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The future is bright

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SB_UK_vs_Ohio St_NCAA_181.JPGWith four mammoth Ohio State swats, UK's softball season effectively came to an end.

For a storybook season, it seemed like it was lacking a fairytale ending. But don't let the loss to the Buckeyes fool you - this season was without question the most special in the program's 13-year history.

"It doesn't feel like it right now, but it's been a good season for us," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We've had a lot of firsts. I'm very proud of the team and I'm very proud of their postseason run."

Ending the season on a loss is never easy, but there was reason to smile after Saturday's loss in Columbus, Ohio. Sure, there were a few tears among the players and their families as they closed out the historic season, but they weren't tears of disappointment.

Looking back at all the things they had accomplished, most notably, taking a 17-win team from a year ago and transforming it into the program's first NCAA Tournament team, it was hard not to cry. After all, it took hard work, sweat and tears to make such a giant turnaround.

"Obviously it's disappointing losing, but I think we made it a lot farther than a lot of people were probably expecting considering it was our first postseason," junior shortstop Molly Johnson said. "I think next year people should watch out."

Is it too early to already look ahead to next year? Maybe not.

If there was a silver lining to this weekend's games in the Columbus Regional, it's that the Cats have the talent to make it to a Super Regional and beyond. Experience is often times overrated, but in UK's case this weekend, it was a huge hurdle to overcome.

Carrying the pressure of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the very first time, there was little doubt that the Cats had some jitters and nerves on the big stage. They weren't satisfied with being there, but they were a little wide-eyed at the thought of competing for a national championship.

That wasn't the sole reason the Cats lost in the opening game to Brigham Young, but it was certainly a factor. UK regrouped in the two games Friday and looked like the strongest team in the tournament.

While they couldn't pull out the regional championship, they gained some invaluable experience for a team that will return virtually every player next year, minus senior Katie McCarty.

"You learn that once you play your game and you come out like you have all season and you relax, you belong here with everybody," Lawson said. "Every team that makes it this far is obviously a very good team or they wouldn't be here."

Next year's team will be loaded. Veterans Molly Johnson and Natalie Smith will return as the senior leaders of the team, a role they've essentially had since their sophomore years. And once you factor the fact that the talented sophomore and freshman classes will be one year older and one year stronger, it's hard not to raise the bar and get excited for next year.

Sure, the Cats lost Saturday afternoon, but they've tasted what it takes to be championship caliber team now. Next year they'll want more, and now they have the experience and blueprint to do it.

"We didn't really ever realize how good we are," junior Annie Rowland said. "Now that we know and we've seen it, we can definitely comeback next year and have higher expectations and exceed them."

AD of the Year congrats

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SBL 08_09 UK_MissSt 2 48.jpgBefore this season, making the NCAA Tournament appeared unthinkable to most people outside of the Kentucky softball team.


Not to Rachel Lawson. Despite inheriting a program that had never smelled the postseason, the second-year head coach proclaimed that anything less than the postseason this year would be a disappointment.


Having never made the NCAA Tournament and coming off a 17-win season, one would have to think Lawson was crazy, right?


Lawson now looks like a genius after orchestrating the most successful season in the program's history. Despite inheriting a program that had just one winning season in its history prior to this year, Lawson's dream became a reality Sunday night. For the first time in school history, the softball team is headed to the NCAA Tournament.


UK (32-21) will play Brigham Young in the first round of the double-elimination tournament in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday. Ohio State, the No. 11 overall seed in the tournament, and Canisius are the other teams in the Columbus Regional.


"All the hard work has finally paid off," junior second baseman Natalie Smith. "We're really excited to go to Ohio State. It's near Kentucky so a lot of people can travel and we think we're going to get a lot of fans. It's definitely a regional we think we have a good shot of winning."


Gathered at Buffalo Wild Wings on South Broadway to watch the NCAA Selection Show on ESPNU, there were a few anxious moments when Kentucky wasn't called after the first 32 teams. But inevitably, there was no keeping this team out.


Finally, after much anticipation, UK had its name called to the huge ovation of the many in attendance, including friends, family, the coaches, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and men's basketball head coach John Calipari.


"The first thing that went through my mind is I wanted to see what all the looks on their faces were because I'm so proud of everything they've done this year," Lawson said. "They deserve it. They work hard and for them to feel this moment for the first time is special."


The moment capped what some thought was unachievable after winning just three conference games a season ago. To many of the players' own admission, they didn't even think they could turn the program around this fast.



"When I first came in, I knew it was going to happen at some point, but I didn't know if I expected it to happen this year," junior shortstop Molly Johnson said.


Sure, there were obvious signs - the talent and leadership of Johnson and Smith and a loaded freshman class - that UK was going to be better, but few expected them to get this good this quick.


Even Lawson expected them to struggle a little bit early on because they were so young. But it became evident after the first weekend that Lawson had built something special. Wins over Oregon and Hawai'i to start the season were just the beginning of a historic season.


Among the season's storybook season of accomplishments: UK defeated numerous ranked foes, eclipsed the 30-win plateau for just the second time in school annals and orchestrated the biggest turnaround in the program's history.


