Kelsey Nunley retired 10 straight batters after allowing four first-inning runs against Florida. (Doug Finger, UK Athletics)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Rachel Lawson had nearly a week to think about how she wanted game one of Kentucky's Super Regional against top-seeded Florida to go.
It only took a few minutes for that to all go out the window.
In the top of the first, the Wildcats were mowed down in order by Lauren Haeger. In the bottom half, the Gators plated four runs, all coming with two outs, against Kelsey Nunley.
"It was a tough first inning," Lawson said. "Things didn't exactly go our way and it kind of put us in a hole. When you do that to Haeger -- who's outstanding, arguably the best player in college softball -- it's going to be a tough day."
A tough day is exactly what it ended up being, as UK (32-25) fell behind 1-0 in a best-of-three series against Florida (54-6) after a 7-0 defeat at a loud and hot Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium on Saturday. Haeger took a perfect game into the sixth inning, rendering meaningless the fact that Nunley found a rhythm and retired 10 straight batters after a three-run double by Kayli Kvistad in the first.
"I thought Nunley did a great job shutting them down after the first inning," Lawson said. "I thought we stayed in the game tight and then we just let it get out of hand later in the game."
The outcome was decided once and for all when Florida plated three runs in the sixth inning against Erin Rethlake. Rethlake and Meagan Prince came on in relief of Nunley to rest the star junior for Sunday and get the two youngsters some valuable experience in an environment the likes of which neither has ever seen.
"I think it was important for Meagan Prince to get in," Lawson said. "We weren't really hitting the ball very well. I thought Haeger was doing an outstanding job. She was commanding her pitches; her off-speed looked good. I think it was getting harder and harder for us to barrel up on the ball so I thought was important that Meagan get in the game and I thought she did an outstanding job.
"Correspondingly, I thought it was important that Rethlake get in, because this is an outstanding crowd."
With the way Prince performed -- retiring the 9, 1 and 2 hitters for Florida in order -- she's likely to play a role come Sunday, when UK will look to sweep a doubleheader and punch a Women's College World Series ticket for the second season in a row.
"What will happen is we'll go back to the film," Lawson said. "You can expect Nunley, you can expect Meagan Prince tomorrow. It's going to be a long day. The nice thing is neither one of them is fatigued. Both of them work extremely hard in the offseason; they work extremely hard during the year. We haven't over-pitched anybody. So they can throw the innings they need to throw. The key for us is going to be if we can hit Florida's pitching."
As Saturday proved, that's a tall order.
The Cats, however, have room for improvement. The key to having more success at the plate against Haeger and the Florida staff, Lawson says, is to attack earlier in the count.
"I think we over-swang," Lawson said. "I think we got in there, we took pitches that we should be swinging at and I think they were expecting to see a ball over the white even though she never pitches it there. And then they were swinging at pitcher's pitches late in the count and they were popping up."
On Sunday at noon, the Cats will try to turn that around.
"From this point we just gotta try to recover, get our minds right and get some rest for tomorrow and hopefully we'll be able to fight through and just try to force the if-necessary game," said Griffin Joiner, who had one of Kentucky's two hits on Saturday.
The good news for UK is sweeping a doubleheader against a heavily favored opponent on the road with a WCWS trip on the line has been done before. In fact, the Cats did it exactly one year ago against UCLA.
"That's what we're going to talk about," Joiner said. "We've been in this position before, whether it's been throughout the season with a doubleheader or last season in the postseason."
Marcus McWilson, Austin MacGinnis and Alex Montgomery. (Nikki McLaughlin, UK Athletics)
This week, Alex Montgomery, Austin MacGinnis and Marcus McWilson are
on UK football's annual service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days,
they will take turns sharing their experiences in a series of Cat
Scratches blog entries. Please note that these posts are the
student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not
necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.Today, Nikki McLaughlin -- the photographer accompanying the group on the trip -- shares her thoughts.
Each time I visit Ethiopia, I return home having made some amazing new friends. Included on the new friend list this go-round: three incredible football players from Kentucky.
I've been in awe this week as I have watched these three young men bless the people here and be blessed by them in return. Whether they were doing construction projects on the home of an AIDS-affflicted widow, delivering a mattress to an elderly woman who had never before slept on one, providing food to families who might otherwise have nothing at all to eat or showering love upon impoverished children, these three have impressed me so much.
