Kentucky will host an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history at John Cropp Stadium this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the University of Kentucky softball team will get back in action as the Wildcats host their first NCAA Regional in school history. UK earned the No. 12 national seed in the tournament and will square off with Marshall on Friday evening at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium. No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Virginia Tech will kick off the four-team regional at 5:00 p.m. on Friday.
Kentucky (38-18) played a tough non-conference schedule to go along with its difficult Southeastern Conference slate of games. To put in perspective how competitive the league is, the SEC had a NCAA-record 11 teams make the field of 64.
After wrapping up the regular season and SEC Tournament last weekend, the Wildcats are ecstatic to get the postseason underway and be rewarded for a year of hard work.
"It's huge for us, we've never hosted a regional and we have never been a national seed here at UK," junior Lauren Cumbess said. "It's great for the program and we have worked really hard for it so it's exciting."
For UK, it's a shot at redemption after being ousted in the first round of the SEC Tournament by South Carolina last Wednesday. The Wildcats had high hopes going into the weekend as they were hosting their first conference tourney in school history.
Kentucky came out a little slow and found itself in a hole, trailing the Gamecocks, 6-1. UK made an attempted rally in the seventh but the deficit was too much to overcome in a 6-3 defeat. The Wildcats didn't swing the bats well and freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley wasn't as dominant as she had been in the second half of the season. Having five freshman starters playing for the first time on a postseason stage didn't help matters.
The result didn't go in the Cats' favor, but UK has a rare chance to make up for the loss and give the Big Blue Nation a more deserving performance.
"I think they were shocked," Lawson said. "Last week was the first time we had played in that setting here so I think that was a great experience for our younger kids and I don't think they knew what to expect. I think they understood and I think they were very disappointed in their performance last week and they are looking for another opportunity to prove that they are one of the best teams in the country."
UK has had all week to prepare for the regional this weekend and players can go through several mood changes in a week's time. Coming off the loss to USC, one might think the Wildcats are questioning themselves, but Cumbess in confident that's no issue.
"We were all real excited when we found out we were going to host," Cumbess said. "Practice has been really upbeat and everybody is trying to get better and improve the little things each day. Everybody has been in a really good mood and we are having fun. We play our best when we are having fun."
The Lexington Regional is regarded as one of the toughest regions in the country. Marshall, the Conference USA Tournament champion, is no slouch as the No. 4 seed. The Thundering Herd gave the Cats all they could handle back on April 4 in Lexington in a game UK would rally to win, 4-3, on a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll. It starts in the circle for Marshall, where senior Andi Williamson (32-16) has a 2.01 earned-run average with an astonishing 344 strikeouts in 296 innings pitched.
If UK is fortunate enough to get past Marshall, the Cats will face the winner of Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. The Fighting Irish are making their 18th NCAA appearance and enter the game having won 17 of 20 games. Virginia Tech is also an experienced bunch that is playing in its sixth NCAA Tournament and second straight.
With such a tough region, it's going to be very important for Kentucky to play as few games as possible this weekend by staying in the winner's bracket of the double-elimination tournament.
"It's crucial to come out strong," Lawson said. "Certainly teams can come from behind, that has definitely happened before, but anytime you can stay in the winner's bracket, that means your pitchers are fresh and that keeps the crowd coming back and that's more of a confidence booster."
Senior Kara Dill has played sparingly for Kentucky due to a broken hand, but has seen at bats in the last two games, delivering a pinch hit against Alabama and filling in as designated player vs. South Carolina. Dill, who has been UK's leading hitter over the last couple of seasons, batted in the eight-hole against the Gamecocks and Lawson says with more repetitions this week she is considering inserting her back into the top of the order, which would help jumpstart Kentucky's offense.
The Wildcats' want to make a different impression on their fans this time around and as the host and the favorite of the regional, their goal is to make it to super regionals. The recipe for success for the Cats is simple.
"We are going to have to do a good job offensively and we are going to have to attack good pitches," Lawson said. "We have to execute, put the ball in play, hit behind runners, bunt and do all those things you need to do because every pitcher is good. Then I think we have to have a strong showing on the mound by both Nunley and Cumbess. I think in order for us to go further it has to start with those two things."