UK also had its first no-hitter in school chronicles when freshman phenom Chanda Bell tossed a no-hitter against Western Kentucky in late March. The season hit an all-time high when the Cats shocked No. 7 Georgia on Thursday in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.


But it would only get better.


"It's huge for the program because I think now they finally understand they're on the big stage," Lawson said. "That was one of the coolest things about being in the SEC Tournament because I heard one of the players say 'We're a big deal.'


They're an even bigger deal after the culmination of Sunday night's news.


UK expected to be a part of history Sunday night, but that didn't make it any less special. Under the tutelage of Lawson, the Cats had been rapidly building to this point. The number of milestones and accomplishments UK achieved this season appeared to roll in on a daily basis, but nothing can top seeing "Kentucky" in the 64-team bracket for the first time in its 13-year history.


"I think it does remarkable things," Barnhart said. "It proves that they can compete with anybody."


After some of the tournament snubs UK has had to face with some other sports over the past few years, Barnhart was anxiously pacing back and forth as the pairings were being announced, and he admitted he was pretty nervous watching the selection show.


Once Kentucky was finally called, Barnhart and the rest of the blue-clad crowd were all smiles. Barnhart gave all credit to the team and its leader.


"(Lawson) doesn't see things as obstacles," Barnhart said. "She just sees them as opportunities. She doesn't talk about youthfulness, she doesn't talk about weather, she doesn't talk about stadium size, she doesn't talk about the conference we're in. She just sees it as an opportunity."


Barnhart said they talked about a week ago and he asked if she thought they were in the tournament. She said she hoped they were in and told Barnhart they were going to have Sunday night's get-together, asking Barnhart if he thought that was a mistake.


"You tell me," Barnhart said. "She said, 'It's an opportunity to learn.' She always talks about the opportunity to learn. You learn from everything you do. I think these girls have learned from everything that Rachel has taught them and continues to teach them. She's a great teacher as much as she is a great coach."


Maybe nobody but her believed it before the season, but now she's the coach of the school's first NCAA Tournament team.

Continuing history

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SBL 08_09 UK_Kent Game2 Web 24.jpgThis team had never been there. Not a single player on the roster or its head coach had tasted a postseason game.

The program for that matter hadn't even been to a postseason game since making the Southeastern Conference Tournament in 2001, and even still, UK had only been twice prior to this year and had never won a tournament game.

So entering Thursday's first-round game in the SEC Tournament had to be gut-wrenching with pressure, right? With such a historic opportunity at hand and playing against the No. 7 team in the nation - the same team that handed UK its only three-game sweep of the year - the Cats had to have at least been nervous.

"Before the game we had a couple of butterflies going but as soon the game got going, it was just like any other game for us," junior Molly Johnson said.

Two things are wrong there. I'll explain.

First of all, if the players had butterflies in their stomachs, somebody must have sprayed some pesticide the second they put their feet on the infield dirt. If there was any anxiety before the game, it certainly didn't look like it once that first pitch hit the catcher's mitt.

UK looked and played the stronger team in a historic win Thursday at Tennessee's Sherri Parker Lee Stadium. Playing in its first SEC Tournament in eight years, the UK softball team upset No. 7 Georgia 2-0 in dominating fashion (UK will play the winner of Alabama-Arkansas on Friday at 5 p.m.).

Freshman Rachel Riley stifled the third-seeded Bulldogs with a complete game shutout and Johnson provided all the offense the Cats needed with a two-run blast in the fifth inning.

UK played the part of the stronger team. The Cats played with confidence and attitude, like they had been there every single year.

"I think that comes with a lot of wins," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "They have a lot of confidence. Pregame was the worst but once the game started, it was just another beautiful day at the ballpark."

And that brings me to the second thing that is wrong with Johnson's statement. It wasn't just another game or another day at the ballpark. It might have just been a first-round game, but for a budding program that is trying to bust down the door of mediocrity, it was arguably the biggest win in program history.

The Cats could have settled with what they had already done. For a team that won just three conference games a year ago, they could have settled for just making the tournament.

But that's not good enough. If they're making history, why not make more? Well, that's what Lawson's Cats are intent on doing. They didn't show up in Knoxville, Tenn., just to be honored as the SEC's feel-good story of the year. No, they want to win this thing.

"We don't want to just show up and play," Lawson said. "We want to compete and we want to keep winning softball games as long as we can. We're really happy that we're here and we've played well and all that, but we want to win."

So instead of settling for what they had, they pitched well (Riley didn't allow a single run), played perfect defense (no errors) and came up with timely, clutch at-bats (Johnson's game-winning two-run shot). Quite frankly, it's what they've done all year.

"What was awesome is that we played like we have all year," Lawson said. "We had great defense, we had solid pitching and we hung in there and fought all game. I'm mostly proud of the fact that you never know how a team is going to do when it's the first time they've been in postseason play."

We know now what to expect in postseason play. It's the same thing we've learned to expect from them all year:

They're ready for the NCAA Tournament (they have to be in at this point, right?), they're ready to win the SEC Tournament and they're ready to keep making history.

Recent Comments

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  • rob m: Congrats to the team this year, wow what a ride we had! Although a disappointing end, we can now start read more
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