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Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The importance of the leadoff hitter has never been more obvious than in the Kentucky softball team's Southeastern Conference Tournament run this past weekend.

Going into last week's SEC Tournament, Kentucky was coming off a three-game sweep suffered at Georgia. The Wildcats scored just one run in each game, and Rachel Lawson was looking for a spark at the top of the order.

Enter sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes.

"What happened after the Georgia series was I thought we needed a change in tone, a different way to start off the game," the UK head coach said. "So we put her in the leadoff position and just her presence alone, I believe she set the tone for the entire tournament. She set the tone in all of our wins in her first at-bat of every game. It's the ability to be able to put everyone on your back and have great presence in the box from the get-go."

On the third pitch of the bottom of the first inning in UK's opening-round win over Mississippi State, Stokes sent a shot over the right field wall to give UK an early 1-0 lead. As her teammates poured out of the dugout to greet her at home plate, it was apparent the offensive spark that Lawson was looking for had been found.

In four games leading off at the SEC Tournament, Stokes' numbers were beyond impressive. She hit .429 with six hits, two home runs and three RBI. She scored a run in each of Kentucky's three wins and reached base a total of nine times for an on base percentage of .529.

The Chesterfield. S.C., native had a 1.000 slugging percentage in her home state. She was rewarded by being named to the SEC All-Tournament Team.

"Coach Lawson really wants me to work on my presence in the box, that's been a huge thing," Stokes said. "Starting off the game, showing a presence from the first swing is the main thing I've been thinking about. Just being confident, getting up there and doing my thing."

Stokes was 3-for-4 in that first game against Mississippi State, with another RBI and a double in the ninth inning to set up fellow sophomore Nikki Sagermann's game-winning hit.

The following day against Tennessee, Stokes was 3-of-4 again. She led off the game with a double, and her home run in the fifth inning put UK ahead 2-0 and gave sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley all the insurance runs she would need.

In Kentucky's win over LSU to send the Wildcats to their first SEC Tournament Championship Game in program history, Stokes was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning and scored the first of two runs in the final frame.

As the Wildcats prepare for NCAA Regionals this weekend at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Stokes hopes to continue her hot hitting. It will help that the confidence from the SEC Tournament can carry over into this weekend.

"Once you're confident, your confidence keeps on carrying for a few games or even the rest of the season," Stokes said. "It will help with my approach and all the things I'm doing well in the box right now. I think the presence is a big thing too, my presence will maybe help my teammates' presence as well."

The leadoff position was one of inconsistency in the regular season. Stokes led off 14 times and is one of six Wildcats to have hit in the No. 1 spot this season. None of them led off more than 16 times in UK's 55 regular season contests, and no one did it for more than six games in a row.

Going into the postseason, Lawson knew it was essential to have a leadoff hitter who could get things going for the rest of the offense. 

"You look at all the dominant teams in the country, they all have a strong batter in the leadoff position," Lawson said. "Christian's strength alone helped match what all the other teams did. In fact, this past weekend, she surpassed that. I couldn't be happier with it, and in my opinion, she and Kelsey Nunley were the MVPs this past weekend."

Stokes has started all 59 games at shortstop this season, but has batted in nearly every spot in the order. In addition to the 14 times she has led off, she has batted ninth 20 times, sixth nine times and second, fifth, seventh and eighth at least once.

Despite her spot in the batting order changing, Stokes doesn't find any added pressure with having to set the tone at the top of the lineup.

"I think it's easy, because everyone on our team steps up at different times, which is great," Stokes said. "I always know my teammates have my back, and they know I have their back, so it's easy to be a leader on our team."

It isn't hard to see that Lawson has been impressed with Stokes as a hitter, no matter her spot in the lineup.

"Her overall competitive spirit, and her presence in the box is something that really impresses me," Lawson said. "I love it, I think she does a really good job, she competes, she swings the bat hard, she runs hard. Just that overall attitude really helps the team get ready to hit. She's quietly been a leader. She's been getting big hits when we needed her to."

