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Home crowd on its side, softball looks to build off momentum at NCAA Regional

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For the sixth consecutive season, the Kentucky softball team will compete in the NCAA Regionals and it will host the regional for the second year in a row.

But this year, it's different.


For the first time in program history, the Wildcats have momentum on their side as they open the 64-team NCAA Tournament Friday night at John Cropp Stadium.

UK won three games at the SEC Tournament last weekend in Columbia, S.C., and made it to the championship game for the first time in team history. Before this season, the Wildcats were 1-9 all-time at the conference tournament.

In two of the past three seasons, the Wildcats have gone 0-1 at the SEC Tournament only to turn around and advance to the NCAA Super Regionals the following weekend.

This year, coming off a 3-1 weekend at the SEC Tournament has proven beneficial as UK prepares for the Regional.

"Last week, playing four games against the toughest competition in our conference, and in the nation too, was really productive for us," junior captain Griffin Joiner said. "We could have been here practicing every day, so it was a really good opportunity for us to play in the SEC Tournament. When we got back, school has been out, so it's been all softball. We wake up every day and come out here and try to get the job done, getting ready for this weekend."

Even after a loss Saturday in the championship game to Georgia after a record-breaking run, the Wildcats are hungry for more.

The momentum from the tournament's three wins, combined with the disappointment from Saturday's loss has fueled UK in practice this week.

"After we got beat Saturday night, that was disappointing," sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley said. "We've come out this week and made adjustments and worked hard in practice. I think we're ready to go, we just have to bring our A game."

Sunday night, just hours after the Wildcats returned from Columbia, UK learned it would host the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. Lexington hosted the Super Regionals in 2011, the first time NCAA competition was ever played at John Cropp Stadium. Last season, Kentucky also hosted the NCAA Regional.

Earning a host bid is a big advantage. Not only does it mean the Wildcats are the highest seed among the four teams, but they will have the Big Blue Nation behind them.

"Over the past three or four years the Big Blue Nation has really shown up, and it's helped us in ball games," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "When we played Tennessee at home and beat them, I felt like the crowd gave us a big push. We've had record-breaking crowds every year, and I Kentucky fans are such good fans, it really helps us, especially in later games against opponents that aren't used to playing with that type of crowd."

The three-game series against Tennessee, the final home series of the regular season, drew a school-record 4,664 fans. The final two games of the series drew more than 1,600 fans, both standing-room only crowds.

Playing in front of packed stadiums is nothing new for the Wildcats in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. Seven of Kentucky's road contests in SEC play drew at least 1,000 fans, including every game of the SEC Tournament.

"It's awesome, it's what you want as a player," Nunley said. "I think the fans can really make the game more exciting. I think it's great to have a lot of fans here supporting us.

The good crowds no doubt will come to cheer on Kentucky, as they have all season.

Fans will see three great teams, in addition the hometown Wildcats. UK, James Madison and DePaul all won at least 40 games this season, while Ohio and James Madison each won its respective conference tournaments. DePaul is making its 18th NCAA Tournament appearance.

The action gets underway Friday at 5 p.m. ET with James Madison and DePaul, followed by UK's matchup with Ohio at 7:30 p.m. That's when the Wildcats look to keep the momentum going as they look for a third Super Regional berth in the past four seasons.

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