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Backs against the wall: Softball enjoying postseason chase

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Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell (center) are part of a six-member group of seniors that will play its last home games this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell (center) are part of a six-member group of seniors that will play its last home games this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After a surprising series victory over No. 2 Florida last weekend in which the Wildcats took two-of-three games, the Kentucky softball team has put itself in a position where it controls their postseason destiny. 

Louisiana State comes in, another ranked opponent at No. 22, with the Wildcats needing to, at the very least, take the series from the Tigers. Kentucky (26-27, 12-13 SEC) is projected as a bubble team at the moment, and would likely need a .500 record or better to make the NCAA Tournament.

While last year's team at the same point in the season was a lock for the field, Kentucky's postseason hopes hinge on the final games of the schedule. And while the pressure mounts, this team is enjoying the chase for a postseason berth.

"This team loves to compete," said Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson. "We've never made anything easy, especially this senior class. They've never made anything easy over the last four years. So to be able to end on such a push is actually fitting for them." 

Lawson, of course, said that jokingly. But other than last season, it hasn't always been easy for this group of seniors. That's why it's only right that they go out this way, grinding and making one last push for the NCAA Tournament. That final push begins Friday at 6 p.m. at the UK Softball Complex.

"I think they love the limelight," Lawson said. "They love playing on the national level. They love the SEC. I mean they love everything there is about Kentucky and softball. So I think from that perspective, it's kind of fun to see if they can get it done."

Senior pitcher Chanda Bell expressed a similar sentiment about this team making a late-season surge. Of course, it was Bell who mowed down Florida Gator hitters twice this past weekend, getting wins on Friday and again on Sunday to seal the series victory. Her performance over the weekend garnered SEC Pitcher of the Week honors.

It hasn't been all smooth sailing for Bell this year. After a fantastic 2011 season in which she went 15-8 with a 2.24 ERA, Bell's season started slowly thanks to an injury she sustained at the beginning of the season. As of late, however, it appears she's gotten back into the groove. 

"Coach was doing a great job of mixing all my pitches," said Bell. "I've added a couple of pitches this year, and just the fact we were able to mix some different pitches in there, and not being predictable helped a lot."

Lawson complimented Bell for the way that she's come back and battled this season, noting that she has been rock-solid the last few weekends. Bell now has her numbers back to where she is used to seeing them, sitting at 14-10 with a 2.61 ERA for the season.

And if Bell's been the key to the pitching lately, fellow senior Brittany Cervantes is responsible for kick-starting the offense. In a similar situation, Cervantes struggled to get back into last season's form.

After belting 35 home runs in her first three seasons as a Wildcat, Cervantes didn't hit her 36th until the 26th game of the season. The 36th home run gave her the all-time record at UK, and since then, Cervantes has been on a tear. 

The senior third baseman leads the team with 10 home runs and has since been moved to the leadoff spot in the lineup in an attempt to get the offense going. Though it was a bit unnatural for her at first, Cervantes is relishing the role as the team's table setter.

"Actually, I'm not the most comfortable in the leadoff spot. I wasn't, but now I'm totally fine with it," said Cervantes. "I kind of want to set the tone for the game. Even though there's high expectations for it, I feel comfortable in the leadoff position. And I think I've finally turned it around."

And it's important that she has. The resurgence of these two seniors has come at an opportune time. 

With possibly just a few games left in their careers, both Bell and Cervantes feel a bit of urgency to perform well this weekend to set themselves up for the best possible position to find a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

"Well we know it's a pretty big weekend; we need to take two out of three," said Cervantes. "A sweep would obviously be ideal. These games are pretty important, obviously because we need them, but it's also the senior weekend. We want to go out and bang 'em in our last home games. We can't go in tense, but I think we need to have the same demeanor we had when we went into Florida."

Bell was passionate in talking about making the postseason in her final year, regardless of how much pressure was involved. She wants this badly.

"I want to go to postseason so bad," said Bell. "Knowing that we need to take two, we really need to take three this weekend. It's a lot of pressure even though we do have nothing to lose right now."

There's no doubt the pressure will be high, as are the stakes. Knowing that, Bell has the utmost confidence, as she should after her performance last weekend, that she can come up big again this weekend. 

"I always feel like I perform better when the pressure's on, it's really fun," said Bell. "I don't really get nervous in pressure situations. I always seem to do a little better, I think. So hopefully our team can too."

Kentucky will no doubt fell the pressure. And they do have to play well this weekend or risk having to run the gauntlet in the SEC Tournament next weekend to nab a postseason berth. But there was pressure last weekend too. Lawson says that no matter how much is at stake, it is important that her team stays focused and have fun playing the game no matter the outcome.

"I think having those two wins against such an awesome opponent, I think it gives you a lot of confidence that if we can bring our 'A' game this weekend, I think they know they can end up on the winning side of things," said Lawson. "On the other hand, it was just fun. They play the best when they're fun and they let the game come to them. I think they've just had a great time with it, and I hope we can take that attitude against LSU."

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