Adjust they did.
It started against Hebei, the same team that downed the Cats on Tuesday, 3-1. On Friday, UK reversed that tally with a 3-1 victory. Sara Schwarzwalder and Shelby Workman led the way, with Workman tallying a team high in kills and hitting over .300.
UK sustained the momentum on Saturday. In spite of falling behind two sets to one, the Cats rallied to victory. Their coach was pleased with the way his team battled in Zhangjiakou, while the players couldn't help but notice a group of fans in attendance.
Good win for us today in 5 sets after being down 1-2. Mentally we wavered, but pushed through at the end. #UKVBtoChina-- Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 31, 2014
We finished the tournament 2-2, winning the last two.Very good competition & close matches.Definitely a good experience for us #UKVBtoChina-- Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 31, 2014
Playing against professionals in this tournament was invaluable. They will not give you anything. It's all earned.-- Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 31, 2014
This trip continues to amaze me. The team just had friendly scrimmage w a local club.Prob 30-40 media including 2 TV stations. #UKVBtoChina-- Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 31, 2014
We legit had a Chinese biker gang come to our match...😳😎-- Kelsey Wolf (@bigbad_wolf21) May 31, 2014
I didn't wake up this morning thinking we would play a match in front of a Chinese motorcycle gang...but it happened. #UKVBtoChina-- Anders Nelson (@VBDers) May 31, 2014
The Cats managed to sneak in some sightseeing around their matches, going for an evening hike.
UK's cultural exchange trip to China is now about to enter its final leg. The Cats will travel to Beijing for a three-day stop before they head home on June 4.
So excited to go to Beijing tomorrow!-- Lauren O'Conner (@LaurenOC12) May 31, 2014
And after Beijing means 🏠 😁☺️-- Lauren O'Conner (@LaurenOC12) May 31, 2014
In the final moments before Kentucky's Women's College World Series matchup with Alabama, the video board listed the tale of the tape for the game's two starting pitchers.
If the names and school logos hadn't been there, Lawson wouldn't have been able to say which statistics belonged to UK ace Kelsey Nunley and Alabama's Jaclyn Traina.
"They had Traina next to Nunley and the stats were identical," Lawson said. "Like, identical. I thought that they had made a typo."
Entering the game, Nunley had 29 wins to Traina's 24. Their earned-run averages stood at 1.99 and 1.83, respectively. A battle, it seemed, was in store for the fans watching at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and at home on ESPN2.
A battle is what they got.
Just as the two sides of the video board were almost indistinguishable from one another pregame, the same was true for the two sides of the scoreboard afterward. UK had four hits to Alabama's three. Neither team committed an error.
The only real difference was in the most meaningful column, where Alabama came out on top 2-0 to send the Wildcat into the loser's bracket.
"Just an awesome game tonight," Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said. "I thought it was a made-for-TV sporting event, the way it ended, the way it played out. Two really good teams with two really good pitchers."
The drama, as Murphy referenced, came to a crescendo in the seventh and final inning.
Just an inning after Sylver Samuel finally broke up Traina's no-hit bit with an infield single, Nikki Sagermann -- reaching base for the third time in as many trips -- Lauren Cumbess and Griffin Joiner singled to lead off the frame and load the bases for Emily Gaines. The senior put together a seven-pitch at-bat, but looked at a changeup that was called strike three.
It was then Krystal Smith's turn to take a shot at being the hero. Smith smacked a grounder to shortstop that was hit just hard enough for Alabama to turn a game-ending double play.
"I just think the fact that they were able to turn the double play, that's the way it goes," Lawson said. "We have one missed pitch and they hit a home run and then the game ends on a double play. That's the way softball should be played."
In a matchup between two pitchers as dominant as Nunley and Traina -- Lawson called Traina the best pitcher in the country -- the separation between victory and defeat is always going to be razor thin. In this case, it came down to a double play and a homer.
Following a scoreless first inning, Peyton Grantham kept the Alabama second alive with a two-out single. When Nunley fell behind 2-0 and left a pitch just a little too high in the zone, Leona Lafaele made her pay with a shot over the fence in left center.
"My approach to the at-bat was just get my barrel there," Lafaele said. "Nunley is a great, fantastic pitcher and she's been mowing teams down and Kentucky definitely had momentum coming into the game."
"The girl definitely made a good swing," Nunley said. "The pitch was a little high, so she hit it right over. And, you know, it happens. So you just gotta flush it and move on to the next batter."
Nunley managed that just fine. She retired 16 of the final 18 batters she faced in going pitch for pitch with Traina, a senior who has two years' experience on Nunley.
"I love playing games that it's a good matchup," Nunley said.
Nunley won't have to wait long for another such matchup. The Cats now await the winner of No. 8 Florida State and No. 13 Baylor at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday in an elimination game.
