GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Coming off a disappointing Saturday defeat at the hands of Florida, Kentucky found itself facing elimination.
The Wildcats would have to win twice on Sunday to keep their season alive, but Rachel Lawson wasn't thinking in those terms. All she wanted was for her team to fight and let the chips fall where they may.
That's exactly what she got. It just wasn't quite enough.
"I thought our team played hard today," Lawson said. "I thought we did a good job putting people on base. We just didn't get that timely hit when we needed to get that timely hit. So overall we played a lot better today, but when you're playing a team as good as Florida it always comes down to the little things."
UK's bid for a second consecutive trip to the Women's College World Series came up short, as the Cats were clipped by the top-seeded Gators, 1-0. The Cats advanced runners into scoring position in the first two innings and had at least one runner on base in the first four, but couldn't scratch a run across against Lauren Haeger.
The Cats were aggressive on the base paths all afternoon, starting runners in both the third and fourth innings on plays that led to double plays.
"The bigger the game, the bigger the risk when you're the underdog," Lawson said. "So we decided it was in our best interest--we weren't doing a good job putting people on base yesterday. We weren't pushing Florida's defense. So we made it a conscious effort to try to put base runners on, to try to move them, to try to be more aggressive to put their defense in motion because they're such an outstanding defense.
"So overall I think that was a good decision. We just didn't come up with the timely hit that we needed when we were putting people in motion."
Kentucky ace Kelsey Nunley nearly went pitch for pitch with the national player of the year finalist, holding the Gators to one run on five hits.
"I thought Kelsey was great on the mound," Lawson said. "Florida's an outstanding hitting team and to be able to shut them down to just one run is a big deal, especially this time of year. They're a very good team and they know how to get to the World Series. To be able to do that says a lot about Kelsey."
Florida plated its lone run in the fourth inning with three singles, the last of the infield variety with two outs by Justine McLean. After the first inning of game one when the Gators scored four times, Nunley tossed 10.2 innings and allowed only that run.
"Just tried to keep them off balance," Nunley said. "They're a really good hitting team so that's what you try to do. I tried to move with the batter instead of just pitching with the plate. That's what I focused on today."
Only a junior, many more such performances figure to be in story for Nunley, already the winningest pitcher in program history. She will lead a seven-member senior class when UK takes the field in 2016,
"I'd like to think we're built for every year, but yes," Lawson said. "We have great pitching. We only graduated two players."
However, the two graduates -- Griffin Joiner and Kara Lawson -- will be big losses. That's especially true of Joiner, a four-year starter at catcher and the heart and soul of this Kentucky team. Talking about the two caused Lawson to have to fight back tears in her postgame press conference, but she was also quick to point out the Cats will have to move on.
"With that said, we are going to be very good," Lawson said. "We are smart. We know how to play the game. We have a lot of people returning, we have outstanding recruits coming in and we will be back."
Considering this trip to Super Regionals was the fourth in five years for Kentucky, it's no stretch of the imagination to say the Cats will be back. Next time, however, Lawson wants it to be as the hosts.
"I hope what my team takes from this is we've got to do all the little things right in the offseason, during the season so we can also be a national seed," Lawson said. "Not just a national seed one time. That we can be a national seed every single time we come out to play."
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."
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."
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.
Rachael Metzger had the game-winning, pinch-hit single on Friday. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Come postseason, experience was supposed to serve Kentucky well.
With numerous returners from last year's Women's College World Series team back, the veterans were the ones who would lead the way.
To start with, that's exactly how things played out.
It was junior Sylver Samuel getting on in front of senior Griffin Joiner, who laced a double to plate the game's first run. It was junior Kelsey Nunley shutting out Northwestern through four innings. It was junior Nikki Sagermann slamming a two-run home run to tie the game in the fifth inning.
But that familiar script got flipped in the sixth.
"I think what it says is you never know what's going to happen in the postseason," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The postseason is the time for--you gotta be risky, you gotta do whatever and it's really about who shines in the moment."
In the end, two underclassmen - sophomore Meagan Prince and true freshman Rachael Metzger - shined brightest and led UK to a 5-4 win to move into the winners' bracket of the South Bend Regional.
Prince came on in relief of Nunley, who gave up four runs and a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning. She tossed two scoreless innings and picked up the win in her first career NCAA Tournament appearance.
"I couldn't say enough about Meagan coming in and shutting the door," Lawson said. "Northwestern was doing a great job, they were hitting the ball hard and for her to calm down their bats a little bit was big for the win today."
Also big was Metzger, who came off the bench and delivered the game-winning pinch-hit single.
The hit - which came on the first pitch of the at-bat - made Metzger the exception on Friday afternoon. The first time through the order, her teammates didn't manage a single hit against Kristen Wood.
