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."
Kyle Cody will start UK's NCAA opener vs. Kansas at 2 p.m. on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- When the first pitch of the 2014 Louisville Regional is delivered Friday afternoon at Jim Patterson Stadium between Kansas and Kentucky, thoughts will be racing through the minds of everyone across the Bluegrass State about the potential matchup between Kentucky and Louisville.
However, the Wildcats have a more immediate -- and more important -- task at hand. It also happens to be one that has escaped UK in its NCAA Tournament history.
In UK's last four NCAA Tournament appearances, the Wildcats have lost the opening game of the regionals in all four games, including 2012 when UK fell in 21 innings to Kent State -- another potential matchup in game two of this regional. Kentucky is making its eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history, while looking to record only its second-ever opening game win in a regional. In the seven previous NCAA Regional opening-game appearances, UK's lone win came in 1988 vs. Rutgers.
For Kentucky to be successful, the Cats cannot afford to look past a team that enters its first NCAA Tournament since 2009, while riding a recent hot streak.
Kansas makes the trek to Louisville having won its last nine Big 12 conference regular-season games before entering postseason play, including 11 of its last 15 games overall. Prior to reeling off nine straight Big 12 regular season wins, the Jayhawks sat at 23-20 on the season with slim hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, but that's the funny thing about baseball: Any team can get hot at any time of the season.
For KU, it couldn't have happened at a better time.
"To win nine games in a row in any good league is hard, mathematically it's really hard if you just look at the statistics or percentages," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson. "They've got an older group. They got hot. They're playing well. They deserve to be here."
Friday's matchup on the diamond will mark the first between the two programs who have rich traditions on the hardwood. The two head coaches realize just how important that first game of the regional is. It can set the tone for the remainder of the regional or it can put you in a hole from the very beginning.
"I'm not sure I have a word other than, really important," said Henderson. "The only thing I can tell you is you have to win that game. Is it impossible if you lose? No, it's not impossible. As a coach, you know what you need to do to make that path as likely or as easy as you can, and it's winning the first game."
Two years ago the Wildcats were facing a similar situation in the Gary Regional with Purdue as the No. 1 seed. UK was matched up with Kent State in game one, while a potential Purdue tilt awaited if both teams took care of business. The unexpected happened in most people's eyes. Kent State outlasted the Wildcats in a marathon 21-inning contest that saw Kent State advancing to face the Boilermakers and UK already in a hole to face Valparaiso.
Henderson is making it a point to not let history repeat itself once again in 2014.
"Two years ago we're talking about Purdue," Henderson explained. "We don't need to talk about Purdue. We need to talk about Kent State and then the next day you're not playing Purdue anyway. You're playing Valpo. We need to do everything we can to play well tomorrow at 2 p.m. and then whoever we have is whoever we have."
Henderson's players have echoed the same statement. Current UK standouts Austin Cousino and just-named Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year A.J. Reed were freshmen on that 2012 team that fell in the opening game of the Gary Regional. They are determined to not let that happen as juniors.
"We have to win the first one and whoever it may be after (Kansas), I think you just have to go out and play regardless of who the team is and who they are pitching," Cousino said. "We just have to come out ready."
"The first game is obviously the most important one," Reed said. "We don't want to start out in a hole and have to work our way back and beat a team twice to win the regional, so the first game is the most important and we're confident having Kyle (Cody) out there. He's going to give us a good effort and we're going to come out and play good defense and swing the bats well and our bullpen guys are going to do well, so we feel good about it."
Sophomore righthander Kyle Cody has the task of taking the mound in game one in hopes of starting Kentucky on a positive note. The Chippewa Falls, Wis., native enters Friday's start at 4-0 on the season with a 2.65 ERA, while coming off an impressive 4-2 win in the SEC Tournament vs. the top-seeded Florida Gators.
"I've been pitching well since Georgia and Hoover (for the SEC Tournament) was a big confidence-booster for me and I just want to keep things rolling for the team," Cody said. "I just have to go do my part. We have to win game one because it's a big deal to get here in the first place. I just have to have full confidence in myself and go up there and give a good start for the team."
UK's season won't end after Friday's game either way, but a win will go a long way in determining just how far the Wildcats can go, and if you didn't get the hint: Game one is a pretty big deal.
