Rachel Lawson and Kara Dill will lead the UK softball team into the Tempe Super Regional this weekend vs. Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It might be happening for the second time in three years, but Rachel Lawson isn't taking Kentucky's Super Regional berth for granted. She knows that even the best programs in the country are fortunate to be among the last 16 teams standing.
Be that as it may, this weekend is just another rung on UK's ladder to a place college softball's elite.
"To be in supers is special in the sport of softball and our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series," Lawson said.
As No. 12 UK (41-19) prepares for a three-game series with fifth-seeded Arizona State (48-10) that will begin Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, the experience of losing to California in a super regional in 2011 is fresh in Lawson's mind. In fact, she's been thinking about it all season as she tried to lead UK to its first-ever Women's College World Series.
Lawson, however, has a young team with five freshman starters. Among this year's regular contributors, only Kara Dill, Alice O'Brien and Emily Jolly saw significant time in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
"Me personally, yes, as a coach (she is approaching super regionals differently). We have prepared completely different than we did two years ago in terms of pitch selection and stuff like that, but that started in the fall," Lawson said. "But for our team, only a couple of these players were on that team and only a couple of starters."
Dill was one of them. She had five hits as UK upset Michigan to win that regional in 2011, but the Cats were a national seed and favored to reach this point this year.
"I think our team this year is better and there are more people that can do a more variety of things," Dill said. "We have more depth and are stronger as a team."
She has clear proof of that depth too.
On March 15, Dill sustained a hand injury against LSU. For the remainder of the regular season, the Cats would have to get the job done without their leading hitter from each of the past two years. Freshman Christian Stokes filled in at shortstop and UK finished 19-12 without Dill in the starting lineup.
She healed in time to return for the postseason, but if the Cats hadn't been able to hold it together in the senior's absence, she would never have gotten the chance.
"I couldn't ask for any more from them. If they wouldn't have made it this far I wouldn't have finished out the year," Dill said. "This is everything to us right now. They are incredible."
Stokes is still playing shortstop, but Dill - now at designated player - took over her customary role as UK's lead-off batter for the NCAA Tournament opener vs. Marshall. She promptly turned in two hits and a run batted in in four at-bats, providing stability at a lineup spot that had been in a state of flux since Dill's injury.
"She's an exceptional player," Lawson said after that game, a 2-1 win over Marshall. "She's also a captain, she's very steady, she's smart, she's everything you want in a student-athlete. So to get her back is cool. ... It makes me happy to know that she's going to be able to finish on a high note."
After the Cats won a regional the first time they ever hosted one, it's now just a matter of how high the finishing note will be for Dill and UK.
"This is the best time of the year and if I could pick anytime to get back out there and play it would be this time," Dill said. "The team got us here and that is all I could have asked of them."
Like the rest of the country, Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart have kept close tabs on this week's tragic events in Oklahoma. The UK head coach and athletics director shared compassion for the victims of Monday's destructive tornado.
They also share personal ties to the area. Barnhart and Stoops each have family who lives within a few miles of Moore, Okla.: Barnhart's brother Eric, Stoops' brothers Bob and Mike and the families of all three.
Driven by sympathy and familiarity with the area and people affected, Stoops and Barnhart have decided to do something to help.
"I have kept a close eye on the tragic events in Oklahoma this week," Barnhart said. "My heart goes out to all those affected. My brother Eric lives three miles from where the tornado hit, so the devastation has hit close to home for me even though he is safe."
"I am so thankful my family and friends are alright after the storms in Oklahoma," Stoops said. "However, we are heartbroken for those affected by this tragedy."
Stoops, Barnhart and women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell will all donate to the American Red Cross's tornado relief efforts. John Calipari announced his foundation will donate to the cause earlier this week as well.
Now, the leaders of UK Athletics want Kentucky fans to join in.
"We hope the Big Blue Nation will once again show its giving spirit," Stoops said. "There's only so much any of us can do on our own, but we make a real impact together."