Softball - For the fifth consecutive season the University of Kentucky softball team has received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament with the selection committee naming Kentucky as the No. 12 national seed and one of 16 regional host locations for the first time in program history. - This is the fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in school history for Kentucky, who made its first showing in the tournament in 2009. The Wildcats hosted a NCAA Super Regional in 2011, dropping a best-of-three set to highly ranked Cal. All-time, UK is 8-8 in the NCAA Tournament. All tournament appearances have come under head coach Rachel Lawson. UK is one of 23 schools nationally to advance to five straight NCAA Tournaments. - Kentucky has earned 38 wins this season - the second most in school history - against some of the best teams in the nation, posting a 13-11 record in SEC action. Before falling in the first round of the SEC Tournament last week, Lawson and Co., had a historic weekend in Tuscaloosa, Ala., taking two of three games from top-10 ranked and defending national champion Alabama. The wins in Tuscaloosa were the first in school history for UK and its first-ever series win against the Tide.
Men's tennis - Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-straight season, a program first. UK collected wins over Western Michigan (4-0) and No. 41 Virginia Tech (4-1) to book its spot in Champaign, Ill. - Kentucky won the doubles point for the third straight match as the newly-formed tandem of Juan Pablo Murra and Anthony Rossi went 2-0 on the weekend with an 8-1 win on Friday and an 8-3 victory on Saturday afternoon. - Kentucky will take on the Duke Blue Devils, ranked No. 9 in the country, in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m. ET. The match against the Blue Devils will be the Wildcats unprecedented 11th contest this season against teams that currently comprise the ITA top 10.
Track and field - Both the UK men's and women's teams finished seventh overall with 46 points each at the SEC Outdoor Championships. - The women's team earned its highest finish and point total since 2009 (sixth and 56th). - The Wildcat men's team had its highest finish and point total since 2011 (seventh and 54th). - Kentucky finished the 2013 SEC Championships with eight medals, two gold, three silver and three bronze. - Chelsea Oswald became the first ever Wildcat to win at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the same SEC Championships. - Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand all earned silver medals in the discus, javelin and 1,500 meters respectively.
Baseball - The Kentucky baseball team completed a grueling stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes with a three-game series sweep at the hands of No. 1 Vanderbilt. The Wildcats picked up a midweek win over Wright State, before falling in the three-game set at the hands of the record-breaking Dores. - The Wildcats picked up a 4-1 midweek win over Wright State on Tuesday behind a strong start from senior Jerad Grundy, in his midweek debut, and a three-hit game from freshman Kyle Barrett. - UK has been led at the plate by Barrett, who owns a .351 mark with four doubles, one triple, 14 RBI and four steals. - On the mound, UK has used the weekend rotation of Reed (2-7, 3.81 ERA), freshman righthander Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.82 ERA) and Littrell (5-5, 3.92 ERA) for two consecutive weeks. Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) has also made 12 starts with 71.2 innings and 58 strikeouts.
Women's golf - The women's golf team wrapped up its season at the NCAA East Regional last week at the Auburn University Club, May 9-11. UK finished in 12th place in the 24-team regional, shooting 33-over-par for the tournament. - With the top-eight teams from the regional advancing to the NCAA Championships, the Wildcats' 12th place finish concluded their season but was their highest finish at the regionals in head coach Golda Borst's three-year tenure. Cylia Damerau, Sarah Harris and Betsie Johnson all tied for 60th at 9-over-par. - Kentucky broke the single-season record with a team stroke average of 301.1, shattering the previous school-record of 304.73 set last season. - Senior Ashleigh Albrecht wrapped up her career as one of the most decorative women's golfers in UK history. Her season stroke average of 75.07 was the lowest all-time at Kentucky, surpassing Mallory Blackwelder's mark of 75.34 set during the 2007-08 campaign. She also tied her own record with eight par or better rounds in 2012-13 and finished her career with the most par or better rounds in school history with 26.
Tuesday, May 14 Baseball hosts Indiana - 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, May 16 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Men's tennis vs. Duke - 8:00 p.m. (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Friday, May 17 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball hosts Marshall - 7:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis vs. UCLA/Vanderbilt (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Saturday, May 18 Softball hosts Notre Dame/Michigan - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 6:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Sunday, May 19 Softball championship series - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Head coach Rachel Lawson has guided the Wildcats to hosting their first NCAA Regional in school history. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team gathered together Sunday night at a local restaurant to watch the 2013 NCAA Division I Softball Selection Show. With players, coaches and a large portion of the UK athletics department in attendance, there was a feel that the night would be special for the softball program.
