Head coach Rachel Lawson has guided the Wildcats to hosting their first NCAA Regional in school history. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team gathered together Sunday night at a local restaurant to watch the 2013 NCAA Division I Softball Selection Show. With players, coaches and a large portion of the UK athletics department in attendance, there was a feel that the night would be special for the softball program.
As each regional was being revealed, eyes throughout the restaurant were glued to the big-screen televisions. With anticipation rising, the Wildcats popped on the screen as the No. 12 overall seed and the host of the Lexington Regional.
The selection marks the first time UK has been awarded a host site in school history and is another example of how far the program has come under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson.
"It's great to see in such a short time how Kentucky has improved in softball," Lawson said. "To be able to be one of the 16 teams to host a regional is really an honor."
The moment was extra special for senior Alice O'Brien, who has another chance to play at home in front of the Big Blue Nation.
"I don't think I have ever been more excited," O'Brien said. "This is awesome. We have worked really hard for this and we are really excited to play at home and in front of our fans."
The regional will begin on Friday at John Cropp Stadium with No. 2 seeded Notre Dame (43-13) taking on No. 3 seeded Virginia Tech (35-19) at 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, with the nightcap featuring the No. 1 seeded Wildcats (38-18) vs. No. 4 seeded Marshall (35-20) at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN3.com will televise all games played at the regional.
Marshall is a familiar foe for UK with the Wildcats having played the Thundering Herd back on April 9. The game was a tight one as the Cats used a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll in comeback fashion in Lexington, 4-3. Notre Dame and Virginia Tech will be new opponents for UK to prepare for this season but offer strong competition for what is regarded as a tough overall regional.
"I think we have a good regional and I think the teams in it are excellent," Lawson said. "We played Marshall before and it was a good game and both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame have had good seasons. It's going to be a tough region and I think it's going to be a really exciting time in Lexington."
Kentucky played one of the most strenuous schedules in the entire country this year and a large part of that has to do with the conference in which the Wildcats compete. The SEC had an incredible 11 of its 13 teams selected into the NCAA Tournament last night, including seven as regional hosts.
The season has been a grind for the Cats and it will be a breath of fresh air to see a few new teams and face some different pitchers.
"Anytime you are out of SEC play its fun for a short amount of time because they know you so well and they have played you so many times," Lawson said. "With that said, I think all the teams I the region are outstanding so we are going to have to play as well against them as we would against any top-notch SEC team."
Last weekend UK hosted its first ever SEC Tournament. The event set an attendance record with more than 12,000 fans making their way to John Cropp Stadium over the weekend. The Wildcats are hoping for more of that same love from the Big Blue Nation this weekend. With the Cats losing to South Carolina in the first round of the conference tournament last Wednesday, they are glad they get to experience the true atmosphere of what they missed out on last week.
"I hope they come out like they did at the SEC Tournament," O'Brien said. "I'm sure they will and we are looking forward to playing in front of our fans. We didn't really get the chance to last weekend so we are really excited about it."
UK's No. 1 Anthony Rossi won in straight sets to help UK advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The first round of the NCAA Tournament served as a warm-up for the Wildcats. They handled Western Michigan and knocked off some rust after having three weeks off from competition.
The win gave the Cats the chance to advance to the second round but also see how they would respond to such a short layoff between matches. And then rain moved in to the Lexington area and forced all four teams to play indoors at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex.
On Saturday, UK was matched with the region's No. 3 seed in Virginia Tech, a team that had been hot and just pulled off an upset over No. 2 seed Michigan. The Wildcats looked even sharper after getting a match under their belts and getting back outside.
"The first day was pretty tough," said senior Anthony Rossi. "We've practiced for the last two weeks outside, so it was tough to adjust. I think today everybody played much better, so that was a good day."
Rossi, Kentucky's No. 1 singles player and No. 5 nationally, looked the part Saturday after defeating Virginia Tech's Amerigo Contin in straight sets (6-0, 6-2). Getting back outside was key to his success.
"I was struggling a little bit yesterday inside," said Rossi. "It was tough to adjust. I have to give credit to (Western Michigan's Nadin Indre). He played a good match."
Rossi and Indre were still in the middle of their second set when junior Grant Roberts clinched the match Friday for the Wildcats. Saturday, Rossi finished up early and had a chance to watch Roberts perform the same task to send Kentucky to its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
Next to Rossi on the main courts, junior Tom Jomby continued his dominance and made quick work of Tech's Andreas Bjerrehus (6-1, 6-2).
