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Softball set on seizing new NCAA standard

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Junior Brittany Cervantes belted a team-high 14 home runs for the Wildcats this season. (UK Athletics) Junior Brittany Cervantes belted a team-high 14 home runs for the Wildcats this season. (UK Athletics)
Three years running now, the Kentucky softball team has gathered at a local Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.

Each year the Wildcats have watched and waited - coincidentally, UK has been one of the last teams called each year - to see "Kentucky" pop up on the digital bracket,  and each year "Kentucky" has shown up to varying degrees of excitement.

The first year, the first NCAA Tournament selection in school history, was met with a raucous ovation. The coaches applauded, the players high-fived one another and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart pumped his fists. Last year, there were a few cheers and a couple of celebrations.

On Sunday, however, as the Wildcats learned they would play Notre Dame on Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the Ann Arbor, Mich., Regional, the watch party was much more subdued. There was a clap or two and maybe a handful of smiles, but a casual bystander could have mistaken the UK softball team for Miami Heat fans as the NBA Playoffs played on the other big screens.

Maybe the tranquility was because Kentucky was still holding out hope on hosting its first Regional. Maybe it had to do with the fact that it was Louisville, a team UK just beat a few weeks ago, that received one of the 16 hosting bids. Maybe it was because Kentucky's region is loaded.

Or maybe it's none of that.

Having done this for three years now, maybe it has to do with setting the bar higher. After increasing their win total from the last two years, maybe the NCAA Tournament is just the standard now, another goal to check off the list.

"It's a little different now," head coach Rachel Lawson said Sunday night after learning of her team's third straight selection. "Instead of it being a big shock when you make it, the expectation is to be in it. Now you're trying to figure out how to beat the teams in our region.

How am I going to get out of there and go to Super Regionals? To get to Super Regionals, you're very close to the College World Series. Being in the SEC, we know how to play a tough three-game series. It's just a different feeling and it feels good to be that confident."

UK made it to the finals of the Regionals the past two years only to fall to host Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. With virtually the same team back for the third straight year, the expectations have shifted from making the tournament to advancing.

"We're going all the way," senior catcher Megan Yocke said. "We have one of the toughest regions. If we can get through that, I think we have a good shot of going all the way. Getting through the region is the first step, but getting past that is the ultimate goal."

What gives this team a better shot at advancing? Experience and the memories from their past trips, the Cats say.

"Two straight years of getting there but not getting out of Regionals, I think that leaves a little sting in the returners," Yocke said.

Statistically, UK is better equipped to make a longer run this year than it was the last two seasons.

Kentucky matched a program record with 36 wins and has been in the polls for 13 consecutive weeks. Offensively, UK set five single-season records this season, setting new highs in home runs (62), RBI (252), runs scored (290), walks (193) and stolen bases (72). All those records were broken despite having five games canceled late in the season.

UK's team ERA of 2.36 is also the lowest mark since 2000. Not only are junior aces Chandal Bell (13-6, 1.96 ERA) and Rachel Riley (11-5, 2.79 ERA) a year older, Lawson has added two freshmen to the mix, Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver, who have combined for 12 of the team's wins.

"The one thing we have going for us is we have quite a few people on our team now who have experience," Lawson said. "Our junior and senior classes have all been to two and a lot of them have a bulk of our playing time and they know what to expect. It's not new. Some of those jitters you have when you go to Regionals for the first time aren't there. We've been playing good ball against great teams all year."

Of course, one could make a case that this weekend's competition will be the best selection of talent UK has faced all season. Of the 16 regions, Kentucky's could very well be the toughest, a big reason why ESPN will send its top television crew to Ann Arbor to broadcast every game of the Regional.

Sure, Western Michigan is the only team in the tournament with a losing record, but the three other teams in the Ann Arbor Regional - Kentucky, Notre Dame and No. 10 overall seed Michigan - are ranked in the top 22 of the NCAA's RPI.

Both Lawson and Yocke agreed that they've landed in the toughest region.

"I think it's brutal," Lawson said. "We're definitely going to have to play well to do it. Michigan is an outstanding team and they are coached well. So is Notre Dame. They're coached well and hit well. Both teams can pitch."

Notre Dame is led by Alexa Maldonado, who is batting .420 on the season with 14 doubles and 19 stolen bases. Two players have hit 10 or more home runs for Notre Dame, led by 12 from the bat of Heather Johnson. As a unit, Notre Dame is batting .334 on the season with 321 runs scored and 71 stolen bases. In the circle, Laura Winter owns a 24-3 overall record with a 2.22 ERA and 208 strikeouts on the year.

Should UK advance in the double-elimination format, the Cats would in all likelihood face Michigan, which ended the regular season with a 51-4 overall record and its fourth straight Big 10 title. Although it's a different site for the team this year - a reward for the kids in some aspects - the trip to the north won't be new territory as the Cats played at Michigan a year ago.

"It's an awesome place," Lawson said. "They have a great crowd and it's an awesome atmosphere. It's definitely a home-field advantage for them."

Regardless of the competition, Kentucky has its eyes set on more than one-weekend visit to the NCAA Tournament.

"We've had some good moments but I don't think we've played our best ball yet," Lawson said. "I think we've had some great innings. Our pitching looks strong. I think our defense, the last couple of days, has come around, and offensively we're better than we've ever been. I definitely think we're on the upswing again."

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