For the first week of its cultural exchange trip to China, the Kentucky volleyball team bounced between bustling big cities. Thursday was different.
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.
Lauren Cumbess went 3-for-3 with a home run, a double and two RBI in UK's win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Rachel Lawson has seen her team accomplish unprecedented feats on big stages this season, but she still couldn't predict exactly how the Wildcats would respond on the biggest of stages.
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."
Kyle Cody will start UK's NCAA opener vs. Kansas at 2 p.m. on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- When the first pitch of the 2014 Louisville Regional is delivered Friday afternoon at Jim Patterson Stadium between Kansas and Kentucky, thoughts will be racing through the minds of everyone across the Bluegrass State about the potential matchup between Kentucky and Louisville.
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.
Kelsey Nunley conducts a video interview with ESPN on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics -- photo used with permission from ESPN).
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Suffice it to say, Kelsey Nunley has been a workhorse these last two weeks.
In leading UK to its first ever Women's College World Series, Nunley has thrown all 48.1 innings of the Wildcats' seven NCAA Tournament games.
With how effective it's been, Lawson has little reason to deviate from her all-Nunley-all-the-time strategy.
"As long as she pitches well, she will pitch," Lawson said on the eve of UK's Oklahoma City opener against No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette.
Nunley has certainly pitched well to this point. In allowing just six earned runs in NCAA play, the Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native has seen her earned-run average dip from 2.07 to 1.85 and her record move to 29-9.
The only concern, it would seem, is how Nunley's electric right arm is handling all the stress. The sophomore says she's doing just fine. In fact, responding to a question about how she feels, Nunley didn't even sound as if she thought there would be a reason for her to be tired.
"I feel good, especially with how we've been playing lately," Nunley said. "It gives me a ton of confidence when I know my team is behind me and we're producing a lot of runs. It lets me relax a little bit on the mound and it really gives me confidence."
The way she herself has performed doesn't hurt either.
Nunley has been a standout since she made her collegiate debut, but Lawson says she took her game to the next level starting at the Southeastern Conference Tournament earlier this month.
"When she went into the SEC Tournament, I felt like she really matured as a pitcher overnight. She was incredible," Lawson said. "She puts the ball exactly where she wants to put the ball. She doesn't shy away from much. She's very even-keeled. As those games continued to go and as she continued to masterfully put the ball and command where she wanted to, we continued to pitch her and pitch her."
The last time Nunley wasn't on the mound for UK was in the finals of the SEC Tournament. UK lost to Georgia in that game with freshman Meagan Prince and senior Lauren Cumbess on the mound, but Lawson is confident in her staff, which also includes freshman Shannon Smith.
"We actually have a very good pitching staff," Lawson said. "We've used all four of our pitchers all year and all four of our pitchers have gotten key wins against very good teams."
The importance of that given the nature of this week's double-elimination tournament cannot be overstated.
"I don't think that any team can win the World Series with one pitcher anymore," Lawson said. "I think that those days are probably over. I think that if we want to go deep in the tournament we are definitely going to have to go into our pitching staff."
True as that may be, it all starts with Nunley.
"She keeps her velocity up," Lawson said. "She's strong. She does what she needs to do. So as long as those things are happening, I imagine she'll get the ball."
ULL coach: Lawson didn't need WCWS to prove herself
Any time she has spoken publicly in the last 48 hours, Lawson has referred to reaching the Women's College World Series as "validation" of everything that has helped Kentucky become a softball power.
Lawson repeated the message again as she sat next to Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Michael Lotief at a joint press conference on Wednesday. Lotief, who knows Lawson well from coaching against her Western Kentucky teams in the Sun Belt Conference, took issue.
In his estimation, Lawson didn't need to reach this level to prove what kind of coach she is.
"The fact you get to take the final hurdle and get over it is a good thing," Lotief said, speaking directly to Lawson rather than the dozens of media members in attendance. "But you don't have to do that to be validated in my judgment."
Lotief, who has faced Lawson at UK in 2009 and 2012, has watched her program transform. The result has been three Super Regional trips in the last four seasons.
"What she's done the last (four) years should have given everybody an inkling that the culture at Kentucky has changed," Lotief said. "To finish in the finals of Super Regionals every year, I would take that as a successful year every year."