As each regional was being revealed, eyes throughout the restaurant were glued to the big-screen televisions. With anticipation rising, the Wildcats popped on the screen as the No. 12 overall seed and the host of the Lexington Regional.
The selection marks the first time UK has been awarded a host site in school history and is another example of how far the program has come under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson.
"It's great to see in such a short time how Kentucky has improved in softball," Lawson said. "To be able to be one of the 16 teams to host a regional is really an honor."
The moment was extra special for senior Alice O'Brien, who has another chance to play at home in front of the Big Blue Nation.
"I don't think I have ever been more excited," O'Brien said. "This is awesome. We have worked really hard for this and we are really excited to play at home and in front of our fans."
The regional will begin on Friday at John Cropp Stadium with No. 2 seeded Notre Dame (43-13) taking on No. 3 seeded Virginia Tech (35-19) at 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, with the nightcap featuring the No. 1 seeded Wildcats (38-18) vs. No. 4 seeded Marshall (35-20) at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN3.com will televise all games played at the regional.
Marshall is a familiar foe for UK with the Wildcats having played the Thundering Herd back on April 9. The game was a tight one as the Cats used a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll in comeback fashion in Lexington, 4-3. Notre Dame and Virginia Tech will be new opponents for UK to prepare for this season but offer strong competition for what is regarded as a tough overall regional.
"I think we have a good regional and I think the teams in it are excellent," Lawson said. "We played Marshall before and it was a good game and both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame have had good seasons. It's going to be a tough region and I think it's going to be a really exciting time in Lexington."
Kentucky played one of the most strenuous schedules in the entire country this year and a large part of that has to do with the conference in which the Wildcats compete. The SEC had an incredible 11 of its 13 teams selected into the NCAA Tournament last night, including seven as regional hosts.
The season has been a grind for the Cats and it will be a breath of fresh air to see a few new teams and face some different pitchers.
"Anytime you are out of SEC play its fun for a short amount of time because they know you so well and they have played you so many times," Lawson said. "With that said, I think all the teams I the region are outstanding so we are going to have to play as well against them as we would against any top-notch SEC team."
Last weekend UK hosted its first ever SEC Tournament. The event set an attendance record with more than 12,000 fans making their way to John Cropp Stadium over the weekend. The Wildcats are hoping for more of that same love from the Big Blue Nation this weekend. With the Cats losing to South Carolina in the first round of the conference tournament last Wednesday, they are glad they get to experience the true atmosphere of what they missed out on last week.
"I hope they come out like they did at the SEC Tournament," O'Brien said. "I'm sure they will and we are looking forward to playing in front of our fans. We didn't really get the chance to last weekend so we are really excited about it."
The UK softball team fell to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, 6-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team couldn't recover from a four-run third inning and a dominant pitching performance from South Carolina hurler Julie Sarratt, as UK was ousted in the first round of the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday evening, 6-3.
The evening kicked off what was supposed to be a memorable event for UK as the SEC Tournament made its way to Lexington for the first time in school history in the newly renovated John Cropp Statdium. However, the Wildcats seventh-inning rally fell short after scoring two in the frame and bringing the tying run at the plate before Sarratt ended the game on a strikeout.
The result wasn't what the Cats wanted, but it wasn't enough to make them look past what this weekend means to UK and its softball program.
"I would like to thank the SEC and the University of Kentucky for putting on this venue right now," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I think the SEC is a special tournament because all the teams who come here, all 10 of them are exceptional teams. I think it's a great venue and barring the rain everything else has turned out really nice, both from the SEC side and from our side."
UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team earlier in the week and had been reliable for the Cats all season, especially down the stretch. Wednesday just wasn't her night either, as South Carolina had a good game plan adjusting to her attack.
Nunley had been on fire for Kentucky, winning two games over perennial powerhouse and defending champion Alabama last weekend. It turned out she just didn't have it tonight and Lawson gives credit to the Gamecocks for having a good scouting report on her freshman.
UK came off one of its biggest series wins over Alabama last weekend and figured to carry that momentum into this weekend's tournament. That series win may have bit them in the rear-end as the Cats seemed to have locked themselves into good position as far as seeding goes in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has essentially clinched an at-large bid into the postseason and are hoping to host a regional tournament, while South Carolina had a little more to play for being considered on the bubble.