Already this NCAA Tournament, the Cats have won three games in which their season was at stake. Most recently, UK advanced to its first-ever Women's College World Series by taking two Sunday games at UCLA to complete an unlikely comeback from a 1-0 Super Regional deficit.
"We're a tough team and I know we'll battle back from this," Samuel said. "It's just another bump in the road, but we like to play extra games so we'll come back from that."
The way UK closed Friday night's game is another reason to believe the Cats will bounce back.
Traina, for the first 5.2 innings, was literally unhittable. Sitting in the high 60s in terms of velocity and at times reach 70 miles per hour, Traina was difficult to prepare for. Add in the late start time and you have a recipe for a long night for hitters.
"Traina's outstanding and under the lights she's incredible," Lawson said. "I think that it took us that long to really adjust visually to it."
UK eventually did make the necessary adjustments, catching up with Traina's power arm for those three hits. The rally was eventually undone, but not the momentum and confidence built by it. That the Cats will carry forward.
"I definitely think that our team felt good in the seventh inning," Lawson said. "That was the fight that they've had this entire postseason and they know that they have more life in them. They know that they have at least one more game tomorrow."
In a game that saw more than three hours' worth of weather delays, UK could never find a rhythm in Friday's matchup with the Jayhawks. Starting pitcher Kyle Cody lasted just one-third of an inning after allowing three runs in the first and then sitting through an hour weather delay.
UK head coach Gary Henderson was quick to dismiss the notion that the weather was the cause for his team's poor play vs. KU.
"Kansas had to go through the same thing," Henderson said. "They played much better than we did today. It's not ideal to have three delays, but it didn't affect our pitching in the first two innings. I wouldn't attribute anything that happened today to delays, lightning, rain, stops, none of it. We just didn't play well enough."
The 2014 NCAA Tournament marks Kentucky's eighth trip in program history to the tournament and Kentucky is now 1-7 all-time in the opening game of a regional. However, the Wildcats have shown resilience in bouncing back to make the final game of the regional in five of those appearances, but have not advanced to a Super Regional.
The situation facing Kentucky is familiar and not ideal, but one that can be conquered.
"It's hard," Henderson said. "The bottom line is it's hard. It's not impossible. It'll probably happen this year with somebody. There's 16 of these (regionals) going on right now, so somebody will probably go through the loser's bracket and win. It might as well be us."
The Wildcats' National Player of the Year A.J. Reed doesn't necessarily view his team as having a huge hill to climb.
"I don't think it's really a hole," Reed said. "We're a good team. We can go win four games in a row; we've done it before this season. It all starts with tomorrow, so we have to come out here and play well tomorrow and get a good feel back and get some momentum back. I think after that we'll get on a little roll."
The junior lefthander will get the start in game two Saturday vs. Kent State in the elimination game. The last time UK and Kent State took the field, the game went 21 innings, while drawing a lot of similarities to today's game, as both contests lasted more than six hours. Of course the two games were marathons for two different reasons.
"I think we just approach it the same way we approach every other game," Reed said. "Tomorrow's game is a little more important obviously because it's an elimination game, but we're going to come out here with the same energy and enthusiasm that we always do and we're going to attack the hitters and be aggressive at the plate. We're going to go out there and play our game."
One game at a time. That has been the theme all week in preparation of the Louisville Regional and though the Wildcats were trying to avoid the loser's bracket that is where they are once again.
"We have one thing in front of us and that's tomorrow's ball game," Henderson said. "That's it and that's all we need to be worried about, so we need to do a good job with that. If we're fortunate enough to play well tomorrow then we can talk about the next game."
Since the program's first year in 1997 and before this season, Alabama had reached nine Women's College World Series. In its most recent trip to Oklahoma City, the Crimson Tide took home its first national championship in 2012.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are only just getting their feet wet on softball's biggest stage. Nonetheless, you needn't look any further than UK's Women's College World Series debut for evidence that the Cats aren't about to shrink in the spotlight at 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday.
And to give fans added reason to believe UK will be confident, the Cats played very well the last time they saw the Crimson Tide.
UK and Alabama haven't faced off in 2014, but the Cats traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the final regular-season series of 2013. Let's look back at what happened as UK claimed its first-ever series win over the Crimson Tide.
Game one -- Kelsey Nunley, as she has been all postseason, was dominant. She tossed a complete-game shutout, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out five in UK's 5-0 win in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader. Shortstop Christian Stokes, now a sophomore, went 2-for-3 with with a home run, two RBI and two runs as UK claimed a 3-0 lead in the second inning and never looked back.
Game two -- This one wasn't so memorable for UK, at least not for good reasons. Smarting from that game-one defeat, Alabama played 10 first-inning runs against three different Wildcat pitchers en route to a 14-0 run-rule win in five innings.
