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Disappointment marks progress for UK softball

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SBL 09_10 UK_LSU Game3 Web 63.jpgSometimes disappointment is needed. Sometimes to go forward, you have to experience some failure. Before the rise sometimes comes the fall.

It will be hard for the Kentucky softball players and coaches to understand it, but Saturday night's 5-3 loss to Ohio State, which bumped the upstart program from the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The fact that head coach Rachel Lawson sat at the podium and had trouble getting a word out about her seniors without choking up is a positive. The fact that All-American senior Molly Johnson had to wipe away tears in between answering questions is an indicator the program is moving forward.

Yes, every team deals with disappointment when failure smacks it in its face. But Saturday's loss was particularly hard for this team. This one hurt pretty bad.

"They swept it out from under us and that sucks because it was on two home runs by the same batter," junior catcher Megan Yocke said of giving up five runs, most coming on two home runs by Alicia Herron after UK led 2-0. "It should have never happened but it did."

Lawson was asked after Saturday's game why she decided to keep sophomore Chanda Bell in the game in the late innings after she had pitched the majority of UK's three tournament games. (Despite the loss, Bell should be credited with a great weekend. She surrendered seven runs in 18.1 total innings of work and really only threw two mistake pitches against Ohio State, both of which led to home runs.)

"I think that Ohio State hits the low ball very well and our other pitchers are predominantly drop(ball) pitchers," Lawson said. "Chanda throws the ball a lot higher, so I thought that we could keep the game close by throwing Chanda. I'm very confident in the other two (Rachel Riley and Amber Matousek). I just didn't think they were a good matchup for Ohio State."

Lawson also made a curious decision in the fifth inning to have senior All-American shortstop and Kentucky's best player Molly Johnson bunt after hitting two home runs in her previous two at-bats.

But the fact that the team can second guess, wonder "what if" and struggle with the feeling of disappointment is a mark of improvement in itself. Two years ago, entrenched in mediocrity, they couldn't imagine even going to the NCAA Tournament. Now, after the school's first two postseason appearances, they're actually upset with not advancing further?!

It's a testament to just how far UK softball program has come.

"We've made huge strides," Yocke said. "We are well on our way to being in Super Regionals and the College World Series. Two years ago, when I was freshman, there wasn't even a shot and now we're disappointed we're getting kicked out of this."

The bar has been raised. For the first time in school history, UK players are reaching for the stars because the ceiling has been raised that high.

"We've been here before and we've had the same feeling of disappointment before, but for the seniors it's a little rougher for us this year just because it's the last game for us wearing the Kentucky blue and white," Johnson said. "My first two seasons, at the end of the year it was just kind of like whatever. We knew that the season was over and that there was going to be no postseason play."

But now, thanks to the heroic efforts of Johnson (and heroic, despite the weight the word carries, couldn't be more appropriate with just how far away the program was when this year's senior class arrived at Kentucky), postseason play is not only to be expected, it's just another step.

"I think our senior class has definitely helped change the program," Johnson said. "I think we're headed in the right direction. Two seasons of going to postseason play was probably more than I ever expected. I'm definitely happy that it happened and I can guarantee it will happen in the future for the young girls coming in."

Johnson, the owner of more than a handful of school records, will go down as the most important player in program history. The first player in school annals to make the U.S. National Team and become an All-American, Johnson was the stalwart in the UK lineup for four years.

Although the play of Johnson might overshadow the rest of the senior class, the contributions of players like Smith, Matousek, Destinee Mordecai and Jennifer Young can't be overstated. The UK softball team, which has looked primarily the same for the last two years, will never be the same with the departure of those seniors.

And that was what made Saturday's loss to Ohio State so tough.

"It's disappointing because this senior class," Lawson said, pausing as she fought back tears, "they've really started a new era for us. It's just hard to see them go."

Because no matter what new levels the program reaches, it will be without the people that made it possible to get there. The seniors, Johnson and Smith in particular, changed the perception and the expectations of the program and it was disappointing to realize Saturday that they won't be part of the team when the program goes even further.

"They were a great base for us," Lawson said. "They were a great era. Somebody had to be the first and it was this class."

Lawson will have the unenviable task of replacing Johnson and Smith. It's one thing to lose leaders; it's another thing to replace the face of the program for the last four years.

How quickly the team can find new leaders will go a long ways in determining the success of the future because the pieces are still in place to win. Aces Bell and Riley will return as juniors to form one of the most formidable pitching duos in the nation, Yocke possesses the leadership and the work ethic to lead a program, and Brittany Cervantes has shown she has the pop in the middle of the order to be the focus of next year's offense.

"Moving forward we know we have to get better," Lawson said. "This team the last two years has basically been the same team and they put us in a pretty good position to move on. I'm very proud of them and their work ethic and we're looking forward to actually doing better in the future."

Better? You better believe it.

Longtime UK football coach Rich Brooks preached in his final season about climbing the Southeastern Conference ladder. Once the football team became good, he wanted them to reach for great. Consider the UK softball program in a similar position.

The expectations for the program have changed. Kentucky softball is good for the first time in school history and postseason is now just another stepping stone.

The program has the seniors to thank for that.

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