"I think at times, especially when you are dealing with a team so youthful with five freshmen and a sophomore behind the plate, I think sometimes their focus is a little misguided," Lawson said. "I think beating Alabama was a big deal to them and beating South Carolina three times earlier in the year, offensively we didn't start strong and they came out and seemed a little hungrier than us."
Looking forward the Wildcats can learn from their mistakes and will have some time off to shake this loss off and look ahead to achieving their ultimate goal of making it to the Women's College World Series.
"We need a day off so tomorrow we will take off and watch the teams who are playing," Lawson said. "Obviously we have good pitching, we have won a lot of games. Offensively, I think we are going to have to do a better job of mixing things up. I think we have a good game plan we just didn't execute them this weekend. We have a lot of big wins and a lot of experience going into postseason I just think it depends on if it's a good matchup for us or not."
Baseball - Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning. - The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of nonleague play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action. - UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team recently completed one of the most successful weekends in school history, taking two of three games against No. 7 Alabama - the defending national championships - in Tuscaloosa. The series win was the first for Kentucky against the Tide in school history and also marked the first time UK had won in Tuscaloosa. - The wins moved UK to 13-11 in SEC play, earning the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has now posted three straight winning conference seasons under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson, advancing to five straight SEC Tournaments. The two wins over Alabama give UK nine against ranked foes this season and 40 against ranked foes under Lawson, including 24 against top-10 teams. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend, winning both games she started, throwing 15 innings, allowing only four earned runs with 11 strikeouts and a 1.87 ERA. Nunley shutout the Tide Saturday, marking the first time a pitcher had shutout Alabama at home since 2010. Fellow freshman Nikki Sagermann went 3-for-5 in the series finale with a school-record tying six RBI. Sagermann blasted a three-run home run in the eighth inning, giving Kentucky the win.
Track and field - Matt Hillenbrand finished as top collegiate finisher in the IU Billy Hayes Invitational 1,500 meters on Friday. - Hillenbrand ran a personal best time 3:44.66. - Adam Kahleifeh finished the same race fifth in 3:45.99. - Hillenbrand's time is second-fastest in the SEC this season. - Kahleifeh's time ranks No. 8 in the conference. - Keffri Neal posted No. 3 SEC time over 1,500 meters at the Stanford Invitational earlier this season. - Friday's race was Kentucky's final tune-up for the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin Thursday, May 9. - The conference championships will be held at the Audrey J. Walton Track Stadium at the University of Missouri in Columbia from May 9-12. - Kentucky will enter the SEC Championships defending one individual championship, as Andrew Evans claimed the event title last season in Baton Rouge, La. Upcoming schedule
Tuesday, May 7 Baseball def. Wright State, 4-1
Wednesday, May 8 Softball hosts South Carolina - 6:30 p.m. (SEC Tournament)
Thursday, May 9 Track at SEC Championships - 12:30 p.m. (Columbia, Mo.) Softball hosts Tennessee - 4:00 p.m. (SEC Tournament) Women's golf at NCAA Regionals (Auburn, Ala.)
Kentucky will host its first SEC Tournament this week at John Cropp Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the Kentucky softball program will host the most prestigious conference softball tournament in the nation. The Southeastern Conference tournament features the top-10 schools in the 14-team league based on the standings after a grueling 24-game schedule.
What makes the conference so dominant is that it includes several teams regarded as among best in the nation based on rankings. According to the RPI, which is the basis on who is selected into the NCAA Tournament, the SEC has six teams in the top 10 and 11 in the top 40.
The newly renovated John Cropp Stadium has come a long way since head coach Rachel Lawson arrived here six years ago. To think UK would be hosting the most highly anticipated and competitive softball tournament in the country is hard to imagine. Even for Lawson.
"When I got here six years ago, if you would have shown up to the softball field there was a small grandstand about the size of one row here and we have made drastic improvements," Lawson said. "It says a lot to the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be able to have ESPN here and hosting the SEC Tournament that they were able to put up such an amazing softball facility for a softball team and women's sports in general."
This weekend marks the first big tournament that Kentucky has hosted since a 2011 Super Regional, which was held here in Lexington.
Lawson remembers that weekend and how supportive the Big Blue Nation was well. The event staff had to add in additionally outfield bleachers in order to accommodate enough suitable seating for the fan base. The sixth-year head coach believes this weekend will offer a bit of the same flavor and is hoping to ride that home-field advantage.
