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Riley provides stability, foundation for softball

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Rachel Riley will play in the final SEC Tournament of her college career beginning on Thursday vs. Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Rachel Riley will play in the final SEC Tournament of her college career beginning on Thursday vs. Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Three years ago, the Kentucky softball team was preparing to take on the top-ranked Florida Gators and make its very first national television appearance at the UK Softball Complex. The anticipation and excitement built as the Wildcats looked to show the world what UK softball was all about. 

But they would have to wait a little bit longer.

As weather sometimes does, a rain delay pushed back the first pitch. To pass the time and maintain the excitement and momentum, the UK team took to the locker room to listen to music, sing, dance, and stay loose in any way that they could.

But not a young freshman, the starting pitcher for that night's game who had not pitched in approximately a month. In preparing for her biggest pitching appearance of her rookie campaign up until that point, Rachel Riley could be found sitting in the corner. By herself. Reading a book. 

"I remember I walked out of the locker room," said Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson after she had gone to check on her team, "and (assistant) Coach (Kristine) Himes was like, 'How's she doing?' And I'm like, 'She's fine. She's reading.' And she was like what do you mean she's reading? 'She's reading Gone with the Wind, she's good.' "

And Riley has indeed been good. In fact, the two-time team captain has been the "rock" for this team as long as Lawson can remember. The highs are never too high. The lows are never too low. And she's clearly left her mark on this team while making quite an impression on her collegiate head coach.

"I would vote for Riley for President of the United States," said Lawson.

There's an obvious connection and mutual affection that Lawson and Riley share. Their history together at Kentucky goes all the way back to Riley's recruitment, before either of them even thought about being at the University of Kentucky.

Riley, a Bowling Green, Ky., native, had committed to play softball for Lawson at Western Kentucky University, right in Riley's backyard. But before Riley could suit up for the hometown Hilltoppers, Lawson was hired at the University of Kentucky.

Lawson couldn't leave her behind, and Riley certainly wanted to follow. She wanted to play for Lawson all along. It was not about to end before it even started.

"I honestly can't imagine playing for anybody else," said Riley. "She's been great. She's been great as far as working with my academics, my class schedule. She's been great with my pitching. She envelops me and I can't say enough good things about her."

Riley prefers to stay out of the headlines and the media. That's not what she's about. She's hesitant to talk about herself during interviews and does her best to remain stoic when talking about her teammates. She only concerns herself with winning and serving her team. She is quite content with her fellow seniors Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell getting much of the attention. But as far as Lawson is concerned, without Riley, there is no Cervantes or Bell. 

"Chanda and Brittany, they're such dynamic players," said Lawson, "I think that's phenomenal that they get so much press because it's well-earned. But all three of them need each other. When Chanda's playing a tough team, she's getting all her strikeouts, well the next game we're coming with the drop-ball pitcher, which is the opposite of her."

As far as Cervantes goes, she and Riley aren't just teammates, they are roommates and best friends. During their four inseparable years together, Riley's calm and quiet confidence have surely rubbed off.

"That's kind of a combination if you know them," said Lawson, "But then once you do get to know them, they put the team first always. And I think Rachel keeps Brittany steady, which is her biggest thing. (Brittany's) such a dynamic player, and she's as hard on herself as she is on anybody. And I think Rachel, just that kind of cool, calm confidence that Rachel has rubbed off on Brittany, and Brittany has become a steady player now, as well."

When talking to Lawson, she uses that word "steady" often to describe her senior captain. It has been a less than ideal season for Riley in her senior season, but once again, she's been steady. For her career, the two-way player is 39-29 with a 2.75 ERA. This season, Riley owns an 8-7 record in the circle with a 3.25 ERA, and in the batter's box, she's batting .260 with 7 home runs and 30 RBI in the middle of the Wildcat batting order. 

But "steady" isn't always good enough for Riley. And for this team, this season has been anything but. Last season, Kentucky reached all kinds of program highs, including hosting their very first Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament. Riley had better numbers, posting a 13-5 record and a 2.56 ERA as well as a .354 batting average. So the level-headed captain has certainly had her patience tested with the struggles they've endured this year.