That competitive spirit and attitude will help lead Kentucky into the NCAA Tournament opener Friday against Ohio. Kentucky has made the NCAA Regionals in six consecutive seasons and advanced to the Super Regionals in two of the past three years.

After a grueling SEC schedule, things won't get any easier in the postseason, but Stokes presence and ability to get things started at the top of the order should help alleviate some of that pressure brought on by the NCAA Tournament.

Edrick Floreal and the Kentucky track and field program will host the SEC Championships this weekend. (Photo by Nick Agro) Edrick Floreal and the Kentucky track and field program will host the SEC Championships this weekend. (Photo by Nick Agro)
The plan, initially, was for Cally Macumber to run only the 5,000-meter race at the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.

The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.

Sensing an opportunity to score important points, Macumber said she wanted to run the 10,000 as well.

"That's 25 laps," Edrick Floreal said. "I don't even know if I'm that courageous to volunteer for that."

Macumber has only recently gotten healthy, running in two races in April after coping with "dings and dangs," in the words of her head coach. It would have been understandable for Macumber to want to focus solely on the 5,000 with the end of her collegiate career fast approaching.

Instead, she abandoned self-interest for the sake of her Kentucky team.

"That's kind of the character of this team: People are beginning to volunteer," Floreal said. "That's what I want. I want the kids to come to my office and say, 'Hey, I think I can do this event and get a couple points for you.' That's kind of what we've got going on right now."

The timing couldn't be better.

UK -- its women's team ranked sixth nationally and the men ranked No. 19 -- is set to host one of the nation's best track meets Thursday through Sunday. It's a big moment in the growth of a program only just beginning to tap into the vast potential Floreal sees in it.

"We planted the seed and it just broke ground a little bit," Floreal said. "I know we're excited about that but in my wildest dreams, I want to run out of trophy space."

Floreal, from the moment he left his head-coaching post at perennial power Stanford to come to Lexington, has preached the importance of hosting elite meets. There's a caveat though.

"There's nothing worse than hosting it and not to be so good," Floreal said. "It sort of exposes you to the fans that, 'Oh, we're not very good.' But the fact that we're pretty good and we're a contender and having it home, it makes it even more special. That's really what I'm excited about, that the fans are going to get a chance to see some quality kids compete against the toughest conference in the country."

There's no disputing the strength of the SEC.

On both the men's and women's side, eight of the teams ranked in the nation's top 20 will compete this weekend. Three 2012 Olympians will be in action with many more sure to join them in 2016.

"It's a tough conference to be good but that's sort of the signature: If you can be good here, you're truly good," Floreal said. "You can go in another conference and be a winner and that won't be good enough to be top eight here at the SEC, and that's what I wanted. I want to challenge myself and know that I'm good enough to compete at this level."

Not even two full years in, Floreal and the Cats are proving just that.

UK's men and women each finished in the top five at SEC Indoors a little more than two months ago, a first for the program since 1988. Since then, numerous individuals have established themselves among the nation's elite.

"I think we're moving in the right direction with the bodies we have and the way our kids are performing, having the fastest woman in the world on the team is not a bad deal at all and having kids lead the nation in multiple events," Floreal said. "I guess for me the cool thing is that we're good a little bit all over."

Not only has Dezerea Bryant posted the best all-conditions 100m time in the world this season, but Andrew Evans has the top discus throw in the United States in 2014, Kendra Harrison the top 100m hurdles time and Raymond Dykstra the second-best javelin throw. Hurdlers Kayla Parker and Leah Nugent, distance runners Matt Hillenbrand and Allison Peare are expected to contend for medals as well, but UK is even deeper than that.

"There's a bunch of kids of the team that you've probably never heard about that you're going to see this weekend that are going to shock the crap out of you," Floreal said.

Floreal says home-field advantage will help on that front. With a sense of comfort and family and friends in the stands, he expects many of athletes to reach another level.

"You know the track like the back of your hand, and that's good," Floreal said. "You go to somebody else's facility and the turns might be a little tight or the sand might be a different texture. But when you line up here, every day you train here so the nervousness kind of goes out of the way."

Some nervousness has been reintroduced by the cooler, rainy forecast for this weekend. At practice on Tuesday, Floreal overheard some such talk. He quickly put an end to it.