"Everyone knows there is nothing better than Kentucky fans," Lawson said. "When the Big Blue Nation comes out it's pretty impressive as we showed two years ago when we hosted a Super Regional. Even when they are not softball fans, in general just being a Kentucky fan really helps us out a lot. It's nice to be able to have that crowd behind you when you are playing such awesome opponents."
UK (38-17, 13-11 SEC) is the No. 7 seed in the tournament and will face the No. 10 seed South Carolina (31-22, 8-16) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
When the two teams take the field on Wednesday, it will have been almost exactly a month ago since the Cats traveled to Columbia, S.C., and swept the Gamecocks. Even though Kentucky came away with a sweep, the series was a lot more difficult than it sounds with UK winning 3-1 in the opener and 4-3 in the final game of the three-game set.
"I think it gives them confidence knowing that they beat them but I think it was so far removed I think they are just looking to get back on the field and hopefully winning a SEC game," Lawson said.
If that series isn't enough to give UK a boost for their opening-round game then the Cats' performance last weekend most definitely will.
Kentucky went down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., last weekend having won just twice all-time against Alabama in 40 chances. Kentucky not only won for the first time at Alabama, but took two of three games to win its first series vs. the Crimson Tide in school history.
It was an emotional series for the Wildcats and something they can build on moving into postseason play.
"To be able to go into Alabama and get a win is huge," Lawson said. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence and it gives the younger players a lot of confidence. They went in there and hit two very awesome pitchers and I believe that shows them they can get it done.
"In order for us to get where we want, which is the World Series we're going to have to go through pitchers like the ones they have at Alabama. I think it gives them a lot of confidence and hopefully we will be able to take that momentum into our game tomorrow night against South Carolina."
One of the key cogs for Kentucky this season is freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley. She has been a workhorse for UK all season, setting the Kentucky single-season wins record earlier this year, was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team on Tuesday due to her efforts in the circle.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native, who was once a secret weapon for UK, now has the whole conference, or country for that matter, keeping an eye on her.
"I think everyone in the country knows we are going with her in game one," Lawson said. "It's not a secret. I love our other pitchers but she is the one that has gotten us here so I want to make sure she has that opportunity on national TV."
In order for the Wildcats to win their first SEC Tournament title, they must win four games in four days. Kentucky knows who its ace is and the Cats are going to ride her as long as they can. Nunley once pitched three straight games this season, firing over 300 pitches in a weekend series against Missouri.
After Nunley 2-0 against the defending national champions Alabama last weekend, Lawson is not going to be hesitant and just hopes she can see how long Nunley can go. So don't be surprised if you see Nunley out in the circle in Saturday's championship game, preparing to pitch her fourth game in as many days.
"Hopefully we will have the offense going so we have a chance to see that. I know she has pitched three in a row so four would be something she hasn't done but I believe she can do it," Lawson said.
The University of Kentucky celebrated its 146th May Commencement on Sunday. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
During the University of Kentucky's 146 May Commencement on Sunday, 49 UK student-athletes received degrees. Forty-seven earned undergraduate diplomas and two received graduate degrees.
(Note: Includes student-athletes who received degrees after their completing eligibility.)
Baseball Thomas McCarthy Zac Zellers (Will complete coursework this summer)
Football Aaron Boyd La'Rod King Quentin McCord Craig McIntosh Kevin Mitchell Matt Smith Taylor Wyndham (Note: 2012 seniors Mikie Benton, Gabe Correll, Gene McCaskill, Morgan Newton, Cartier Rice, Collins Ukwu, Steven Duff and Sam Simpson graduated previously.)
Gymnastics Caitlyn Ciokajlo Storey Morris Whitney Rose
Men's basketball Twany Beckham Marquis Estill Jon Hood Jarrod Polson (Graduated in three years) (Note: Jamal Mashburn also received an honorary doctorate of humanities.)
Men's golf Joseph Barr
Men's soccer Pedro Andreoni Gabriel Conelian Barry Rice
Men's swimming and diving Jon Bullock Jon Keltner Ben Russell
Rifle Heather Greathouse
Softball Chanda Bell Kara Dill (Graduate degree in exercise science) Alice O'Brien Erika Silence
Track and field Katy Achtien Keith Hayes Ben Mason (Will complete coursework this summer) Chelsea Oswald Shiara Robinson Josh Nadzam (Masters of social work) Danielle Sampley Rashaud Scott Samantha Stenzel Hiruni Wijayaratne Megan Wright
Volleyball No graduates this weekend, but seniors Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann had already graduated.