"It was definitely more difficult," said Riley about the team's early season struggles. "I really don't like to lose, and so, having to get through this season, it was a struggle. But it's made us stronger, and we know that we have something to play for and we're trying to get into tournament and make a good run like we did last year. I think we just need to keep looking forward"

While the team looks forward to their first round game against fourth-seeded Georgia in the SEC Tournament on Thursday, it's been Kentucky's ability to focus on the present and the task at hand that puts them in the position they are in. Kentucky, regardless of the outcome of Thursday's game with Georgia, will be eligible for an NCAA Tournament bid thanks to what the Cats have accomplished over the previous two weekends. 

After suffering a sweep at the hands of Mississippi State, Kentucky's hopes of making their fourth straight SEC Tournament and fourth straight NCAA Tournament were looking slim. But Kentucky went to Florida, a top-five team nationally, and promptly won two of three from the Gators. Then the Wildcats came home needing another series victory over Louisiana State to keep their hopes alive for an NCAA Tournament berth. 

A night after a thrilling walk-off win over the Tigers in game one of the series, Riley took to the circle for her final appearance as a pitcher at home. As a senior leader is expected to do, she came through in a huge way, more than steady but victorious, tossing 6.1 innings of one-run ball to help capture the series. Kentucky would go on to record a series sweep, the first over LSU in program history. 

Both weekends provided critical moments and victories to help improve their chances of earning a bid.

"They've been very crucial," said Riley. "To make it into the tournament we knew kind of put ourselves in a hole they we were going to have to have a good showing against Florida and LSU, which are really tough teams. It was crucial for us to get the wins we did, but we're still not guaranteed a spot, unless we win the tournament. It's really important that we continue this streak that we've got going."

So Kentucky heads to Tuscaloosa, Ala. for the SEC Tournament and a chance to improve its NCAA Tournament resume. It also gives Riley an opportunity to perform in front of her family for the first time ever at The John and Ann Rhoads Softball Stadium.

Riley's family has followed her throughout her career, both at home and on the road, but the only place that they had yet to travel to was Tuscaloosa. UK was scheduled to play there last season, but tornadoes ravaged the city and the series was cancelled, as was the trip. 

The SEC Tournament also takes Riley back the place where she first made her mark as a freshman. The freshman from Bowling Green became the first Kentucky pitcher to win a game in postseason play in program history. She owns a 1-2 record in the tournament, but has posted a dominant 1.15 ERA.

In her very last go around in the event that put her forever in the UK softball record books, Riley isn't worried about this being her last time playing in the tournament. In fact, she doesn't approach these games any differently at all.

"I try not to think about that, to be honest, because I don't want any emotions to be involved," said Riley. "I try to come out the same way I do every game and do the best that I can, and hopefully that's enough to win."

Riley plays it cool when it comes to big games; in fact she often takes her game to another level. She may not always be found reading great American literature before every pressure-filled start, but she finds way to take the edge off. Somehow, when the intensity builds, Riley is not rattled when the situation indicates she should be.

"Every time she's under pressure, her game is on a new level," said Lawson. "Her drop ball drops off the table. And she just has such a focus about her. She's relentless. Things usually go the way that she wants them to because she wills them to happen.

"I think she has another gear that makes her special. It's not something you can teach. It's not something that you can coach. She's just a competitive person, and her ability to focus in on what she wants and to not let outside distractions get in the way is truly remarkable."

The Wildcats are on an incredible streak and are as hot as they've been all season. National pundits are talking about UK as a team to avoid in postseason play. Riley and her fellow seniors have an incredible opportunity to go out with a bang and make yet another run deep into the NCAA Tournament if they continue to hit on all cylinders. 

But eventually the season will end. Kentucky will either not be selected for the NCAA Tournament, they will make it and be eliminated, or it will shock the world and win the College World Series. One way or another, it will come to an end, and Riley will play her last game with "Kentucky" across her chest.

However, thanks to the leadership, her numerous contributions on and off the field, and the legacy left by Rachel Riley, the Kentucky softball program is set up to succeed and find themselves with great opportunities for the future. It has become a place where players want to be. And "the rock" of this team for the last four years has become a cornerstone for Kentucky softball for years to come. Even when she's gone with the wind.

"What she might not have in terms of size and speed, she makes up with in intangibles," said Lawson. "She just has tremendous heart. She's such a winner. She's just the perfect person to help build this program around."

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