With Rossi and Jomby singles victories paired with their doubles point they earned, Kentucky led 3-1 and needed one more point for the victory. And once again, it was Roberts with a chance to clinch an NCAA Tournament victory for the second consecutive day.
"I'm just playing with a lot of confidence right now," said Roberts. "I've just been working on my game and being more aggressive. It's just been paying off."
In the most crucial time of the season, Kentucky's upperclassmen are taking the reins. With three freshmen in the singles lineup and key components of the doubles lineups, the postseason is the time for the veterans to step up and lead their team to victory. They're doing just that.
"It's important because we have to show the example every day," said Rossi. "We have to show them that even if we won the doubles today the match was not over."
But for all intents and purposes, it wasn't long after Kentucky won that doubles point that the match would end. Kentucky appears to be playing some of its best tennis of the year and peaking at the right moment.
"Our one-two punch is very tough," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "Grant is back into shape, Beck (Pennington) has been playing really, really well. He's turning into a leader. Kevin (Lai)'s been playing really good."
Though Kentucky came up short of its goal of winning a championship during the season, there is still one out there to be had. Going to its fourth straight Sweet 16 - the first under Kauffmann - gives the Cats validation that they are one of the best tennis programs in the country.
"We're one of the elites for sure, and it's only getting better," said Roberts. "We've had some great years, but I think Cedric's definitely going to keep building and getting this program better and better until we're top five and making Final Fours, finals and hopefully winning championships."
Kentucky now has an opportunity to move one step closer to that coveted championship: the NCAA Tournament title. That can only happen, however, if their next match in the round of 16 is the most important one on their schedule.
"We're going to put all of our eggs in one basket," said Kauffmann. "Our championship is against the team that we're going to play. I don't care about the other 14 teams in the draw. We'll just look at who we play and we'll try to knock them out."
No. 8 Kentucky will play the tournament's No. 9 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 in Urbana, Ill., on the campus of the University of Illinois on May 16 at 7 p.m. With Kentucky missing out on its championship so far this season, the Cats will have to get through the Blue Devils to win their coveted title. But after missing out on all three, the Wildcats are more than motivated to rectify that situation before all is said and done.
"It definitely fuels our fire," said Roberts. "This is our last one. We're really hungry. We really want to go out on top especially for our senior, for Rossi who has been such a big part of this program for four years. We definitely want to send him out on a good note."
Freshman Kevin Lai picked up a point in singles to help UK advance to the NCAA Tournament second round. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Rainy spring weather moved the first round of the NCAA Men's Tennis Tournament indoors on Friday afternoon, but that didn't keep the Wildcats from handling Western Michigan and advancing to face Virginia Tech in the second round Saturday afternoon.
Looking to start a deep tournament run, the Wildcats came out blazing, earning the doubles point on the strength of not their No. 1 doubles team comprised of junior Tom Jomby and freshman Kevin Lai, but due to the performances on courts two and three.
The tandems of Ryuji Hirooka and Beck Pennington combined with the duo of Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra gave Kentucky two quick decisive match victories, winning 8-3 and 8-1 respectively.
After having nearly two weeks off, it was important to grab that doubles point and strike quickly against a scrappy Western Michigan squad.
"I thought the intensity was really, really good," said UK head coach Cedric Kauffmann. "I think it's going to hopefully carry on to tomorrow, but I thought we played some of our best doubles today."
Though Jomby was unable to make a mark in the doubles point, he and Lai were well on their way to winning their doubles match point, he was the first off the court Friday with a dominating performance over his first-round opponent Ross VanderPloeg. Jomby made quick work of his foe, taking set one 6-0 before discarding VanderPloeg 6-4 in the second set.
Jomby's running mate in doubles, Lai, was busy making noise of his own on court No. 4, and quite literally.
From the other side of the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center indoor facility, Lai could be heard yelling in celebration, point after point as he drew nearer and nearer to a victory for his team with the Cats leading 2-0. Lai got off to a great start in doubles with Jomby, playing a great match which was ultimately abandoned due to UK's clinch, and he carried his play over to singles.
He took the first set with relative ease, taking it 6-2. He was in for a battle in the second set, however, from his opponent Ruben Greiner.
That's when the intensity and his inner Jomby -known for his on-court energy and enthusiasm - began to manifest themselves.
"I think he's taking it from Tom. I think he's looking at Rossi. He's looking at the upperclassmen," said Kauffmann. "I think it's a little bit from him too. That's just the way he is."
Lai had to battle back in set two, trailing 3-1, before knotting things up at 3-3. Then Lai had a chance to put the match away with 6-5 lead, but the back and forth continued as Greiner forced a tiebreaker at 6-6.
