The Kentucky softball team faces Mississippi State today at 4 p.m. in the first game of the 2014 SEC Tournament in Columbia, S.C. After this morning's practice session at Beckham Field, head coach Rachel Lawson talked about the tournament and previewed today's matchup with the Bulldogs. Additionally, photos from this morning's practice can be found here.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For the 10th-ranked Kentucky softball team, its 7-3, extra-inning win over its in-state rival Louisville was all about bouncing back and continuing to make history.
The Wildcats had a tough 1-2 series last weekend at home against Tennessee, but bounced back Wednesday and won their program-record-tying 41st game of the season.
Kentucky lost a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, but recovered with four runs in the eighth to claim its first win at Louisville since 2006.
UK stranded 10 runners on base, but bounced back in the next half inning to force the Cardinals to strand nine on the base paths to give UK its first series sweep of U of L since 2003.
Needless to say, with one weekend left in the regular season, it was a big win for Kentucky in an always emotional, hard-fought contest.
The fact that it took extra innings made the bounce back win even sweeter.
It all started in the bottom of the seventh inning, with UK clinging to a 3-1 lead. Sophomore ace Kelsey Nunley was on the mound for her fifth inning of work after she allowed no runs on just three hits after entering the game in the third inning.
Nunley allowed two home runs in the seventh to tie the score and force extra innings. What could quickly turn into a deflating loss was never an option in UK's first-base dugout thanks to Krystal Smith's leadoff single to left field in the top of the eighth.
"After Krystal got that leadoff single, we all were like 'all right, let's get things rolling, we have to score her," sophomore Nikki Sagermann said. "I had confidence in our offense, I knew we were going to go out and get the lead back. We really wanted to win this game, it was important to us."
Smith's single got the inning going, and the Wildcats never looked back. Senior Emily Jolly bunted Smith to second, followed by sophomore Maisie Steed's infield single and junior Griffin Joiner's bloop single to center.
Sophomore Sylver Samuel stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and sent a slapper to third base. The third baseman fired home, but Smith was able to slide in safely.
"All I was thinking was that I have to take off full speed , be fast and slide hard," Smith said. "That's what I tried to do. Once the catcher started to tumble down, I know I had it. I saw the ball over on the ground and thought 'alright, let's keep it going."
Sagermann did just that, with a screaming double down the right field line that platted two more and extend UK's lead to 6-3. The first hard hit ball of the entire inning gave the Wildcats some valuable insurance runs.
"It was really big," head coach Rachel Lawson said of her team's ability to bounce back in the eighth. "Krystal Smith was the one who got it started. She really had a great plan in the box, she made an adjustment, and when she did that, the team fed off of the momentum. The fact that she was able to fight, she sat on the pitch she wanted and did everything the right way. The team really learned from her and took it into their next at-bats."
Adjustments were the key in the eighth inning. After a deflating seventh inning, the Wildcat batters made the necessary adjustments to score runs.
Outside of a three-run second inning, the U of L pitching staff allowed just six hits before the four-run, four-hit eighth.
"To be able to give up two home runs, that can definitely take the wind out of your sails," Lawson said. "Luckily we had a lot of great performances in the box in the last inning. We made some good adjustments, adjustments that we hadn't made in the previous six innings. It feels good, because that's something we've been working on for the past couple weeks, being able to make good adjustments in the box. To get such key contributions from the bottom of the order, so they can turn it around for the top, is a big deal for us."
"It's really big," Lawson said about being able to answer back with three runs in the second after the Cardinals scored one in the first. "Louisville is a very well-coached team, they were definitely prepared when they came in. They hadn't seen Meagan Prince at all, so the fact they were prepared says a lot about their program. To be able to get out of it giving up one, I felt pretty lucky."
The adjustments were the key to secure the record-tying win. With history on the line, there wasn't any other option for the Wildcats other than to buckle down and get the win.
Going into the game, the team knew they had an opportunity to win at Louisville and sweep the season series for the first time in Lawson's seven year tenure at UK.