Kelsey Nunley conducts a video interview with ESPN on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics -- photo used with permission from ESPN).
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Suffice it to say, Kelsey Nunley has been a workhorse these last two weeks.
In leading UK to its first ever Women's College World Series, Nunley has thrown all 48.1 innings of the Wildcats' seven NCAA Tournament games.
With how effective it's been, Lawson has little reason to deviate from her all-Nunley-all-the-time strategy.
"As long as she pitches well, she will pitch," Lawson said on the eve of UK's Oklahoma City opener against No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette.
Nunley has certainly pitched well to this point. In allowing just six earned runs in NCAA play, the Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native has seen her earned-run average dip from 2.07 to 1.85 and her record move to 29-9.
The only concern, it would seem, is how Nunley's electric right arm is handling all the stress. The sophomore says she's doing just fine. In fact, responding to a question about how she feels, Nunley didn't even sound as if she thought there would be a reason for her to be tired.
"I feel good, especially with how we've been playing lately," Nunley said. "It gives me a ton of confidence when I know my team is behind me and we're producing a lot of runs. It lets me relax a little bit on the mound and it really gives me confidence."
The way she herself has performed doesn't hurt either.
Nunley has been a standout since she made her collegiate debut, but Lawson says she took her game to the next level starting at the Southeastern Conference Tournament earlier this month.
"When she went into the SEC Tournament, I felt like she really matured as a pitcher overnight. She was incredible," Lawson said. "She puts the ball exactly where she wants to put the ball. She doesn't shy away from much. She's very even-keeled. As those games continued to go and as she continued to masterfully put the ball and command where she wanted to, we continued to pitch her and pitch her."
The last time Nunley wasn't on the mound for UK was in the finals of the SEC Tournament. UK lost to Georgia in that game with freshman Meagan Prince and senior Lauren Cumbess on the mound, but Lawson is confident in her staff, which also includes freshman Shannon Smith.
"We actually have a very good pitching staff," Lawson said. "We've used all four of our pitchers all year and all four of our pitchers have gotten key wins against very good teams."
The importance of that given the nature of this week's double-elimination tournament cannot be overstated.
"I don't think that any team can win the World Series with one pitcher anymore," Lawson said. "I think that those days are probably over. I think that if we want to go deep in the tournament we are definitely going to have to go into our pitching staff."
True as that may be, it all starts with Nunley.
"She keeps her velocity up," Lawson said. "She's strong. She does what she needs to do. So as long as those things are happening, I imagine she'll get the ball."
ULL coach: Lawson didn't need WCWS to prove herself
Any time she has spoken publicly in the last 48 hours, Lawson has referred to reaching the Women's College World Series as "validation" of everything that has helped Kentucky become a softball power.
Lawson repeated the message again as she sat next to Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Michael Lotief at a joint press conference on Wednesday. Lotief, who knows Lawson well from coaching against her Western Kentucky teams in the Sun Belt Conference, took issue.
In his estimation, Lawson didn't need to reach this level to prove what kind of coach she is.
"The fact you get to take the final hurdle and get over it is a good thing," Lotief said, speaking directly to Lawson rather than the dozens of media members in attendance. "But you don't have to do that to be validated in my judgment."
Lotief, who has faced Lawson at UK in 2009 and 2012, has watched her program transform. The result has been three Super Regional trips in the last four seasons.
"What she's done the last (four) years should have given everybody an inkling that the culture at Kentucky has changed," Lotief said. "To finish in the finals of Super Regionals every year, I would take that as a successful year every year."
Barnhart 'one of the family'
After UK took down UCLA to advance to the Women's College World Series, Lawson admits she was surprised by just how much her phone "blew up" with calls, text messages and emails.
The call from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, however, was no surprise.
"It's interesting because they're not out of the norm," Lawson said. "Mitch is always proud of his sports teams. He calls us after every big game."
Barnhart calls because he cares.
"He knows all the players," Lawson said. "He knows all of them not just by number, not just because they're players at Kentucky, but he knows them all as people. He's more like one of us. He's more like one of the family. Yes, he's the boss and he makes everything happen. But at the same time, he's been there every step of the way."
Bows no big deal
Wednesday's press conference with coaches from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana-Lafayette and Kentucky took somewhat of an unexpected turn.