It was all Lai from there, however, as he jumped out to a 3-0 lead that turned into a 7-3 victory to take the match in straight sets
It was a sign that the freshman has continued his season-long maturing process.
"Today I tried to work on every single point during the match," said Lai. "I'm all the way back (on court four) so I don't have to worry about what the crowd's doing and like with these three courts what they're doing because I couldn't see the score, so I just focused on my court and tried to finish for the team."
With Lai's point, the Cats had pulled ahead to a commanding 3-0 lead with three matches still in play. Rossi was battling on court No. 1 against WMU's No. 1 Nadin Indre. Indre gave Rossi all he could handle, though Rossi took the first set.
Meanwhile, after completion of Jomby's victory, the final match of the day got underway as junior Grant Roberts took the court. While the other matches grinded out point after point, Roberts made quick work of his opponent.
After getting a later start due to the weather and moving the tournament inside with fewer courts, Roberts still managed to finish before two of the other matches, disposing of Andrew Cahn in a hasty fashion to clinch the first round victory for his team and fulfilling a role that he relishes in.
"It felt pretty good," said Roberts. "I'm used to playing on the last two, so being in the pressure situation I guess you'd say, so I'm pretty used to that. It felt pretty good to get out there and get a match and take care of business."
Roberts took both sets by the score of 6-1 and propelled the No. 1 Wildcats into a second-round matchup with No. 3 seed Virginia Tech, which defeated No. 2 Michigan. After playing several matches outside over the course of the last couple months, getting back inside today was a good change of pace for the Wildcats.
"This is what's maybe is good if it does rain," said Kauffmann. "If we play inside (Saturday) I think it helps us, and if we play out, we've been playing some really good tennis outside."
No matter the venue, Kentucky will have to continue to bring the intensity Saturday if the Cats want to advance to the Sweet 16 and knock off a surging Virginia Tech bunch.
"I think over the last month they've been playing pretty well," Kauffmann said. "They just knocked off Michigan who's been kind of hot through the year, so I think we're going to have a pretty tough match. We're at home so we hope the Big Blue Nation will help us out."
Cedric Kauffmann leads UK into the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a head coach starting on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Since the moment he took over 10 months ago, Cedric Kauffmann has been planning for this moment. All along, the first-year Kentucky head coach has been trying to position his team to play its best tennis in the NCAA Tournament.
That doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like though.
The Wildcats aren't going to paint the line with every shot. Not everything will go their way now that every match could be the last one of the season. What Kauffmann has been working toward is his team understanding that and knowing how to best deal with it.
"I never have six guys playing their best tennis in one match, but what I mean by 'best tennis' is knowing what to do when you're not playing your best," Kauffmann said.
On Friday, No. 8 UK (20-11) will open the NCAA Tournament at home - the fifth straight time the Wildcats have hosted to open NCAA play - against Western Michigan (19-9). When the first ball is served in doubles play at around 3 p.m. ET, Kauffmann knows it's unlikely all of his players will be at their peak; the goal is to grind through whatever happens.
"Am I going to have two, three guys that play very good tennis? Yeah, we're going to have to." Kauffmann said. "But I know I'm going to have one or two or three guys that are not going to play their best tennis and they're going to have to get through it."
During the fall, Anthony Rossi was having trouble with that. He looked around and saw that he was the only senior on the roster, that former stars Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek were no longer there to fill the top two spots in the lineup. Sensing that void, Rossi tried to step up, bearing the responsibility for an inexperienced group.
It wasn't working.
An inconsistent fall caused Rossi to drop from a No. 12 all the way to No. 94 in national singles rankings. By thinking first about his team, Rossi neglected himself and his own game. With the help of his coach, Rossi has found the right balance during the spring.
"I'm doing much better than the beginning of the season," Rossi said. "During the fall I was maybe focusing too much on the team and not on myself and that's why I dropped from 12 to 94. Now I'm doing first a better job on myself and then taking care of the team."
In turn, Rossi has excelled, running up a 22-5 spring record and ascending to No. 5 in the rankings. No. 2 singles player Tom Jomby has followed suit and joined Rossi as a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree.
"I think we have one of the strongest one-two punches in the country when they're ready to play," Kauffmann said.
Entering the postseason, Rossi and Jomby will look to raise their game once more. With a freshmen-laden back of the rotation behind them, UK's two veterans will need to set the tone, particularly with unfamiliar opponents coming to Lexington for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week. After Western Michigan, UK faces a possible Saturday matchup with either No. 23 Michigan (16-9) or No. 42 Virginia Tech (15-9), neither of which the Cats have played in the recent past.
