Kentucky (15-16, 2-4) is sitting a game below .500 after posting 40 wins in its run to a Super Regional that was ended by Cal, ranked No. 1 in the nation this season. Needless to say, it hasn't been easy.
It hasn't been a disaster either; in fact, things are starting to look quite bright for the Wildcats. In a year where UK lost several key components of that Super Regional team, the youth and inexperience is starting to season as spring has brought some heat to this year's bunch. Meanwhile, the veterans are doing their best to teach them the UK way.
"I think it starts with us playing our game and doing what we've done the last three years," says senior pitcher Chanda Bell. "Just helping them seeing what the SEC is all about. Whether it's encouraging them or showing them what to do."
Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson believes that her players are starting to come around as more and more players begin to contribute.
"Luckily we have a great pitching staff and solid defense," said Lawson. "Anytime you lose players who have started four straight years, you know, that experience is invaluable. But I knew that Emily Gaines and Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver, they've really stepped up, and you've seen that this past weekend. Krystal Smith has done an awesome job as of late, and they're getting the experience they need at a great time in the season."
If the past weekend is any indication, then things are starting to fall into place and this team is looking to make a little history of its own. Kentucky took a weekend series over No. 18 Auburn on the road, winning the first two games only for Auburn to salvage the finale with walk-off victory. It was just the fourth time in program history that UK had defeated the Tigers in a series.
"I hope it's a turning point," said Lawson about their series win over Auburn. "I saw it coming. We've had great moments all year. It's just every great moment was followed by something less than ideal. So we just really put it together."
While the series was big for the team, what's impressive was that they did it without third baseman Brittany Cervantes getting her fair share of hacks at the plate. Lawson said that Auburn did their best to pitch around Cervantes after she had led the Cats to a comeback win in the series opener with two hits, including a two-run home run, and four RBI.
It was a big game for Cervantes who has found hard luck at the plate this year. She blasted just her second home run of the season in the fifth inning of Friday's game, something that she's done quite frequently throughout her career.
Just over a week earlier, Cervantes hit a game-winning home run, her first of the season to defeat North Carolina State 7-6, breaking the school record with her 36th career dinger. It was an important accomplishment for the senior that put her in special yet familiar company.
"I think it's a pretty big accomplishment," said Cervantes. "I'm pretty sure those records were set by Molly Johnson, who's our assistant coach now, and as you know is on the USA team. She's a phenomenal player. So the fact that I'm even level with her, I think, is an accomplishment in and of itself."
Cervantes also passed Johnson on her way to the school record in RBI with 141, a record that was previously held by Leslie Kwiatkowski.
Where UK has struggled this season has been in their lack of middle of the order bats like Cervantes to give them enough offense to win games. With her team working on special drills at practice focused on driving the ball, Lawson said that she expected a bit of a drop off offensively coming into the season.
"We've been hitting the ball, but we haven't been driving the ball," said Lawson. "And a lot of it just deals with learning the pitchers on the other teams. And then also it deals with just having the confidence in the box to really just sit on the pitch you're looking for and drive it."
With the struggles at the dish, the pressure has mounted on the mound. Bell says that her and the pitchers have felt a need to make the few runs they are spotted stick.
"The pressure's always there," said Bell. "I think it's a little more pressure trying to make it so that if we get one or two runs across, we have to be able as a pitching staff, keep their runs off."
After their performance in Auburn, Bell feels confident that the offense will support the pitching staff going forward, beginning on Wednesday with a showdown against No. 11 Louisville (27-0). First pitch will be at 6 p.m. at the UK Softball Complex.
"I think our bats were great this weekend," said Bell. "Even though we lost the third game, we still had lots of runners and lots of hits, so I think it's definitely a turning point for us."
Where did the offense come from? And why the sudden change in demeanor? Bell attributes it to a team meeting called by captains Cervantes and Rachel Riley a couple of weeks ago. It appears now their words are starting to "kick in."
While Cervantes says "they have a target" on their back, Lawson agrees that the success of 2011 has brought out the best in their opponents. But Lawson also says this team needs to remember who they are to get back to where they want to be.
"If anything else, it just kind of reminded us what kind of a team that we are," said Lawson of their success in Auburn. "That we're a well balanced team that can play defense, we can score runs, and we're tough on the mound. I think we forgot that for a while, and I think it was just a reminder of how good we are, and that we are capable of being a top-25 program."