Barnhart 'one of the family'
After UK took down UCLA to advance to the Women's College World Series, Lawson admits she was surprised by just how much her phone "blew up" with calls, text messages and emails.
The call from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, however, was no surprise.
"It's interesting because they're not out of the norm," Lawson said. "Mitch is always proud of his sports teams. He calls us after every big game."
Barnhart calls because he cares.
"He knows all the players," Lawson said. "He knows all of them not just by number, not just because they're players at Kentucky, but he knows them all as people. He's more like one of us. He's more like one of the family. Yes, he's the boss and he makes everything happen. But at the same time, he's been there every step of the way."
Bows no big deal
Wednesday's press conference with coaches from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana-Lafayette and Kentucky took somewhat of an unexpected turn.
A reporter asked the four coaches about how to balance between the fun players have on the field and the focus needed to compete at the highest level. The first three answered along the same lines, saying dugout cheers and face paint are what make softball unique as a sport and don't detract from the competitiveness of the game.
Lawson had a different take, specifically when it came to the bows players wear. Citing the beards many male athletes grow, she said sees no difference between baseball and softball players.
"You know they're spending as much time in that mirror checking out their beard and making sure it's long as the girls do with their bows," Lawson said. "Nobody can really tell me there's a difference between a big nasty beard and a bow. I think they're all accessories and it's really just what they're comfortable with."
UK will play in its first Women's College World Series game on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET against Louisiana-Lafayette. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Reaching the Women's College World Series has been the goal for Kentucky softball for years now.
For good reason, the Wildcats celebrated when they reached it with a Super Regional victory over UCLA on Sunday.
It only took one moment at the Tuesday night banquet honoring the schools that reached Oklahoma City to officially put an end to the celebration. It only took one look at what the eight best softball teams in the country will be playing for this week for the Cats to go right back to intense focus.
"When you see the trophy it reminds you that there's more games to play and we're here to win," senior Lauren Cumbess said.
If you thought the Cats would be happy just seeing their names on the scoreboard at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, playing on national television for a couple nights and going home, think again. As momentous as merely making it this far for the first time may be, UK is here to win.
"We have to know that we're here not to just be here but to actually compete and try to win a national championship," senior Krystal Smith said.
That's an attitude the Cats have already displayed this postseason.
Less than three weeks ago, UK accomplished another program first in advancing to the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Cats would see their remarkable run fall short of a title with a 5-2 loss to Georgia, but Lawson saw everything she needed to in that moment to be convinced her team won't be content reaching the World Series.
"What I noticed was the team wasn't excited just to be there," Lawson said. "I noticed that they were disappointed that we didn't win it. I didn't know that I necessarily expected that, but I was really happy to see that when we got into the team huddle and those long faces."
Those long faces, of course, turned happy again with UK's impressive effort in winning a Regional and Super Regional. Along the way, the Cats dispatched No. 25 James Madison, bested a solid DePaul team and rallied for two Sunday victories against No. 3 UCLA and player of the year finalist Ally Carda.
Add that to the fact that the Cats were competitive all season in the SEC -- a league represented by three teams in Oklahoma City -- and you have a group that's proven itself time and time again.
"As a team, we always have a ton of confidence," Jolly said. "We all think that we can beat anyone on any given day."
In spite of that confidence, No. 14 UK (49-17) will be the on-paper underdog in any game this week, starting Thursday at 7 p.m. ET against No. 6 Louisiana Lafayette (49-8-1). The Cats are the highest-seeded team still standing and one of just two teams -- along with No. 13 Baylor -- not among the top eight national seeds to advance to the Women's College World Series.
"We're more than (happy) to accept the Cinderella label," said Smith, who is riding a four-game hitting streak. "Everyone loves a great story and what better story than for the first team of the Kentucky program to make it to the World Series and make a run and how amazing that would be."
The Cats might be willing to play the role of Cinderella, but that doesn't mean they see themselves that way. They know what they've done reach this point. They know what they're capable of.
"I think we all know we're just as good as all the other teams in this playing field," Smith said. "So we don't look at ourselves as a higher seed than the others, but someone that we're all on the same level with, competing for the same goal."
Louisiana-Lafayette, however, is undisputedly good.