"I told the kids yesterday, they were kind of hoping that it doesn't rain, and I said, 'Stop,' " Floreal said. "We're not going to hope nothing. We're not going to hope that it doesn't rain or that it's sunny. We're going to hope that the race goes off on time and when it does go we're going to perform and compete.

"The No. 1 thing you have to do is represent your university and your teammates, whatever the weather is."

Floreal will accept no excuses. In fact, he wants the Cats to use the weather as another advantage.

"For me, I hope it rains cats and dogs. I hope everybody in the conference gets so tickled, so nervous because it's not perfect weather that our kids go out there and shine."

When we launched BBN First, we knew your feedback was going to play an important role as we committed to putting you, the fans, first in all we do. I don't think we knew exactly how important it would be until your suggestions started rolling in.

Three weeks after I introduced BBN First and asked for your help, you have responded in a way only Kentucky fans could. We have received hundreds of emails and comments on our new website and they keep coming.

The volume of feedback is one thing, but the quality has been another entirely. Almost without exception, your suggestions have been constructive. You have told us some things that are hard to hear, but you want to help us get better. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback immensely.

To fill you in on how we are handling your feedback, members of my staff are reading and responding to everything and keeping me updated along the way. If you have sent in a suggestion and haven't heard back yet, you will. Once we read an email, we categorize and sort it for discussion in our Fan Experience Committee meetings. Already, you have helped us identify important trends.

A few things stick out to me about what we've heard so far.

First of all, your pride in this university is incredible. The sense of ownership you take in all of our programs is one of the most special things I've witnessed in my three decades working in college athletics.

But even more importantly to BBN First, your feedback has given us insight into what matters to you and what we can do better. Some of the topics we are hearing most about are music selections; parking, traffic and tailgating; and concessions. We expected that, but some of the specific feedback we have gotten has changed our perspective.

To give you just one of many examples, we already knew fans want better food with more variety at our venues. What we didn't realize until we began this process was how many of you want more local Kentucky flavor at our concessions stands.

You are giving us so much valuable information, but it's on us to turn that into action. We are hard at work reviewing your feedback, prioritizing and planning our next steps. In the coming weeks and months, we will communicate details to you. We have some cool stuff in the works.

In the meantime, I ask you to continue to submit your feedback at http://bbnfirst.ukathletics.com/ or by emailing BBNfirst@uky.edu. Every suggestion makes us better.

'Til the Battle Is Won,
Mitch Barnhart

Thumbnail image for SEC Network logo.jpg Programming for the SEC Network continues to take shape.

Exactly three months before the new network launches on Aug. 14, the league announced television schedules for SEC volleyball and women's soccer. In the SEC Network's first season, the SEC - and by extension, UK - will enjoy unmatched national exposure.

In total 80 games - 50 volleyball, 30 women's soccer - will air on either the SEC Network or ESPNU.

"These schedules reflect the breadth of exposure that our student-athletes will receive in the SEC's Olympic sports on the SEC Network," said Commissioner Mike Slive.  "It's indicative of the full array of sports and unprecedented number of televised events SEC fans will enjoy throughout the athletic year."

UK's volleyball and women's soccer teams will be featured prominently. Craig Skinner's Wildcats will make at least eight national television appearances. Here's their complete SEC Network/ESPNU schedule.

Wed, Sept. 24    9 p.m.    KENTUCKY at LSU (ESPNU)
Sun, Oct. 5    6 p.m.     TEXAS A&M at KENTUCKY
Sun, Oct. 12    Noon     AUBURN at KENTUCKY
Sun, Oct. 26    Noon    KENTUCKY at TEXAS A&M
Wed, Oct. 29    8 p.m.    TENNESSEE at KENTUCKY (ESPNU)
Sun, Nov. 9    Noon     MISSOURI at KENTUCKY
Sun, Nov. 16    Noon     FLORIDA at KENTUCKY
Sun, Nov. 23    2 p.m.     KENTUCKY at MISSISSIPPI STATE

Jon Lipsitz's Cats, meanwhile, will appear three times on the SEC Network or ESPNU.