I will never forget watching Marcus McWilson tirelessly pound nail after nail into mud homes so that several widows would be ready for rainy season. I will always remember watching Alex Montgomery quietly offer a big smile to each child who ran up for a chance to compare their (tiny) hand against his. And Austin MacGinnis, he must have dedicated an entire suitcase to candy, toys and soccer cleats. I loved watching him put his heart into sharing each of these things with the sweet babies here. Although on the opposite side of the globe from home, all three of these guys seemed to be "right at home" as they took time to play football and soccer with countless little ones.
These guys have worked hard and loved big. And today, the group relaxed a bit, took a break from work and went on a field trip! We drove several hours south of Addis to Debre Libanos to check out an ancient 13th-century monastery and the Blue Nile Gorge. I was super impressed by the story of a monk who meditated in a cave near the monastery for just over 29 years. We saw monkeys too! AWESOME. Before heading back we had an impromptu portrait shoot at the gorge lookout which included karate-kid kicks and handstands of course.
Whether serving widows and orphans or throwing a football to an aspiring athlete or chasing after monkeys, these guys have totally rocked it. I am so honored to be here with this amazing UK team as we adventure through Ethiopia making friends and memories along the way, so lucky to be behind my lens capturing this story. Ethiopia now has a piece of my heart and I dare to bet the same is true for my new friends from Kentucky.
"It's not how much we give but how much LOVE we put into giving." -- Mother Teresa
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Four trips in five seasons later, Super Regionals feel different for Kentucky softball.
Unprecedented success has led to unprecedented expectations for the Wildcats. What once was a destination has become something of a birthright.
"If you took this team and it was five years ago everybody would think we were great," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said.
With her team set to take on top-seeded Florida (53-6) in a best-of-three series beginning at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Gainesville, Fla., Lawson thinks of another team back home on UK's campus in the way success is now defined for her program.
"It is kind of like Kentucky basketball," Lawson said. "If Kentucky basketball just gets to the Sweet 16, it is just an OK season. Kentucky basketball is expected to be in the Final Four and win the national championship."
Lawson knows her team has a long way to go to match its counterpart on the hardwood - eight national titles, for starters - but the comparison holds water nonetheless.
"We are not Kentucky basketball, but we are definitely in the realm where we are only one of nine teams that have been to three straight Super Regionals," Lawson said. "So it is one of those things where now when you are as good as you are everybody expects you to go the World Series all the time."
Kentucky (32-24) made its first Women's College World Series trip a season ago, but a second straight trip seemed unlikely as recently as a week ago. The Cats limped into the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game losing streak, but swept through the South Bend Regional, knocking off overall No. 16 seed Notre Dame in the process.
"It was fun," third baseman Nikki Sagermann said. "It was great to get back on the field and get the team back on track and win some ballgames. It is always good when you are winning."
That's especially true with frequent losing still so fresh in your mind. But rather than letting that derail their confidence, the Cats got to work in a crucial week of practice following a loss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"We weren't making good pitches or if we did make a good pitch we wouldn't make a good stop," Lawson said. "We just weren't very good at that time. I think now with some work I think they feel confident that they are back to doing what they do well."
UK will need every ounce of that confidence come this weekend against the defending national champion Gators. Florida will have a home crowd on its side, not to mention an offense led by SEC Player of the Year Kelsey Stewart and a pitching staff anchored by SEC Pitcher of the Year Lauren Haeger. The Gators are hitting .312 as a team and boast an earned-run average of 1.73.
"We have already faced them this year so we know that environment with the fans and we have a lot of experience with that," said Sagermann, who hit two home runs last weekend and is on a career-best 10-game hitting streak. "They are a very good team and we are going to have to be on our A game to get out of there with two wins."
The Gators swept a competitive three-game set against UK in April, winning games by one, two and three runs. Outside of a six-run inning against sophomore Meagan Prince in game two, the Cats allowed just three runs all weekend.
"Well, I thought that we played pretty well that weekend," said Kelsey Nunley, who pitched all but two innings of UK's three regional wins. "We didn't get the results that we wanted, but we fought pretty hard and played good defense and made some good contact at the plate. I hope we can carry what we learned from those loses into this weekend."
Though Florida is the top seed, UK has experience taking down a favorite in Supers. The Cats won at No. 3 seed UCLA last season.
"This is our seventh straight postseason and every year we seem to be the underdog so that is a role that we are used to," Lawson said. "Florida is a very good team. It is different in the standpoint that we are both very familiar with each other because playing an SEC team is a lot different than going out of conference. So it is a similar scenario in that we are the underdog and are going to have to do something pretty exceptional in order to win."
