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Seniors sacrificed for the betterment of the program

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SBL 08_09 UK MissSt3 24.jpgSenior Days come every year for every program. They are special, heartfelt and emotional for everyone involved, and certainly the 2010 Kentucky softball senior class of Molly Johnson, Natalie Smith, Destinee Mordecai, Amber Matousek and Jennifer Young will be no different.

"You can really credit the turnaround of the program to these five," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "They have to move on with their lives, and it's good, but they'll forever be remembered as the class that absolutely changed everything around."

From the depths of mediocrity to program firsts, the 2010 class has done it all. When the then-freshmen arrived in 2007, the program struggled just to win a series. Since the team's inception in 1997, the team had never whiffed postseason play - not the NCAA Tournament and only the Southeastern Conference Tournament twice before.

A coaching change, some player development and a pair of highly touted recruiting classes later and Kentucky is on the verge of making its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, a downright unthinkable notion for this year's senior class.

You already know the cornerstones of the turnaround: All-American Johnson, second baseman Smith, and sophomore pitching aces Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley.

What you maybe didn't know is none of it would have been possible without a pair of former starters that have been reduced to role players. Without the loyalty of Matousek and Young, the program might have blown up before it was ever built.

When Lawson took over the program three years ago, it was void of talent and barren with leaders. Without much of a pitching staff, either, Lawson had to lean on Matousek and Young to keep the program moving in her transition year.

They didn't set strikeout records like Bell and almost certainly didn't throw many shutouts like Riley, but they kept the ship pointed in the right direction when it would have been so easy for everybody else to jump off.

"Sometimes when people (transfer), everybody just looks at it is as it's just a change for a different atmosphere," Lawson said. "Another way you can look at it is you're quitting the current thing to get to something else. They didn't do it. They stuck by the team and the program. They were our mainstays when things weren't going great. They continued to stay the course the past year when things didn't always go the way they wanted it to."

And believe the two when they say it - they thought about transferring.

"My freshman year was really hard," Matousek said. "I considered going somewhere else, but there was no way I could leave the program. I loved Kentucky. I loved being a Wildcat and being a part of this."

They stayed as the glue of the program. Now in their senior seasons, they've had to accept reduced roles on a team of stars.

Young, once one of the two top pitchers on the team, changed positions last season and is now a backup outfielder. She sees the field primarily as a pinch runner. Matousek, who led the team in innings pitched her freshman season and sophomore seasons, still sees the circle and boasts a modest 3.93 ERA - Lawson calls her the most underrated player on the team - but she's a distant third in a three-man pitching rotation.

Matousek and Young could have all easily butted heads with Lawson when she took over the program and their playing time was reduced, but to their credit, they've stuck around and actually taken on more important roles as leaders.

SBL 08_09 UK_Kent Game2 Web 51.jpg"I didn't know anything about her," Young said of Lawson. "When she came to this program, it was totally different from our other coach. It was hard to get used to, but after a couple of days and weeks you realized that she really wanted to change the program and she wanted us to become something."

Like any good athlete, they still want more playing time, but they've never let it affect the team or their desire to play for Kentucky.

"They've shown as much if not more loyalty to the program than anyone else has," Lawson said. "They've done exactly what the program has required of them and they've gone above and beyond to help us win."

Matousek has epitomized what it means to be a team player. When Bell started setting strikeout records and Riley emerged late last year, the elder could have complained, become distant and left the team. Nobody would have found fault with that.

Instead, Matousek embraced the young hurlers and became a mentor, helping Riley and Bell with their pitches. Riley has developed a nasty changeup from Matousek and Lawson said Bell looks at Matousek for guidance.

"She's probably been the greatest teammate from a perspective that she's given the other two pitchers a ton of knowledge and really helped them with their pitches," Lawson said. "I don't know many other kids that would do that because the more she helps them, the more it kind of hurts her playing time. It's really a tough position. She's handled herself with grace and class."

Lawson said Matousek would make a great coach one day, even adding a vote of confidence that she would hire Matousek in a second if she ever had the chance.

"I love that role," Matousek said of being a mentor. "Anytime that they have any problems I would love for them to come to me. I like to help people. Even if Rachel or Chanda just need me to watch a pitch and see what they're doing, I love that. Watching them and helping them is helping me learn."

Although Matousek has never considered the coaching route, she has thought about it more lately as her playing career winds down.

"I want other players to feel what I feel," Matousek said.

Although it's unlikely that many will ever get the chance to feel what it's like to give up so much to gain so much more. That's a feeling that only a handful of people like Matousek and Young will ever get to experience.

"You can't explain to somebody how freshman year was to how it is now," Matousek said. "No one else can understand what we've been through except the seniors. Those are the people you go to. When you think about the sophomores with Chanda's class and Rachel and all them, they haven't seen what the program was before. All they know is us going to the NCAA Tournament. My class has seen the worst of it and how good it is now."

UK will bid farewell to the seniors Sunday in the final home game of the season at noon against LSU.

"It's going to be hard to walk away from it," Matousek said as tears streaked down her cheeks. "It's going to be really hard. I've grown so much from working and being a part of this program that it's going to be hard to leave it."

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