"We had never seen her before," Lawson said. "She's a really good pitcher and she had a little bit different spin than we were used to. It didn't break as much side to side as we thought that we had seen on video. So it had a lot more downward movement than we were anticipating and once we figured that out we were able to recognize the pitches sooner and be able to square up on them."
Metzger didn't need that time.
"I had been watching previous at-bats from other batters and had watched a lot of pitches - first-strike pitches - and kind of knew she was most likely going to throw something close in my house," Metzger said. "I just kind of saw the ball and hit the ball."
Metzger promptly laced a ball down the left-field line to score Maisie Steed and stake UK to a 5-4 lead. Prince took it from there.
Even though Northwestern loaded the bases thanks to an error, a walk and a fielder's choice, Prince closed the door with a game-ending strikeout.
"Pretty stressful situation, but I trusted my teammates behind me," Prince said. "I knew when it came down to it they would have my back. So long as I just didn't give up a bomb, they would have my back."
Thanks to Prince and her teammates having her back, UK will play the early game Saturday needing just one win to reach the Regional final. The Cats will face Ball State at noon.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For seven straight seasons, the Kentucky softball team has reached the NCAA Tournament.
Leading one of just 21 programs nationally with such a streak, UK head coach Rachel Lawson knows it's a big deal.
"It means that we are able to build and that we are a program, not just a team," Lawson said.
The latest edition of the Wildcats will make its tournament debut on Friday, facing Northwestern in the South Bend Regional at 2 p.m. UK. The Cats are coming off their first Women's College World Series trip ever, but haven't performed quite up to expectations in entering the NCAA Tournament with a 29-24 record.
"We understand that we have fallen short for a lot of reasons and hopefully we have tightened up," Lawson said.
When Lawson says "tightened up," she's thinking execution, not the emotional state of her team. She learned long ago from a longtime UK administrator to avoid that kind of tightness at all costs.
"We are really fortunate because John Cropp - who our stadium is named after - used to tell me when I first got here that worrying is just praying for something bad to happen," Lawson said. "That is kind of our mindset all the time."
Instead of thinking about the fact that they have lost seven straight games - the last three in walk-off fashion to No. 8 national seed Tennessee - the Cats are trying to learn the lessons they can from the defeats and focus on what's next.
"Honestly we're just trying to take the positives out of it and kind of move on from the past and move forward and look at what's ahead," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "That's the next pitch and the next game that we play."
But practice came first.
UK fell in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday, leaving the Cats ample time to practice for the NCAA Tournament with nothing but themselves in mind.
"We have had about six great days of practice and we haven't had that since January," Lawson said. "I think the fact that we have been able to focus on those things and the individual techniques that are required so we end up coming through in the end. I think we are going to be OK."
"We just had more time to focus on the things that we need to focus on," Joiner said. "It's kind of (hard to do that) during the grind of the season. You play every day, so it's just been good to be able to slow down and focus a little bit."
Lawson expects that extra time to yield results come this weekend, when UK will look to get past Northwestern, host Notre Dame and Ball State and into a Super Regional.
"I like the intensity of the practice and the passion," Lawson said. "The other thing from a tactical standpoint was the defense was a lot better and a lot cleaner and we were making diving catches and attacking balls that we used to sit back on. The postseason is about pitching and defense and then hopefully you luck out and get those timely hits."
A season ago, UK had that recipe down pat in making that WCWS trip, riding the arm of Kelsey Nunley, a good defense behind her and a clutch offense to Oklahoma City. With numerous contributors back from that team, including Nunley and Joiner along with Christian Stokes, Nikki Sagermann and Sylver Samuel, the Cats will be calling on that experience come Friday.
"I think the team that has the most experience when you walk on the field, you are not as nervous, you know what to expect and know what pregame is about and media and all those things," Lawson said. "That certainly gives us an advantage."
An advantage, sure, but no guarantee.
The Cats might be part of something bigger than themselves when it comes to the UK program, but they're just a team when they step on the field.
"I think the other thing you understand is that when you are in the postseason: It doesn't matter what you did the previous season, you have to play well this weekend," Lawson said. "Having that mindset is what has been able to carry us and we have had that mindset for seven years now."
The Kentucky softball team is headed to Notre Dame.
Making their seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats were sent to the South Bend Regional during Sunday night's Selection Show. UK will open tournament play against Northwestern at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, with host and No. 16 seed Notre Dame taking on Ball State afterward.
Kelsey Nunley had nine strikeouts in UK's loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
BATON ROUGE, La. - It was an all too familiar feeling.
The Kentucky softball team had just lost in walk-off for the third time in five days to Tennessee, this time in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
That didn't make it any easier.
"This game, it's hard to swallow," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "A lot of the games that we've played lately are hard to swallow."