Exceptional, sure, but not impossible.
"They are a higher seed than us and we are obviously pretty low seeded," Sagermann said. "We are just going to go out there and play our game and put no pressure on us. We are out there just to have fun and get two wins."
UK Athletics administrator Rachel Baker is accompanying three UK football players on a service trip to Ethiopia this week. (Nicolette McLaughlin, UK Athletics)
This week, Alex Montgomery, Austin MacGinnis and Marcus McWilson are
on UK football's annual service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days,
they will take turns sharing their experiences in a series of Cat
Scratches blog entries. Please note that these posts are the
student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not
necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.Today, Rachel Baker -- the senior associate athletics director accompanying the students on the trip -- shares her thoughts.
As I reflect on the work of the three student-athletes today in Korah, I have found difficulty in finding the words to do it justice. For me, today has been one of the toughest yet. Korah, Ethiopia is one of the poorest areas in the country. Thousands of people live there, and many of them live at the dump in order to have a potential source of food and supplies.
The morning started at a local church where we distributed food supplies to 30 widowed mothers and children. Each family received a month's supply of oil, matches, rice, macaroni, spaghetti noodles, toilet paper, soap and detergent. The women began lining up as we were preparing the bags for distribution and you could see and feel their excitement. These women do not have traditional "sponsors," so many times do not know where or how they or their children will survive from week to week.
Following this, we traveled to the city dump to observe the living conditions. While we all come from different backgrounds and have experienced different things in our life, I can honestly say that I have never experienced anything like today. To witness hundreds of human beings living in a garbage dump in order to have a potential source of food and supplies was almost too much. The smell was unimaginable, and I am ashamed to admit that there were several times when I didn't think that I could continue on through it. However, I would occasionally look up and see Alex, Austin and Marcus reaching out to shake hands, say hello, or pass out candy and toys to the people living there and found motivation through them and their work. These people have so very little, if anything, but have smiles on their faces and are so appreciative that people care enough to come visit.
Following the trip to the dump, we traveled to an office to listen to a man (who was around my same age) talk about his life growing up at the dump. Wow. The stories of survival that he shared with us were beyond what any of us could ever comprehend. As I think about the differences between what I was doing around that same time in my life compared to his daily struggles, it provides a whole different perspective.
At the end of his story, he gave us a call to action: help one person. We all have an obligation, a responsibility, a duty to make a difference in the life of at least one. When I step back and look at this man and think about his life growing up, I am amazed. He was able to persevere in dire circumstances, ultimately get an education and obtain two college degrees. He could probably have created a whole different life for himself and his family in another place far away but chose to return home to Korah in order to make a difference in his community. He truly defines what it means to be a servant leader, and I hope that we will all be able to take his advice to heart.
As I watch these three young men take in this extraordinary experience, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride in them, their team, and our institution. They have opened their hearts and visited with so many people and children, put so many smiles on young faces, and truly been outstanding representatives of UK.
Marcus McWilson is among three Kentucky football players serving in Ethiopia this week. (Nicolette McLaughlin, UK Athletics)
This week, Alex Montgomery, Austin MacGinnis and Marcus McWilson are on UK football's annual service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, they will take turns sharing their experiences in a series of Cat Scratches blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
It's day two for us here in Ethiopia and it's such a blessing that we have the opportunity to put smiles on so many faces.
This morning as I got out of bed getting ready for the day I have to say I was overwhelmed with excitement and very anxious. I know that all of us were ready to see what God had in store for us, so we packed our bags and headed out.
As we're driving around it's a humbling experience seeing how much people struggle every day. People come from nothing, have nothing and leave with less but they have smiles on their faces because it's a new day. Knowing we can make a difference in a life is the best thing for me because I love making someone smile.
This afternoon repairing houses was a lot different from what I'm used to, but we were all able to adapt and help in any way possible. The houses aren't your typical brick and stone houses; they're made from sticks and mud clumped and molded together and made from the ground up. Once we figured out what we could do to help we were all in, from playing with the kids to handy work with hammers and nails.
We also gave out mattresses, which was heartbreaking because some people had never slept on beds. At times I feel like I'm not doing enough because there are so many people in need and I want to help them all. Tomorrow cannot come soon enough!
Kentucky's 14 SEC wins is part of its strong NCAA Tournament resume (Charlie Healy, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. - With its resume, it shouldn't be over. Despite a 6-3 loss to Auburn in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday, the Kentucky baseball team has a strong case to make the NCAA Tournament.