Thu, Oct. 2    7 p.m.     KENTUCKY at MISSOURI
Sun, Oct. 5    Noon    KENTUCKY at TEXAS A&M (ESPNU)
Sun, Oct. 19    4 p.m.     FLORIDA at KENTUCKY

In addition, the first round, quarterfinals and semifinals of the SEC Soccer Tournament will air on the SEC Network.

All this is yet another reason to visit GetSECNetwork.com and demand the SEC Network if your cable/satellite provider has not yet signed on to carry it. So far, only AT&T U-Verse, DISH, Google Fiber and National Rural Telecommunications cooperative (NRTC) have agreed to carry the SEC Network.

Ka'ai Tom's walk-off single in the 10th inning gave UK a 6-5 victory over Auburn on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Ka'ai Tom's walk-off single in the 10th inning gave UK a 6-5 victory over Auburn on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Ka'ai Tom wasn't even up to bat yet, but he knew the outcome of Sunday's rubber match would come down to him.

After Max Kuhn's fly ball moved JaVon Shelby to third with two outs, Tom stepped into the on-deck circle and started getting ready.

There was no way Auburn would pitch to A.J. Reed, the NCAA's home run leader.

"Everyone in the stadium knew that A.J. was going to get walked," Tom said. "So I just kept taking deep breaths and stuck to what I do."

Locked in a 5-5 game, a base hit by Tom would send UK to a win in its home finale. Even though the Wildcats hadn't won in walk-off fashion all season, they were confident the first such win was on the way as Tom stepped in following an intentional walk to Reed.

"I think everyone knew that he was going to walk us off there," Austin Cousino said. "It took - I don't know how many home games we had - until a walk-off. ... Kai's been hitting the ball well and you just kind of knew. I think everyone in the park knew it was over once they walked A.J."

Tom proved his teammate right, smacking Ryan Tella's first pitch through the hole between first and second. When Shelby stepped on home plate, UK (30-20, 12-15 Southeastern Conference) claimed the series against the Tigers (27-25, 10-17 SEC) with a 6-5 win.

"You just gotta not let the situation dictate and make you do more than what you want to do," Tom said. "Take deep breaths, just stick to what you do, stick to our approach of what we've been doing all year and don't try to do too much."

It's that approach that allowed the Cats to rally from a 5-0 deficit. After being shutout through five innings by Auburn ace Keegan Thompson, UK plated four runs in the sixth to make it a game again. An inning later the Cats failed to score after loading the bases with no outs, but they hung in.

"To be able to be down five going into the bottom of the sixth, we come back and chip away and then leave some base runners on there in the seventh, I believe it was," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "That showed some real resilience from our kids. Really proud of them."

Henderson had particular reason to be proud of his bullpen. After Dylan Dwyer allowed four runs in two innings of his start, Kyle Cody, Sam Mahar, Andrew Nelson, Logan Salow and Spencer Jack combined to give up just one run over eight innings of work.

"I think just getting ahead of batters, just forcing them to put it in play because we got a good defense behind us," said Jack, who earned the win on the mound. "If we can just pound the strike zone, we're pretty confident that we're going to come out with the W."

In spite of that confidence and the effort of the relievers, UK still trailed when Cousino stepped in with one out in the eighth. In perhaps the lone instance of the Cats abandoning their simple approach, the junior hooked a home run that just stayed fair down the right-field line.

"(Brad) Bohannon actually talked to me right before that and said, 'Why don't you get back to slapping some stuff up the middle?' " Cousino said. "I was like, 'Nah, we're going to get one out here. I haven't hit one in a while.' I told A.J. I was going to get one today."

Cousino was one of the first to hit a ball hard off Auburn's Tella, who pitched for just the second time in his college career on Sunday. Normally the Tigers' center fielder, Tella kept the Cats off balance with a fastball and a slow curveball and allowed just two runs over 3.2 innings.

"When your only scouting report is the eight warm-up pitches that the guy takes, that's a little bit different than what we're usually working with," Henderson said.

Eventually, UK was able to adjust. It happened just in time too, because the Cats were in desperate need of a victory.

