Head coach Rachel Lawson
Sophomore Sylver Samuel and Senior Lauren Cumbess
Sophomore Sylver Samuel and Senior Lauren Cumbess
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Head coach Rachel Lawson
Sophomore Sylver Samuel and Senior Lauren Cumbess
The Kentucky softball team's bats had been held at bay for much of the weekend at the NCAA Regional, including in a 2-1 loss in the first game of Sunday's regional final.
That all changed in a win-or-go-home game two.
The Wildcats exploded for 10 runs in the first three innings, including six in the second to down DePaul, 10-1, and advance to their third NCAA Super Regional in the last four seasons.
DePaul had already lost once in the double-elimination tournament, so the Wildcats needed just one win Sunday in two chances. The Blue Demons prevailed in game one, 2-1 in 10 innings, to force a second game, and that's when the UK bats came up bigger than ever.
"Our hitters decided to put the team on their back and go out and score runs," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "In the other games, I think (Kelsey) Nunley did a good job of putting the team on her back and I thought we had good defensive play but I think that the mindset of the team offensively was we need to get this done."
UK advanced to the regional final with an unblemished 2-0 record, with a 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday and a 2-1 win over James Madison on Saturday. In the two victories, Kentucky rode Nunley's stellar pitching arm while scoring just enough runs to win.
After game one's 10-inning loss, the Wildcats had their backs against the wall and knew the offense had to come through in order to earn a ticket to Super Regionals.
"Coach just basically talked to us and said it was time to get it done," sophomore Christian Stokes said. "This is make-it-or-break-it, this is your opportunity right here, just go out here and have fun and take hard cuts."
In the bottom of the first inning of game two, Sylver Samuel got things going for the UK offense with an inside the park home run. The first homer of Samuel's career was a grounder up the middle through a drawn-in outfield that rolled all the way to the center field wall.
By the time the DePaul center fielder, who was playing in shallow left center, could get to the ball, Samuel was nearing third and thinking of home. Samuel circled the bases and a throw was never made to try and get her out at home plate.
"There were a lot of holes and a lot of people had shifted so I was just trying to get something started," Samuel said. "I was thinking more about making sure my timing was right and everything and finding a hole. I saw people still running when I was going to second. I saw that they hadn't gotten to the ball yet so I saw (Kristine) Himes running and I was like, 'Well, she's waving me,' so I just went for it."
Samuel's home run was the only run of the first inning, but it sent momentum and confidence into Kentucky's dugout.
"That was huge for our team," Stokes said. "We needed something that would get our momentum going and I think that was a huge at-bat. We scored a run on one hit, so that is huge. I think that got it started and then hits were going all around."
Nunley retired the side in order in the top of the second inning, and it was time for the UK bats to get back to work in a big way.
With two outs and the bases empty, the big inning almost didn't happen, but senior Emily Jolly reached on an error. Krystal Smith followed with a single and sophomore Ansley Smith walked to set up Stokes with the bases loaded.
Stokes sent a ball deep to left field that bounced off the top of the wall for a double. Just a foot short of clearing the fence, the bases emptied and gave UK a 4-0 lead.
"I didn't feel too much pressure," Stokes said. "When I got up there and I was on deck I knew that we had to get it done right here because this was a huge opportunity for us. I came up in the first game and didn't get the job done so I knew I wanted to help out my team and get it done on the second chance."
The runs didn't stop, however, as Samuel tripled to score Stokes and, after sophomore Nikki Sagermann walked, junior Griffin Joiner doubled down the left field line to score two more.
After UK scored a total of five runs in the previous 24 innings, the offense had just rattled off seven in the span of two innings.
With the hits, five of them in the first two innings, came momentum for both the offense and Nunley in the circle.
"I think the momentum definitely shifted towards us once we started getting hits," Samuel said. "That picked us up a lot and I think it just got our offense rolling and I think it gave Kelsey (Nunley) confidence that she didn't have to put the team on her back as much."
Along with the Wildcats' ability to make adjustments at the plate in the second game, the key to their offensive success in the second game was the fact that they moved on quickly from the first game's loss.
A team with four sophomores in the starting lineup, including the first three in the order, was able to forget about game one and quickly shift its focus to getting key hits in game two.
"You just have to move on," Lawson said. "You have to bounce back if you want to keep going. The nice thing about our team is that they love softball. They are able to adapt, adjust and move on. What we lack in certain offensive numbers, I think we make up for in terms of mental toughness and sure grit."