On the bubble for an NCAA berth, UK's resume speaks for itself. Kentucky (30-25) has an impressive list of victories, including several series wins, over ranked opponents.
Taking two of three at No. 1 LSU highlights that list. The only series the SEC champion Tigers lost in 2015, UK's two wins in Baton Rouge marked one of five series victories for the Wildcats vs. league foes.
Adding to that list are 2-1 weekends at No. 5 Florida, vs. No. 20 Mississippi State and at Missouri, along with a sweep of Tennessee.
In total, Kentucky racked up 14 wins in SEC play.
Historically for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the 14-win mark acts as the Mendoza Line. Just one team has failed to make the tournament in the last 12 years with at least 14 SEC victories.
Kentucky has a strong resume, but head coach Gary Henderson hasn't thought much about it. He, and his team, just want to keep on playing.
"Well, I haven't looked at [our postseason chances], but I've had a couple people around me look at it and spend a little bit of time on it," Henderson said after Tuesday's game. "I know that there's only one team in the last dozen years with 14 league wins that didn't make the NCAA tournament. So we certainly feel good about that. But I haven't studied it. I don't know. I'm just hoping that we get the chance to continue to play."
Henderson just wants that chance to keep on playing. To prove that Tuesday's loss was an anomaly and to continue to make history.
Make the NCAA Tournament and the Wildcats will have earned back-to-back NCAA bids for the second time in program history and for the first time since 1949-50.
Road wins, upset wins, an 11-game winning streak and another streak that went six games. Make the tournament, and UK knows anything can happen.
All those wins are impressive, and it gives Kentucky a strong case for inclusion in NCAA play. Add to it that all those wins came in arguably the toughest conference in the country, and UK's case gets even stronger.
Alex Montgomery is on an athletics department-sponsored service trip to Ethiopia this week. (Nicolette McLaughlin, UK Athletics)
This week, Alex Montgomery, Austin MacGinnis and Marcus McWilson are on UK football's annual service trip to Ethiopia. Over the coming days, they will take turns sharing their experiences in a series of Cat Scratches blog entries.Please note
that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the
views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of
Kentucky or UK Athletics.
I would start this off by saying the flight was terrible and I never want to do it again, but then I would be lying because traveling is a part of the process. Yes, there were a few times that I wanted to turn around and go back home, but when I think about this trip and how life-changing it will be for me I said, I can do it.
The flight wasn't too bad because we all slept for majority of it. When we first landed I was so nervous because I didn't know what to expect as in where are we staying, what are we eating, can I shower, can I brush my teeth. All of these things run through your head, but after speaking to our trip leaders I felt better because they let you know that everything and everyone is going to be fine. Today is our first day going out so as soon as I get back I'll finish this day one blog.
(Eight hours later)
I'm back now, sorry for the long pause, but I can officially say our first day here is over! This morning I was a little hesitant because I didn't want to be too pushy or too laid-back like I usually am. So I told myself whatever you do today, Alex, just be you and to make someone else's day! So we set out to do just that.
First you're just driving through this amazingly different city with a lot of different things going on like their driving, the buildings, the people. I just wanted to stop and help everyone but unfortunately I can't. So we're finally on this dirt road where there are huge bumps, goats and donkeys. I really enjoyed looking at the donkeys though just because they all reminded me of Donkey from Shrek.
After that, we finally got to one family's house and we were shocked to see it had no roof and barely any walls. We got right to work, without a question. After a few hours of work fixing their home, the lady was so happy. She said, "Thanks for making my house beautiful," but I wanted to thank her for just showing me that it doesn't take a million dollars to make someone's day.
As the Kentucky baseball team begins postseason play Tuesday at the SEC Tournament, the formula is simple.
"We need to win."
That's how head coach Gary Henderson phrased it as he previewed Tuesday's opening contest. The eight-seeded Wildcats (30-24, 14-15) open with a first-round game vs. No. 9-seeded Auburn at 5:30 p.m. ET at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes undecided, Kentucky likely needs a win, if not several, to secure back-to-back tournament berths for the second time in program history.
The Wildcats head to Hoover knowing they can win away from the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium. They have posted three series wins in SEC play on the road, at No. 1 LSU, No. 5 Florida and Missouri.
UK's wins over the then-No. 1-ranked Tigers in Baton Rouge, La., marked LSU's only series loss of the season.
Those wins are a boost to Kentucky's confidence, which will only help in the neutral-site SEC Tournament that's just over 100 miles from Auburn's campus.