Making their sixth trip to the Women's College World Series, the Ragin' Cajuns haven't lost in the NCAA Tournament and have only dropped two games since March 14. Louisiana-Lafayette -- led by Lexie Elkins and her 22 home runs -- ranks second nationally in homers per game and boasts a team earned-run average of 2.77 behind ace Christina Hamilton (29-2, 1.53 ERA).
"I know they've always had a really good program and they have a great pitcher this year," Cumbess said. "We know that she's tough, that she moves the ball around a lot.
"We just know they're a great ball club and they're tough just like we are, so it should be fun."
As much respect as the Cats have from their opponent, their thought process won't change from the moment they glimpsed that hardware.
"I think our team understands that the World Series is great," Lawson said. "It doesn't get any better than that. But with that said, they're all winners. They were all picked to be at the University of Kentucky because they were champions where they come from."
The Kentucky volleyball team got a firsthand look at history on Wednesday.
As the Wildcats continue their cultural exchange trip to China, they went to a small town outside of Baoding to visit a museum. The museum was entirely dedicated to the tunnel system the Chinese built to avoid Japan's invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which took place before and eventually as part of World War II.
The museum even afforded the Cats the opportunity to walk through one of the tunnels for more than a half-mile. With the majority of players and coaches standing over six feet tall, they all learned the tunnel system was not built for a volleyball team.
Later on Wednesday evening, the Cats returned to more familiar surroundings for a match against Hebei, another team from the Chinese Volleyball League. In an environment similar to Tuesday's, UK fell, 3-1, in spite of playing well. Lauren O'Conner was the headliner, tallying 19 kills and 23 total points, but the experience of Hebei was too much to overcome even as Jackie Napper and Alyssa Gergins turned in solid matches.
On Thursday, more travel is in store for the team as the Cats will depart Baoding for Zhangjiakou. Continue to check in on UKVBtoChina.com for updates.
Got an early morning tomorrow headed to Zhangjiako, our last city before we go to Beijing! 🏯🇨🇳🉐 #UKVBtoChina
As Kentucky's cultural exchange trip to China wears on, the volleyball is getting more intense.
On Tuesday, the Wildcats took on the Henan team from the Chinese Volleyball League. The result -- a 3-1 loss -- didn't end up going their way, but the match was extremely competitive.
Lauren O'Conner and Morgan Bergren were standouts, thriving in a loud environment for the evening match. UK and Henan played on campus at a local university in Baoding in front of a loud, volleyball-savvy crowd comprised of nearly all students. Check out the two videos below to get a glimpse of the environment.
The rest of the day, the Cats took it easy, relaxing at their hotel and making a quick walk to a nearby mall in Baoding.
We've had limited access to Twitter, but the trip to China has been incredible so far. Truly a once in a lifetime experience! #UKVBtoChina
Understandably, the Kentucky volleyball team hasn't been its sharpest on the court so far during a cultural exchange trip to China.
On Monday, the Wildcats took a big step in the right direction.
Before a lengthy afternoon of traveling, UK took on the Jiangsu Junior Team on Monday morning. Led by Kayla Tronick and Emily Franklin, the Cats found the form that has established them among the nation's elite in Craig Skinner's tenure as head coach.
"I thought my performance was good but not great," Emily Franklin wrote. "There are things I need to improve on and that will take time while adjusting to the different style of play. Overall, I felt like I did give it to my team!"
UK is adjusting to a new pregame ritual while in China that features meditation, as well as the lighter balls used there.
After the match and lunch, it was off to Baoding, a smaller city of about two million people, via bullet train and bus. In transit for the better part of the afternoon, the Cats didn't have time for much more than a short walk around a bright downtown area and dinner.
The team did, however, take time to write their thoughts about their time in China so far for a blog dedicated to their trip. Here are a few thoughts from the student-athletes themselves:
So far this China trip for me has been interesting in a good way. I have learned so much and a lot of the questions I had about China I have been able to answer myself just by observing the cities and the people around me. The sightseeing has been incredible. There is so much more in our world that we do not know about and I am enjoying the opportunity we have right now to experience it. Besides the food (which is not horrible, just different) my time in China has been a blast.
I have been surprised by the differences in our lifestyles compared to those living here. Not necessarily the lifestyles but the differences in the environment, the food, everything really. I was shocked by the way people drive idiotically through the streets and the food has been a huge challenge for me because I have not been able to eat much at all. I really enjoyed visiting the temple, but I would also like to visit other places that are interesting but not necessarily dealing with their religion.
