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Softball set to showcase new stadium, record-setting team on national stage

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Kentucky will host its first SEC Softball Tournament this week at John Cropp Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky will host its first SEC Tournament this week at John Cropp Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the Kentucky softball program will host the most prestigious conference softball tournament in the nation. The Southeastern Conference tournament features the top-10 schools in the 14-team league based on the standings after a grueling 24-game schedule.

What makes the conference so dominant is that it includes several teams regarded as among best in the nation based on rankings. According to the RPI, which is the basis on who is selected into the NCAA Tournament, the SEC has six teams in the top 10 and 11 in the top 40.

The newly renovated John Cropp Stadium has come a long way since head coach Rachel Lawson arrived here six years ago. To think UK would be hosting the most highly anticipated and competitive softball tournament in the country is hard to imagine. Even for Lawson.

"When I got here six years ago, if you would have shown up to the softball field there was a small grandstand about the size of one row here and we have made drastic improvements," Lawson said. "It says a lot to the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be able to have ESPN here and hosting the SEC Tournament that they were able to put up such an amazing softball facility for a softball team and women's sports in general."

This weekend marks the first big tournament that Kentucky has hosted since a 2011 Super Regional, which was held here in Lexington.

Lawson remembers that weekend and how supportive the Big Blue Nation was well. The event staff had to add in additionally outfield bleachers in order to accommodate enough suitable seating for the fan base. The sixth-year head coach believes this weekend will offer a bit of the same flavor and is hoping to ride that home-field advantage.

"Everyone knows there is nothing better than Kentucky fans," Lawson said. "When the Big Blue Nation comes out it's pretty impressive as we showed two years ago when we hosted a Super Regional. Even when they are not softball fans, in general just being a Kentucky fan really helps us out a lot. It's nice to be able to have that crowd behind you when you are playing such awesome opponents."

UK (38-17, 13-11 SEC) is the No. 7 seed in the tournament and will face the No. 10 seed South Carolina (31-22, 8-16) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET.

When the two teams take the field on Wednesday, it will have been almost exactly a month ago since the Cats traveled to Columbia, S.C., and swept the Gamecocks. Even though Kentucky came away with a sweep, the series was a lot more difficult than it sounds with UK winning 3-1 in the opener and 4-3 in the final game of the three-game set.

"I think it gives them confidence knowing that they beat them but I think it was so far removed I think they are just looking to get back on the field and hopefully winning a SEC game," Lawson said.

If that series isn't enough to give UK a boost for their opening-round game then the Cats' performance last weekend most definitely will.

Kentucky went down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., last weekend having won just twice all-time against Alabama in 40 chances. Kentucky not only won for the first time at Alabama, but took two of three games to win its first series vs. the Crimson Tide in school history.

It was an emotional series for the Wildcats and something they can build on moving into postseason play.

"To be able to go into Alabama and get a win is huge," Lawson said. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence and it gives the younger players a lot of confidence. They went in there and hit two very awesome pitchers and I believe that shows them they can get it done.

"In order for us to get where we want, which is the World Series we're going to have to go through pitchers like the ones they have at Alabama. I think it gives them a lot of confidence and hopefully we will be able to take that momentum into our game tomorrow night against South Carolina."

One of the key cogs for Kentucky this season is freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley. She has been a workhorse for UK all season, setting the Kentucky single-season wins record earlier this year, was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team on Tuesday due to her efforts in the circle.

The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native, who was once a secret weapon for UK, now has the whole conference, or country for that matter, keeping an eye on her.

"I think everyone in the country knows we are going with her in game one," Lawson said. "It's not a secret. I love our other pitchers but she is the one that has gotten us here so I want to make sure she has that opportunity on national TV."

In order for the Wildcats to win their first SEC Tournament title, they must win four games in four days. Kentucky knows who its ace is and the Cats are going to ride her as long as they can. Nunley once pitched three straight games this season, firing over 300 pitches in a weekend series against Missouri.

After Nunley 2-0 against the defending national champions Alabama last weekend, Lawson is not going to be hesitant and just hopes she can see how long Nunley can go. So don't be surprised if you see Nunley out in the circle in Saturday's championship game, preparing to pitch her fourth game in as many days.

"Hopefully we will have the offense going so we have a chance to see that. I know she has pitched three in a row so four would be something she hasn't done but I believe she can do it," Lawson said.

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