The Kentucky volleyball team's time in China is running short, so the Wildcats navigated a packed schedule on Tuesday.
The morning began with breakfast before UK's final match in China. Facing a Beijing team that featured former AVCA Player of the Year and Oregon outside hitter Alaina Bergsma, the Cats dropped a tough one.
Last match of the trip tmrw morning vs #7 team in China pro league, Hyundai Beijing. #UKVBtoChina
Following the match and a stop for lunch, the team visited the Temple of Heaven, a complex of religious buildings originally constructed in the 15th century. From there, it was time for one last shopping trip at the Silk Market in downtown Beijing.
In the evening, the Cats gathered for a closing dinner at an Italian restaurant to recap the trip and say thank you to the hosts and guides who made it all possible. On Wednesday, it's back to America. UK's flight will leave in the afternoon and, oddly, land in Chicago around the same time.
We should have more on the trip in the coming days and weeks, but this will be the last official entry from an incredible experience for the UK volleyball team. Thank you for following along!
Before we let you go, check out this video from a couple days ago of UK's karaoke night.
UK advanced to the first Women's College World Series in school history in 2014. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Having just seen the season end, Rachel Lawson took time to reflect on exactly how special 2014 had been for Kentucky softball.
Women's College World Series berth. Fifty wins. A trip to the Southeastern Conference title game. The list of firsts goes on.
Nonetheless, Lawson's nature meant the wheels in her head couldn't help but keep turning.
"Well, I'm always a learner, so I'm already preparing for next year," Lawson said.
Her words came moments after a heartbreaking 8-7 defeat at the hands of Baylor during which the Wildcats gave up a seven-run sixth-inning lead. Kelsey Nunley, as she had throughout the tournament, threw every pitch even as the Lady Bears adjusted to her electric stuff.
"It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done because I knew that I was physically giving my all but just wasn't going the way I wanted to," Nunley said.
Noticing that, fans watching at home -- many of whom discovered the sport through UK's magical postseason run -- questioned why Nunley remained in the game. The sophomore, after all, had thrown upwards of 1,600 pitches in NCAA play.
The always-honest Lawson admitted she made a mistake with her pitching staff, but she says her error came well before the first pitch of Saturday's elimination game. Given her well-placed faith in Nunley, Lawson only felt comfortable with one of her pitchers actually pitching, no matter the talent of Lauren Cumbess, Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith.
"The mistake with me is that I didn't prepare them to come in, so the reason I went with Kelsey is because I'm comfortable with what they were doing," Lawson said. "They were timing her and squaring up and they had me figured out, so a change would have been great but I didn't prepare them for that situation and it was too unpredictable."
For ascendant softball programs that's not unprecedented, but it is a lesson for Lawson.
"Moving forward I realize in order to win the World Series you have to make sure that you have a staff prepared and I think you're going to see that moving forward with Alabama and you're going to see it moving forward with Florida," Lawson said. "When I watch what they did. What they did is really smart. They prepared all their pitchers for this moment but, they had to get there the first time and the first time they were in the show they pretty much rode one arm."
The two teams referenced by Lawson will play for the national championship this week. Florida and Alabama, however, are far from first timers, combining for 16 Women's College World Series appearances.
It's Lawson's goal to establish UK as a program that makes similarly regular trips to Oklahoma City and competes for titles, but the Cats had to take a first step to get there on the strength of Nunley's right arm.
"I think it's really hard to go to the World Series," Lawson said. "I think learning how to go to regionals and then learning how to host and then learning how to go to supers is all very difficult, but it's a whole other level when you have to figure out how to go to the World Series.
"So I feel proud for this team because they are the first team in Kentucky history that's figured out how to go to the show and I think that's very special."
Logan Salow allowed just one run over six innings in UK's season-ending loss to Louisville on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson called freshman Logan Salow's number Sunday evening to start the regional final vs. in-state rival Louisville, and Salow did not disappoint.
The lights were never too bright for the southpaw who had only thrown 25 innings all season.
Making just his second-career start, the Ashland, Ky., native tossed a career-high six innings, while only allowing one run on five hits. Salow threw 95 pitches in the game after a previous career high of 63, which also came against the Cardinals back on April 15 in a winning effort. In his brief UK career, he had never thrown more than 3.2 innings in a single game.
When it seemed like Louisville would finally break through, Salow continually got himself out of jams, twice with double plays and twice by retiring American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jeff Gardner with the bases loaded, including one of those by strike out.