From noon ET to midnight on Wednesday, fans can make a contribution by calling the Kentucky Cares hotline at 859-977-5366. Those wishing to donate after Wednesday may call 859-253-1331 or 1-800-REDCROSS. Fans can donate money online at RedCross.org or by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999 (the text will automatically donate $10). In person donations can be made in-person at Fayette Mall (corner of Nicholasville Road and Reynolds Road) on Thursday, May 23 and Friday, May 24 from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
No matter how you donate, tweet with the hash tag #BBNcares to show that UK fans stand with the Oklahoma tornado victims.
Junior Kayla Parker set a PR and was .03 seconds off the school record in the 100-meter hurdles at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky track and field team travels to Greensboro, N.C., this weekend to compete at the NCAA East Regional, the Wildcats will look to improve on their Southeastern Conference Championships performance and send as many athletes to nationals as they can.
That's head coach Edrick Floreal's motto anyhow. The former Olympian (1988 and 1992), and 2012 U.S. Olympic Team jumps coach has tried to hammer home to his athletes that they can only compete to the best of their ability.
UK has a talented group of individuals, but it's the same team that finished near the bottom of the SEC Championships in 2012.
The Wildcats have grown immensely under Floreal. Kentucky finished seventh in both the men's and women's competitions at this year's SEC Championships, which was a major improvement from the previous season's results. UK may not have the caliber of athletes Floreal eventually wants across the board, but he is certainly getting every ounce of athletic ability out of his team in the meantime.
"I want them to step back up and do what they are capable of doing and if you do that and if that's not good enough then you have to get back to work and get better," Floreal said. "That's my expectation, that we are going to do what we think we can do and let the rest of the SEC and the region sort themselves out. If we do what we are capable of doing you can't really be disappointed with that."
The Cats met their head coach's goal of finishing in the top half of the conference with their seventh-place finishes at SECs. However, Floreal feels UK left a lot of points out on the table and could have finished even higher.
Despite battling the injury bug and some mental errors, Kentucky had a shot at finishing in the top five according to Floreal. Senior All-American hurdler Keith Hayes was a near guarantee to finish in the top three of his events before straining his hamstring in his first competition. UK's talented 4 x 100-meter relay team of Morganne Phillips, Tamyah Pipkin, Kayla Parker and Keilah Tyson was projected to score highly before being disqualified for passing the baton illegally.
"I felt like in several instances, we didn't do what we are capable of doing and that's where some of the frustrations are because we feel like we're so much better of a team and we want to prove that," Floreal said. "You have to earn your stripes like everybody else, especially in this conference. We are getting better, we're getting older, we're getting more mature and we will be able to handle difficult situations a little bit better."
Kentucky received several good performances from individuals who have provided them all year. Junior Chelsea Oswald took home the 10,000- and 5,000-meter titles, while Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand finished second in their respective events.
Those Cats have proven all year that they are ahead of the rest of the conference and Floreal expects them to compete hard and finish near the top of the field every time out. He admits he may take it for granted, but it's the borderline athletes with whom Floreal is working to get them to buy in and have the kind of breakthrough performances that really give him satisfaction as a coach.
Parker is one athlete who has bought into the system since day one and is now reaping the benefits of her hard work. The junior finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles final with a personal record time of 13.19 seconds, just 0.03 off the school record.
"Kayla is a role model and a team captain to make sure everyone buys in and has great leadership not just worrying about herself but worrying about everyone else," Floreal said. "You need people in there who are going to score 20 points and be leaders and you need people in there that are going to keep everyone in line and also be leaders. There are different leaders that you need to have a successful team."
UK will send 27 athletes to regionals this weekend (14 men and 13 women). While Floreal has searched for unique ways to motivate his team all season, his message for this weekend was simple and to the point.
"This weekend is more so advancing to the NCAA and less about a team competition," Floreal said. "Each individual has to take care of their own business. You can be first or you can be 12th it's the same thing. Just be top 12, let's move on and we'll do it again in two weeks at nationals."
HOOVER, Ala. -- The opportunities, as they have been for much of the season's second half, were there for Kentucky.
After a 4-1 loss to Ole Miss in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday, those opportunities are what the Wildcats were thinking about.
"The biggest issue the last seven weeks has just been getting the hit at a key moment," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.
