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:
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.
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)
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)
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.
Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The importance of the leadoff hitter has never been more obvious than in the Kentucky softball team's Southeastern Conference Tournament run this past weekend.
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.