"I thought it was tremendous, I really did," said Henderson. "That's six innings against a really good opponent. ... He got strikeouts on changeups. He threw the ball off the plate to induce the double-play when we were trying to do that. He made pitches and I was really proud of him."
Salow has come a long way from the start of the season and a performance like this will only do wonders for his confidence as he enters his sophomore campaign, though he was the hard-luck loser as the Wildcats saw their season end with a 4-1 defeat.
"He hadn't done anything like that this year and to be able to do it against a club like Louisville, it's significant and that's going to help him," Henderson said. "He'll draw upon that next fall. In athletics you have to do it -- you can talk all you want about practice and the skills are getting better and all those things -- but you've got to do it in a competitive environment and even more significantly if you do it in a hostile environment or a sense of heightened awareness."
What makes the performance even more remarkable is that the team, and even Henderson for that matter, didn't know what to expect from Salow. With a limited amount of pitchers available for the game, Henderson was going to have to piece together a pitching staff to force a game on Monday.
Salow delivered and then some for his team.
"I'm not sure I expected anything," Henderson said. "I know what I was hoping for and I was hoping for three (innings) clean. If we could get that then I felt like we could go, two (innings), two (innings) and two (innings) with three guys, but to get six with one run and hold them to four on the night with where we were on game four, I think I probably would have signed that deal going into it."
After the third inning, Salow strolled back to the mound. Then came the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth. Most people in the stands were probably second-guessing the head coach for sending Salow back out there after clawing his way out of jams in basically every one of those innings. And every time he made Henderson look like a genius.
The Wildcats' future is bright with two freshmen pitchers gaining valuable experience in the NCAA Tournament this weekend. Along with Salow's performance in the nightcap, fellow freshman Zack Brown helped UK reach the regional final after defeating Kansas in an elimination game earlier in the day.
When it looked like Kentucky's chances of advancing were slim, two of maybe the unlikeliest guys stepped for the Wildcats.
don't think you could have drawn up better freshman starts than what we
got today," Henderson said. "Pretty amazing today from Zack Brown and
Logan Salow in this environment against those teams."
Brown's final line won't look as spectacular as Salow's, but Brown gave UK exactly what it needed to advance. The Seymour, Ind., native was able to pitch with a sizable lead for a large portion of the game en route to five innings pitched and four runs allowed, which all came in the sixth inning when he was running on fumes.
"It gives you hope, but I didn't need that to make my vision for those kids any more clear," Henderson said. "I have a pretty good idea where they're (Brown and Salow) going at least in my mind. It's more significant for them I think. When you pitch well in a regional that sticks with you. I have a high opinion of those two kids both as people and as pitchers. They're going to be good."
A.J. Reed, who saw his remarkable season and potentially UK career end -- he's a draft-eligible junior likely to be selected in the early rounds -- has a similar appraisal of his school's future.
"I think they've got a lot of upside in the future," Reed said. "We've got some young guys that can hit and we've definitely got some young arms in the freshman and sophomore class who can definitely pitch. I think some of these guys are going to be able to step up and take over the staff when some of us older guys are gone."
The Kentucky volleyball finally made its way to China's capital city on Sunday and didn't waste any time seeing the sights in Beijing.
The Wildcats toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and shopped at the Silk Market in an informative day for the team. Taking advantage of the more the 1,700 retail vendors, the Cats bought plenty of keepsakes from the trip and gifts for friends and family.
Afterward, it was time for some rest because UK has a big day ahead on Monday. The Cats will tour the Great Wall and visit the Olympic Village from the 2008 games.
UK opened play in the CCLSKI Cup International Women's Volleyball tournament with a pair of defeats. Playing against professional opponents, the Wildcats would have to adjust.
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
Kelsey Nunley allowed just three hits, but UK fell 2-0 to Alabama on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Rachel Lawson thought her eyes were playing tricks.
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."
UK fell to Kansas in its NCAA Regional opener on Friday, 10-6. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- For the fifth time in Kentucky's last five NCAA Regional appearances, the Wildcats came out on the wrong side of the scoreboard in the opening game of an NCAA Regional, following UK's 10-6 loss to Kansas in Louisville Friday night.
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."
Griffin Joiner celebrates after UK's 4-1 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Stack up the softball histories of Kentucky and Alabama and there's little comparison. The Crimson Tide, in fact, will best almost any school in the country in that department.
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.
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."