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Softball makes it a day to remember with stadium grand opening, upset win

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The Grand Opening ceremony of John Cropp Stadium was held pregame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The Grand Opening Ceremony of John Cropp Stadium was held pregame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Let's go give this stadium and ESPN a show it deserves."

That was the direct quote from head coach Rachel Lawson while wrapping up her pregame ceremonial speech before the UK softball team went out and bested the third-ranked Florida Gators, 4-2 in front of a season-high 1,206 fans.

The ribbons have been cut and the banners have been dropped as the UK Softball Complex was reintroduced as the new John Cropp Stadium on Saturday on a day that will never be forgotten for the UK softball program.

The Wildcats gave exactly what ESPN deserved alright and showed the nation what UK softball is all about.

"The atmosphere was great," Lawson said. "The fans were into the game they loved it. I thought both teams played really hard and there were a lot of really exciting plays. I don't think we could have asked for a better game from us. I thought the whole thing was an incredible day for us."

Kelsey Nunley starred on the mound, tossing a complete game as she set the school single-season wins record with 20. It was Krystal Smith who a bulk of UK's damage at the plate two hits and three runs batted in, including a go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Before the upset win, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, Lawson and stadium namesake Associate Athletics Director John Cropp all spoke at the podium. The day has come where UK softball boasts one of the top facilities in all of college softball. There was a time where some thought it might never happen. That includes Cropp, who has been a large part of the program since its existence.

"I can remember our very first practice that took place in Woodland Park," Cropp said. "We didn't even have a field on this campus. Our first coach, she can remember well going over to Woodland Park and practicing softball. That was a long time ago but I don't think either one of us ever envisioned us being here today."

Lawson is in her sixth year as the head coach and what she has done since her time at UK has grabbed everyone's attention.

Barnhart noted that there are times when programs build a facility to increase performance and help gain a winning reputation and there are other times when teams are able to produce with what they have and are rewarded for their achievements.

That's exactly what Lawson has done in her tenure and she is now getting recognition for her accomplishments. Six years later, she owns the school's all-time wins record and has taken UK to unprecedented heights.

"We need to thank her for the five straight NCAA appearances and the college Super Regional that we hosted two years ago that gave us the ability to do these kinds of things and build this facility," Barnhart said. "To have 2,000 people in here on national television, gave our program the visibility we have not had."

Lawson's success has garnered attention from other schools during her time at UK. There was a point where she was interviewing elsewhere for jobs which, at the time, had better softball facilities than UK.

There was a day a few years back when Lawson remembers speaking to Barnhart on the phone about what this program needed to become among the best. Barnhart promised Lawson they would provide her with a new stadium and he stayed true to his word. Lawson decided to remain at UK and according to her, the stadium actually came a year before than expected.

"(Barnhart) actually did it a year earlier than he said he was going to do it," Lawson said. "To be around people who actually not only say things but actually come through with what they say they are going to do, that's exceptional and that's very special to me because we live in a world where not very many people come through with their promises. I will never forget that day so that's very special to me."

Lawson took time to thank multiple people, including Barnhart, Cropp, former UK president Lee Todd, current UK president Dr. Eli Capilouto and the rest of the athletic department. She also gave thanks to her associate head coach Kristine Himes and assistant coach Molly Johnson, who have both been with Lawson for every win at UK either as a coach or in Johnson's case as a player as well.

But Lawson gave special thanks to the Big Blue Nation, because without the fans, alumni and current players, Saturday's celebration would have never taken place.

"You can build an incredible stadium and I can't be more thankful for this stadium, but this stadium is only worth the people that are in it and work for it every single day," Lawson said. "The Big Blue Nation is awesome. We are one of the few softball programs in the country in that we had a large fan base prior to the new stadium.

"I think that's great that they are going to have some place where they can sit and see a game because each year we are putting up temporary bleachers. Not only do we fill those seats up but we have had to build more and more and more until we had 2,000 people at Super Regionals. So I have to thank the Big Blue Nation because without you we would not have this stadium."

The stadium is going to do some great things for the softball program. The obvious thing is it will enhance the recruiting and will give players and fans an atmosphere that they deserve for SEC softball.

However, what the new facilities bring is the ability for the players to become complete student-athletes and give them a home away from home where they can feel comfortable. Not only did the program get a new stadium, but a new locker room and hitting practice area is being constructed down the third-base foul area.

Lawson takes pride in her student-athletes' work on the field and just as importantly in the classroom. She wants the Cats to become great off the field when they leave UK. Lawson says the new locker room will give her players a place for them to go after class to study, practice, eat and then go home to get a good night's rest.

Barnhart appreciates the efforts Lawson has had on the made but he notices what she does in the community and the example she sets for the players for them to become the best human beings as possible.

"She has given a lot of young women in this community the dream that they can play in a place like this in a league like this," Barnhart said. "Maybe just maybe you get to the College World Series in Oklahoma City. On the way she has done an amazing job that her kids do a great job in the classroom."

This entire project took a lot of hard work from several different people. It's been a long process but it's now time to take the next step in UK softball history.

Cropp capped off the opening ceremony with the last speech of the three and he emphasized UK softball would not be here today without the leadership of the two standing right there next to him: Barnhart and Lawson.

"Athletics is a team, and it took the whole team to put this together," Cropp said. "But what else you have to have in athletics and life is leadership and the real reason we are here today doing this is because of the two people here standing beside me. They are the ones to make this happen."
 

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