"Anytime you win a series on the road in our league, especially against somebody in the upper part of it, I think you get confident, because it's hard," Henderson said. "I think any coach in the league will tell you it's hard to win on the road. To be able to get two [at LSU], and two at Florida and obviously we got two on the weekend at Missouri, that's something we haven't done over the years. And not a lot of teams are able to do that. But you leave confident."
The confidence certainly comes from the wins, including an 11-0 run in late February and early March, but it also comes from who Henderson is coaching.
It's something he said at the beginning of the season, but Henderson coaches a fun team. A group that likes to show up to the park every day and work hard, have fun and get better.
Henderson believes the attitude and makeup has played a role in the team's confidence.
"I've said it all year, I told you in February when we talked, our guys like to play, they really do," Henderson said. "We've got a spirit about us, it's fun to be around. Clearly at times we didn't play as well as we'd like, that just makes us normal. That's not uncommon in our game. It's a fun group, they are confident in a three-game set right now. We're pretty confident."
Confidence also comes from the way UK has improved over the course of the season. The Wildcats' 11-game winning streak was snapped at the start of SEC play when they got swept at No. 7 South Carolina. Kentucky then lost to Ohio before winning two of three at home over No. 20 Mississippi State.
After a splitting a pair of midweek games, it was a 2-1 road trip at top-ranked LSU before UK went 1-6 in its next seven games. That's when the tides started to turn in Kentucky's favor though. The Wildcats swept Tennessee, and back-to-back wins at No. 5 Florida gave UK a six-game winning streak.
"We're a group that has gotten better as the season has progressed," Henderson said. "When we left [LSU] in late March, we didn't look very good defensively at all. We've played dramatically better, infield defense since we left Baton Rouge.
"We're in a spot now with Kyle [Cody], throwing on the weekends, where we're a much better team. He's gotten into a rhythm the last three outings. Kyle has been outstanding, and we've got three solid starters. We've gotten better offensively. We're still a group that relies tremendously on the top half of our order."
Cody, a junior righthander, has gone at least seven innings in each of his last two starts and earned the win in UK's series-clincher over Missouri on May 16. His spot in the rotation comes after Zack Brown and Dustin Beggs, who have combined for 15 quality starts on the season as Kentucky's top two arms in the rotation.
Even if Henderson hasn't revealed UK's first round starter, a strong rotation of Brown, Beggs and Cody is another reason to be confident.
Tuesday, a day before the tournament's double-elimination round begins, the Wildcats will look to eliminate an Auburn team trying to do the exact same thing to them. However, on Kentucky's side will be some confidence, from its success on the road and solid starting pitching. Not to mention a fun attitude.
Griffin Joiner had two hits on Sunday, including the game winner to send UK to a third Super Regional trip in a row. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For four years, Rachel Lawson has kept a batting-practice secret.
When Griffin Joiner is up and Lawson wants her star senior catcher to make an out, Lawson knows just what to do.
"Every time I want Griffin to get out, I call a timeout and I freeze her and then she gets so fidgety and ends up popping up," Lawson said.
Only with a third Super Regional trip in a row on the line would Lawson give up the secret.
Leading 3-2 with two outs in the top of the seventh inning of Sunday's Regional final, Notre Dame tried the trick, calling timeout with Joiner ahead 2-0 in the count. Right away, Lawson ran from her customary spot just outside the Kentucky dugout to finally spill the beans to Joiner.
"I told her what the trick was," Lawson said. "Now that she's a senior, I don't have to keep it (a secret)."
Facing one of the biggest moments of her illustrious career, Joiner got just what she needed from the brief visit. A few pitches later, she laced a full-count single into the gap in right-center field. Christian Stokes scored from second and Nikki Sagermann from first on a Fighting Irish throwing error, a rally fellow senior Kara Howard sparked with a leadoff single.
"Obviously it helped that she called timeout and told me they were just trying to get in my head," Joiner said. "Because she does that to me all the time. So I kind of felt comfortable that she had told me that."
That Joiner could feel comfortable in that situation speaks to her poise.
"I just looked at the scoreboard it was full count, top of the seventh," Joiner said. "That's really what you work for and what you live for."
It was a moment, however, that seemed unlikely to come for Joiner as recently as a few days ago.
UK entered the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game losing streak, including three walk-off losses in a row to Tennessee in the final two games of the regular-season and the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Now, the Wildcats are on a remarkably well-timed three-game winning streak after sweeping through the South Bend Regional.