Especially for the seniors, like Smith, they wanted nothing more than to get that win for their head coach.
"Coach Lawson hadn't beaten them here in her tenure, so going into the game, this was big for us seniors, we wanted to end on a high note, especially at Louisville. This program has built into a program that has done things we've never done before, so going into that big inning, we knew we had to attack, stay in the game and we have to win the game."
UK will look to keep it going on the road this weekend at Georgia in its final SEC series of the season before the conference tournament commences on May 7.
Thanks to a bounce-back, history-making win Wednesday night in Louisville, the Wildcats will have momentum on their side. If they continue to make adjustments and bounce back from a tough inning, there's no doubt the momentum will continue to side with Lawson's team.
UK Athletics hosted the 12th annual CATSPY Awards on Monday in Memorial Coliseum, with student-athletes, coaches and staff dressing up to celebrate a memorable 2013-14. You can find all the award winner right here, but the highlight of the evening is always the video produced by Kentucky Wildcats TV. Check them all out below.
Track and Field
Men's Swimming and Diving
Women's Swimming and Diving
It was dubbed "Big Blue Weekend," and a big weekend it was for the Big Blue Nation.
In the span of 44 hours, UK baseball hosted Ole Miss, the UK softball team hosted Tennessee in addition to the annual Blue-White spring football game.
Fourty-four hours, seven games and 46,883 total fans. On a beautiful weekend in the bluegrass, Commonwealth Stadium, John Cropp Stadium and Cliff Hagan Stadium were the places to be.
The spring game attendance was 35,117. It was the second-largest crowd in program history behind last season's, when over 50,000 watched UK's annual spring scrimmage. As No. 9 softball took on No. 8 Tennessee in a top-10 matchup, 4,664 fans filled John Cropp Stadium, the largest crowd for a three-game series in program history.
Big Blue Nation did not disappoint this weekend and came out in droves to support their team as only they could.
After the baseball and softball teams opened the weekend on Friday night, the party hit its peak on Saturday with a jam-packed day.
Head football coach Mark Stoops got things started when he threw out the first pitch at the baseball game in front of 2,474 fans. Each of the baseball team's three games drew at least 2,200 fans.
As the football team arrived at Commonwealth Stadium, players and coaches were greeted by fans, forming the Catwalk into the stadium. The energy and sheer numbers from the Big Blue Nation for Saturday's Catwalk were like those seen on Saturdays in the fall, not in the spring.
"Great turnout today," assistant coach Neal Brown said. "Our Catwalk was tremendous. It was like an in-season Catwalk today. They were lined--it was backed up and then the crowd in the game was terrific. That shows people, that shows recruits that people are serious about football here and we are very thankful. I want to make sure that I thank the fans."
The parking lots surrounding Commonwealth Stadium were a sea of blue hours before kickoff. Food on the grill, music blaring and footballs flying through the air made it seem like a typical fall Saturday. All that was missing was a chill in the air and some color in the leaves.
Once inside the stadium, 35,117 fans watched as the Blue team beat the White squad, 38-14. Not only was it the second-largest spring game crowd in UK history, but it was the 12th-best crowd in the country this spring and seventh in the SEC.
UK is one of just 16 schools to draw 30,000 fans or more this spring.
As the football game was winding down, the softball team's second game of its series with Tennessee was beginning, with another big crowd on hand.
The second-largest crowd in program history, 1,858 saw the Wildcats beat their SEC rivals, 5-2, to even the three-game series. The sold-out crowd came a day before the Big Blue Nation packed in 1,685 Sunday on Senior Day for a second consecutive sellout.
"The fan base was incredible this weekend and especially today on Senior Day for them to come pack this place was awesome," softball head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Saturday the fan support really helped push us over the edge. I love the Big Blue Nation and everything they do for our athletic department."
1,685 at John Cropp Stadium today, taking the weekend total to 4,664 fans - which is a program record for a three-game series! Thanks, #BBN!-- UK softball (@UKsoftball) April 27, 2014
While Big Blue Weekend officially is complete, there is still plenty of action left in the 2014 season for UK's spring sports at home.