"Huge," Jack said. "And the way we won it was huge because we definitely needed a boost of morale and we needed that. For us to put up a ton of zeroes and answer back at the same time, it's exactly what we needed."

But with the final week of the regular season upcoming, it's on to the next one for the Cats.

"Well, it was a big win, that's for sure," Cousino said. "I think everybody knew coming in that we needed to win this one. Now that's it's over, we're looking forward. Obviously a huge series win, but now we gotta go down to Paducah and beat Murray and finish this thing up."


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It wasn't the ending the Kentucky softball team was looking for, but its 2014 SEC Tournament run -- the longest in program history by two games -- had plenty of positives and was the perfect tuneup for the NCAA Tournament.

The seventh-seeded Wildcats won three games at the 2014 Tournament and made it to the championship game for the first time in program history. UK took downed No. 10 Mississippi State Wednesday and followed with upset wins over second-seeded Tennessee and sixth-seeded LSU Thursday and Friday before a 5-2 loss to No. 5 Georgia in Saturday's title game.

In the four days in Columbia, S.C., head coach Rachel Lawson saw her team change completely.

"I felt like my team grew up overnight," Lawson said. "I felt like we were a lot tougher. When we stepped on the field on Wednesday, it felt like a different team. There was a grit and a confidence about us, and I knew they knew they belonged here, and that's not really happened in the past.

"Before, we were happy to be in the tournament, grateful that we were able to survive the SEC conference. Now, we're in the next step in our program, where we believe we belong at least in the discussion of the elite."

The Wildcats found a sense of fearlessness, grit and determination in four games at Carolina Softball Stadium. They never trailed in their first three contests and continued to battle back, even when Mississippi State and LSU tied the game in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, to send it into extra innings.

Coming into the tournament, Kentucky had won one game in the event's history. In 2014, the Cats won three.

The Wildcats made it to the semifinals once, in 2009, when they won one game in an eight-team field. This year, it was all the way to the championship game.

"I think this was a great showing for Kentucky," Lawson said. "Playing the extra game put us in a little bit of a deficit to the teams that didn't, but the fact that we were able to grind through the tournament shows how tough our team is. Especially in a lot of spots we had a lot of really young athletes at some key positions, I felt like they did a nice job."

Kentucky's SEC Tournament makes the Cats that much more prepared for next weekend's NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats have made the NCAA Super Regional in two of the past three seasons, and as they hope for a second consecutive bid to host the NCAA Regional, they can have a positive SEC Tournament run to build off of for the first time.

Saturday in front of a sold-out, record crowd of 1,480, sophomores Kelsey Nunley, Nikki Sagermann and Christian Stokes all were named to the All-Tournament Team.

Nunley pitched 25 innings in three games and earned wins in every contest. She had a 1.63 ERA, struck out 17 and walked just five. The winningest pitcher in program history in the postseason with six career victories, she led the charge each day with her ability to shake off adversity.

Stokes, a South Carolina native, went 6-for-8 in the first two games of the tournament with two home runs. In four games, she led UK with a .429 batting average, six hits and a .529 on base percentage. The shortstop added a number of spectacular plays in the infield to extinguish opponents' scoring chances.

Sagermann drove in the winning run in Wednesday's nine-inning affair before a solo home run gave UK its first run in Saturday's title game. The third baseman was second on the team with a .333 batting average, five hits and a .533 slugging percentage in addition to tying Stokes with a team-best three RBI.

Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET, the 64-team NCAA Tournament field will be announced. The Wildcats are hoping to be a top-16 seed and Regional host for the second consecutive season. This season though, Kentucky will enter the tournament after a program-record SEC Championship run.

UK rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Clemson to clinch a sixth straight Sweet 16 trip. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Clemson to clinch a sixth straight Sweet 16 trip. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's streak of five consecutive Sweet 16 trips was very much in jeopardy.

After the Wildcats dropped a hotly contested doubles point, action was underway in singles when Tom Jomby came up lame. Favoring his left foot, UK's star senior tried to play on.

It only took him a few points to realize he simply could not.

