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Believe it: Softball headed to World Series

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The UK softball team advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history (Chet White, UK Athletics) The UK softball team advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOS ANGELES -- The Kentucky softball team has made history all season, and Sunday against college softball's elite, it reached its peak.

The No. 14 Wildcats upended third-ranked UCLA with 7-3 and 7-1 wins Sunday to win their NCAA Super Regional and advance to the program's first Women's College World Series.

It took head coach Rachel Lawson just seven years to establish UK among the nation's best programs and book a trip to Oklahoma City and the World Series.

"This is a special day for us," Lawson said. "We're going into a place that we've never been before, I feel really excited. It's a dream come true for all the girls on our team and our staff, we've worked incredibly hard. This particular senior class, this is our third Super Regional, so we've been close enough to taste it, but for it to actually be a reality is very special."

The way the Wildcats got to the World Series is the perfect example of what the team is all about. Heavy underdogs coming into the Super Regional, UK knew it belonged on the big stage and wanted to prove it against the Bruins.

The Cats didn't care they were facing a team that had won 12 national titles and is widely recognized as the gold standard of college softball. They didn't care that they had to go on the road in a hostile environment for three games at UCLA's sold-out Easton Stadium.

The Wildcats believed they could win, and they got it done.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet," senior captain Lauren Cumbess said. "We set a goal at the beginning of the year. We've always had that goal all four years that I've been here, but particularly this year, it was 'Women's College World Series or bust,' and we've really stuck to that and reminded each other what our goal was.

"It's just amazing, I can't believe that we did it. I can, but it hasn't sunk in yet. I think once we get to Oklahoma, it'll really feel like, 'Wow, I'm here on the biggest stage for softball.' "

UK found itself in a deep hole after Saturday night's game one, when UCLA scored four runs in the sixth inning to come back for a 6-4 victory. The Cats' backs were against the wall, but they weren't out.

As they have done all season, they kept on fighting. The offense had scored more than four runs just three times in the last month, but that didn't matter Sunday.

The UK offense exploded for seven runs in the first of two win-or-go-home games Sunday. The next game, Kentucky continued the offensive onslaught and scored another seven runs to give starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley some much-needed run support.

The last time UK scored seven or more runs in consecutive games was on April 8-9 against two non-conference foes. The Wildcats never achieved the feat in SEC competition, but that didn't stop them Sunday against a pitcher that is one of three national player of the year candidates.

"UCLA is one of the best teams in the country and I thought that we played well this weekend," Lawson said. "I watched our team grow up at the SEC Tournament, and I saw us continue to be strong through regionals and then I felt like we definitely got some lucky breaks, but I also thought we played well this weekend. The field of eight is incredible, but we're going out there, we're in the SEC, so we compete against good teams all the time. We're hoping to play our game and hopefully things will work out for us."

UK's rise to the Women's College World Series has not taken a long time. Lawson has been at the helm for seven seasons, and has taken the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six years. Three of the last four years, Kentucky advanced to the Super Regional.

Making the College World Series for the first time in program history wasn't a matter of 'if,' it was simply a matter of 'when.' The rate at which UK rose in the national rankings suggested it wouldn't be any other way.

It took a combination of a great coaching staff, unparalleled support from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and the UK administration and a great group of players.

"We have incredible support, we have one of the best venues in the country to play out of, we have fans come in droves," Lawson said. "Because of that, we're getting incredible recruits, as you can see. You can't advance without the athletes. It says a lot about the character of our team, our team does things the right way. The not only work incredibly hard all year, but they're also incredible students, they're great people. I'm very happy for our team because this is a dream for all of them come true. It says we're doing things the right way."

Of course, having a group of 19 players with a never-say-die attitude that doesn't care about rankings and what is "supposed to happen" certainly doesn't hurt.

It's a group of 19 players with a toughness, grit and passion, combined with an immense amount of talent and a never-quit attitude.

Just ask Cumbess, who watched as her starting pitcher fired 375 pitches in the span of just 24 hours and five minutes.

"I've always thought we are a really tough team, and it's shown throughout our season that we don't give up, we're always fighting back," she said.


And as a bonus, here's video of the final out that sent UK to Oklahoma City.


Griffin Joiner blasted a grand slam in UK's 6-4 loss at UCLA on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Griffin Joiner blasted a grand slam in UK's 6-4 loss at UCLA on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The NCAA Softball Super Regional is a best-of-three series for a reason. The series is not won or lost in just one game.

After a 6-4 loss at No. 3 UCLA on Saturday, the No. 14 Kentucky softball team gets the chance to come back Sunday in game two and force a third game with a trip to the Women's College World Series on the line.

The Wildcats pride themselves on their ability to bounce back and keep on fighting. It's a team that doesn't give up, no matter the situation, whether it's coming back after a loss or continuing to battle at the plate.

They'll get another opportunity to respond Sunday and keep their season alive, and it will be a situation the Wildcats have experienced before, twice in SEC play this season.

