The Wildcats traveled to Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 9, falling 8-1 in just their fourth game of the season. Sun Devil ace Dallas Escobedo was dominant and Arizona State pounded out 11 hits against a UK team heavily reliant on freshmen.
The second time around, Arizona State will see a very different Kentucky team, particularly the five first-year players who will start.
"Arizona State was one of the first teams that we played, so they didn't really understand the speed of the game when they first played it against Arizona State, who plays it very fast," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Their expectation level now is completely different and how fast we play is completely different. I think we won't be as star-struck as we were in the beginning of February."
However, the stakes this time are much higher.
The 12th-seeded Wildcats (41-19) will face off against the No. 5 seed Sun Devils (48-10) in a best-of-three series at the Tempe Super Regional, beginning with the first game on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET. But after playing 26 teams who are currently ranked or receiving votes in the top 25, not to mention they compete in the country's toughest league, Lawson doesn't expect the stage to be too much.
With such a young team, UK is gaining more and more confidence with every win. The Wildcats were bounced in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at John Cropp Stadium, which left a sour taste in their mouths heading into regionals. Kentucky got a chance for redemption in front of its home fans as they were selected to host their first regional in school history last weekend. This time, the Cats took care of business and advanced to their second super regional in the last three seasons.
After an unsatisfactory showing at the conference tournament, the regional victory gave UK a little bit of their swagger back going into this weekend.
"I still think we were a little bit tight in regionals and I think every step that we're taking is really helping," Lawson said. "The experience that we're gaining is really helping them understand what they need to do to go to the World Series."
En route to the regional title, Kentucky outlasted a pesky fourth-seeded Marshall squad, 2-1 in eight innings in the opening round. The Wildcats then prevailed over Virginia Tech to advance to Sunday's final. The Hokies would get their rematch with UK and won game one before the Cats ended their season with a 1-0 triumph in the nightcap.
Yes, UK accomplished a huge feat by taking care of business and winning the regional over some quality opponents, but Arizona State is a different animal. Lawson is well aware.
"I think they're going to be dramatically better (than the teams UK faced in the regional)," Lawson said. "I think that they do everything so well. I think Dallas Escobedo's one of the best pitchers in the country. Offensively, they hit a ton of home runs and I don't think very many home runs were hit this past weekend. I think it's going to be completely different. You're taking that next step up, but that's what you expect when you go to Supers."
Escobedo is expected to shoulder the load for the Sun Devils and she hasn't allowed an earned run in 28 innings of work. The senior is 28-4 on the year with a 2.10 ERA and is coming off a regional performance where she was 3-0 with a no-hitter.
Last time the two teams met, Escobedo tamed the Wildcats, allowing one earned run, scattering just five hits and striking out eight. Kentucky has seen high-caliber pitching in the SEC and are approaching the rematch with confidence.
"She has a lot of spin on the ball and she also has a really good rise ball," freshman centerfielder Sylver Samuel said. "We have learned from it and I think that's what's going to make us tough to get out this week."
Arizona State will be playing on its home turf at Farrington Stadium, where the Sun Devils are 38-3 on the year. The Sun Devils are hitting .334 on the year with 92 home runs and 403 runs scored, compared to the Cats who are posting .269, 57 and 277, respectively, in those categories. Along those lines, ASU has five batters with 10 or more home runs and four with 40 or more RBI, while junior Lauren Cumbess (12 HR, 42 RBI) and sophomore Griffin Joiner (10 HR, 40 RBI) are the only two Wildcats to reach those numbers.
Kentucky will once again turn to freshman sensation Kelsey Nunley to lead them to Oklahoma City, Okla. The right-hander faced ASU in the first meeting, surrendering five runs on seven hits in three innings of relief. The Sun Devils roughed up Nunley, but the freshman was making just her third-career appearance at the collegiate level.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native has made tremendous strides in her first season, breaking UK's all-time single season wins mark with 27 on the year and being named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.
On paper, Arizona State looks like the heavy favorite in this series, but the Wildcats will give the Sun Devils a different look from what they saw back in February. If one thing is for certain, UK has complete trust in Nunley and will give it their all this weekend to back her up.
"Kelsey is really strong," Samuel said. "When she is out there we know that she is competing and giving everything to win so we give everything we have behind her. She is a strong freshman and we are proud of her."