That mental toughness and grit is what has helped UK to a school-record 47 wins in 2014, the program's first-ever trip to the SEC Tournament Championship game and now a second consecutive NCAA Super Regional appearance.
The Wildcats, seeded 14th in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, head to Los Angeles next weekend to face third-seeded UCLA in a best-of-three series.
To advance to its first Women's College World Series in team history, Kentucky will need the hot bats that came to life in Sunday's second game. That, and more of the toughness and grit that got them there in the first place.
A staple of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to keep fighting and battle back, and it was never more prevalent than in UK's 2-1, comeback win Saturday over James Madison on the second day of the NCAA Regional.
The Wildcats were trailing 1-0 and being no-hit through four innings, but in the fifth, everything started to change.
All it took was a leadoff flyout from senior Emily Gaines -- the first ball from the UK bats to leave the infield -- and the offense and the Big Blue Nation responded.
Senior Lauren Cumbess followed with a single for UK's first hit of the game, and fellow senior Emily Jolly also notched a double. While UK would not score a run in the frame, the rally was officially in effect.
Credit goes to sophomore Nikki Sagermann and junior Griffin Joiner, who recorded the game-tying and game-winning hits, but the crowd certainly played a factor.
John Cropp Stadium was close to capacity for the second consecutive day, but the Wildcat faithful didn't have a lot to cheer about until Gaines' flyout in the fifth inning. That's when the momentum shifted, and the Big Blue Nation could be heard, loud and clear.
"I thought a lot of our adjustment the third time through the order was due to the fact the crowd really got into it, chanting 'blue' and 'white,' " UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "You could hear them really cheering when Sylver Samuel got that hit up the middle and everybody went crazy. I actually think the crowd was a lot of the reason why we adjusted. The crowd was the big difference, I thought they were tremendous and a lot of the reasons why we scored the runs at the end of the game."
The Kentucky runs came in the sixth inning, but it unofficially got started in the fifth with Gaines' fly ball to center.
"Gaines has sparked us all year, so that got us going, everybody got fired up," Joiner said. "The rest of the lineup started battling better in their at-bat."
"We finally saw someone get some solid contact on her, and we were like, 'Alright, we can hit it,' " Sagermann added.
In the sixth inning, the Wildcats sent the top of the order to the plate for their third time. Sophomore Christian Stokes led off with a strikeout, but Samuel followed with a single up the middle to set up Sagermann.
The third baseman doubled to right center to score Samuel and tie the game. Joiner kept the hot hitting going with a single to left to score Sagermann and give Kentucky a 2-1 lead.
It was the adjustments that Samuel, Sagermann and Joiner made in their third time at the plate that proved to be the key for the UK offense to score two and take the lead.
After the second time through the batting order, Lawson knew the top of the order needed to adjust and get in attack mode if the Wildcats were to mount a rally.
"By the time the second at-bat comes around, if they're not in attack mode, you know you can be in big trouble," Lawson said. "You'd better straighten them out and get them in attack mode, so hopefully their third at-bat through, they're ready to get after the pitcher, which is what happened today."
The Wildcats have scored more than two runs just twice in their last six games, but have managed to notch five wins in that span, in large part to their ability to make adjustments at the plate and get the key hit at the perfect moment.
The fact that pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who has won all five games in the circle for Kentucky, is the school-record holder with eight postseason wins, certainly doesn't hurt either.
UK will look to advance to its third NCAA Super Regional in the past four years Sunday at 1 p.m. at John Cropp Stadium against either James Madison or DePaul.
Cumbess, who went 0-for-11 at the SEC Tournament last weekend, but went 1-for-2 Friday with a home run and drove in both UK runs.
"There was no secret," Cumbess said. "We practiced hard all week and worked on hitting different pitches in the zone and it was all about the right place at the right time."
The junior captain got things started in the bottom of the second with a home run to give UK an early 1-0 lead. Cumbess sent an 0-1 pitch over the right-field wall for the Wildcats' first hit of the game.
"I was just looking for my pitch and on that count it happened to be it," Cumbess said. "I swung at the first pitch, so I wanted to be aggressive and make something happen as the leadoff batter in that inning. I swung at the first one and missed it, and the second pitch looked like it was even more in my zone. I just went for it. It felt pretty good coming off the bat."
The homer was Cumbess' ninth of the season and third in NCAA Tournament play.