The seventh inning was particularly frustrating. After chasing Ole Miss starter Mike Mayers, UK loaded the bases with one out on an infield single by Zack Storm. Micheal Thomas followed with a pop-up to second and Kyle Barrett grounded out to end the threat, accounting for three of the eight runners the Cats left on base as they were eliminated in the conference tournament.
The story has been all-too-familiar since UK (30-25) sprinted to a 22-6 start. Since then, the bats have fallen silent at all the wrong times and the Cats are 8-19 during that stretch. Most of the fans in attendance at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium were watching Kentucky for the first time, but they got a pretty clear picture of what the last two months have been like.
"You kind of saw a large part of the second half of the season for us today," Henderson said. "That's kind of what it is and has been unfortunately. They fought well. At times, we pitched extremely well. ... But we just didn't have enough offense. We couldn't sustain anything offensively over a period of time to really get out of where we were."
Because of that, UK will be reduced to hoping when they watch the selection show next Monday. UK is ranked No. 38 in the RPI and boasts 12 wins over fellow top-40 teams, but its 11 SEC wins and uneven finish leave the Cats in perilous NCAA Tournament position.
Jerad Grundy will start for Kentucky in the first of the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Gary Henderson doesn't think anything even needs to be said.
His team already knows it has a lot of work ahead to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. Henderson agrees with the experts that the Wildcats (30-24, 11-19 Southeastern Conference) need a "significant run" in this week's conference tournament to make their case.
That doesn't mean he will dramatically alter his approach or the message he delivers to his team.
"We'll go about it the same way we always do," Henderson said.
What that means is the only thing Henderson wants the Cats thinking about is their SEC Tournament opener on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. ET against sixth-seeded Ole Miss (36-20, 15-15 SEC). The first round - which features teams seeded fifth through 12th - is single-elimination, so UK needs a victory in the "breakfast game" (borrow a phrase from Rebel head coach Mike Bianco) just to keep playing.
"We need to win tomorrow morning and then we can worry about what we're doing on Wednesday," Henderson said. "And as opposed to sitting down and telling them that we gotta bite off four wins or five wins or whatever it is, I won't do that."
Coming off two losses in three games over the weekend at Missouri, UK will call on Jerad Grundy (6-5, 4.75 ERA) to start Tuesday. The senior lefthander is 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA in two starts since moving to a midweek role.
"Grundy is a great kid and a very good competitor, but he ran into a rough four-game stretch there in the middle so we took him off of the Saturday games and put him on the Tuesday games," Henderson said. "And he was able to relax and get back to his old self that he'd been for a year and half."
Grundy has made a start against Ole Miss each of the last two seasons, struggling to an 0-2 record with a 13.06 ERA. To improve, Henderson is looking only for Grundy to do the simple things.
"What we've seen is the ability to throw strikes at the knees and command his two secondary pitches, work ahead in the count - the absolute basics that allow you to be successful," Henderson said. "He's pitched much, much better the last two or three times out than he had the previous four."
Ole Miss has not yet named a starting pitcher, but UK is likely to be familiar with whomever Bianco tabs to take the mound. The Cats have faced the Rebels seven times over the last two seasons, taking two games in two three-game sets and winning their SEC Tournament opener over Ole Miss last season, 2-0.
"I would think that there's plenty of familiarity between the Rebels and the Wildcats as many times as we've played in the last two years," Henderson said.
Familiarity or no familiarity, the task remains the same from this game on for the Wildcats as they play with the season on the line.
"We need to play well, we need to pitch well," Henderson said. "All the coaching cliches that are absolutely true, we need to do those tomorrow morning and when that's over we'll worry about (Wednesday)."
UK defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday to clinch a berth in a Super Regional for the second time in three seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After Kentucky defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday, Rachel Lawson showed a side or herself rarely seen, particularly by her team. Fielding questions, Lawson was overcome by emotion.
UK had just fulfilled Lawson's goal of clinching a second Super Regional trip in three seasons in its brand-new venue. Sitting in the back of the room was the stadium's namesake, the man who helped bring Lawson to Lexington and build the program to what it's become: John Cropp.
Given the circumstances, it's difficult to blame her for struggling to compose herself.
"I always yell at everybody, and they don't see me like this," Lawson said. "It's the only time."