UK lost the series opener at No. 16 Missouri before it rebounded to win the final two contests in mid-March, while Kentucky also fell in the opener to No. 18 Texas A&M only to answer with two wins to claim the series in early April.

"We're a team that fights," junior captain Griffin Joiner said. "We've fought all year. We're just going to have to come out tomorrow and fight as long as we can."

Despite the loss, there are positives to build on.

Sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley allowed just four hits and did not allow an earned run. After UCLA scored two in the bottom of the second, the UK offense responded with four runs in the third, courtesy of Joiner's grand slam.

Another positive was the play from the Kentucky infield, which turned two double plays to extinguish several Bruin scoring opportunities.

"Our infield was awesome," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The double plays turned were great, so I think that really showed that we were ready to play. They were playing loose. To be able to turn as many double plays as we did with the number of free passes that we gave up on the mound really shows that the infield came to play."

The key on Sunday will be UK's ability to shake off Saturday's loss and focus on the next game.

Lawson has stressed to her team all season that the most important pitch is the next one. Sunday, that will have to be the focus. 

"I think it's important to remember that the next pitch is the most important pitch," Lawson said. "What happened later in the game was we weren't looking forward to the next pitch. It was a tremendous crowd, they showed up great for Super Regionals, and I think we let the whole environment make us a little bit tentative."

Last weekend, Kentucky took advantage of the home crowd at John Cropp Stadium to win its Regional and advance to its third Super Regional in the last four years. Saturday, a crowd of 1,328 at Easton Stadium gave UCLA its spark. Sunday, UK will have to feed off the hostile road environment.

The Wildcats are in a hole and must win the next two games, but that's nothing that can't be done. It's already been done once in this season's Super Regional, by Florida State. Michigan claimed a 1-0 series lead Thursday before FSU won the final two games Friday to advance to the World Series.

Keep fighting, that's what Kentucky will have to do Sunday in game two, which begins at 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU. If the Cats do that, as they have so many times in a record-setting 2014, they will earn a third and deciding game, at 6 p.m.

Softball pre-NCAA Super Regional roundup

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LOS ANGELES -- The Kentucky softball team is in Los Angeles for an NCAA Super Regional. The Wildcats, who went 3-1 last weekend to win their Regional, are making their second consecutive Super Regional and third in the last four years.

UK is seeded 14th in the 64-field NCAA Tournament and is 47-16 on the season, while No. 3 UCLA is 51-6. Kentucky is looking for its first-ever trip to the Women's College World Series and the Bruins, who have won 11 NCAA titles, are looking to make their first World Series appearance since they won it all in 2010.

Kentucky is 0-4 all-time against UCLA, with the last meeting in 2012. The first meeting came in an early season tournament in Las Vegas, while the two teams also played a three-game series in Los Angeles to open the 2012 campaign.

Tonight's first game, which begins at 8 p.m. ET, along with tomorrow's second game at 3 p.m. and third game, if necessary, at 6 p.m. will be broadcast on ESPNU. Updates and more can also be found on Twitter at @UKsoftball.

As the Wildcats prepare for tonight's first game against the Bruins, here are some links to look at before tonight's first pitch:

Lexington Herald-Leader, Jerry Tipton: Victory at UCLA would be game-changer for UK softball
Lexington Herald-Leader, Jerry Tipton: Kentucky softball team faces true dynasty in UCLA
Louisville Courier-Journal, Kyle Tucker: Kentucky softball heads to UCLA thinking World Series
UKathletics.com Photo Gallery: Practice at UCLA's Easton Stadium

Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics

Joiner setting the tone for UK behind the plate

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Griffin Joiner has caught every game for Kentucky in 2014 as the Wildcats prepare for a Super Regional showdown with UCLA. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Griffin Joiner has caught every game for Kentucky in 2014 as the Wildcats prepare for a Super Regional showdown with UCLA. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
One of the most physically demanding positions in the sport, it takes a certain amount of toughness to be a catcher. Add to it the fact that your head coach is a former catcher and the position gets even more demanding.
 
Kentucky's Griffin Joiner fits the mold perfectly.

"Griffin is everything to the program," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "When I went out recruiting, I'm very picky about who my catcher is, and Griffin fit the bill in every way possible. Most importantly because the way she is. Her blue-collar work ethic, how tough she is and the person she is on and off the field."
 
One of two captains for the UK softball team, Joiner has caught every pitch of every game this season for the Wildcats. The junior has started all 185 games in her career, including 178 straight behind the plate. Just two of Joiner's starts, both within the first eight games of her freshman campaign, have not come as catcher.
 
No one has played that many games in that timeframe, much less started behind the plate. Only sophomore Christian Stokes has played in every game in each of the past two seasons.
 
Joiner is Kentucky's own Iron Man.
 
"When everyone is looking at Griffin, she gives them a sense of confidence and toughness that, if there were another catcher behind the plate, I'm not sure the same thing would be happening right now," Lawson said.
 
Ask Joiner about her physical and mental toughness -- which her teammates and coaches laud her for -- and she responds like it's no big deal. She got her toughness over time through experience. After all, it's what being a catcher is. There isn't any other way.
 