"It definitely says that we're tough," Lawson said. "I think the other thing it says is we have a really short memory, which in situations like this is key. So we don't really carry things from game to game. I think it says a lot about our character."
Joiner isn't so worried about what the win says about her team, at least not right now. She's only thinking about her college career lasting at least one more week.
"It's definitely a good feeling knowing that we get to go out and we get to play another game," Joiner said. "That's really all we're doing right now, is just fighting for another game."
The next game will be next weekend, as UK heads to Gainesville, Fla., for a Super Regional showdown with No. 1 overall seed Florida.
Lawson will almost certainly turn to Kelsey Nunley against the Gators. Why wouldn't she after Nunley held a Notre Dame team that scored 29 runs in two run-rule wins on Saturday to just three runs on seven hits?
"Notre Dame is a great offensive team," Lawson said. "They have so many different weapons and so many different tools. I really think that Nunley did a great job on the mound keeping them off balance and keeping the number of runners on base to a minimum."
Nunley couldn't keep Notre Dame off the bases in the seventh inning as she tried to protect the lead Joiner gave UK, as Jenna Simon singled, stole second and moved to third on a grounder. But facing Notre Dame's two best power hitters in Emilee Koerner and Katey Haus, Nunley coaxed a pair of pop ups to shortstop.
"We just tried to keep them off balance like we always do," Nunley said. "Once again, I thought Coach called another good game and it went well. It worked out. It was a little shaky at times, but in the end Griffin came up and was a stud."
That's no secret.
"It was fitting because we've been doing this for so long together that we were either going to go down together or win together," Lawson said. "So I thought it was fitting for the program."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - A bumpy regular-season road might have cast some doubts about whether Kentucky softball's freshmen would be able to contribute immediately in the NCAA Tournament.
Rachel Lawson, however, saw it coming.
"Well yeah, I recruited them," Lawson said.
A day after Rachael Metzger's pinch hit propelled UK into the winners' bracket on Friday, fellow first-year players Brooklin Hinz and Erin Rethlake combined for five hits, two runs and two runs batted in as the Wildcats coasted past Ball State on Saturday, 5-0. They gave more than enough support to ace Kelsey Nunley, who allowed just two hits and a walk and struck out seven in a complete-game shutout as the Cats moved into Sunday's South Bend Regional final.
"I thought Coach Lawson called a great game and she really kept them off balance," Nunley said. "That was the whole goal. She was like, 'I'm going to call the pitches, you're going to throw the pitches and we're going to go from there.' That's what we did."
Nunley, after she led UK to the Women's College World Series a year ago, surprised no one with her performance. Hinz and Rethlake, on the other hand, have never been on this stage before, though Lawson brought them to Kentucky for exactly this.
"One of the major criteria I have when I recruit players is that they're a winner," Lawson said. "Their high school teams win, their travel ball teams win so that they understand what the postseason is about."
Hinz, who had just 23 hits in 109 at-bats before going 3 for 3 against Ball State, says her freshman season has been building to these moments, like when she led off the second inning with a sharp single and later scored the game's first run.
"I've kind of noticed it over the whole course of this year and just really figured out what to do with the details now that I've realized what things are," Hinz said. "I've been able to put them together and it's been working really well."
Though it took until Saturday for the results to show up in the box score for Hinz.
"I've been really pleased with the work our freshmen have been putting in," Lawson said. "In the later part of the SEC, they really started to hit the ball hard and looked a lot more comfortable in the box."
With the likes of Hinz, Rethlake and Metzger becoming legitimate threats at the plate, UK's lineup becomes that much more potent.
"We've really started to put things together," Lawson said. "This is the offense that we've put together through the beginning of the year that's really starting to shine right now."
UK has now scored four runs or more six times in its last eight games on the heels of a three-game stretch that saw the Cats score just one run total.
"Well I think it's been coming around for the last three weeks," Lawson said. "I just think things take time and I think we've had enough time to work on some of the things--specifically, we're working on early pitch recognition and just being on time for the pitch. I think anytime you make major adjustments it takes a little bit of time. So this was about the right timeframe for change to happen."
The timing truly couldn't be better. UK has snapped a seven-game losing streak with back-to-back NCAA Tournament wins, taking the Cats to within one victory of a fourth Super Regional appearance in five seasons. They'll go for it at 1 p.m. on Sunday against Notre Dame, Ball State or Northwestern.
"Towards the end, we've kind of been working on a lot of different things and now I think everything has just kind of clicked together and it's just been working really well for us," Hinz said.