With that in mind, the Cats plan to think about themselves more than their opponents.
"Focusing on your game because we don't know much about them, they don't know much about us," Rossi said. "So just focus on your game one point at a time and that's about it."
Though Western Michigan, Michigan and Virginia Tech are all unknown, none of them figure to be able to throw anything at the Cats that they haven't already seen. UK has played an incredible 17 matches in 2013 against teams currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's top 20.
"That's something that Coach (Dennis) Emery kind of taught me a little bit," Kauffmann said. "If you really want to be good, you gotta play a strong schedule that gets you ready for the end of the year."
It's now time for the Wildcats to find out exactly how well prepared they are.
"There is a little bit of pressure, but it's a really good pressure," Jomby said.
A.J. Reed will start Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET series opening against No. 1 Vanderbilt's Kevin Ziomek. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In preparing for Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede - the Friday and Saturday starters for No. 1 Vanderbilt - Gary Henderson is reminded of a player familiar to Kentucky baseball fans.
It's not so much their style, delivery or even their handedness - Ziomek is a lefty and a Beede a righty - but Henderson sees a lot of Alex Meyer in what the dominant Commodore duo does to opponents.
Meyer - now pitching in the Minnesota Twins organization after being picked in the first round in 2011 - had stuff so electric and secondary pitches so good that batters were forced to attack early in counts. Now, with UK set to face Ziomek and Beede in the first two games of a weekend series beginning on Friday in Lexington, Henderson is asking his Wildcats to do the same.
"It's some of the same approach that you saw the opposition take when Alex Meyer was here and he was going well," Henderson said. "Once a guy gets in a rhythm and he's got a legitimate out pitch, the game becomes really hard."
Ziomek and Beede have been the anchors for a Commodore team off to a historic start in Southeastern Conference play (42-6 overall). The two have combined for a 21-2 record identical to Vandy's league record, a 1.89 earned-run average and 169 strikeouts in 166.2 innings pitched. Perhaps most remarkably, Beede has a perfect 12-0 record in his 12 starts.
Though that last number may suggest otherwise, they are not unbeatable. Kentucky has faced incredible pitching all season long, so Henderson knows the Cats need a good game plan and need to follow it to have their best chance at success.
"What you really want is confidence and aggressiveness," Henderson said. "If you're passive against these guys, it's going to be really tough when you get to two strikes. Really tough."
As deserving of praise as Ziomek and Beede may be, Henderson knows he has a strong pitching staff of his own. With UK's offense scoring more than five runs just once over the past 11 games, Wildcat pitchers have responded - from Friday night starter A.J. Reed (2-6, 2.84 ERA) to a bullpen that has allowed one run over Kentucky's last five games.
"I'm really pleased with our pitching," Henderson said. "Those guys have held on. It's been tough for us for a stretch to score runs and we've been about as tough as you can be on the mound and certainly in that bullpen."
This weekend, the pitchers will have the challenge of limiting a Vandy offense that is averaging 7.2 runs per game and hitting .315 on the season to lead the SEC in both categories. In other words, the Commodores are about a lot more than a couple starting pitchers.
"It's the best eight-week record in the history of the conference, so that's about as impressive as you could ask for," Henderson said. "It's a complete team and it'll be on this weekend."
With the top-ranked team coming to town, Henderson has found himself doing some balancing this week.
On one hand, taking on a nationally elite team with stellar pitching and a dangerous lineup is essentially a weekly proposition in SEC play. On the other, facing a team with that No. 1 next to its name offers a chance at a little extra motivation, motivation that could be used to create just the kind of edge the Cats need.
He's taken both perspectives into account this week.
"Every year at some point it seems we get to play the number one team, the number two team, the number four team and so it's not that unusual," Henderson said. "It's new for this season. It's another SEC weekend. You're gonna see really good pitching, which we've seen plenty of in the last month and it's an opportunity do something you're going to remember for the rest of your life if you're a kid."
An estimated 50,381 fans attended UK's Blue/White Spring Game on April 13. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
All fans who were at Saturday's Blue/White Scrimmage knew they were part of a special event.
The estimated attendance of 50,831 obliterated the old UK spring game record by nearly 30,000 and stacks up with the crowds attracted by college football's perennial powers.
With the last spring game being played last weekend, Kentucky ranks sixth in attendance among those schools, trailing only four Southeastern Conference schools and Nebraska. In 2012, UK's crowd would have ranked fourth in the nation behind only Ohio State, Alabama and Penn State.