It came at the perfect time for the Wildcats, after starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley labored through the first two innings and allowed an Ohio baserunner to reach in the first two frames, each via walk.
Nunley allowed two runners to reach base in the third and one in the fourth, but she didn't allow a runner to score. As the sophomore continued to warm up, her pitches got even more effective and the Bobcat batters were retired in order in the fifth and sixth inning.
Three outs away from an opening-game victory, Cumbess once again helped plate a valuable insurance run in the sixth. Senior Emily Gaines led off with a double down the right field line. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner and stole third to set up Cumbess.
Cumbess flied out to right field, but it was enough to score Steed and put the Wildcats ahead 2-0.
"Especially after Maisie's delayed steal, I knew I had to get something, really stay behind it," Cumbess said. "It was either go up the middle or somewhere in the outfield and I knew she would score. Maisie is a smart baserunner, so I knew if I did my job and put it anywhere relative to where she could score, she could do it."
The 2-0 lead was all Nunley needed to secure the win and her seventh shutout of the year, good for second most in a season in program history. The win also gave Nunley seven postseason victories in her career, which extended her program-record mark.
The first win is always important, and puts the Wildcats in a good position going into Saturday's winner's bracket game with James Madison.
"It's important that you always get the first win in the tournament," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "That way you can kick the tires a little bit and get a little bit looser. Anytime you can get the first win in a postseason tournament I think that helps. It helps your pitching, it helps your defense relax a little bit and it helps the girls sleep a little bit better."
Going forward, the road doesn't get any easier. Kentucky will face James Madison on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. JMU downed DePaul in the regional's first game, 6-1.
The winner advances to Sunday, while the loser will play at 6 p.m. against the winner of Saturday's second game, between Ohio and DePaul at 3 p.m.
At stake in the double elimination tournament is a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals. The Wildcats, seeded in the top 16 in the 64-team field for the second consecutive season, will look to make their third trip to the Super Regionals in the last four years.
For the sixth consecutive season, the Kentucky softball team will compete in the NCAA Regionals and it will host the regional for the second year in a row.
But this year, it's different.
For the first time in program history, the Wildcats have momentum on their side as they open the 64-team NCAA Tournament Friday night at John Cropp Stadium.
UK won three games at the SEC Tournament last weekend in Columbia, S.C., and made it to the championship game for the first time in team history. Before this season, the Wildcats were 1-9 all-time at the conference tournament.
In two of the past three seasons, the Wildcats have gone 0-1 at the SEC Tournament only to turn around and advance to the NCAA Super Regionals the following weekend.
This year, coming off a 3-1 weekend at the SEC Tournament has proven beneficial as UK prepares for the Regional.
"Last week, playing four games against the toughest competition in our conference, and in the nation too, was really productive for us," junior captain Griffin Joiner said. "We could have been here practicing every day, so it was a really good opportunity for us to play in the SEC Tournament. When we got back, school has been out, so it's been all softball. We wake up every day and come out here and try to get the job done, getting ready for this weekend."
Even after a loss Saturday in the championship game to Georgia after a record-breaking run, the Wildcats are hungry for more.
The momentum from the tournament's three wins, combined with the disappointment from Saturday's loss has fueled UK in practice this week.
"After we got beat Saturday night, that was disappointing," sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley said. "We've come out this week and made adjustments and worked hard in practice. I think we're ready to go, we just have to bring our A game."
Sunday night, just hours after the Wildcats returned from Columbia, UK learned it would host the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. Lexington hosted the Super Regionals in 2011, the first time NCAA competition was ever played at John Cropp Stadium. Last season, Kentucky also hosted the NCAA Regional.
Earning a host bid is a big advantage. Not only does it mean the Wildcats are the highest seed among the four teams, but they will have the Big Blue Nation behind them.
"Over the past three or four years the Big Blue Nation has really shown up, and it's helped us in ball games," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "When we played Tennessee at home and beat them, I felt like the crowd gave us a big push. We've had record-breaking crowds every year, and I Kentucky fans are such good fans, it really helps us, especially in later games against opponents that aren't used to playing with that type of crowd."
The three-game series against Tennessee, the final home series of the regular season, drew a school-record 4,664 fans. The final two games of the series drew more than 1,600 fans, both standing-room only crowds.
Playing in front of packed stadiums is nothing new for the Wildcats in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. Seven of Kentucky's road contests in SEC play drew at least 1,000 fans, including every game of the SEC Tournament.
