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Lawson, Cats deliver second Super Regional berth

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UK defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday to clinch a berth in a Super Regional for the second time in three seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday to clinch a berth in a Super Regional for the second time in three seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After Kentucky defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday, Rachel Lawson showed a side or herself rarely seen, particularly by her team. Fielding questions, Lawson was overcome by emotion.

UK had just fulfilled Lawson's goal of clinching a second Super Regional trip in three seasons in its brand-new venue. Sitting in the back of the room was the stadium's namesake, the man who helped bring Lawson to Lexington and build the program to what it's become: John Cropp.

Given the circumstances, it's difficult to blame her for struggling to compose herself.

"I always yell at everybody, and they don't see me like this," Lawson said. "It's the only time."

In Lawson's sixth season, the progress of the Kentucky program is remarkable, as is the resulting list of accomplishments: the first five NCAA Tournament berths in school history, two Super Regional berths in three years, state-of-the-art venue, a school-record 41 wins in 2013.

Just a couple hours prior, the circumstances - and the audience - were quite different.

After taking the first two games of the regional on Friday and Saturday, UK found that its season was on the brink following a game one loss to the Hokies. Virginia Tech had just blanked the Cats, 2-0, forcing a winner-take-all showdown approximately 45 minutes later, and Lawson wasn't particularly happy with the way her team hit or played defense.

"It was the exact opposite of the one I gave (that was) all sentimental about John Cropp and our athletic department," Lawson said of her between-game message. "That's why I hate that this one's on camera. I'd rather the other one be on camera."

No one outside the locker room got to see Lawson's speech, but the fans in John Cropp Stadium got to see the results. Even though the Cats managed just one run, they were much more effective in attacking the outside pitches Virginia Tech consistently threw.

In the field, UK was nothing short of amazing. The Cats did not commit an error, turned a pair of double plays in the game and made three plays that could all be candidates for the SportsCenter Top 10.

First was a diving catch by left fielder Ginny Carroll in foul territory for the final out of the bottom of the first. Two innings later, Sylver Samuel robbed Betty Rose of extra bases with a jumping grab against the wall in center. But perhaps the best and most important of the afternoon was by Christian Stokes.

After Tech led off the fourth inning with a single, the freshman shortstop sprinted into shallow left field, dove and caught what appeared to be a sure single by Courtney Liddle. The Hokies would go on to load the bases with two outs in the inning even after Stokes' play.

"I thought Christian Stokes play, when she dove and got the play behind her, that was big," Lawson said. "Because in game one we didn't make that catch, and that's why they ran off two runs. So the fact that she made that catch and really stepped up today on her birthday was really cool."

UK pitchers Lauren Cumbess and Kelsey Nunley were the beneficiaries of all the defensive help.

After Nunley had pitched the first 22 innings of the weekend, Lawson turned to Cumbess to start the elimination game. The junior didn't allow a run in 3.2 innings of work.

"I was ready," Cumbess said. "I wanted to do whatever it took to help our team win. So to give Kelsey that little break, that's what we needed for the win."

In Lawson's mind, starting Cumbess was about a lot more than giving Nunley a few innings of rest.

"Actually when I was preparing for Virginia Tech prior to the weekend, I actually thought Lauren was the exact matchup for them because she has such a good drop ball," Lawson said. "I think Virginia Tech is a great hitting team, and I wanted to keep the ball in the infield."

Though Cumbess was effective, Lawson had to turn to her star freshman in the game's biggest spot. When Virginia Tech loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, Nunley emerged from the dugout and needed only a few warm-up pitches to coax a pop out for the third out, ending the threat.

"I was just thinking that we need an out," Nunley said. "That's all that matters."

Nunley finished the game, picking up the win to move to 27-9 and lowering her earned-run average to 1.97, second-lowest in single-season UK history. But without Cumbess, Nunley may not have been able to get the job done.

Not only did Cumbess deliver the game-winning hit - a fifth-inning infield single to score Sylver Samuel - but she also gave her fellow pitcher frequent advice after moving over to first base.

"I have to say that Lauren really encourages me," Nunley said. "She helps me just stay positive all the time and also gives me little triggers to get past batters."

In the sixth inning, Nunley seemed to begin to lose her rhythm. She allowed a pair of hits and a walk as her control faltered, a possible sign of fatigue. Cumbess, however, noticed another cause and ran to the dugout to request a towel. Nunley was simply having trouble gripping the ball as the temperature rose.

"This is the first time we've played in hot weather," Lawson said.

UK's equipment staff better make sure to replenish the towels, because the Cats could be playing in more hot weather next weekend. Kentucky will play the winner of No. 5 seed Arizona State and Georgia with the Sun Devils needing just one win in two games.

"I'm going to watch it," Cumbess said. "I bet everybody else will too. We were all out here last night seeing who we were going to play. Most of us stayed the entire extra-inning game between Marshall and Virginia Tech. So we're going to be excited to see who we play and I think it's anybody's game. Both teams are really good."

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