When the Kentucky softball team learned it would host its first Super Regional appearance in school history -- No. 7 California, the higher-seeded team, cannot meet the minimum NCAA facility criteria -- the program jumped at the opportunity.
Since receiving official word Sunday night that the UK Softball Complex would be one of eight sites to host a Super Regional, Kentucky officials have been busy transforming what was once a 500-seat venue into a 1,200-seat facility that has the feel of a big-time college softball stadium.
Spearheaded by Assistant Athletics Director for Event Operations and Championships Kevin Saal, a crew of 75 to 100 people that includes UK staff members from administration, event management, facility, grounds, ticket, marketing and media relations have been working around the clock this week to mold a facility that does more than just meet NCAA Tournament requirements.
Heading into the biggest weekend in UK softball history, Kentucky officials are doing everything they can to make sure they don't miss out on a monumental opportunity to showcase the program, its fans and the city of Lexington. In terms of exposure, recruiting, program and facility growth, it won't get much bigger for the program than this weekend.
"The big picture is you have eight locations that are getting to do this and we're one of eight," Saal said Wednesday as he bounced around from project to project at the UK Softball Complex. "We want to put on a really good face. We have some facility challenges that have made it a little difficult, but we're going to do some special things that will really make this facility look good. I don't think that a random person watching on TV is going to say, 'Oh, that's just a bunch of temporary seating.' It's going to have that stadium look and feel. I think it's going to be a really cool scene, a goose-bump-type scene."
Weeks before Kentucky had even been selected to the NCAA Tournament, in mid-April to be precise, UK officials met to determine if the school was even capable of meeting the NCAA Tournaments criteria to host a Regional or Super Regional.
The facility has been sufficient in building an upstart program, but hosting a Super Regional was a giant leap.
Meeting NCAA criteria meant checking off a long list of requirements that included everything from being able to host a news conference, lighting, field specifications and lodging, in addition to typical event operations like parking, traffic, tickets, seating, concessions and security.
The biggest concern, however, at least initially, was seating.
The NCAA requires a host to be able to seat 500 fans, but before this year the UK Softball Complex barely had that.
But when Kentucky announced to the public it was hosting and tickets were bought faster than anyone anticipated -- both the Saturday and Sunday sessions were sold out by Tuesday morning -- UK made the decision to not only add the temporary bleachers on the third-base side and left field but another one in right field as well.
"The entire SEC has had so much exposure in softball, but most of the exposure that we've had for Kentucky has happened on someone else's field," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "To be able to create that sort of excitement in Lexington is really special and I'm glad to be a part of it."
In addition to what will easily be the biggest crowd in program history, Kentucky must accommodate nearly a dozen cameras and roughly 50 people from ESPN for broadcasts on ESPNU (Saturday) and ESPN (Sunday).
ESPN's staff alone will take up the majority of the press box, forcing the largest media contingent ever to cover a Kentucky softball game -- UK received more than 40 media requests -- onto a designated press row in front of the press box. A permanent awning has been built overhead for those media members.
In total, the facility is now capable of seating roughly 1,200 people comfortably, giving the ballpark not only a new look but a new feel.
"I love our stadium the way it is, but this definitely has more of a stadium feel now with all the stands," senior catcher Megan Yocke said. "It's going to be packed. We played in front of about 2,000 fans in Michigan, but our field has such a small-field vibe to it that it's still going to feel just as packed and just as loud."
Fortunately for Saal and his staff, they game planned for the possibility of hosting a Super Regional when they saw California was a possible opponent. With a facility evaluation already in place well before last weekend's historic wins, UK officials were able to meet Monday morning, finalize the plans and have the facility ready to host by Thursday evening.
The behind-the-scenes work, the opportunity and the stage is not lost on the players. Several of them brought cameras to practice Wednesday to capture the transformation of the place they call home.
Lawson, appreciative of the work and support UK officials have put in, said the additions have made her players feel important and confident heading into the weekend.
"We're getting put on the map," senior Brittany Cervantes said.
Although Kentucky won't have a band like the one that Michigan featured at last week's Ann Arbor Regional -- Lawson said she didn't want to break out of a routine they've had all season -- her team is expecting a home-field advantage unlike anything they've ever experience before.
"I expect the crowd to be awesome," Lawson said. "When we played Tennessee and Florida, which were the biggest crowds for us, I believe, and perhaps Louisville, the crowds were awesome. Every time we made a play it sounded like the place erupted. I can't even imagine doubling it. I think it's going to be really special for the team and hopefully it will be the edge we need to push us over the top."