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Believe it: Softball headed to World Series

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The UK softball team advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history (Chet White, UK Athletics) The UK softball team advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOS ANGELES -- The Kentucky softball team has made history all season, and Sunday against college softball's elite, it reached its peak.

The No. 14 Wildcats upended third-ranked UCLA with 7-3 and 7-1 wins Sunday to win their NCAA Super Regional and advance to the program's first Women's College World Series.

It took head coach Rachel Lawson just seven years to establish UK among the nation's best programs and book a trip to Oklahoma City and the World Series.

"This is a special day for us," Lawson said. "We're going into a place that we've never been before, I feel really excited. It's a dream come true for all the girls on our team and our staff, we've worked incredibly hard. This particular senior class, this is our third Super Regional, so we've been close enough to taste it, but for it to actually be a reality is very special."

The way the Wildcats got to the World Series is the perfect example of what the team is all about. Heavy underdogs coming into the Super Regional, UK knew it belonged on the big stage and wanted to prove it against the Bruins.

The Cats didn't care they were facing a team that had won 12 national titles and is widely recognized as the gold standard of college softball. They didn't care that they had to go on the road in a hostile environment for three games at UCLA's sold-out Easton Stadium.

The Wildcats believed they could win, and they got it done.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet," senior captain Lauren Cumbess said. "We set a goal at the beginning of the year. We've always had that goal all four years that I've been here, but particularly this year, it was 'Women's College World Series or bust,' and we've really stuck to that and reminded each other what our goal was.

"It's just amazing, I can't believe that we did it. I can, but it hasn't sunk in yet. I think once we get to Oklahoma, it'll really feel like, 'Wow, I'm here on the biggest stage for softball.' "

UK found itself in a deep hole after Saturday night's game one, when UCLA scored four runs in the sixth inning to come back for a 6-4 victory. The Cats' backs were against the wall, but they weren't out.

As they have done all season, they kept on fighting. The offense had scored more than four runs just three times in the last month, but that didn't matter Sunday.

The UK offense exploded for seven runs in the first of two win-or-go-home games Sunday. The next game, Kentucky continued the offensive onslaught and scored another seven runs to give starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley some much-needed run support.

The last time UK scored seven or more runs in consecutive games was on April 8-9 against two non-conference foes. The Wildcats never achieved the feat in SEC competition, but that didn't stop them Sunday against a pitcher that is one of three national player of the year candidates.

"UCLA is one of the best teams in the country and I thought that we played well this weekend," Lawson said. "I watched our team grow up at the SEC Tournament, and I saw us continue to be strong through regionals and then I felt like we definitely got some lucky breaks, but I also thought we played well this weekend. The field of eight is incredible, but we're going out there, we're in the SEC, so we compete against good teams all the time. We're hoping to play our game and hopefully things will work out for us."

UK's rise to the Women's College World Series has not taken a long time. Lawson has been at the helm for seven seasons, and has taken the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six years. Three of the last four years, Kentucky advanced to the Super Regional.

Making the College World Series for the first time in program history wasn't a matter of 'if,' it was simply a matter of 'when.' The rate at which UK rose in the national rankings suggested it wouldn't be any other way.

It took a combination of a great coaching staff, unparalleled support from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and the UK administration and a great group of players.

"We have incredible support, we have one of the best venues in the country to play out of, we have fans come in droves," Lawson said. "Because of that, we're getting incredible recruits, as you can see. You can't advance without the athletes. It says a lot about the character of our team, our team does things the right way. The not only work incredibly hard all year, but they're also incredible students, they're great people. I'm very happy for our team because this is a dream for all of them come true. It says we're doing things the right way."

Of course, having a group of 19 players with a never-say-die attitude that doesn't care about rankings and what is "supposed to happen" certainly doesn't hurt.

It's a group of 19 players with a toughness, grit and passion, combined with an immense amount of talent and a never-quit attitude.

Just ask Cumbess, who watched as her starting pitcher fired 375 pitches in the span of just 24 hours and five minutes.

"I've always thought we are a really tough team, and it's shown throughout our season that we don't give up, we're always fighting back," she said.

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