In Lawson's sixth season, the progress of the Kentucky program is remarkable, as is the resulting list of accomplishments: the first five NCAA Tournament berths in school history, two Super Regional berths in three years, state-of-the-art venue, a school-record 41 wins in 2013.
Just a couple hours prior, the circumstances - and the audience - were quite different.
After taking the first two games of the regional on Friday and Saturday, UK found that its season was on the brink following a game one loss to the Hokies. Virginia Tech had just blanked the Cats, 2-0, forcing a winner-take-all showdown approximately 45 minutes later, and Lawson wasn't particularly happy with the way her team hit or played defense.
"It was the exact opposite of the one I gave (that was) all sentimental about John Cropp and our athletic department," Lawson said of her between-game message. "That's why I hate that this one's on camera. I'd rather the other one be on camera."
No one outside the locker room got to see Lawson's speech, but the fans in John Cropp Stadium got to see the results. Even though the Cats managed just one run, they were much more effective in attacking the outside pitches Virginia Tech consistently threw.
In the field, UK was nothing short of amazing. The Cats did not commit an error, turned a pair of double plays in the game and made three plays that could all be candidates for the SportsCenter Top 10.
First was a diving catch by left fielder Ginny Carroll in foul territory for the final out of the bottom of the first. Two innings later, Sylver Samuel robbed Betty Rose of extra bases with a jumping grab against the wall in center. But perhaps the best and most important of the afternoon was by Christian Stokes.
After Tech led off the fourth inning with a single, the freshman shortstop sprinted into shallow left field, dove and caught what appeared to be a sure single by Courtney Liddle. The Hokies would go on to load the bases with two outs in the inning even after Stokes' play.
"I thought Christian Stokes play, when she dove and got the play behind her, that was big," Lawson said. "Because in game one we didn't make that catch, and that's why they ran off two runs. So the fact that she made that catch and really stepped up today on her birthday was really cool."
UK pitchers Lauren Cumbess and Kelsey Nunley were the beneficiaries of all the defensive help.
After Nunley had pitched the first 22 innings of the weekend, Lawson turned to Cumbess to start the elimination game. The junior didn't allow a run in 3.2 innings of work.
"I was ready," Cumbess said. "I wanted to do whatever it took to help our team win. So to give Kelsey that little break, that's what we needed for the win."
In Lawson's mind, starting Cumbess was about a lot more than giving Nunley a few innings of rest.
"Actually when I was preparing for Virginia Tech prior to the weekend, I actually thought Lauren was the exact matchup for them because she has such a good drop ball," Lawson said. "I think Virginia Tech is a great hitting team, and I wanted to keep the ball in the infield."
Though Cumbess was effective, Lawson had to turn to her star freshman in the game's biggest spot. When Virginia Tech loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, Nunley emerged from the dugout and needed only a few warm-up pitches to coax a pop out for the third out, ending the threat.
"I was just thinking that we need an out," Nunley said. "That's all that matters."
Nunley finished the game, picking up the win to move to 27-9 and lowering her earned-run average to 1.97, second-lowest in single-season UK history. But without Cumbess, Nunley may not have been able to get the job done.
Not only did Cumbess deliver the game-winning hit - a fifth-inning infield single to score Sylver Samuel - but she also gave her fellow pitcher frequent advice after moving over to first base.
"I have to say that Lauren really encourages me," Nunley said. "She helps me just stay positive all the time and also gives me little triggers to get past batters."
In the sixth inning, Nunley seemed to begin to lose her rhythm. She allowed a pair of hits and a walk as her control faltered, a possible sign of fatigue. Cumbess, however, noticed another cause and ran to the dugout to request a towel. Nunley was simply having trouble gripping the ball as the temperature rose.
"This is the first time we've played in hot weather," Lawson said.
UK's equipment staff better make sure to replenish the towels, because the Cats could be playing in more hot weather next weekend. Kentucky will play the winner of No. 5 seed Arizona State and Georgia with the Sun Devils needing just one win in two games.
"I'm going to watch it," Cumbess said. "I bet everybody else will too. We were all out here last night seeing who we were going to play. Most of us stayed the entire extra-inning game between Marshall and Virginia Tech. So we're going to be excited to see who we play and I think it's anybody's game. Both teams are really good."