Game three -- If UK and Alabama play a game like this one on Friday, the primetime audience on ESPN2 is in for a treat. The Cats took a 5-0 lead into the sixth inning behind Nunley, who was once again cruising. Alabama, however, rallied to tie it and send the game to extra innings. Unfazed, the Cats responded with four in the top of the eighth to come away with a 9-5 win. Third baseman Nikki Sagermann struck the big blow -- a three-run homer -- to give her a school-record six RBI in the game.
These are obviously two different teams than a year ago -- both much better, clearly -- but there has to be some value for Kentucky's youngsters in the experience of taking two of three at Alabama. In that series, players on this year's roster accounted for all but two of UK's runs, all but one hit and every RBI and win on the mound.
The Wildcats traveled six hours through the Yin Mountains to Zhangjiakou. The city is still home to nearly a million people, but Zhangjiakou is much more remote. Once the Cats arrived and got settled, they went for a hike on which they saw parts of the Great Wall and a garden with statues of all the Chinese zodiac signs.
For dinner, the Cats spent time with the three teams they'll be competing with in Zhangjiakou. It was a chilly night, so all four squads joined together for a post-dinner bonfire that featured dancing and karaoke.
Our team did an amazing job crossing the language barrier last night w the pro teams...singing and dancing at the bonfire. #UKVBtoChina— Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) May 30, 2014
@UKCoachSkinner Completely awesome!— Kelli Elam (@klelam) May 29, 2014
On Friday, the Cats will rematch with Hebei in front of what is expected to be a big crowd. Continue to check UKVBtoChina.com for updates.
An exchange with sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes illuminated that fact.
"I didn't know what to expect," Lawson said. "In the middle of the (second) inning, Stokes goes, 'Wow, look at all the people,' and she was on deck. And I'm like, 'Wow, look at the ball.' "
Stokes' response ended up being all Lawson needed to know.
"Don't worry, I got this, Coach," Stokes said.
Stokes would pop out to end the inning, but her attitude saying everything about how the Cats are approaching their first-ever Women's College World Series.
Are the Cats going to take time to soak in this experience? Of course. Are they going to let that derail them from the task at hand? No way.
"We just love being here and we talked about it amongst ourselves," Lauren Cumbess said. "We just want to enjoy every moment. No one plays well under pressure, so we're not playing with any pressure on ourselves."
UK certainly looked like a team free from pressure on Thursday night.
Attacking and playing with poise from the first inning on, the Cats dispatched No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette, 4-1. UK (50-17) played flawless defense behind a dominant Kelsey Nunley and capitalized on nearly every opportunity afforded them by Ragin' Cajun ace Christina Hamilton, looking like anything but a team content simply to have made it Oklahoma City.
"We're going out there just trusting what we've worked on practice," Cumbess said. "We think that we're prepared to face anybody, just like all the other teams here that have been preparing for this day at the World Series."
Cumbess, finally playing in the Women's College World Series as a senior after two Super Regional trips in her first two seasons, led the way.
After Louisiana-Lafayette committed an error to extend the first inning and Griffin Joiner walked with two outs, Cumbess stepped to the plate. Showing no signs of nerves, Cumbess doubled into the gap in right-center for the first Women's College World Series hit and RBI in school history.
"With two outs we put our heads down and try to make something happen with two outs," Cumbess said. "We always try to get a runner on. We scored so many times this season with two outs whether it's by a walk or hit."
Three innings later, she led off the top of the fourth inning and blasted an 0-2 pitch over the wall in left to stake UK to a 3-1 lead. Nunley surely appreciated the insurance, but she didn't need it.
Tossing her eighth complete game and winning for the sixth time in NCAA play, Nunley allowed just one run to the potent offense of Louisiana-Lafayette (49-9-1). It came on the Ragin' Cajuns' lone hit -- Lexie Elkins' first-inning home run traveled deep into the bleachers at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
"I kind of expected at least, them to hit at least one good ball," Nunley said. "I knew that they were a good hitting team and I know that home runs happen all the time. I just tried to stay calm and relax and kept throwing."
"If they hit it, it goes far," Lawson added.
From that point forward, Louisiana-Lafayette didn't hit it often. Taking special care not to give Elkins -- who now has 23 homers -- or any of her power-hitting teammates anything good to hit, Nunley walked five batters but protected the lead.
"We were able to come through that, so I can live with the five walks, and I'm glad we only gave up one home run," Lawson said. "They're pretty good."
Nunley struck out seven and at one point retired eight straight batters. Only twice did a Ragin' Cajun reach second base against the UK sophomore.
"I don't think we've really seen anybody like her," Louisiana-Lafayette third baseman Samantha Walsh said.
With her unique combination of electric stuff, toughness and durability, Nunley is all but certain to get the call again on Friday. The Cats will face No. 2 Alabama -- which defeated Oklahoma, 6-2, to move into the winner's bracket -- once again as the underdogs.