"It's awesome, it's what you want as a player," Nunley said. "I think the fans can really make the game more exciting. I think it's great to have a lot of fans here supporting us.
The good crowds no doubt will come to cheer on Kentucky, as they have all season.
Fans will see three great teams, in addition the hometown Wildcats. UK, James Madison and DePaul all won at least 40 games this season, while Ohio and James Madison each won its respective conference tournaments. DePaul is making its 18th NCAA Tournament appearance.
The action gets underway Friday at 5 p.m. ET with James Madison and DePaul, followed by UK's matchup with Ohio at 7:30 p.m. That's when the Wildcats look to keep the momentum going as they look for a third Super Regional berth in the past four seasons.
Going into last week's SEC Tournament, Kentucky was coming off a three-game sweep suffered at Georgia. The Wildcats scored just one run in each game, and Rachel Lawson was looking for a spark at the top of the order.
Enter sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes.
"What happened after the Georgia series was I thought we needed a change in tone, a different way to start off the game," the UK head coach said. "So we put her in the leadoff position and just her presence alone, I believe she set the tone for the entire tournament. She set the tone in all of our wins in her first at-bat of every game. It's the ability to be able to put everyone on your back and have great presence in the box from the get-go."
On the third pitch of the bottom of the first inning in UK's opening-round win over Mississippi State, Stokes sent a shot over the right field wall to give UK an early 1-0 lead. As her teammates poured out of the dugout to greet her at home plate, it was apparent the offensive spark that Lawson was looking for had been found.
In four games leading off at the SEC Tournament, Stokes' numbers were beyond impressive. She hit .429 with six hits, two home runs and three RBI. She scored a run in each of Kentucky's three wins and reached base a total of nine times for an on base percentage of .529.
The Chesterfield. S.C., native had a 1.000 slugging percentage in her home state. She was rewarded by being named to the SEC All-Tournament Team.
"Coach Lawson really wants me to work on my presence in the box, that's been a huge thing," Stokes said. "Starting off the game, showing a presence from the first swing is the main thing I've been thinking about. Just being confident, getting up there and doing my thing."
Stokes was 3-for-4 in that first game against Mississippi State, with another RBI and a double in the ninth inning to set up fellow sophomore Nikki Sagermann's game-winning hit.
The following day against Tennessee, Stokes was 3-of-4 again. She led off the game with a double, and her home run in the fifth inning put UK ahead 2-0 and gave sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley all the insurance runs she would need.
In Kentucky's win over LSU to send the Wildcats to their first SEC Tournament Championship Game in program history, Stokes was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning and scored the first of two runs in the final frame.
As the Wildcats prepare for NCAA Regionals this weekend at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Stokes hopes to continue her hot hitting. It will help that the confidence from the SEC Tournament can carry over into this weekend.
"Once you're confident, your confidence keeps on carrying for a few games or even the rest of the season," Stokes said. "It will help with my approach and all the things I'm doing well in the box right now. I think the presence is a big thing too, my presence will maybe help my teammates' presence as well."
The leadoff position was one of inconsistency in the regular season. Stokes led off 14 times and is one of six Wildcats to have hit in the No. 1 spot this season. None of them led off more than 16 times in UK's 55 regular season contests, and no one did it for more than six games in a row.
Going into the postseason, Lawson knew it was essential to have a leadoff hitter who could get things going for the rest of the offense.
"You look at all the dominant teams in the country, they all have a strong batter in the leadoff position," Lawson said. "Christian's strength alone helped match what all the other teams did. In fact, this past weekend, she surpassed that. I couldn't be happier with it, and in my opinion, she and Kelsey Nunley were the MVPs this past weekend."
Stokes has started all 59 games at shortstop this season, but has batted in nearly every spot in the order. In addition to the 14 times she has led off, she has batted ninth 20 times, sixth nine times and second, fifth, seventh and eighth at least once.
Despite her spot in the batting order changing, Stokes doesn't find any added pressure with having to set the tone at the top of the lineup.
"I think it's easy, because everyone on our team steps up at different times, which is great," Stokes said. "I always know my teammates have my back, and they know I have their back, so it's easy to be a leader on our team."
It isn't hard to see that Lawson has been impressed with Stokes as a hitter, no matter her spot in the lineup.
