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Devastating end doesn't cloud magical softball season, bright future

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Senior Megan Yocke and Annie Rowlands hug after playing in their final career games at UK, a 9-0 loss to California in game three of the Lexington Super Regional. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) Senior Megan Yocke and Annie Rowlands hug after playing in their final career games at UK, a 9-0 loss to California in game three of the Lexington Super Regional. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
In terms of heartbreaking comparisons, Sunday's 9-0 game three loss for the Kentucky softball team felt like standing someone up at the altar.

After gaining confidence, igniting 1,690 rowdy fans at the UK Softball Complex and run-ruling No. 7 California 8-0 in game two of the Lexington Super Regional, it looked like Kentucky might win two games in a row against the nation's most dominant pitcher and continue its historic march to the Women's College World Series.

And then, with one questionable ball four and a five-run first inning, the pendulum swung and the bottom dropped out. By the time Cal's Elia Reid struck out to end the top of the first, nine hitters had come to the plate in a frame that completely changed the momentum of the game and ultimately the outcome.

To force a game three with a five-inning win in the second game of the series but lose 9-0 in game three was a devastating way to end a magical year.

"We pissed them off," senior catcher Megan Yocke said. "They came out angry (in Sunday's) second game. We came out on fire and made our adjustments in the first game. They did the same thing right back in the second game."

Both of Sunday's results were a bit of a surprise.

California pitcher Jolene Henderson entered game two of the series with a nation-best 0.78 ERA, 38 wins and an earned-run scoreless mark against UK in 21 innings of work. After two innings, however, she'd been tattooed for six hits and five earned runs, the most she'd given up this season.

Going into game three, many thought the Cats had not only gained insurmountable momentum and confidence, but there also appeared to be a notion that they'd figured out Henderson, a pitching Rubik's Cube.

Seven more innings of shutout ball later, everyone learned that was wrong.

"She had a whole different swagger the second game," Yocke said. "She was walking around like that was her ballpark."

Henderson returned in game three as strong as ever, yielding just three hits in a complete-game victory. If there were any nerves after a rough outing in game two, Henderson's offense picked her up with five runs to begin game three.

Cal scored the first one run on a bases-loaded, full-count walk to Ashley Decker. What many thought was an inning-ending strike three opened the doors for a big inning. Victoria Jones followed with an infield RBI-single and Jordan Wallace brought in two more runs with a double over the head of senior Annie Rowlands in left field.

That was it for UK ace Chanda Bell, who lasted just two-thirds of an inning while giving up five runs, four of them unearned. Hindsight is 20-20, but Lawson didn't second-guess her decision to go with Bell in game three after Riley's shutout in game two.

"I thought Chanda did an awesome job yesterday," Lawson said. "Actually, going in, what I thought would happen was Chanda would come in and she would throw about four good innings and then I was going to bring Rachel in to close the game. I think it's really hard for one pitcher to throw two games back-to-back now against a team like Cal. I thought what would happen was, later in the game, Rachel would start getting hit. Rachel's such an awesome closer that (I thought) we would be able to close the game with her. Unfortunately we got down early, so I had to bring Rachel in earlier than I wanted to."

With a five-run lead, Henderson was able to shake off the psychological damage of the first game and put her game in cruise control. Yocke said the first inning meant "everything" for Henderson. As it turns out, it also meant the end of a season for Kentucky.

"It was kind of a knock in the jaw," Yocke said.

The end of the year marks the most successful season in Kentucky softball history by just about every measure.

UK notched five single-season offensive records, a school-best 40 wins and the third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, but the most important achievement -- an accomplishment that fans of the program will remember long after this team graduates and moves on to other things -- was making it to a Super Regional and hosting it.

All year long, the players and coaches talked about setting new standards and breaking through new barriers, and to walk the walk and actually conquer previously unreachable heights has clearly taken the program to a new level.

To think that this team was happy just making it to the Southeastern Conference Tournament three years ago puts in perspective how special it was to be within one game of the Women's College World Series.

"In like a week, probably even two days, we're going to feel pretty good about everything we've done," Lawson said.  

But that didn't make Sunday's ending any easier. When Lawson started to think about bidding farewell to seniors Yocke, Meagan Aull, Samantha DeMartine and Annie Rowlands, the laidback coach finally cracked.

UK President Dr. Lee T. Todd, Jr. spoke to the UK softball team after its historic run to the Super Regionals. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) UK President Dr. Lee T. Todd, Jr. spoke to the UK softball team after its historic run to the Super Regionals. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Nobody thought they could win," Lawson said, fighting back tears. "I love DeMartine and Aull. Yocke's OK. I love Rowlands for her to be able to come up with that big hit (last weekend). I wanted them to go to the World Series."

After the game, Lawson, with Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and UK President Dr. Lee T. Todd, Jr. at her back, held her players in the dugout to tell them how proud she was. It was an excruciatingly tough speech for a coach who realized that Sunday was the end for four of the most special players she'll ever coach.

"When it's over, it's over," Lawson said.

Eyes red, it was clear Yocke was already devastated, but at that moment, as Lawson explained how difficult it was to bid farewell to the seniors, it appeared the end of a sensational career and historic run finally hit Yocke.

The heart, the soul, and most importantly, the rock of the program for the last four years, tried to stare straight ahead before her lips started to quiver and her head fell down.

It may take a while for her to pick it back up, but when she does, her and the rest of the senior class will look back and smile at the most magical softball season Kentucky has ever experienced. They've built a foundation and created a future few would have ever imagined for this class.

"We have the pieces in place to have a great team," Lawson said. "We have a tremendous work ethic within the program and it really started with this senior class and they've just handed it down. I feel good about our work ethic. We're incredible bright so I know that those things will pay off. I think when people see these fans on TV and all that sort of stuff, I think that's really going to help recruiting a lot. I feel really good about the future of the program."

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2 Comments

The UK Softball Wildcats have good reason to be sad, but NO reason to be ashamed. They did a terrific job all season. The "teamwork ethic" was always obvious from the top (Rachel Lawson) down...a model of leadership.

I saw more UK softball this season than I have seen major league baseball games over the past forty years. Furthermore, being somewhat of a "die hard" Buckeye, any team that beats Michigan in ANY sport ranks number one with me. And--of course--I have a grandaughter on the UK roster.

Don't sell yourselves short, ladies. You'll be back with a vengance next season. Keep on course! Bob Otto (Lebanon, Ohio)

This was truly a testament to UK fans support of their sports teams. The crowd was behind the girls 100%. It was gut wrenching to see the loss in the third game, but inspiring to see them never give up -- even down 5 - 0 after the first. Can't wait until next season -- World Series -- here we come~!. GO CATS!

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  • Dawn Moscoe: This was truly a testament to UK fans support of their sports teams. The crowd was behind the girls 100%. read more
  • Bob Otto: The UK Softball Wildcats have good reason to be sad, but NO reason to be ashamed. They did a terrific read more