They'll pay about as much attention to that as the pressure they're supposed to be feeling.
"We're just trusting ourselves and what happens happens," Cumbess said." We're just going for it."
However, the Wildcats have a more immediate -- and more important -- task at hand. It also happens to be one that has escaped UK in its NCAA Tournament history.
In UK's last four NCAA Tournament appearances, the Wildcats have lost the opening game of the regionals in all four games, including 2012 when UK fell in 21 innings to Kent State -- another potential matchup in game two of this regional. Kentucky is making its eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history, while looking to record only its second-ever opening game win in a regional. In the seven previous NCAA Regional opening-game appearances, UK's lone win came in 1988 vs. Rutgers.
For Kentucky to be successful, the Cats cannot afford to look past a team that enters its first NCAA Tournament since 2009, while riding a recent hot streak.
Kansas makes the trek to Louisville having won its last nine Big 12 conference regular-season games before entering postseason play, including 11 of its last 15 games overall. Prior to reeling off nine straight Big 12 regular season wins, the Jayhawks sat at 23-20 on the season with slim hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, but that's the funny thing about baseball: Any team can get hot at any time of the season.
For KU, it couldn't have happened at a better time.
"To win nine games in a row in any good league is hard, mathematically it's really hard if you just look at the statistics or percentages," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson. "They've got an older group. They got hot. They're playing well. They deserve to be here."
Friday's matchup on the diamond will mark the first between the two programs who have rich traditions on the hardwood. The two head coaches realize just how important that first game of the regional is. It can set the tone for the remainder of the regional or it can put you in a hole from the very beginning.
"I'm not sure I have a word other than, really important," said Henderson. "The only thing I can tell you is you have to win that game. Is it impossible if you lose? No, it's not impossible. As a coach, you know what you need to do to make that path as likely or as easy as you can, and it's winning the first game."
Two years ago the Wildcats were facing a similar situation in the Gary Regional with Purdue as the No. 1 seed. UK was matched up with Kent State in game one, while a potential Purdue tilt awaited if both teams took care of business. The unexpected happened in most people's eyes. Kent State outlasted the Wildcats in a marathon 21-inning contest that saw Kent State advancing to face the Boilermakers and UK already in a hole to face Valparaiso.
Henderson is making it a point to not let history repeat itself once again in 2014.
"Two years ago we're talking about Purdue," Henderson explained. "We don't need to talk about Purdue. We need to talk about Kent State and then the next day you're not playing Purdue anyway. You're playing Valpo. We need to do everything we can to play well tomorrow at 2 p.m. and then whoever we have is whoever we have."
Henderson's players have echoed the same statement. Current UK standouts Austin Cousino and just-named Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year A.J. Reed were freshmen on that 2012 team that fell in the opening game of the Gary Regional. They are determined to not let that happen as juniors.
"We have to win the first one and whoever it may be after (Kansas), I think you just have to go out and play regardless of who the team is and who they are pitching," Cousino said. "We just have to come out ready."
"The first game is obviously the most important one," Reed said. "We don't want to start out in a hole and have to work our way back and beat a team twice to win the regional, so the first game is the most important and we're confident having Kyle (Cody) out there. He's going to give us a good effort and we're going to come out and play good defense and swing the bats well and our bullpen guys are going to do well, so we feel good about it."
Sophomore righthander Kyle Cody has the task of taking the mound in game one in hopes of starting Kentucky on a positive note. The Chippewa Falls, Wis., native enters Friday's start at 4-0 on the season with a 2.65 ERA, while coming off an impressive 4-2 win in the SEC Tournament vs. the top-seeded Florida Gators.
"I've been pitching well since Georgia and Hoover (for the SEC Tournament) was a big confidence-booster for me and I just want to keep things rolling for the team," Cody said. "I just have to go do my part. We have to win game one because it's a big deal to get here in the first place. I just have to have full confidence in myself and go up there and give a good start for the team."
UK's season won't end after Friday's game either way, but a win will go a long way in determining just how far the Wildcats can go, and if you didn't get the hint: Game one is a pretty big deal.
UK is down two spots from 14th when final winter standings were released, but is soon to get a boost from remaining spring sports.
Standings will next be tabulated on June 10 to include softball and men's golf with men's and women's track and field set to be factored in on June 19 and baseball on June 26 or 27. Men's golf posted its best finish (18th) since 2006 earlier this week, while softball is one of eight teams competing in the Women's College World Series. Baseball will play for its first-ever Super Regional bid this weekend, while the UK track and field team -- women ranked fifth, men 19th -- is in Jacksonville, Fla., for the NCAA East Preliminary Championships.
Whether UK reaches Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of a top-15 finish remains to be seen, but an all-time record performance is all but assured at this point. UK was 25th in last year's final Directors' Cup standings, the school's best finish in the 20-year history of the national all-sports standings.