A reporter asked the four coaches about how to balance between the fun players have on the field and the focus needed to compete at the highest level. The first three answered along the same lines, saying dugout cheers and face paint are what make softball unique as a sport and don't detract from the competitiveness of the game.
Lawson had a different take, specifically when it came to the bows players wear. Citing the beards many male athletes grow, she said sees no difference between baseball and softball players.
"You know they're spending as much time in that mirror checking out their beard and making sure it's long as the girls do with their bows," Lawson said. "Nobody can really tell me there's a difference between a big nasty beard and a bow. I think they're all accessories and it's really just what they're comfortable with."
UK will play in its first Women's College World Series game on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET against Louisiana-Lafayette. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Reaching the Women's College World Series has been the goal for Kentucky softball for years now.
For good reason, the Wildcats celebrated when they reached it with a Super Regional victory over UCLA on Sunday.
It only took one moment at the Tuesday night banquet honoring the schools that reached Oklahoma City to officially put an end to the celebration. It only took one look at what the eight best softball teams in the country will be playing for this week for the Cats to go right back to intense focus.
"When you see the trophy it reminds you that there's more games to play and we're here to win," senior Lauren Cumbess said.
If you thought the Cats would be happy just seeing their names on the scoreboard at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, playing on national television for a couple nights and going home, think again. As momentous as merely making it this far for the first time may be, UK is here to win.
"We have to know that we're here not to just be here but to actually compete and try to win a national championship," senior Krystal Smith said.
That's an attitude the Cats have already displayed this postseason.
Less than three weeks ago, UK accomplished another program first in advancing to the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Cats would see their remarkable run fall short of a title with a 5-2 loss to Georgia, but Lawson saw everything she needed to in that moment to be convinced her team won't be content reaching the World Series.
"What I noticed was the team wasn't excited just to be there," Lawson said. "I noticed that they were disappointed that we didn't win it. I didn't know that I necessarily expected that, but I was really happy to see that when we got into the team huddle and those long faces."
Those long faces, of course, turned happy again with UK's impressive effort in winning a Regional and Super Regional. Along the way, the Cats dispatched No. 25 James Madison, bested a solid DePaul team and rallied for two Sunday victories against No. 3 UCLA and player of the year finalist Ally Carda.
Add that to the fact that the Cats were competitive all season in the SEC -- a league represented by three teams in Oklahoma City -- and you have a group that's proven itself time and time again.
"As a team, we always have a ton of confidence," Jolly said. "We all think that we can beat anyone on any given day."
In spite of that confidence, No. 14 UK (49-17) will be the on-paper underdog in any game this week, starting Thursday at 7 p.m. ET against No. 6 Louisiana Lafayette (49-8-1). The Cats are the highest-seeded team still standing and one of just two teams -- along with No. 13 Baylor -- not among the top eight national seeds to advance to the Women's College World Series.
"We're more than (happy) to accept the Cinderella label," said Smith, who is riding a four-game hitting streak. "Everyone loves a great story and what better story than for the first team of the Kentucky program to make it to the World Series and make a run and how amazing that would be."
The Cats might be willing to play the role of Cinderella, but that doesn't mean they see themselves that way. They know what they've done reach this point. They know what they're capable of.
"I think we all know we're just as good as all the other teams in this playing field," Smith said. "So we don't look at ourselves as a higher seed than the others, but someone that we're all on the same level with, competing for the same goal."
Louisiana-Lafayette, however, is undisputedly good.
Making their sixth trip to the Women's College World Series, the Ragin' Cajuns haven't lost in the NCAA Tournament and have only dropped two games since March 14. Louisiana-Lafayette -- led by Lexie Elkins and her 22 home runs -- ranks second nationally in homers per game and boasts a team earned-run average of 2.77 behind ace Christina Hamilton (29-2, 1.53 ERA).
"I know they've always had a really good program and they have a great pitcher this year," Cumbess said. "We know that she's tough, that she moves the ball around a lot.
"We just know they're a great ball club and they're tough just like we are, so it should be fun."
As much respect as the Cats have from their opponent, their thought process won't change from the moment they glimpsed that hardware.
"I think our team understands that the World Series is great," Lawson said. "It doesn't get any better than that. But with that said, they're all winners. They were all picked to be at the University of Kentucky because they were champions where they come from."