"Just the way it happened, I think we lost some air," UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann said. "We saw Tom kind of get hurt a little bit, go back in the curtain, came back to the chair and he said, 'Listen, I felt something snap.' "

Jomby made the only decision he could, retiring from match against Clemson's Hunter Harrington that was tied two games apiece in the second set. Just like that, UK was down 2-0.

Beck Pennington would get UK on the board soon after on court three, but No. 2 singles player Alejandro Gomez then quickly lost to put the Cats in a 3-1 hole. Jerry Lopez was cruising to a straight-set victory on court four, but UK still appeared in trouble with Kevin Lai down a set at No. 5.

Lai sensed it.

"I was really nervous," Lai said. "After he took the first set and I saw Gomez, our second singles, lost, I was just thinking--I know our number six is going to play faster than me so I know I have no choice. I have to win. That's what I was thinking because if I lose that means the whole team loses. I tried to step up for the team."

Knowing the burden was on his shoulders, Lai could have folded. The sophomore could have let the responsibility become too much for him.

But steadied by Kauffmann -- who spent most of the latter half of Saturday's match coaching Lai -- the Taiwan native stepped up just as he tried to do.

"I think he was down on himself a little bit after the first set and he doesn't want to let his whole team down and we're a family," Kauffmann said. "So I think he takes it maybe a little harder than if it's just him. But we told him, 'Settle down. Let's have this game plan. Let's keep it going. No matter what the score is, you're going to do this, do that.'

"I thought he did a good job. At times he gave us some heart attacks because he didn't listen, but overall I think he did a great job."

Lai was a different player in the final two sets, wearing down Clemson's Luke Johnson with an array of shot-making that made him look much bigger than his 5-foot-9 frame. He rallied to win his match 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, but technique wasn't the reason why.

"It's not really about tennis today for me," Lai said. "It's about mental toughness. If I want to stay and play or if I want to let it go."

It was that attitude that defined the Cats in their remarkable 4-3 comeback victory. Even though the doubles point didn't go their way and senior stalwarts Jomby and Gomez lost on courts one and two, precocious sophomores Lai and Pennington and freshman Jerry Lopez would not go away.

"Those seniors take a lot of responsibility to carry the youngsters," Lai said. "But when the seniors have a rough day like this then the youngters gotta help them too."

Then senior Grant Roberts finished it off on court six as he has so many times throughout his career.

"We trust Grant with our lives at six," Kauffmann said.

When Roberts finished off his 6-2, 6-1 win, it touched off a celebration befitting a Sweet 16 berth, though Jomby's injury dampened the enthusiasm just a bit.

"We were very happy in the locker room," Kauffmann said. "We told them how proud we were, but we were very sad for him."

In the coming days, Jomby's injury will be evaluated. It's too soon to tell whether he will be available when UK faces either No. 2 Oklahoma or Harvard on May 16 in Athens, Ga.

Should the Cats be without their top player, they know what they have to do.

"If we lose Tom, which I hope we don't, then somebody's going to have to step up," Kauffmann said. "That's just the way it is."

A.J. Reed hit his nation-leading 21st home run on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) A.J. Reed hit his nation-leading 21st home run on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed leads the nation and home runs and the Southeastern Conference in wins.

Like he had done eight times previously this season, he contributed in a big way to UK's 6-3 win over Auburn on Friday night.

Reed hit a home run and earned the win on the mound for the fourth time this year, but his two-way contributions this have extended far beyond just the stat sheet.

In fact for as well as Reed has pitched in his SEC-leading nine wins, he's had to work at maintaining his poise through the first few signs of adversity. How far he's come in that endeavor was on full display on Friday.

After UK drew first blood with a run in the second inning, Reed conceded one in the fourth and two more in the sixth.

When he stepped to the plate with a runner on base in the bottom of the sixth he was feeling frustrated that having been staked to a lead -- slim as it may have been -- his team was now trailing 3-1. The negative feelings didn't last long as he slugged his nation-leading 21st home run of the year, which he destroyed to right field.

