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Two 'woots' and one big 'dub' send UK softball to its first Super Regional

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Senior Annie Rowlands delivered the walk-off win with a game-winning singe in the bottom of the seventh inning. (UK Athletics) Senior Annie Rowlands delivered the walk-off win with a game-winning single in the bottom of the seventh inning. (UK Athletics)
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- "Woots" and "dubs" is what the players were calling it.

Woots, a thumb and pinky finger in the air (similar to the Texas "hook 'em Horns" gesture), symbolized a moral victory. Dubs, a circular sign of the thumb and index finger with the other three fingers straight up (similar to the Kentucky basketball team's 3 goggles), represented wins.

They were the two battle cries of the Kentucky softball team at the Ann Arbor Regional this weekend at the University of Michigan. The way the players saw it, a couple of woots would lead to some dubs, and a few dubs would result in the program's first Super Regionals appearance.

Silly, maybe, but the hand gestures and posters of the words atop UK's dugout were tangible symbols of an untouchable belief. Sure, Ann Arbor, Mich., was home to the No. 2 ranked team in the country and featured the hardest collection of teams in the nation, and yeah, Kentucky's softball success is still in its beginning stages, but the Wildcats believed they were capable of making history this weekend.

On Sunday we learned what faith can do.

With Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Jordan Taylor forcing UK's hitters into more whiffs and dribblers than woots and dubs, it appeared Kentucky was going to have to win game two to advance in the NCAA Tournament. Composed and confident after a humbling Saturday, Taylor returned to All-American form in the regional finals with an almost unhittable changeup.

Taylor was so dominant than even the general of belief was getting ready to regroup.

"Honestly, I was planning my middle-of-the-games speech," head coach Rachel Lawson said as UK headed to the bottom of the seventh inning with three hits, 10 strikeouts and a 1-0 deficit.

Lawson was sending the heart of her order to bat, but of all its players to lead off the inning, senior Meagan Aull was probably the most overmatched when it came to hitting a changeup. If Lawson had to guess, Aull has hit maybe a handful of changeups in her four-year career.

But Aull believed.

With 2,036 fans roaring and a changeup inevitably coming, Aull stayed back, held her form and swatted a 2-2 offspeed pitch down the right-field line.

"Right when I hit it I thought it was out," Aull said. "I was just hoping it would stay fair. She's a great pitcher and she was throwing predominantly in (inside) all day, so I was looking for it."

The ball stayed straight and fair, about 10 feet inside the right-field line and 15 feet over the fence. Just like that, with one big woot, Kentucky had a chance to capture a walk-off dub.

Taylor, visibly rattled by the home run, started to wilt. She threw eight straight balls to the next two batters and then plunked Samantha DeMartine to load the bases. With no outs, Lawson elected to pinch hit freshman Lauren Cumbess for Alice O'Brien, but Cumbess struck out swinging, sending senior Annie Rowlands to the plate.

With the No. 9 hitter following her and Rowlands batting a meager .143 entering the game, a suddenly promising situation looked like it could go up in smoke.

"It's funny because before we even started here at regionals, my dad and I were talking and he was like, 'How funny would it be if this came down to you?' " Rowlands said. "Obviously I'm not the most powerful (or have the) best numbers on the team, but it's just kind of that thing where you always dream about it."

After watching Rowlands get dominated in her first two at-bats, Lawson could have easily pinch hit for Rowlands and nobody would have second guessed her.

But Rowlands, with the confidence of a .400 hitter and the belief of a slugger, went to the batter's box anyway. Classmate Megan Yocke reminded Rowlands that the bases were loaded and that Taylor couldn't afford to hit her, so Rowlands stepped up, crowded the plate and waited to see a curveball.

"When it was winding up that way for me, I was like, 'This is going to happen,' " Rowlands said. "I didn't know how it was going to happen ... but I knew it was going to happen."

Rowlands didn't get a hold of the pitch - far from it - but she connected just enough of a curveball over the outside portion of the plate to get it in the air. With a little bit of fate and a whole lot of belief, Rowlands' bloop went over the head of Dorian Shaw at first base and into right field.

Rowlands' walk-off single, the biggest woot of the season, captured the biggest dub in the history of the program. In the program's third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats finally broke through with a Super Regionals berth, the first in school history.

"It's a great thing to be a part of," Aull said. "From where we were our freshman year, we have made it a long, long way. It's great to see this program rise and continue to do great things."

"Woots" (left) and "dubs"(right) were the battle cries behind Kentucky softball's 3-0 weekend at the Ann Arbor Regional.
Doubt may have crept into Lawson's mind after 6.5 innings, but her belief in the resiliency and heart of this Kentucky team after a three-year meteoric rise never wavered.

"I'm not surprised by our resiliency because this is why we've gotten to where we are," Lawson said. "We're not always the biggest team (or the fastest). ... The reason we are where we are is because they're tough, they've very coachable, they play the game the right way and they wouldn't be where they're at without that type of resiliency."

Overshadowed in the victory was a stellar pitching performance by junior Rachel Riley and another tremendous defensive effort. Riley allowed just one hit and an unearned run and got help from plays like Brittany Cervantes' leaping grab at third base, a diving stop by Emily Jolly at second and a headfirst plunging catch by Rowlands in left field.

"Our defense was the reason why we won that game," Lawson said. "All of our defensive plays plus Rachel's pitching kept us in the game long enough so we could have that awesome seventh inning. Without those amazing plays, (Michigan) would have ran away with the score and we wouldn't be sitting right here; we'd still be out on the ball field. It's a real credit to their work ethic."

Since California, Kentucky's Super Regional opponent, is unable to host, UK will host next weekend's Super Regional at the UK Softball Complex. Although it will be a welcomed home-field advantage for the Cats, it hardly matters at this point where it's at.

With two wins over a storied program like Michigan and the confidence of regional championship, Kentucky believes it can beat anybody.

"I'm really impressed with Kentucky," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.

As she should be. The Wildcats are now just two dubs away from the College World Series.

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