China has been interesting so far. I am really enjoying seeing the city and the culture. I am disappointed in the food and wish that it were more appealing to me. However, I really am having a good time learning and observing the Chinese way of life and seeing the things that we were taught in class firsthand. So far I have had a great time bargaining for souvenirs and trying the exotic foods! I would like to learn more about the history of the temples that we visit. I wish there was more English at the temple so that I could understand more of what I am seeing.
The experts had it pegged and the Wildcats had an idea it might be happening.
They still couldn't help but react with cheers when it became official that Kentucky would head to Louisville to open the NCAA Tournament with Kansas and Kent State joining the two rivals.
"I think we all kind of expected it," Austin Cousino said. "It'll be a tough one. I know Kansas has got a good team and Kent State has won the MAC I don't know how many years in a row. Louisville's a good club, impressive resume. But it'll be fun. It'll be a good weekend of baseball."
The Cats (35-23) earned their eighth all-time NCAA bid on Monday when they were tabbed the No. 2 seed in the Louisville Regional. UK's tournament run will begin on Friday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU against the third-seeded Jayhawks.
The Louisville Regional is rife with juicy plotlines. Beyond a potential in-state showdown on Saturday, familiar foe Kent State will also play at Jim Patterson Stadium this weekend. Two years ago, the Cats and Golden Flashes played an unforgettable 21-inning game in both team's NCAA opener.
"It kind of seems like it always sets up like that," Cousino said of the intrigue.
UK enters the tournament riding a wave of momentum. The Cats took two of three games in each of their final two weekend series before winning three games in three days over ranked opponents to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. They would fall to No. 2 national seed Florida there, but UK had already established itself as a threat.
"Our last conference weekend against Georgia we played really well and we played really well in the conference tournament," A.J. Reed said. "So we're ready to go out there and play hard and we feel like we can play with anybody in the country and we feel like we're one of those teams that nobody wants to play in the regionals."
Solidifying UK's status as a feared tournament team are Chandler Shepherd and Kyle Cody. The two pitchers battled injury this season, but returned to form at the SEC Tournament.
"I'm not sure you could say there's anything more important," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Obviously we're playing well. That's good, but those two guys are important. They have to pitch, and they have to pitch well."
As further evidence of the Cats' ability to make noise in the NCAA Tournament, UK boasts a 4-3 record against teams that received top eight national seeds, 11 wins over top-25 RPI teams and a two-game sweep of Louisville all while playing in the SEC, a league that set a record with 10 teams receiving tourney bids.
A potential rematch of UK and U of L, clearly, jumps off the page. The Cats don't dispute that.
"We always look forward to playing Louisville in the regular season and now to get to play them in the postseason is going to be a lot of fun and we're going to be ready for it and play a really good game," Reed said.
For that game to happen, both teams have to take care of business. And as UK vies for its first Super Regional appearance ever, Henderson knows the importance of winning on Friday.
"I can guarantee you that we will not be looking past Kansas, yeah. Our last three regionals we won six games of the three, and we're 0-3 in the first game," he said. "So I'm well aware of where we are. ... We need to worry about Kansas and do everything that we can to play well on Friday."
Whether that means Reed -- the presumptive national player of the year -- will start against Kansas remains to be seen.
"To be honest I don't know anything about Kansas offensively," Henderson said. "So, I think right now you'd anticipate that would be the way we would go: A.J. in the first game. But I'll sit down and I'll look at it, to be honest, and I'll just see what makes sense. I'll make a good decision."
On paper, the Jayhawks are solid. Kansas has a team batting average of .284 and scores 5.6 runs per game. On the mound, Kansas has an earned-run average of 3.51 playing in the tough Big 12.
"They're going to be a solid team," Reed said. "They're in the tournament for a reason so you can't take that for (granted) and, you know, we gotta come out there and play well against them and put up runs and throw well and play good defense."
No matter they opponent, the Cats feel good about their chances of doing just that.
"I think our offense is hitting its stride," Henderson said. "I think we pitched very well in the SEC Tournament. Defense is good and we seemed to get a lot of key hits over the course of the tourney. When you go to Hoover and win games like that, it gives you the confidence to pretty much go anywhere and know you're good enough to win. So I think right now it's get a couple days of practice in and stay hot."
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.