"Honestly I was surprised he threw a fastball," Reed said of his sixth-inning bomb. "I was a little frustrated because I had just given up some runs that inning. I just swung as hard as I could on one and I connected. Luckily for us it was a home run. It's just fun when you go out there and hit the ball hard."

Reed's simple approach was the perfect response to his minor struggles on the mound in the middle of the game. And taking out his frustration in the form of a home run seemed to settle him for the remainder of his eight-inning, 119-pitch outing.

His ability to settle down through rough stretches is exactly what his coach feels has helped the junior emerge as one of the nation's best players, as both an everyday player and a pitcher.

"He's learned how to pitch at a much higher level," Gary Henderson. "He lets go of the frustration much quicker than he used to. Kind of the basic maturation of all really top-level kids is they figure out what it takes to be successful and then they hunt it down and they go get it. That's what he's done. I'm really proud of A.J. and the improvements that he's made."

Reed's resilience was just what the doctor ordered for a UK team that was coming off two straight series losses in SEC competition.

As the team's ace, Friday-night performances like the one displayed vs. Auburn will be vital to set UK on the right track, and more importantly boost its confidence through the final two weeks of the regular season and beyond.

"It's a big win," Reed said. "Any time you can win on Friday night it's huge. It gives you two chances to win the series. We just have to come out tomorrow and win the series then. Not leave it until Sunday, not worry about the sweep or anything. Just come out here and win the series. Keep swinging the bat well, throw strikes and not give them extra outs and things will go our way."

With the win on the mound out of the way and his 21st home run of the season, Reed can focus on his duties as an everyday player with emphasis on production at the plate.

He moved into third place alone in terms of single-season home runs by a Wildcat (two from tying the record) with his no-doubter on Friday.

While he's taking a modest approach in not worrying about the school home run record -- or that he's now four wins from the single season wins mark at 13 -- producing at a level that would attain the records could go a long way toward securing a NCAA Tournament berth.

"If I hit that many then that's cool, but I'm just trying to come out here and give us a chance to win," Reed said. "Putting runs up on the board is what's were going to try to do. We're going to try to keep winning to make a good strong push toward postseason."

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the first time in program history, the Kentucky softball team is headed for the SEC Tournament championship game. And for the third consecutive game, it was clutch hitting at the most opportune time and the arm of Kelsey Nunley that got them there.

It took nine innings for the second time in three days, but seventh-seeded UK continued its record run with a 4-3 win over sixth-seeded LSU on Friday.

The win was Kentucky's 44th of the season -- adding to a school-record total -- and gave the Cats three wins in the 2014 tournament after the Wildcats entered the 10-team event with one win in the championship in program history.

"I thought today was a great game," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I thought both pitchers threw great games. To be able to hold LSU's offense down for nine innings is a really big deal, they're a great offensive team and really playing well right now. Offensively we did a good job of putting people on base. I'd like to see us score a few more but overall I really like the fight in our team and how persistent we were, and then we ended up with the win in the end."

Kentucky mustered just two hits Friday, but they came at the perfect times.

It was a double through the gap in left field from sophomore Sylver Samuel that was the game's biggest hit.

LSU pitcher Baylee Corbello had retired 16 straight UK batters before she issued a two-out walk to senior Ginny Carroll. Sophomore Christian Stokes was then hit by a pitch to put two runners on with two outs for Samuel.

Samuel found a pitch she liked and sent it rolling to the left-field fence to score Darington Richardson, who was running for Carroll, and Stokes, the eventual winning run.

"I was trying to let go of a lot of things and not think too much while I was in there," Samuel said. "Just clear my mind and make sure my timing was on, because that was the main thing that's been getting me lately. I was trying to be slow through the box and not think as much. I think it worked out for me."

For Lawson, it was Carroll's two-out walk that was the turning point that sparked the two-run rally for the Wildcats.

"I always tell the team that you never know when the game-winning play is going to happen, and today we had several," Lawson said. "Offensively, Ginny Carroll walking was the game-winning play for us because the floodgates opened up when she did that."

In the third inning, UK's two runs came via an error, a hit batsman, two walks and a single. The second walk, to junior Griffin Joiner with the bases loaded, brought in the game's first run. Senior Krystal Smith then sent a single to center to plate the Wildcats' second run.