"I'm used to it," Joiner said. "With my position I'm used to being tough. It's all I'm used to. My parents were tough on me, my coaches have always been tough on me. It's like a point guard in basketball. When you're in a leadership position, you take the heat because you're expected to be the leader and do well in those situations."
 
Joiner's work ethic has rubbed off on her teammates, especially sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley. Nunley has started 30 games in 2014, including seven of the last eight games.
 
"I think she's the biggest leader on the team," Nunley said. "She's really important to the team because she plays such a big role as leader. The past few weeks I've pitched a lot and my body's been through that, so I kind of have an idea of what she's going through. It rubs off on me, to stay strong like her. I hope it rubs off on everyone else because she's so tough."
 
Joiner doesn't let the physical aspect of her position get in the way of making plays and contributing.
 
She is second on the team with 53 hits and fourth with a .301 batting average. Her slugging percentage of .517 is also fourth and she has drawn a team-high 46 walks for a .451 on-base percentage, second-best among UK players.
 
Her numbers with the glove are even better. Joiner has made 412 putouts, which broke the school record she set in 2012. She hasn't committed an error and has thrown out 12 of 32 base runners.
 
When it comes to handling the pitching staff, Joiner has been able to adjust to each of UK's four pitchers this season.
 
In addition to Nunley's 30 starts, senior Lauren Cumbess has started 18 times and made 21 appearances, while freshmen Meagan Prince has eight starts in 21 appearances and Shannon Smith has pitched in 13 contests with seven starts.
 
"She makes me a better pitcher just by the comments she makes to me before, during and after the game," Nunley said. "She always tries to keep me positive, get my mind on the right track and to me, she's the most important person on the team."
 
While Lawson calls each pitch from the dugout, it is Joiner who is responsible for talking to the pitcher and fielders during the game. Whether its to get on the same page or to provide a word of encouragement, Joiner makes frequent visits to the circle to talk with the pitcher during a game. 
 
Joiner's role as a captain and Lawson's background as a catcher put that much more pressure and responsibility on Joiner.
 
Lawson knows exactly what Joiner is going through, but that also intensifies the expectations. Especially since Lawson knows Joiner can handle the demands.
 
"It's the toughest position in college athletics, I think, because she happens to be my catcher and I'm pretty demanding on her," Lawson said. "She has to be mentally strong. She's also had to catch four completely different pitchers this year and she's able to give them all her best game. I think that says a lot about how intelligent she is and just how tough she is behind the plate."
 
For Joiner, Lawson's demands and expectations are just another aspect of the position, both as a catcher and as a captain. It's a relationship built on trust, and Joiner knows her coach knows what's best for her and her team.
 
"It's one of those things, you can't take it personally," Joiner said. "You have to take it and make the best of it. Find something within yourself that makes you have good results. I know she's been there and understands what its like and what it takes to be good. You just have to trust her."
 
While Joiner's mental and physical toughness has been something that has been built throughout her career as a catcher, Lawson has seen it in her since she first began recruiting the Hopkinsville, Ky., native.
 
Lawson went to see her play, and a throw from the infield went through Joiner's glove. At that point, she thought she wasn't going to recruit Joiner. Thankfully, she stayed until the end of the workout and saw the full story.
 
"After that outing, she came back and she had a big hole in her glove," Lawson recalled. "She had finished catching the entire workout before doing it so I knew when she did that and she buckled in and caught the ball with absolutely no pocket in her glove, I knew she was the right catcher for us."
 
Joiner's mental and physical toughness was apparent on that day, well before she arrived in Lexington, and it has gotten stronger years later, as UK prepares to make its second consecutive trip to the NCAA Super Regional.
 
With a team that prides itself on toughness, grit and the ability to bounce back easily, it's no wonder where a lot of that came from.
 
Look no further than the player wearing No. 13 behind the plate.

Head coach Rachel Lawson


Sophomore Sylver Samuel and Senior Lauren Cumbess



Sylver Samuel's inside-the-park home run resulted in UK's first run of a 10-1 win that clinched a Super Regional berth. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Sylver Samuel's inside-the-park home run resulted in UK's first run of a 10-1 win that clinched a Super Regional berth. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
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.

Nikki Sagermann had the game-tying RBI and scored the game-winning run in UK's sixth inning rally. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Nikki Sagermann had the game-tying RBI and scored the game-winning run in UK's sixth inning rally. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
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.

Senior Lauren Cumbess had two RBI in UK's 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday night at the Lexington Regional. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Senior Lauren Cumbess had two RBI in UK's 2-0 win over Ohio on Friday night at the Lexington Regional. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
On an unseasonably cool evening at John Cropp Stadium, Lauren Cumbess' bat heated up to fuel the Kentucky softball team to a 2-0 victory over Ohio in the first game of the NCAA Regional.

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.

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  • Tina: Thanks for the amazing season. I wish you all the best. You gave us all a great year, so go read more