"Her overall competitive spirit, and her presence in the box is something that really impresses me," Lawson said. "I love it, I think she does a really good job, she competes, she swings the bat hard, she runs hard. Just that overall attitude really helps the team get ready to hit. She's quietly been a leader. She's been getting big hits when we needed her to."
That competitive spirit and attitude will help lead Kentucky into the NCAA Tournament opener Friday against Ohio. Kentucky has made the NCAA Regionals in six consecutive seasons and advanced to the Super Regionals in two of the past three years.
After a grueling SEC schedule, things won't get any easier in the postseason, but Stokes presence and ability to get things started at the top of the order should help alleviate some of that pressure brought on by the NCAA Tournament.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It wasn't the ending the Kentucky softball team was looking for, but its 2014 SEC Tournament run -- the longest in program history by two games -- had plenty of positives and was the perfect tuneup for the NCAA Tournament.
The seventh-seeded Wildcats won three games at the 2014 Tournament and made it to the championship game for the first time in program history. UK took downed No. 10 Mississippi State Wednesday and followed with upset wins over second-seeded Tennessee and sixth-seeded LSU Thursday and Friday before a 5-2 loss to No. 5 Georgia in Saturday's title game.
In the four days in Columbia, S.C., head coach Rachel Lawson saw her team change completely.
"I felt like my team grew up overnight," Lawson said. "I felt like we were a lot tougher. When we stepped on the field on Wednesday, it felt like a different team. There was a grit and a confidence about us, and I knew they knew they belonged here, and that's not really happened in the past.
"Before, we were happy to be in the tournament, grateful that we were able to survive the SEC conference. Now, we're in the next step in our program, where we believe we belong at least in the discussion of the elite."
The Wildcats found a sense of fearlessness, grit and determination in four games at Carolina Softball Stadium. They never trailed in their first three contests and continued to battle back, even when Mississippi State and LSU tied the game in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, to send it into extra innings.
Coming into the tournament, Kentucky had won one game in the event's history. In 2014, the Cats won three.
The Wildcats made it to the semifinals once, in 2009, when they won one game in an eight-team field. This year, it was all the way to the championship game.
"I think this was a great showing for Kentucky," Lawson said. "Playing the extra game put us in a little bit of a deficit to the teams that didn't, but the fact that we were able to grind through the tournament shows how tough our team is. Especially in a lot of spots we had a lot of really young athletes at some key positions, I felt like they did a nice job."
Kentucky's SEC Tournament makes the Cats that much more prepared for next weekend's NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats have made the NCAA Super Regional in two of the past three seasons, and as they hope for a second consecutive bid to host the NCAA Regional, they can have a positive SEC Tournament run to build off of for the first time.
Saturday in front of a sold-out, record crowd of 1,480, sophomores Kelsey Nunley, Nikki Sagermann and Christian Stokes all were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Nunley pitched 25 innings in three games and earned wins in every contest. She had a 1.63 ERA, struck out 17 and walked just five. The winningest pitcher in program history in the postseason with six career victories, she led the charge each day with her ability to shake off adversity.
Stokes, a South Carolina native, went 6-for-8 in the first two games of the tournament with two home runs. In four games, she led UK with a .429 batting average, six hits and a .529 on base percentage. The shortstop added a number of spectacular plays in the infield to extinguish opponents' scoring chances.
Sagermann drove in the winning run in Wednesday's nine-inning affair before a solo home run gave UK its first run in Saturday's title game. The third baseman was second on the team with a .333 batting average, five hits and a .533 slugging percentage in addition to tying Stokes with a team-best three RBI.
Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET, the 64-team NCAA Tournament field will be announced. The Wildcats are hoping to be a top-16 seed and Regional host for the second consecutive season. This season though, Kentucky will enter the tournament after a program-record SEC Championship run.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the first time in program history, the Kentucky softball team is headed for the SEC Tournament championship game. And for the third consecutive game, it was clutch hitting at the most opportune time and the arm of Kelsey Nunley that got them there.
It took nine innings for the second time in three days, but seventh-seeded UK continued its record run with a 4-3 win over sixth-seeded LSU on Friday.
The win was Kentucky's 44th of the season -- adding to a school-record total -- and gave the Cats three wins in the 2014 tournament after the Wildcats entered the 10-team event with one win in the championship in program history.
"I thought today was a great game," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I thought both pitchers threw great games. To be able to hold LSU's offense down for nine innings is a really big deal, they're a great offensive team and really playing well right now. Offensively we did a good job of putting people on base. I'd like to see us score a few more but overall I really like the fight in our team and how persistent we were, and then we ended up with the win in the end."
