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Cumbess' no-hitter the latest proof of softball's resurgence

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Lauren Cumbess pitched a no-hitter in Saturday's series-clinching win over Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Lauren Cumbess pitched a no-hitter in Saturday's series-clinching win over Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Lauren Cumbess had a tough act to follow. Facing No. 10/11 Georgia the day after fellow Kentucky pitcher Chanda Bell had posted a complete game one-hitter in a series-opening 4-1 victory, Cumbess would have had to do something pretty special to top her teammate.

 "Special" doesn't even describe what Cumbess did on Saturday.

Facing off against a Lady Bulldog offense that was averaging 5.5 runs per game, the sophomore delivered her first career no-hitter in pitching the Wildcats to a series-clinching 4-0 victory. Cumbess allowed just five hitters to reach base - three on walks, one on a hit-by-pitch and one on an error - and struck out seven en route to her third win of the season.

"She did a great job with all of her pitches, but more importantly she had unbelievable command," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "She knew where she wanted to put the ball and she was able to do that. She really just thought the game through and was in control on the mound. Anytime you see an athlete in that kind of a zone, it's special."

Coaches live for days like the one Lawson had today. They work tirelessly to put their players in position to succeed and hope to be rewarded. Cumbess did that and more against Georgia.

"Lauren was amazing," Lawson said. "It was really her day today. We've certainly had no-hitters before and it's always special when you do that, but to do that against a team as incredible as Georgia really says how good Cumbess is and how much she's grown."

Though no Lady Bulldogs managed a base hit, Cumbess' afternoon was far from uneventful, as she stranded runners in four of the final five innings.

The most serious threat came in the fourth inning, when Kristyn Sandberg led off by breaking up what was then a perfect game with a walk. Cumbess would retire the next two batters, but not before Sandberg advanced to second on a passed ball. She would then move to third base when Brittney Hubbard reached on an error by Bell at first base. With runners on first and third, Cumbess buckled down and struck out Gracie Goulder.

"When situations like that come up, I just try to stay focused on the pitch at hand and the batter at hand, because I can't really change if I walk somebody or hit somebody," Cumbess said. "I try to focus on what I'm doing at the moment and I trusted myself and my defense behind me no matter what."

To Lawson, the fourth inning was just the best example of the approach that carried Cumbess through.

"She went batter by batter," Lawson said. "If there was a walk or something, she didn't let it accumulate. She was able to set aside any sort of distraction by the people on base and just really put the ball where she wanted to and attack that next hitter."

With all the deserved praise coming her way, Cumbess was quick to deflect credit to anyone but herself. First, she looked to Lawson, who Cumbess said called a beautiful game from the dugout.

"She mixed in all my pitches really well and we kept the batters off balance," Cumbess said. "We mixed in pretty much everything today."

Then, Cumbess looked to her teammates.

"It's a lot easier as a pitching staff to go out there with confidence knowing your team has your back whether they're going to make a great play on the field or they're going to come in and get a hit for you,"

Coming into the season, Cumbess was supposed to be a key cog in a pitching staff that would rank among the SEC's best. The pitchers have been good - UK has a team ERA of 2.94 - but not spectacular as many expected them to be. However, much of that had to do with a defense that was error-prone early and an offense that struggled to score runs. Knowing they had to carry the load, the pitchers found themselves putting an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves. With the offense and defense now rounding into form, the staff is living up to its billing, evidenced by Bell's and Cumbess' gems.

"The pitchers are more comfortable on the mound because they're more relaxed and throwing their pitch as opposed to before," Lawson said. "If they made one mistake on the mound, they felt like the game was going to be over. That's a tough position for a pitcher to be in. Now that the entire team is really zoning in and playing better, it's allowed the pitching staff to focus on what they should be focusing on, which is just executing the pitch."

The result is that Kentucky is playing its best softball of the season. The Wildcats have won five of six games to move to 21-22 on the season and 8-8 in conference play in the follow-up to their record-setting 2011 season. Though UK still has work to do to ensure a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament berth, this bunch has done something none of its predecessors have done since 2000: win a series against Georgia.

"The series win means a lot, because to beat Georgia, a team that really handled us pretty easily the year before, it's something new for us (during Lawson's tenure)," Lawson said. "We've beaten Georgia, but we've never won a series, so it just shows the program's continuing to get better."

Sweeping the series with a win in Sunday's 1 p.m. finale would be nice, but not nearly as nice as reaching the .500 mark when it looked early in the season like UK never would. The Wildcats still have their goals of winning the SEC Tournament and advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament in front of them, and they owe to their unwillingness to quit on each other.

"Even when things weren't going well, they continued to work hard, they continued to be a team," Lawson said. "Everybody took it as their responsibility to do their thing better. They've been working hard over the past month and it says a lot about their resiliency. When most people would have thrown in the towel, they continued to work on their individual game and try to play hard for each other."

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