The baseball team hosts Auburn on Senior Weekend May 9-11, while the men's tennis team is expected to host the NCAA Regionals, May 9-10.
The following weekend, the SEC Track and Field Championships come to Lexington May 15-18. Should the softball team host the NCAA Regional for the second consecutive season, that will be held at John Cropp Stadium May 15-18.
A strong pitching performance by both senior Lauren Cumbess and freshman Meagan Prince led the way for the ninth-ranked UK softball team in a 5-2 win over No. 8 Tennessee Saturday.
Four innings from Cumbess, in which she allowed two runs on five hits and left with the score tied at 2-2, were followed by three scoreless innings from Prince.
Cumbess was pitching well, but head coach Rachel Lawson made the decision to bring in Prince was made before the game started.
"Lauren was doing a good job, but we thought the change of speed was needed because they were coming up a third time in the order," Lawson said. "We just thought, because Tennessee is such an awesome hitting team, that it made sense to give them a change in pace and speed. That was actually planned from the get-go."
The pitching change paid off in a big way. Prince came in and allowed just three hits in the final three innings. The freshman struck out four and walked no one.
It was a strong sixth inning, striking out the side, which gave Lawson the confidence to send Prince out to finish the game in the seventh.
"When Meagan came out in the sixth inning she was just awesome," Lawson said. "She was throwing the ball hard and it was breaking. They even knew what pitch was coming and they had trouble squaring up on the ball. It didn't make a lot of sense to take her out in the seventh. I felt like today was her day. She came out and capitalized against the top of the order, which is very good, in the top of the seventh."
Prince's outing gave her her second win in SEC play, both against ranked opponents. The win came after she struggled Sunday in a loss to Arkansas and Tuesday at Western Kentucky.
The Martin, Tenn., native rebounded in a big way.
"I just felt like all my work had paid off," Prince said. "I had a list of things I had to get better on and work on in practice. I got a few of those things accomplished, and I felt like it paid off."
The pitching staff is a close-knit group, and Cumbess couldn't have been happier to see the freshman come in and finish the game on a strong note and get the win.
"She and I always talk about how the pitching staff always has each other's backs," Cumbess said. "Whenever she comes in, we are always so confident that they are going to get the job done. She goes out there and throws hard, trusts her pitches and she just did great today. We're so happy for her."
The two-run performance by the pitching duo marked just the seventh time in 47 games the Lady Volunteers had been limited to two or fewer runs. Only two other SEC teams have held UT to two or fewer runs.
After a tough loss in the series-opener on Friday, in which the pitching staff allowed one earned run, Saturday was a nice bounce-back on all accounts.
A home run from Cumbess in the fifth, her eighth of the season, certainly helped.
"Our goal today was to play solid defense, hit the ball well and have a great performance on the mound," Cumbess said. "Meagan did great coming in. Defensively, I think we were also very solid. We met our goal today."
The win kept the Wildcats tied for second in the SEC with a 13-7 record. Sunday, the two teams will square off for the series win and to help break the tie in the league standings.
First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium.
So well, in fact, that Lawson can usually tell when her sophomore third baseman is primed for a good night.
"If she's comfortable and she's balanced and she's seeing the ball, you know you're going to get a good performance out of her through the entire game," Lawson said. "So I felt great about her from the get-go."
But through her first two at-bats against Arkansas on Friday night, Sagermann had only a walk and a hard-hit lineout to show for her coach's belief. Still, when she stepped to the plate to lead off the sixth inning in a 3-3 game, Sagermann was confident.
"I was seeing the ball really well and she got behind in the count," Sagermann said. "So I knew she had to come with something fat and I just jumped on it."
Ahead in the count, Sagermann capitalized, driving a 2-0 offering from Arkansas starter Sydney Wright over the fence in right center and propelling No. 8 UK (37-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) to a 4-3 win.
