outside the Joe Craft Center gym.
"It will drag us to where we're trying to go," Calipari said. "I'm going to tell you: Two years ago we did not have a bad practice. Not one. So that led us to building a swagger and a confidence level that we knew we could win every game we play, we just, let's be at our best and if we weren't and someone got us, fine, next game."
The first reason Calipari cited for his national title team's consistent practice habits was the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Now, Coach Cal believes he has at least a couple players - Julius Randle, to name one - who will bring similar effort and a willingness to demand it out of their teammates.
"When you don't have that alpha male at all, you have to do things to try to lead yourself as a coach, and your team can never have the type of success you want," Calipari said. "You try to figure out who that could be or who could step up. A lot of times they are who they are in that regard - those guys who will step up and hold and push the group and not be afraid. That's what you're looking for when you have a good team."
Because he sees that potential, Calipari isn't exactly running away and hiding from the 40-0 buzz surrounding his team. He won't be talking about an undefeated record directly to his team, but the fact that the notion and is out there doesn't scare him even though UK's first loss won't destroy all hope of a successful season.
"Pressure brings out the best," Calipari said. " 'You're going to be fired if you don't get this done. You're not going to make it if you don't get this.' It wakes you up earlier in the morning. I don't mind a little pressure. I've had it my whole career. I've had a gun to my head for 20-something years, and you know what? I'm at my best when the gun is to my head versus where I can kick back and I'm not as good. And you know what? Players are the same."