The loss came after the Wildcats had built leads of 2-0 and 3-1 on the Lady Volunteers. UK (29-24) seemed unlikely to relinquish the lead with Kelsey Nunley on the mound in the postseason, but Tennessee (40-13) charged back anyway for a 5-4 win on a two-run single off the wall in left field by Meghan Gregg.
As Nunley's pitch count climbed, the Lady Volunteers began to hit her harder. Nunley stranded runners in scoring position in two of the first three innings, but she was unable to escape trouble in the fourth and fifth, allowing three runs, and she was lifted for Erin Rethlake. Rethlake, a true freshman, looked unfazed in her first postseason appearance, but two walks and an error undid her and UK in the seventh inning.
"We've done some things really, really well," Lawson said. "We just need to figure out how to finish games. We need to figure how to close games and we need to clean up some things. We played most of the game well, but when you're playing at this level and you're playing a team of this caliber you can't make mistakes and you certainly can't make mistakes at the end of games because I think people take advantage of that."
UK, which now will await its NCAA Tournament fate and Sunday's 10 p.m. ET Selection Show, will have to cut out some of those mistakes to duplicate last year's run to the Women's College World Series.
"The postseason really comes down to pitching and defense and hopefully get your timely hits," Lawson said. "So I think it's important that we spend the next couple of days focusing defensively, really trying to tighten that up."
To go with that, Wildcat pitchers will go to work refining things.
"It'll be nice to have a few days in a row to work on things in the bullpen," Lawson said. "We really haven't had that luxury a lot lately. So to be able to have a few days to tighten up some of our pitches, make them break a little bit better, not keep them on the same plane, I think is going to be a big deal."
Though certainly and understandably disappointed after their seventh loss in a row, the Cats are ready to take advantage of a few days off and a chance to improve.
"It was a tough game, but we can just learn from it," said Maisie Steed, who had two hits against Tennessee." That's all we can do, is learn and move on and get back to Lexington and start working on things we need to work on and hopefully take it into the NCAA Tournament."
"We just gotta get back to Lexington and get back to work and hopefully just think of the postseason as a fresh start, try to turn things around," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said.
BATON ROUGE, La. - The Kentucky softball team, at long last, reached the top of the mountain a season ago.
The Wildcats had arrived, breaking through and advancing to the 2014 Women's College World Series after repeated Super Regional trips.
What they didn't realize was they'd have to go right back to base camp once the following season began.
"I think that after going to the World Series they just expected everything now would be easy," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "And it's not easy. I think getting to the postseason is the hardest part. I think that's a valuable lesson our program had to learn and I think they learned it. I think they learned it the hard way."
The hard way, for UK, means a 29-23 regular-season record and a ranking of No. 24/25, down from top 10 preseason. The Cats enter the Southeastern Conference Tournament as the No. 12 seed, set to open postseason play against fifth-seeded Tennessee at 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday on the SEC Network.
"I think what's important right now going into the postseason is that you're playing good softball," Lawson said. "I think it's important that we're moving around fast. I think it's important we're communicating. I think at this point, you've learned a lot during the season, it's just important that you trust yourself, you fly around, you play good softball and then what happens happens."
Though the last month has been a struggle (UK has lost six straight games and 14 of 18), the Cats do have some experience to call on when it comes to playing good softball. UK sat at 21-5 before a trip to Auburn, but it was the previous SEC series - the Cats' first - that Lawson says was when the challenge ahead became clear.
"We were playing really well and we were loose and then we had that big snowstorm and we weren't able to practice," Lawson said. "We hung out in a hotel for two days and then we flew out to A&M (on March 5) and we got in at 4 in the morning. I think that wasn't ideal. I think when we got to A&M I think they just expected, 'OK, SEC play is here and we're going to run through it.' "
Instead, UK went 5-19 in SEC play and dropped its final five conference series.
"I think it's important you have a short memory," Lawson said.
The Cats' collective memory will be immediately tested.
UK's final regular-season series was a sweep at the hands of the same Lady Volunteer team the Cats will face on Wednesday, dropping the final two games in walk-off fashion. To add to the intrigue, the two teams shared the same connecting flight from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, La.
It would be Lawson's preference to play one of the four teams that didn't appear on UK's regular-season schedule, but she isn't worried much about that.
"They're all incredible teams so it doesn't really matter which one you play," Lawson said. "It is strange playing a team so early, especially sharing a flight down with them, but I think at the end of the day both our goals are similar."
The goal, of course, is to advance deep into the conference and NCAA tournaments, just like last year when Kelsey Nunley - UK's likely Wednesday starter - carried the Cats to the World Series. As trying as the regular season was at points, 2015 will be remembered for what happens next.
"I think they've done it in the past and they were relieved when the regular season was over," Lawson said.