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Super regional another step for UK softball

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Rachel Lawson and Kara Dill will lead the UK softball team into the Tempe Super Regional this weekend vs. Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Rachel Lawson and Kara Dill will lead the UK softball team into the Tempe Super Regional this weekend vs. Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It might be happening for the second time in three years, but Rachel Lawson isn't taking Kentucky's Super Regional berth for granted. She knows that even the best programs in the country are fortunate to be among the last 16 teams standing.

Be that as it may, this weekend is just another rung on UK's ladder to a place college softball's elite.

"To be in supers is special in the sport of softball and our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series," Lawson said.

As No. 12 UK (41-19) prepares for a three-game series with fifth-seeded Arizona State (48-10) that will begin Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, the experience of losing to California in a super regional in 2011 is fresh in Lawson's mind. In fact, she's been thinking about it all season as she tried to lead UK to its first-ever Women's College World Series.

Lawson, however, has a young team with five freshman starters. Among this year's regular contributors, only Kara Dill, Alice O'Brien and Emily Jolly saw significant time in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.

"Me personally, yes, as a coach (she is approaching super regionals differently). We have prepared completely different than we did two years ago in terms of pitch selection and stuff like that, but that started in the fall," Lawson said. "But for our team, only a couple of these players were on that team and only a couple of starters."

Dill was one of them. She had five hits as UK upset Michigan to win that regional in 2011, but the Cats were a national seed and favored to reach this point this year.

"I think our team this year is better and there are more people that can do a more variety of things," Dill said. "We have more depth and are stronger as a team."

She has clear proof of that depth too.

On March 15, Dill sustained a hand injury against LSU. For the remainder of the regular season, the Cats would have to get the job done without their leading hitter from each of the past two years. Freshman Christian Stokes filled in at shortstop and UK finished 19-12 without Dill in the starting lineup.

She healed in time to return for the postseason, but if the Cats hadn't been able to hold it together in the senior's absence, she would never have gotten the chance.

"I couldn't ask for any more from them. If they wouldn't have made it this far I wouldn't have finished out the year," Dill said. "This is everything to us right now. They are incredible."

Stokes is still playing shortstop, but Dill - now at designated player - took over her customary role as UK's lead-off batter for the NCAA Tournament opener vs. Marshall. She promptly turned in two hits and a run batted in in four at-bats, providing stability at a lineup spot that had been in a state of flux since Dill's injury.

"She's an exceptional player," Lawson said after that game, a 2-1 win over Marshall. "She's also a captain, she's very steady, she's smart, she's everything you want in a student-athlete. So to get her back is cool. ... It makes me happy to know that she's going to be able to finish on a high note."

After the Cats won a regional the first time they ever hosted one, it's now just a matter of how high the finishing note will be for Dill and UK.

"This is the best time of the year and if I could pick anytime to get back out there and play it would be this time," Dill said. "The team got us here and that is all I could have asked of them."

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