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Tournament play no big adjustment for UK softball

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UK will face Michigan at 4:30 p.m. on Friday to open NCAA Tournament play. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will face Michigan at 4:30 p.m. on Friday to open NCAA Tournament play. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Three weeks ago, even Rachel Lawson wondered if her Kentucky softball team could even reach this point.

The NCAA Tournament-bound Wildcats had just been swept on the road by Mississippi State to drop their record on the season to 23-26, three games below the .500 mark they knew they would have to reach to be eligible for the postseason. With just seven regular-season games and the Southeastern Conference Tournament left on the schedule, things were a little desperate.

"There was a point in the middle of the season where I was like, 'I cannot believe we're at this point.' I was a little nervous," Lawson said. "I was thinking, 'We're going to have to run through the SEC and win the SEC Tournament to make postseason.' "

Star hitter Brittany Cervantes couldn't help but feel the same way, but she wouldn't dare let anybody know about it.

"I wasn't going to say anything to anyone, but in the back of my mind I was a little nervous," Cervantes said.

The last thing Cervantes and her five fellow senior class members who "pretty much turned everything around for Kentucky softball" wanted to do was end their careers falling short of the tournament. There were no "rah-rah" speeches about a late-season surge, but only because they weren't necessary.

"They knew what was going on," Lawson said. "It was one of those unspoken things. I think the cool thing is they just took it upon themselves to continue to get better and better."

Improve they did.

The Cats took care of business in a midweek game against Morehead State before trekking to Florida and taking two of three from the second-ranked Gators. UK would then register its first-ever sweep of No. 22 LSU to move two games above .500. A first-round loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament cast some lingering doubts about its fate, but they were resolved when "Kentucky" flashed on the screen during the selection show on Sunday.

For the fourth season in a row, the Wildcats (29-28) will play in the NCAA Tournament, a run that will begin against Michigan (39-15) at 4:30 p.m. on Friday as part of the Louisville Regional. All games during the regional will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN3. The double-elimination format will technically put UK in a "win or go home" situation for the first time this season, but in reality, it's old hat for these Cats.

"The last two weeks was absolutely tournament play," Lawson said. "When we were playing Florida, we knew that we had to take at least two. When we were playing LSU, we knew we had to sweep them. To have your back against the wall that many times in a row, that's what it feels like when you go to postseason."

Michigan and the regional's host, No. 15 Louisville (53-3), have been locks for tournament play for weeks now, which is a testament to the seasons they've had. The Wolverines and Cardinals make for arguably the NCAA's toughest regional, but they haven't dealt with the same strain as the Wildcats down the season's home stretch.

"With LSU, we felt some of that pressure and the way we reacted, that sort of feeling's going to come when we go to regionals and have these tight games," Cervantes said. "I think our team is finally comfortable with that pressure."

UK got another lesson in coping with that pressure during a run to the Super Regionals a season ago, one that ironically began in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the Cats defeated the Wolverines twice. Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley, seniors who pitched every inning of the NCAA Tournament last season, give the team a dimension many others lack with their experience and differing styles.

"When teams have seen one pitcher, we can bring in another or if they're practicing to hit the rise ball, we have Rachel who can come in and throw the drop ball," Bell said.

That doesn't mean the task will be easy.

"They're a juggernaut and they're one of the best teams in the nation," Lawson said. "They always are. They have young pitching this year, but they're very good.

"They have a lot of speed. The top of their order's very good, but they can come with a couple really big hitters in the middle of the lineup. They can do a lot of different things."

Michigan's two primary pitchers, Haylie Wagner and Sara Driesenga, are both freshmen, but the Wolverines boast a 1.90 ERA as a team to go with an offense that has belted 46 home runs this season while batting .288. If UK intends to repeat its Super Regional trip of last season, the Cats also figure to have to get past Louisville, which owns the nation's best record.

The Wildcats have the appropriate respect for two of the nation's top teams, but also confidence that if they play their game, they are capable of doing more than competing with them.

"I think if the right team shows up, we'll come out of that regional," Cervantes said.

In spite of that self-assurance, it would be a stretch to call UK anything but an underdog this weekend, a role the Cats don't necessarily mind.

"It's a challenge that we like," Lawson said. "We love to be the underdog."

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