Kentucky mustered just two hits Friday, but they came at the perfect times.
It was a double through the gap in left field from sophomore Sylver Samuel that was the game's biggest hit.
LSU pitcher Baylee Corbello had retired 16 straight UK batters before she issued a two-out walk to senior Ginny Carroll. Sophomore Christian Stokes was then hit by a pitch to put two runners on with two outs for Samuel.
Samuel found a pitch she liked and sent it rolling to the left-field fence to score Darington Richardson, who was running for Carroll, and Stokes, the eventual winning run.
"I was trying to let go of a lot of things and not think too much while I was in there," Samuel said. "Just clear my mind and make sure my timing was on, because that was the main thing that's been getting me lately. I was trying to be slow through the box and not think as much. I think it worked out for me."
For Lawson, it was Carroll's two-out walk that was the turning point that sparked the two-run rally for the Wildcats.
"I always tell the team that you never know when the game-winning play is going to happen, and today we had several," Lawson said. "Offensively, Ginny Carroll walking was the game-winning play for us because the floodgates opened up when she did that."
In the third inning, UK's two runs came via an error, a hit batsman, two walks and a single. The second walk, to junior Griffin Joiner with the bases loaded, brought in the game's first run. Senior Krystal Smith then sent a single to center to plate the Wildcats' second run.
Four runs is all the offense that Nunley needed to get her school-record sixth career postseason win.
Just like Wednesday in the first round and Thursday in the quarterfinals, Nunley was dominant with the bases empty and equally effective with runners on base.
"I just try and forget about runners," Nunley said. "The SEC teams are good and they're going to get on base. You just have to focus and worry about what's in front of you. You can't worry about what you've done in the past, you have to worry about the batter that's at the plate at the time."
In Friday's semifinal, she gave up just three runs on six hits. The Tigers stranded seven base runners, including three in the fourth when they scored one run and two in the sixth.
Three games, 25 innings and 404 total pitches. That's what got the Wildcats to their first-ever championship game.
In Saturday's final against fifth-seeded Georgia, it will take more clutch hits and another strong pitching performance to bring home the program's first SEC Tournament trophy.
There's no reason to think it can't happen again on Saturday night.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the first time in program history, the Kentucky softball team is headed to the SEC Tournament Semifinals, and for a second consecutive game, it was sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley leading the charge.
A day after a nine-inning, walk-off win over Mississippi State, the seventh-seeded Wildcats faced No. 2 seed Tennessee. UK squeaked out a 2-0 win over the Lady Vols in a pitcher's duel in the semifinal contest.
"I thought today was a good day for us," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "It was a great day on the mound for both pitchers. It was a real pitcher's duel and I felt pretty lucky to be on the winning end of it."
Nunley was once again a force in the circle for the Wildcats. She pitched a complete-game shutout to earn the win after throwing 142 pitches in Wednesday's victory. The shutout was Nunley's career-best sixth of the year, tied for the third most in a season in program history.
The Lady Vols were held scoreless for just the second time this season. Only 13 times have they been limited to five hits or fewer.
"I think Coach Lawson really did a good job at calling pitches and keeping Tennessee off balance," Nunley said. "Making them guess at what I was throwing and I think it really worked."
The sophomore showed no signs of wearing down in a second consecutive game with temperatures near 100 degrees. Nunley allowed just five hits and worked quickly. She gave up one extra-base hit -- a leadoff double in the fourth -- but proceeded to strike out the next three UT batters.
Nunley was making quick work of UT until the seventh inning. With two outs and the bases empty, Tennessee tallied back-to-back hits followed by a UK fielding error to load the bases. That's when leadoff hitter Haley Tobler came to the plate.
Tobler worked the count full, and on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Nunley threw a changeup. Tobler's bat never left her shoulder, and with that, the final three of UT's seven base runners were stranded, the winning run on first base.
"When you look at it, [Madison] Shipman was on deck so it was going to be the end of the game either way," Lawson said of the pitch selection to Tobler. "Either Kelsey was going to look really good throwing a strikeout or Shipman was going to look really good hitting a grand slam. Whichever way you look at it, I felt like it was a win-win situation for us. It may have seemed pretty gutsy to everyone else but it felt like a no-brainer to me so either way it was made for TV."
