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UK NCAA tourney-bound for first time in school history

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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.

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