UK advanced to the first Women's College World Series in school history in 2014. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Having just seen the season end, Rachel Lawson took time to reflect on exactly how special 2014 had been for Kentucky softball.
Women's College World Series berth. Fifty wins. A trip to the Southeastern Conference title game. The list of firsts goes on.
Nonetheless, Lawson's nature meant the wheels in her head couldn't help but keep turning.
"Well, I'm always a learner, so I'm already preparing for next year," Lawson said.
Her words came moments after a heartbreaking 8-7 defeat at the hands of Baylor during which the Wildcats gave up a seven-run sixth-inning lead. Kelsey Nunley, as she had throughout the tournament, threw every pitch even as the Lady Bears adjusted to her electric stuff.
"It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done because I knew that I was physically giving my all but just wasn't going the way I wanted to," Nunley said.
Noticing that, fans watching at home -- many of whom discovered the sport through UK's magical postseason run -- questioned why Nunley remained in the game. The sophomore, after all, had thrown upwards of 1,600 pitches in NCAA play.
The always-honest Lawson admitted she made a mistake with her pitching staff, but she says her error came well before the first pitch of Saturday's elimination game. Given her well-placed faith in Nunley, Lawson only felt comfortable with one of her pitchers actually pitching, no matter the talent of Lauren Cumbess, Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith.
"The mistake with me is that I didn't prepare them to come in, so the reason I went with Kelsey is because I'm comfortable with what they were doing," Lawson said. "They were timing her and squaring up and they had me figured out, so a change would have been great but I didn't prepare them for that situation and it was too unpredictable."
For ascendant softball programs that's not unprecedented, but it is a lesson for Lawson.
"Moving forward I realize in order to win the World Series you have to make sure that you have a staff prepared and I think you're going to see that moving forward with Alabama and you're going to see it moving forward with Florida," Lawson said. "When I watch what they did. What they did is really smart. They prepared all their pitchers for this moment but, they had to get there the first time and the first time they were in the show they pretty much rode one arm."
The two teams referenced by Lawson will play for the national championship this week. Florida and Alabama, however, are far from first timers, combining for 16 Women's College World Series appearances.
It's Lawson's goal to establish UK as a program that makes similarly regular trips to Oklahoma City and competes for titles, but the Cats had to take a first step to get there on the strength of Nunley's right arm.
"I think it's really hard to go to the World Series," Lawson said. "I think learning how to go to regionals and then learning how to host and then learning how to go to supers is all very difficult, but it's a whole other level when you have to figure out how to go to the World Series.
"So I feel proud for this team because they are the first team in Kentucky history that's figured out how to go to the show and I think that's very special."
UK was eliminated in the Women's College World Series with an 8-7 loss to Baylor on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OKLAHOMA CITY - There Ginny Carroll and Griffin Joiner were, sitting in their hotel room in the wee hours of the morning.
UK had just clinched its first-ever Women's College World Series berth with a Sunday sweep of UCLA and sleep just wasn't happening. Naturally, Carroll and Joiner flipped the television to ESPN, where the Wildcats' game-three victory was being re-aired.
Carroll, caught up the joy of the moment, turned to Joiner.
"I told Griffin no matter what happened from here on out I didn't think it was possible that I could be sad," Carroll said.
What Carroll didn't see coming was how things would change when UK arrived in Oklahoma City.
When she came to softball's biggest stage, Carroll quickly realized she wanted more. It became clear, in spite of what she thought on Sunday, that it would hurt if UK didn't win a national championship.
"Once you got here and practiced and played and you tasted it, then the bar is raised from making it to the World Series to winning the World Series," Carroll said. "Once you've tasted that, it's--I mean, you just want to win it."
UK did end up falling short of that national title, and it happened even more painfully than anyone could have predicted.
Riding an aggressive approach at the plate and a big day from their seniors, UK built a 7-0 lead on Baylor in an elimination game. Emily Gaines started it with a home run, hitting a second-inning home run on the first pitch she saw not even 24 hours after watching a crucial called strike three in a loss to Alabama. Fellow seniors Carroll and Krystal Smith would add homers of their own and the Cats appeared poise to cruise to a win with Kelsey Nunley dealing in the circle, per usual.
"I just thought we were facing a team destined to win and there was nothing we could do about it," Baylor head coach Glenn Moore said.
In the bottom of the sixth, things changed.
Entering the inning, Nunley had allowed just seven hits in 19 innings of work in the College World Series. The Lady Bears, however, smacked six singles to plate three runs. An inning later, with a solo home run, two doubles, a walk and the help of a fielding error, Baylor tied the game and sent it extra innings.
The Lady Bears would win it in the eighth, 8-7, when Joiner's throw to first on a sacrifice bunt went into right field.
"Obviously this was a hard one for us," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "This isn't the way we wanted it to go down, especially having so many runs early. But I'm really proud of this team."
Lawson has every reason to be proud.
By any reasonable measure, 2014 was the best season in the history of Kentucky softball. Not only did the Cats advance to the Women's College World Series and the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time, they did it while piling up a school-record 50 wins.
"I think this team has done something special," Lawson said.
The same can be said about UK's senior class.
Smith, Carroll, Gaines, Lauren Cumbess, Emily Jolly and Sarah Frazer have played important roles in the ascendance of UK softball onto the national stage, though they might not all have been stars or even full-time starters.
