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Softball not satisfied with Super Regional berth, aiming for World Series

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UK softball coach Rachel Lawson has guided her team to the postseason in three of her four years at Kentucky. (UK Athletics) UK softball coach Rachel Lawson has guided her team to the postseason in three of her four years at Kentucky. (UK Athletics)
Four years ago when Rachel Lawson took over the reins of the Kentucky softball program, she never imagined her team would be two wins away from the Women's College World Series this quickly.

"I remember I was talking to one of our administrators and they were redoing how your contracts are made and stuff like that and I remember her thinking, 'OK this is what happens if you make the NCAA Tournament, but the SEC Tournament, you should be making that anyway,' " Lawson said. "And I remember thinking, 'My god, if I make the SEC Tournament this year I should be getting a Cadillac or something."

If we're going to use that scale, maybe she deserves a Rolls Royce for making it to the program's first Super Regional.

Yes, the spoils of making it this far have been very sweet for the Kentucky softball team. Since defeating No. 10 Michigan on Sunday to advance to the Super Regionals, UK has enjoyed more exposure and more support than the program has received in its 15 years of existence.

The players, making sure to soak in every moment of the historic week, brought cameras to practice on Wednesday to take pictures as officials turned the UK Softball Complex into a 1,200-seat stadium. For many of them, they're living a dream.

"This is something they've watched since they were little girls," Lawson said. "It's something they've dreamed about the whole time."

Now, the question is, will this weekend be just another memory to capture or will it be the end of a historic run? Guarding against complacency is certainly on the mind of Lawson as she prepared her team this week for its showdown with No. 7 California.

"We knew we had to get out of regionals to get into Super Regionals, but ultimately I think everybody wants to go to Oklahoma City," Lawson said. "The ultimate goal is to do that and we know we need to win two more games to do that."

Before this year, the players and coaches admitted they were just happy to make the tournament. There was a sense of satisfaction in just making it to the regional finals, and who could blame them? Those two years marked the first NCAA Tournament berths in school history, so no matter how well they did or how far they advanced, they were already blazing new trails and setting new standards.

But after making it to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, the expectations for this year's team changed. All along, the team has talked about having bigger goals to make it to the Super Regionals.

Now that the Wildcats are there, will they be satisfied with just that, similar to the historic regional appearances of the previous two seasons? Or will they want more and build on the opportunity?

"The way we beat Michigan, I think it makes us want it more," senior catcher Megan Yocke said. "The fact that we went to what I think was one of the hardest regionals and came out on top, played so well as a team and had so much fun, nobody wants it to end. Whether it's Super Regionals or the World Series, nobody is going to settle. We want to go all the way and take it home."

Just getting this far is already uncharted territory for the program, but putting that history aside and turning the page to California will be extremely important this week.

Even with the magnitude of last week's wins on their minds and the increase in exposure, Yocke said they turned their attention to California by Tuesday's practice (the team was off Monday) and fell back into their normal routine.

Lawson thinks it may have happened even sooner than that.

"On the bus ride coming home, I think (is when they turned the page)," Lawson said. "While they were certainly giddy and excited, they were already talking about California. They certainly mentioned the big plays that happened and the big crowd they had in Ann Arbor, but the entire time they were keeping up with Cal (in the Louisville Regional) and were talking about Cal's pitchers, their offense and when we played Cal last year."

Kentucky lost to California in both of its meetings last year, falling 6-1 in the season-opening Kajikawa Classic and 1-0 in last year's NCAA Tournament. California ace Jolene Henderson was the difference in both of those games as she allowed just one unearned run and nine hits in 14 combined innings.

Henderson has built on that freshman campaign with a 37-7 record, 0.80 ERA and 302 strikeouts in her sophomore season. By comparison, Chanda Bell, UK's record-setting ace, is 15-6 this year with a 2.10 ERA and 196 strikeouts.

"You don't get to be the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year without being exceptional," Lawson said.

Henderson owns an arsenal of pitches, but her bread and butter is her changeup. Kentucky struggled to hit the changeup Sunday against Michigan ace Jordan Taylor until senior Meagan Aull stayed back on one in the bottom of the seventh and smacked a game-tying home run over the fence in right field.

"The key is staying between your legs," Yocke said of hitting a changeup. "You definitely have to keep your weight under you and you've got to sit back and recognize (the pitch) early."

As dominant as Henderson has been this season and was last year against UK, junior third baseman and home run leader Brittany Cervantes (15 round trippers) pointed to Kentucky's record-setting offensive year that has resulted in five single-season records, including home runs, runs scored and RBI, as a reason for why things could be different this weekend.

"I remember we were able to hit this girl last year but we couldn't get timely hits," Cervantes said. "We've gotten better as hitters this year."

The Bears' offense is much different from the one Kentucky faced in Michigan last week and even the California team the Cats saw a year ago. Due to roster turnover and a key injury, California is without several of its big bats from last season.

Even so, Lawson thinks this California team, made up of what she calls "rabbits," is more dangerous because of its speed on the base paths.

Paced by junior Jamia Reid (.419, 42 runs and 29 stolen bases) and freshman Britt Vonk (.419, 44 runs, 26 stolen bases), the Bears have stolen 92 bases on the year and 1.71 per game, which ranks 24th in the nation.

That puts a premium on the UK defense this weekend, which played perhaps its best ball in Michigan last week.

"I like when teams have a lot of stolen bases because it gets me amped up," Yocke said. "I like the challenge. We play in the SEC, which, in my opinion, is the fastest conference in the country. I've had people trying to steal on me all year. I think our defense is ready for it and my arm will be ready for it."

It appears Kentucky isn't ready to settle just yet.

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