Below is a complete list of schools that have held spring games sorted by attendance:
Note: Ben Jones of CatsIllustrated.com posted a similar list here. All information below was compiled separately and expanded to include non-BCS conference schools.
Auburn - 83,401 (April 20) Alabama - 78,135 (April 20) Tennessee - 61,076 (April 20) Nebraska - 60,174 (April 6) Arkansas - 51,088 (April 20) Kentucky - 50,831 (April 13) Texas - 46,000 (March 30) Texas A&M - 45,212 (April 13) Georgia (April 6) - 45,113 Ohio State - 37,643 (April 13 in Cincinnati) Oregon - 36,588 (April 27) South Carolina - 35,218 (April 13) Louisville - 33,000 (April 13) Notre Dame - 31,652 (April 20) Clemson - 30,000 (April 13) Florida State - "nearly 30,000" (April 13) Oklahoma - 29,200 (April 13) LSU - 28,000 (April 20) Ole Miss - 28,000 (April 13) Penn State - 28,000 (April 20) Michigan State - 22,500 (April 20) Mississippi State -21,000 (Capacity limited due to stadium construction - April 20) Rutgers - 21,000 (April 27) UCLA - 20,000 (April 27) Missouri - 18,234 (April 20) Michigan - "nearly 18,000" (April 13) Iowa - 16,500 (April 27) Kansas State - 16,383 (April 27) Texas Tech - 16,116 (April 20) USC - 15,284 (April 13) Iowa State - 15,000 (April 20) North Carolina - 15,000 (April 13) Oklahoma State - 15,000 (April 21) Vanderbilt - 14,000 (April 13) Wisconsin - 12,050 (April 20) Colorado - 10,244 (April 13) Minnesota - 10,106 (April 27) Boise State - 9,146 (April 13) Utah - 8,633 (April 20) Washington State - 8,340 (April 20) Oregon State - 8,263 (April 26) Maryland - 8,200 (April 12) Miami - 8,000 (April 13) West Virginia - 8,000 (April 20) WKU - 6,500 (April 20) Purdue - 6,427 (April 13) Arizona State - 6,300 (April 13) East Carolina - 6,294 (April 20) Louisiana Tech - 5,700 (April 13) California - 5,831 (March 23) Duke - 5,213 (April 13) Middle Tennessee State - 5,000 (April 20) Nevada - "nearly 5,000" (April 20) Texas State - 4,608 (April 6) South Florida - 4,606 (April 6) Stanford - 4,350 (April 13) Wake Forest - 4,200 (April 20) Arizona - 4,095 (April 13) Pittsburgh - 3,642 (April 12) Temple - 3,530 (April 20) Baylor - 3,500 (April 6) Colorado State - "a little over 3,000" (April 20) Utah State - "approximately 3,000" (April 20) UTEP - 2,581 (April 12) UTSA - 2,506 (April 14) South Alabama - 2,281 (April 6) Illinois - 2,100 (April 12) Western Michigan - 2,045 (April 20) Cincinnati - "over 2,000" (April 6) Georgia State - "more than 1,800" New Mexico State - 1,200 (May 4) UNLV - 1,200 (April 12) Tulsa - 1,200 (April 6) Hawaii - 900 (April 27) Eastern Michigan - "Hundreds" (April 14) Northern Illinois - "Hundreds" (April 13)
The following schools did not release attendance figures for their spring games:
Air Force (April 13) Akron (April 27) Arkansas State (April 13) Ball State (April 20) Bowling Green (April 12) Buffalo (April 20) Central Michigan (April 13) Connecticut (April 20) Florida (April 6) Florida Atlantic (April 20) Florida International (April 20) Fresno State (March 23) Georgia Tech (April 19) Houston (April 12) Idaho (April 19) Indiana (April 13) Kansas (April 13) Kent State (April 27) Louisiana-Lafayette (April 20) Louisiana-Monroe (March 23) Marshall (April 27) Massachusetts (April 20) Memphis (April 6) Miami (Ohio) (April 20) North Carolina State (April 20) North Texas (April 13) Ohio (April 13) Rice (April 6) San Diego State (March 23) San Jose State (March 23) Southern Miss (April 20) Syracuse (April 20) Toledo (April 12) Troy (April 20) Tulane (March 2) UAB (April 27) UCF (April 13) Virginia (April 6) Virginia Tech (April 20) Washington (April 20) Wyoming (April 27)
The following schools did not hold official spring games or did not open their spring games to the public:
Army - "Limited viewing opportunities" to the public (March 8) Boston College - Cancelled due to events in Boston (April 20) BYU - "Nearly 1,000" attended Alumni Day scrimmage (April 5) Navy - No spring game New Mexico - No spring game Northwestern - No spring game SMU - No attendance released for "Fan Fair" (April 20) TCU - "A couple of thousand" attended Spring Frog Fest (April 6)
The following schools have not yet held their spring games:
The UK softball team fell to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, 6-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team couldn't recover from a four-run third inning and a dominant pitching performance from South Carolina hurler Julie Sarratt, as UK was ousted in the first round of the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday evening, 6-3.