"We don't have any All-Americans in our class," Carroll said. "We're not 100-percent studs, but I think the biggest thing we are is we're tough. We have been in and out of the lineup our whole careers, but at the end I think we all brought our 'A' game and at the end of the day I know we're the toughest class around."
Tough as they may be, this is the end of the line for these seniors. Nonetheless, they'll rest easier than they did last Sunday.
"I don't think there is enough words to express what this means to us personally and for all our seniors," Smith said. "It brings us comfort to know that this senior class and this 2014 softball team has made an indelible imprint on the Kentucky softball program, and I think we can go home knowing that. We can move forward."
So too can the program, and the future is bright.
With the experience of finally reaching Oklahoma City for the first time, return trips seem likely. Nunley, though she ran out of gas in the late innings after a long NCAA Tournament, will be back in the circle next season.
Carroll will be watching.
"I told Skeeter after the game, she has two years left so I expect big things," Carroll said. "No pressure."
Welcome celebration Sunday at John Cropp Stadium
Soon after the loss on Saturday, UK announced plans to hold a welcome home celebration for the team at 1:30 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium on Twitter.
.@UKsoftball's welcome celebration is set for 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday at John Cropp Stadium. We can't wait to see the #BBN there.
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."
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.
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."
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."
The UK softball team advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOS ANGELES -- The Kentucky softball team has made history all season, and Sunday against college softball's elite, it reached its peak.
The No. 14 Wildcats upended third-ranked UCLA with 7-3 and 7-1 wins Sunday to win their NCAA Super Regional and advance to the program's first Women's College World Series.
It took head coach Rachel Lawson just seven years to establish UK among the nation's best programs and book a trip to Oklahoma City and the World Series.
"This is a special day for us," Lawson said. "We're going into a place that we've never been before, I feel really excited. It's a dream come true for all the girls on our team and our staff, we've worked incredibly hard. This particular senior class, this is our third Super Regional, so we've been close enough to taste it, but for it to actually be a reality is very special."
The way the Wildcats got to the World Series is the perfect example of what the team is all about. Heavy underdogs coming into the Super Regional, UK knew it belonged on the big stage and wanted to prove it against the Bruins.
The Cats didn't care they were facing a team that had won 12 national titles and is widely recognized as the gold standard of college softball. They didn't care that they had to go on the road in a hostile environment for three games at UCLA's sold-out Easton Stadium.
The Wildcats believed they could win, and they got it done.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet," senior captain Lauren Cumbess said. "We set a goal at the beginning of the year. We've always had that goal all four years that I've been here, but particularly this year, it was 'Women's College World Series or bust,' and we've really stuck to that and reminded each other what our goal was.
"It's just amazing, I can't believe that we did it. I can, but it hasn't sunk in yet. I think once we get to Oklahoma, it'll really feel like, 'Wow, I'm here on the biggest stage for softball.' "
UK found itself in a deep hole after Saturday night's game one, when UCLA scored four runs in the sixth inning to come back for a 6-4 victory. The Cats' backs were against the wall, but they weren't out.
As they have done all season, they kept on fighting. The offense had scored more than four runs just three times in the last month, but that didn't matter Sunday.
The UK offense exploded for seven runs in the first of two win-or-go-home games Sunday. The next game, Kentucky continued the offensive onslaught and scored another seven runs to give starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley some much-needed run support.
The last time UK scored seven or more runs in consecutive games was on April 8-9 against two non-conference foes. The Wildcats never achieved the feat in SEC competition, but that didn't stop them Sunday against a pitcher that is one of three national player of the year candidates.
"UCLA is one of the best teams in the country and I thought that we played well this weekend," Lawson said. "I watched our team grow up at the SEC Tournament, and I saw us continue to be strong through regionals and then I felt like we definitely got some lucky breaks, but I also thought we played well this weekend. The field of eight is incredible, but we're going out there, we're in the SEC, so we compete against good teams all the time. We're hoping to play our game and hopefully things will work out for us."
UK's rise to the Women's College World Series has not taken a long time. Lawson has been at the helm for seven seasons, and has taken the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six years. Three of the last four years, Kentucky advanced to the Super Regional.
Making the College World Series for the first time in program history wasn't a matter of 'if,' it was simply a matter of 'when.' The rate at which UK rose in the national rankings suggested it wouldn't be any other way.
It took a combination of a great coaching staff, unparalleled support from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and the UK administration and a great group of players.
"We have incredible support, we have one of the best venues in the country to play out of, we have fans come in droves," Lawson said. "Because of that, we're getting incredible recruits, as you can see. You can't advance without the athletes. It says a lot about the character of our team, our team does things the right way. The not only work incredibly hard all year, but they're also incredible students, they're great people. I'm very happy for our team because this is a dream for all of them come true. It says we're doing things the right way."
Of course, having a group of 19 players with a never-say-die attitude that doesn't care about rankings and what is "supposed to happen" certainly doesn't hurt.
It's a group of 19 players with a toughness, grit and passion, combined with an immense amount of talent and a never-quit attitude.
Just ask Cumbess, who watched as her starting pitcher fired 375 pitches in the span of just 24 hours and five minutes.
"I've always thought we are a really tough team, and it's shown throughout our season that we don't give up, we're always fighting back," she said.