Nunley's changeup was working all game long and helped her to seven strikeouts. Tennessee, one of the conference's best hitting teams, was never able to adjust.
The second win of the tournament for Nunley now gives her five postseason wins in less than two seasons, tied for the most in school history.
"She's awesome, she works so hard and she did great today," senior Emily Gaines said. "I'm so proud of her. It was really hot out and she was just mowing them down. She was awesome."
On the other side, Tennessee pitcher Ellen Renfroe was nearly as effective, but not quite enough. She limited the Wildcats to seven hits and left eight UK runners on base.
It was single runs in the fourth and fifth inning though that gave Nunley all the cushion she needed to send Kentucky to the semifinals.
Gaines got the offense going in the fourth with a single, the only hit of the inning. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner, advanced to second on a passed ball and was bunted to third. An Emily Jolly groundout scored the speedy sophomore to give the Wildcats a 1-0 advantage.
An inning later, it was South Carolina native Christian Stokes who sent a smash over the left field fence for a valuable insurance run. Stokes, who is 6-for-8 in the tournament, also had a homer to lead off Wednesday's game.
With two tournament wins and a semifinal berth secured, the history has been made for Kentucky. But with this team, they have no reason to stop now. They'll have another chance to make more history against sixth-seeded LSU on Friday. First pitch between the Wildcats and Tigers is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A trademark of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to bounce back and never give up. That was never more apparent than in its 4-3, nine-inning win over Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday.
The never-say-die attitude has fueled UK to a perfect 7-0 record in extra inning contests, but the most recent win meant just a little bit more than the previous six.
The victory -- the Wildcats' first in the SEC Tournament since 2008 -- gave them a school-record 42 wins on the season.
Wednesday, it was sophomore Nikki Sagermann with a walk-off hit in the ninth inning after Kentucky lost a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning.
"That's one thing about our team, we don't give up," Sagermann said. "We're known for that. If we get behind, we're going to do anything we can to come back and have a good game. I was pretty confident actually. Our top of the lineup was coming through, I was confident we were still going to win, I wasn't worried too much."
UK jumped out to a 3-0 advantage in the first inning and sophomore right-hander Kelsey Nunley was dealing in the circle through the first five frames. Four outs away from a win, the Wildcats gave up three two-out runs in the sixth to let MSU tie the game.
The game was tied, and the UK offense had scored just one run since it chased starter Alison Owen in the first inning, but the confidence never wavered. The philosophy was simply to not give up.
The patience paid off in the ninth when a trio of sophomores, facing Mississippi State relief pitcher Alexis Silkwood for the fourth time, came through. Ansley Smith led off with a walk and sophomore Christian Stokes doubled her to third. After Sylver Samuel fouled out, Nikki Sagermann stepped to the plate in a situation she loves.
"I was pretty excited when I came up," Sagermann said. "I was seeing the ball pretty well. I know I was only 1-for-3 before it, but especially with one out and a runner on third, I knew I had to get it through the infield, a sacrifice fly or a base hit. I love situations like that. I was ready."
Sagermann sent a liner into center to give the Wildcats the win and set up a quarterfinal matchup with rival Tennessee on Thursday.
After the Bulldogs tied the game in the sixth, they had multiple chances to score the go-ahead run in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Seven of MSU's 12 runners left on base came in the final three frames.
Mississippi State had runners on second and third in the seventh, first and second with one out in the eighth and the bases loaded with two down in the ninth. Nunley and the UK defense did not allow a single runner to score.
"Just keep fighting," Nunley said of her mentality in the circle with runners on base. "They're going to get on. They're a good hitting team, they're going to find ways to get on. I had to just keep on battling, keep throwing hard."
Nunley kept battling. Even after she hit six batters in the final three innings, she kept battling and got those clutch outs. The righty threw 142 pitches, and while she might have had her best stuff in the first five innings, her ability to get the clutch out in the late innings was most important.
"My team told me they had my back," Nunley said. "I knew to just go out there and no matter what happened, just give it all I had and my team would be behind me. That's what I did."
Clutch pitching, timely hitting and a never-say-die attitude were the keys Wednesday. Thursday, it will take that and more to top second-seeded Tennessee. The seventh-seeded Wildcats have never advanced to the SEC Tournament's semifinals, but that won't stop this year's team from believing.
In a season of record-breaking wins and firsts, there's no time like the present to add another note to the long list of accomplishments for the 2014 season and the senior class. Especially for a team that will never give up.
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