The evening kicked off what was supposed to be a memorable event for UK as the SEC Tournament made its way to Lexington for the first time in school history in the newly renovated John Cropp Statdium. However, the Wildcats seventh-inning rally fell short after scoring two in the frame and bringing the tying run at the plate before Sarratt ended the game on a strikeout.
The result wasn't what the Cats wanted, but it wasn't enough to make them look past what this weekend means to UK and its softball program.
"I would like to thank the SEC and the University of Kentucky for putting on this venue right now," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I think the SEC is a special tournament because all the teams who come here, all 10 of them are exceptional teams. I think it's a great venue and barring the rain everything else has turned out really nice, both from the SEC side and from our side."
UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team earlier in the week and had been reliable for the Cats all season, especially down the stretch. Wednesday just wasn't her night either, as South Carolina had a good game plan adjusting to her attack.
Nunley had been on fire for Kentucky, winning two games over perennial powerhouse and defending champion Alabama last weekend. It turned out she just didn't have it tonight and Lawson gives credit to the Gamecocks for having a good scouting report on her freshman.
UK came off one of its biggest series wins over Alabama last weekend and figured to carry that momentum into this weekend's tournament. That series win may have bit them in the rear-end as the Cats seemed to have locked themselves into good position as far as seeding goes in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has essentially clinched an at-large bid into the postseason and are hoping to host a regional tournament, while South Carolina had a little more to play for being considered on the bubble.
"I think at times, especially when you are dealing with a team so youthful with five freshmen and a sophomore behind the plate, I think sometimes their focus is a little misguided," Lawson said. "I think beating Alabama was a big deal to them and beating South Carolina three times earlier in the year, offensively we didn't start strong and they came out and seemed a little hungrier than us."
Looking forward the Wildcats can learn from their mistakes and will have some time off to shake this loss off and look ahead to achieving their ultimate goal of making it to the Women's College World Series.
"We need a day off so tomorrow we will take off and watch the teams who are playing," Lawson said. "Obviously we have good pitching, we have won a lot of games. Offensively, I think we are going to have to do a better job of mixing things up. I think we have a good game plan we just didn't execute them this weekend. We have a lot of big wins and a lot of experience going into postseason I just think it depends on if it's a good matchup for us or not."
Freshman Sarah Harris looks to build on her second-place finish at SECs in the NCAA Regional at Auburn. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Fresh off the best finish in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in 20 years, the Kentucky women's golf team is headed to Auburn, Ala., for NCAA Regionals in pursuit of more history and a trip to nationals.
As the Wildcats have done all season long, they will have to fight through adversity to realize that goal.
The Wildcats had a great week of preparation heading into the SEC Tournament two weeks ago with fantastic weather in the Lexington area and plenty of time out on the golf course. The preparation and a renewed focus helped vault UK into a top-five finish at SECs and put the Cats in contention for a strong seed in the NCAAs.
With confidence soaring for the Wildcats heading to Auburn, Mother Nature has done her best to rain on the parade - literally.
The Kentucky spring weather has been unkind to leisurely casual golfers and collegiate golfers alike this spring season, whether it's been a chill in the air or moisture on the ground. With no end in sight to the less-than-ideal golf conditions, head coach Golda Borst went into improvisational mode to prepare for this weekend.
The Wildcats took to the range and visualized the Auburn golf course to the best of their abilities. With all of the distances and dimensions at their disposal, they created a virtual course and played it at the range.
Players estimated their shots, used a range finder, aimed at the "green" or flag or a different target on the range. They would imagine their shot, execute and estimate whether or not they were close to their target.
"The girls did a really good job and got really into it and tried to make the best of the situation," said Borst. "For me, that's what it's about .We're going to have tough conditions, and this time it was extra tough."
Preparing in that fashion will at least give the older players a refresher on a course that the seniors have already played in their career, but this week's preparation is particularly important for the freshmen who have never seen it.
"The more mentally you can prepare, the better because when you get there, it's like, 'Oh, I've played this before. I kind of had an idea of what this looks like,' " said Borst. "Then I would walk around and help them remember some of the holes."