"She's just seeing the ball really well," Lawson said. "She's locked in, she's playing good team softball and it's coming a lot easier to her right now. Nikki's a great player for us and that's what she does well. Hopefully she'll keep it going."
Sagermann sustained the momentum she built last Sunday, when she hit two home runs in UK's sweep-clinching win at Ole Miss. The second of her homers came in the 10th inning, starting a seven-run rally.
Her three home runs in two games -- and back-to-back game winners -- are making her slow start to 2014 a distant memory. At the start of SEC play, Sagermann was batting .184 with just one home run. Now, she has nine homers, it batting .270 and has RBI in 11 of her last 15 games.
"It could be seeing more pitches because at the beginning of the year it's been a while since we've seen live pitching," Sagermann said. "But honestly I don't like thinking of the beginning of the season because obviously they're not great memories. I like to remember the good ones."
Lawson still remembers the slow start, but she's glad Sagermann has it going now.
"I hope she doesn't make it a habit over the next two years," Lawson said, "but what's important is once SEC play started, she's done a great job for us. She's a gamer, she really understands pitchers, she understands the game, she understands how to be a hitter and I think she's one of the better hitters in the league."
Starting the game similarly to the way Sagermann started her season, UK fell behind Arkansas 3-0 due to some sloppy defense and quiet bats. The Cats, however, capitalized on two Razorback errors to score three runs in the bottom of the fifth.
"What I liked is we put ourselves in a hole early with our poor defensive plays, but the team was able to stay focused, stay in the game," Lawson said.
Helping the cause was sophomore Kelsey Nunley, who excelled in an unfamiliar Friday-night bullpen role. Nunley (18-4) replaced Meagan Prince to start the fourth inning, pitching four shutout innings and allowing just one hit.
"She was throwing the ball hard," Lawson said. "She had command of all of her pitches. She looked good and you could tell. Arkansas is a great hitting team. They average seven runs a game. So the fact that she could come in here and shut them out really says a lot about her performance."
Nunley's performance kept UK in it until the sixth inning, when Sagermann stepped in fairly certain something good was about to happen.
"I just can tell when I'm seeing it and when I'm not," Sagermann said.
But over the last month, a new player has emerged for Rachel Lawson's team. Primarily a pinch hitter through her first three-plus seasons, senior outfielder and London, Ky., native Emily Gaines has become one of UK's top performers.
In fact, she's been so good that Graham Hays of espnW.com did a story on her hot streak and her entire UK career.
The player who had more hits in high school than anyone else in state history went without a single one as a freshman. She saw a few more at-bats in each of the subsequent two seasons but finished her junior year with 18 career hits.
"At the end of the first couple of years, I thought she was going to quit for sure," Lawson said. "I didn't want her to, but a lot of times in D-I, and in college athletics, it comes down to playing time. And she wasn't getting the playing time that I know she had wanted and she had hoped for."
Suffice to say, both options occurred to Gaines.
"They were kind of in the back of my mind," she said. "I guess with anyone that would kind of be in the back of your mind. But I really wanted to stick it out, and I knew I could do it if I just stuck with it and worked harder and kept working. I'm a Kentucky girl, I've grown up in Kentucky, and it's just every little girl's dream to grow up and play for Kentucky.
"I wanted to stick with it and see what I could do."
Lawson said she saw a difference in Gaines in fall practice, a new confidence that carried through winter workouts and into the season. Be that as it may, the senior still spent the first three weeks of the season in a familiar role, pinch hitting if she appeared in the box score at all. Then she hit a two-out, walk-off home run, the first home run of her college career, to beat Eastern Kentucky in a start on March 1. She started once the following weekend in the team's first SEC series and all three games the weekend after that.
She hasn't been out of the starting lineup much since.
Since Gaines became a regular starter on Feb. 28, UK is 23-6, including an ongoing seven-game winning streak as the Cats prepare to host Southeastern Conference foe Arkansas this weekend.
For more on Gaines, make sure to check out Hays' complete story.