Four runs is all the offense that Nunley needed to get her school-record sixth career postseason win.

Just like Wednesday in the first round and Thursday in the quarterfinals, Nunley was dominant with the bases empty and equally effective with runners on base.

"I just try and forget about runners," Nunley said. "The SEC teams are good and they're going to get on base. You just have to focus and worry about what's in front of you. You can't worry about what you've done in the past, you have to worry about the batter that's at the plate at the time."  

In Friday's semifinal, she gave up just three runs on six hits. The Tigers stranded seven base runners, including three in the fourth when they scored one run and two in the sixth.

Three games, 25 innings and 404 total pitches. That's what got the Wildcats to their first-ever championship game.

In Saturday's final against fifth-seeded Georgia, it will take more clutch hits and another strong pitching performance to bring home the program's first SEC Tournament trophy.

There's no reason to think it can't happen again on Saturday night.


With no matches to play, the Kentucky men's tennis team went to work.

Since they were ousted in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on April 19, the Wildcats have bounced between on-court training, intense conditioning and schoolwork.

"It was kind of weird," Tom Jomby said. "We haven't been playing for a while. So the past three weeks we've been grinding a lot, working on some doubles stuff with the coaches and we have five seniors so we all have to focus on school."

With the end of the semester coinciding with his team's week of preparation leading up the NCAA Tournament, Cedric Kauffmann admits he was concerned entering his team's first-round matchup with Denver on Friday.

"You're a little bit nervous after two-and-a-half weeks of not playing and exams through this week fell a little in a bad spot," Kauffmann said.

As play began against a Pioneer team that had only lost the doubles point three times all season, the anxiety intensified. UK and Denver battled through tight matches on all three courts, with the Cats winning on No. 1 and falling on No. 2. Attention then shifted to court three, where Ryuji Hirooka and Nils Ellefsen eked out an 8-6 win.

Close as the doubles point was, it proved to be just an opportunity for UK to shake off some rust.

"I don't think we played great in the doubles, but I think we--it was an hour of tennis for us to get back with the nerves," Kauffmann said. "I think it just carried through the singles. I think our singles was good."

That might be an understatement.

The Cats (22-9) won the opening set on all six courts, with Alejandro Gomez, Jomby and Beck Pennington winning in straight sets to clinch a 4-0 sweep of Denver (12-11) and a spot in the round of 32. Gomez and Jomby -- UK's top two singles players -- were dominant. Both won 6-1, 6-2.

Jomby particularly enjoyed his performance, as his parents made the trip from his native France to Lexington to watch him play for just the second time. The first time was two years ago, and Jomby lost both his singles and doubles matches against Baylor that day.

"When I could see my dad next to the court, it was really fun," Jomby said. "He was taking pictures of me and it's really nice having them here. It gives you extra motivation and it's so special to be able to play here in front of my parents and all of my friends in America when I'm from France."

Jomby made his singles win look easier than it was.

"Even if the singles didn't seem really tough for us, it was a tough match," Jomby said. "We had to keep our focus, we had to keep the momentum and it's not really easy when you win 6-1 to stay focused in the second set."

The Cats will now look to duplicate that focus at 3 p.m. on Saturday, when they host Clemson (21-8). The Tigers handled Purdue earlier on Friday, 4-1, and were in contention to host an NCAA regional until the season's last match.

"Can they beat us?" Kauffmann said. "Yeah, if we don't come to play. If one or two of our players doesn't show up, it's going to be tough. But I think we'll show up tomorrow."

Kauffmann means that figuratively, but he'll also spend some time watching the door before the match to make sure Jomby shows up literally.

Jomby -- one singles victory shy of joining the prestigious 100-win club -- will walk across the stage and receive his degree at commencement at 1 p.m. on Saturday. He expects to finish by 1:30, race to the Boone Tennis Center and arrive by 1:45 on a day he's not likely to soon forget.

"I'll be wearing my cap and gown probably when I get here, but I'll go straight to the locker room," Jomby said. "It'll be funny."

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