And having the experience of Auburn's University Club golf course should not only give the upperclassmen an edge, but they will also be able to pass along their wisdom - as they've done all season - to the freshmen.
"Three of the girls have been there. They know what's coming," said Borst. "They know emotionally how to prepare for it. They can talk to the two freshmen about it and kind of give them an idea about the golf course.
"I think the golf course sets up for us well and I think they'll do a good job. We just have to make sure that we stay focused on us and play within ourselves and play the game we know that we can play, and we'll do a good job."
Kentucky's preparations aren't limited to the Bluegrass, however, as Borst got her team ready to go a couple of days earlier to head to Atlanta, Ga., and get an extra round in before heading to Auburn for the NCAA Tournament as she continues to try and find any additional edge she can provide her players.
Despite the distractions of early travel and a rainy day - or week - Kentucky has remained cool, calm and collected, much like the Cats were heading into the SEC Tournament.
"They've been very calm and very focused," said Borst. "They know what they need to do and they're ready to do it. I must say, there's a different mindset this year than there was the last two years."
Freshman Sarah Harris, who recently took second place individually at the SEC Tournament, might be able to continue to carry the Wildcats as they look for a top-eight finish to advance to nationals, but she's going to need some help.
While junior Liz Breed has been very consistent this season, Kentucky will need seniors Betsie Johnson and Ashleigh Albrecht to continue to battle the emotions of their senior season and put up a solid tournament. Albrecht carried the Cats for much of last year much like Harris is doing now late in the season, but she's yet to find her consistent stroke.
There would be no better time and place for Albrecht to rediscover it than this weekend at Auburn.
"It would mean a lot to me as a coach," said Borst. "Not necessarily because it would help us advance, but it would help her with her game as she moves on to be a professional golfer because it would help her confidence. I think that would be really big to know that she has it in her, and she does, it's just the more rounds you can get around par and under par, it will validate her."
At the end of the day, the Wildcats will need to bridle their emotions for this event and remaining as relaxed as possible, knowing that they don't have to do anything special to achieve a top-eight score.
Though Borst is confident that the Auburn course sets up well for her team, it's all going to come down to the short game, which has been the story of the season.
"You have to make the big putts on every single day because a lot of times it comes down to the last hole on the last day, missing it or making it by one shot," said Borst. "We worked a ton on putting here in the last week and a half because I know how important it is. As you prepare, I want the girls to know that they gave it their all and they are fully prepared for whatever comes their way this week."
It hasn't been perfect, but Borst has done her part to get her team ready for just that. If she has it her way, which has been tough for her to come by in her never-ending battle with Mother Nature, Kentucky will be standing in the sunshine having clinched a trip to nationals.
Head coach Edrick Floreal (left) with senior sprinter Shiara Robinson (right). (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
When the Kentucky track and field team gets ready to compete in the 2013 Outdoor Southeastern Conference Championships this weekend, the Wildcats will look very different from their conference counterparts. The blue and white uniforms, of course, will distinguish the Wildcats, but the real contrast won't begin to show itself until competition begins.
The SEC allows each university to bring 30 male and female student-athletes to compete at the conference championships. Instead of piling in 60 members from the UK track and field team and busing to Columbia, Mo., this week, first-year head coach Edrick Floreal chose to take a different approach.
Floreal made the decision to send just 35 athletes, 18 males and 17 females, to compete at SECs. This might seem to put the Cats at an immediate disadvantage, but Floreal knows his team better than anyone else. He has a clear picture of what a UK track and field athlete looks like, and the Wildcats he'll bring with him to Missouri have grown to fit that vision.
The biggest difference he has seen in this group over the course of the year hasn't necessarily been a boost in athletic ability or skill, but a change in their mentality.
"I just think it's been self-belief," Floreal said. "They believe they actually belong and I actually heard it from some of the coaches in the SEC that the kids that we have now act like they belong in the SEC and they can be competitive. That was a goal for the kids to feel like they belong instead of just letting them participate in the event.
"That's kind of why we took a smaller group of people that actually feel comfortable competing at that level as opposed to taking a large group that might not be ready when it comes to competing at that level yet."
One of the meets this year that has stood out to Floreal on that front was the Kentuckiana Border Battle in mid-April, when UK teamed up with Louisville in a meet against Indiana and Notre Dame. UK and U of L ended up winning both the men's and women's meets but more importantly, Floreal saw belief and determination out of his athletes.
Coaches from the three neighbor schools who were familiar with Kentucky and how the Wildcats compete were caught off guard by the Wildcats' new sense of self-confidence.
