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UK turns to Nunley looking to dethrone defending champs

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Freshman Kelsey Nunley has been a force in the circle for UK this year, breaking the single-season wins mark with 22 on the year. Freshman Kelsey Nunley has been a force in the circle for UK this year, breaking the single-season wins mark with 22 on the year. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky softball team travels south to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend, the Wildcats will be faced with a tall task.

They begin a three-game road set against Alabama, a team that has more than had UK's number over the years. The Crimson Tide leads the all-time series over the Cats, 38-2, and are vying to defend a national championship after being crowned at the 2012 Women's College World Series.

Playing the defending champs will always give you that little extra adrenaline when lacing up the cleats and emotions will no doubt be running high. UK freshman pitching sensation Kelsey Nunley admits she will be a little anxious before the game, but that doesn't mean she lacks confidence.

"I'm nervous I'm not going to lie about it, but I think if my team and I can play to our full potential we can beat them," Nunley said.

One of the biggest reasons for Alabama's success over the last few years has been their junior ace Jackie Traina. For the second straight weekend, the Cats will be stepping into the batter's box against a two-time All-American. Last weekend, UK lost two out of three games to Missouri, with the two losses coming to the hands of Chelsea Thomas. Kentucky will face Traina at least two times this weekend but may have an idea of what they are up against.

Head coach Rachel Lawson views the two All-Americans as fairly comparable pitchers with electric movement. The difference between the aces is the amount of pitches in their repertoire. Thomas uses one dominant pitch - her dropball - to baffle hitters, while Traina has a more diverse arsenal.

"Traina has more pitches to work with so she can go head-to-head when she needs to but she is unpredictable so that makes her scary," Lawson said. "She can throw the ball high and low and on both sides of the plate. They are different in that standpoint where I think Traina has more pitches but she is definitely comparable. She is as good as Thomas and I think they are two of the best pitchers in the country."

Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy - now in his 15th season at the helm - has done an exceptional job. Since Murphy has been in Tuscaloosa, UA has been known to hit the long ball. However, the Cats will be wary of Bama on the basepaths as the Tide has swiped 107 bags on the year compared to UK's 65.

To put it succinctly, the Crimson Tide have it all. They can hit, run, play defense and great pitching, but Kentucky may have just the answer to slowing down Alabama: Nunley.

She was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Week on Monday, racking in her second SEC weekly accolade of the year. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native leads all freshmen in the conference in strikeouts (156), earned-run average (2.02) and wins (22).

Unlike most aces in the SEC, Alabama will see a new face in the circle for the Wildcats and with Nunley likely getting the nod on Friday, the Cats could have a solid chance of containing the Tide's bats and knocking off the defending champs in the opening game on Friday.

Nunley has several qualities that make her a great pitcher, but one in particular stands out to Lawson.

"I always knew she was very good and what she's great at I can't teach," Lawson said. "She's very competitive and has great command of the zone so once she's figured out how to adjust to the college game she is able to do a nice job attacking batters where she wants to. I'm not surprised that she has been successful."

What has made Nunley so successful in her debut season at Kentucky has been her ability to paint the corners of the plate and be in control of the count. She consistently stays ahead of hitters and heavily uses the inside part of the plate to jam opponents.

Nunley hasn't always been a control pitcher growing up as she would blow hitters away at the high school level. However, this season she has had to change her style a bit in adjusting to the collegiate ranks.

While training in the preseason, she was throwing a bullpen and found a pitch and location that has helped carry her to UK's all-time single-season wins record.

"I remember it was one day in practice I threw a pitch on the wrong side of the plate and Coach was like, 'Wow that's a good pitch,' " Nunley said. "That's been one of my best pitches and we just figured it out two months before the season."

As the season winds down with the SEC Tournament to follow next weekend, the Cats could use a lift to ride the momentum into the league tournament and regionals. Whatever the result is in the showdown against Alabama, UK will likely receive a shot of energy with senior co-captain Kara Dill set to return in the coming weeks.

Dill, who has led Kentucky in hitting each of the last two seasons and was named an all-league performer in 2012, had her cast removed on Monday from her broken left hand. She is currently going through rehab and Lawson believes Dill will be ready come regionals.

Lawson has options to choose from when her all-conference player returns. If Dill isn't 100 percent on defense, freshman Christian Stokes has done a tremendous job filling in at shortstop. Lawson can use Dill at the designated player slot and insert her back into the leadoff position - a place in the lineup where UK hasn't been all that consistent.

Either way, Dill will provide the Wildcats with a boost coming at the right time during the postseason.

"I believe that offensively, if she is able to do what she can and see pitches she would do an outstanding job at DP and she would fill a major role for us," Lawson said. "She was our best hitter the last two seasons so to get her back in the lineup is our first priority, but if her body responds I feel very comfortable putting her out on defense as well."

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