Creating that attitude has been one of Floreal's main goals since he arrived in the Bluegrass. He hopes for a similar reaction from UK's SEC brethren this weekend.
"I'm hoping for a little shock factor for the rest of the conference to exceed their expectation," Floreal said. "Not so much exceed their expectation in winning events but just from watching how hard our kids fight and how confident they are at that level more importantly than anything else.
"It is one thing when you are used to seeing Kentucky on the back and now they are next to you being competitive. That's what we are aiming for in every event. Whether somebody is fighting for next-to-last or fighting to make the final, I just want them to fight as hard as they can all the way to the finish."
What this week does for the Cats is give them an opportunity to compete at the highest level and gain experience for the 2014 SEC Championships, which will be held at the UK Track and Field Complex. Floreal is hoping that his athletes take this experience and develop some leadership for next year as well.
Kentucky has a large recruiting class coming in next year, with 25 male and 12 female athletes set to arrive in Lexington for the 2013-14 season. With such a massive group of newcomers, UK needs some leaders to step up so the freshmen have an example to follow.
"We just need to establish a group of leaders now so when the freshmen come they already know, 'Hey these people have gotten it done, we need to learn from them on what it takes to compete in the SEC,' " Floreal said. "You don't want the freshmen to come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely lost. You want them to come in and feel like they can talk to the All-SEC members and All-Americans on the team and learn from them."
Another goal of Floreal's is to improve on last year's performance - eighth for the men, 12th for the women - and see if the Cats can crack the top half. With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M this season, the Wildcats will need to place at least seventh to achieve Floreal's goal.
Last year junior Andrew Evans won the discus throw, while senior Luis Orta and sophomore Raymond Dykstra were runners-up in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and javelin throw, respectively. Floreal wouldn't mind seeing a few more of his athletes up on the stage accepting awards this year.
"We didn't have an exceptionally good showing last year and the No. 1 thing is to improve on that," Floreal said. "Anytime you can be in the top half of the SEC that's a big accomplishment. We want to see some people in that top five and top three and see some people on the podium. We just want the kids to compete hard and be competitive so it should be fairly clear who are the stars and who are not."
Jerad Grundy allowed just one run over five innings in UK's 4-1 win over Wright State on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jerad Grundy had a lot of time to ponder his recent struggles.
The senior left-hander was replaced in his usual role as Kentucky's Saturday starter last weekend, meaning he had to wait a week and a half between outings. But in returning to the mound on Tuesday against Wright State, the worst four-start stretch of his UK career was the last thing on his mind.
"When you're a baseball player, you've got to have a short-term memory," Grundy said. "You don't want to be worrying about what you did last week and all of a sudden you're not focused on what you can do this week. You've just got to go out there and play one game at a time."
Using that approach, Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) returned to form against the Raiders, looking much more like the pitcher who allowed didn't allow more than three earned runs in any start over the first seven weeks of the season. He turned in five innings of one-run ball, yielding five hits and no walks while striking out five as the Wildcats (28-19) defeated visiting Wright State (20-24), 4-1.
"I'm really happy with Jerad's performance tonight," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Command of all three pitches, he stayed down for the most part, briefly lost a little bit of rhythm there in the fourth and got it back and had a clean fifth inning."
It wasn't his most dominant outing or even long enough to make it a quality start, but Grundy put into practice the work he had logged over the last week. Hitters had been making him pay for pitches he left up, but Grundy kept the ball in the lower half of the zone on Tuesday, particularly during the first three innings when he didn't allow a base runner.
"His pen work has been good all year," Henderson said. "Through the starts where he's struggled with fastball command it came up a little bit, it was not indicative of what he's been doing between starts. It's a thought process issue, a relaxation issue and I thought tonight he was able to go out there and relax."
By relaxing, Grundy proved to himself once again that he can get the job done. And in addition to buoying his own confidence, Grundy's performance was positive for the postseason prospects of a team that has just two weekends left in the regular season. As well as true freshman Kyle Cody pitched in his first Southeastern Conference start last Saturday, UK will need Grundy's experience and veteran presence.
"It definitely doesn't hurt to have another starter, especially with the stuff Kyle has," Grundy said. "That's going to be huge for us once we get in the SEC Tournament and the regionals."
That's a ways off though.
"I think anytime you've got four guys, you've got something," Henderson said. "But to be honest with you, I haven't looked that far ahead. We've got a couple weekends first."
In the meantime, Grundy is taking the short-term view, no matter whether he's pitching on a weekend or a weekday.
"We're just taking it day by day," Grundy said. "To me it doesn't really matter what my role. I just want to have a role on the team and help us win."