Kentucky will host its first SEC Tournament this week at John Cropp Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the Kentucky softball program will host the most prestigious conference softball tournament in the nation. The Southeastern Conference tournament features the top-10 schools in the 14-team league based on the standings after a grueling 24-game schedule.
What makes the conference so dominant is that it includes several teams regarded as among best in the nation based on rankings. According to the RPI, which is the basis on who is selected into the NCAA Tournament, the SEC has six teams in the top 10 and 11 in the top 40.
The newly renovated John Cropp Stadium has come a long way since head coach Rachel Lawson arrived here six years ago. To think UK would be hosting the most highly anticipated and competitive softball tournament in the country is hard to imagine. Even for Lawson.
"When I got here six years ago, if you would have shown up to the softball field there was a small grandstand about the size of one row here and we have made drastic improvements," Lawson said. "It says a lot to the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be able to have ESPN here and hosting the SEC Tournament that they were able to put up such an amazing softball facility for a softball team and women's sports in general."
This weekend marks the first big tournament that Kentucky has hosted since a 2011 Super Regional, which was held here in Lexington.
Lawson remembers that weekend and how supportive the Big Blue Nation was well. The event staff had to add in additionally outfield bleachers in order to accommodate enough suitable seating for the fan base. The sixth-year head coach believes this weekend will offer a bit of the same flavor and is hoping to ride that home-field advantage.
"Everyone knows there is nothing better than Kentucky fans," Lawson said. "When the Big Blue Nation comes out it's pretty impressive as we showed two years ago when we hosted a Super Regional. Even when they are not softball fans, in general just being a Kentucky fan really helps us out a lot. It's nice to be able to have that crowd behind you when you are playing such awesome opponents."
UK (38-17, 13-11 SEC) is the No. 7 seed in the tournament and will face the No. 10 seed South Carolina (31-22, 8-16) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
When the two teams take the field on Wednesday, it will have been almost exactly a month ago since the Cats traveled to Columbia, S.C., and swept the Gamecocks. Even though Kentucky came away with a sweep, the series was a lot more difficult than it sounds with UK winning 3-1 in the opener and 4-3 in the final game of the three-game set.
"I think it gives them confidence knowing that they beat them but I think it was so far removed I think they are just looking to get back on the field and hopefully winning a SEC game," Lawson said.
If that series isn't enough to give UK a boost for their opening-round game then the Cats' performance last weekend most definitely will.
Kentucky went down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., last weekend having won just twice all-time against Alabama in 40 chances. Kentucky not only won for the first time at Alabama, but took two of three games to win its first series vs. the Crimson Tide in school history.
It was an emotional series for the Wildcats and something they can build on moving into postseason play.
"To be able to go into Alabama and get a win is huge," Lawson said. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence and it gives the younger players a lot of confidence. They went in there and hit two very awesome pitchers and I believe that shows them they can get it done.
"In order for us to get where we want, which is the World Series we're going to have to go through pitchers like the ones they have at Alabama. I think it gives them a lot of confidence and hopefully we will be able to take that momentum into our game tomorrow night against South Carolina."
One of the key cogs for Kentucky this season is freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley. She has been a workhorse for UK all season, setting the Kentucky single-season wins record earlier this year, was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team on Tuesday due to her efforts in the circle.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native, who was once a secret weapon for UK, now has the whole conference, or country for that matter, keeping an eye on her.
"I think everyone in the country knows we are going with her in game one," Lawson said. "It's not a secret. I love our other pitchers but she is the one that has gotten us here so I want to make sure she has that opportunity on national TV."
In order for the Wildcats to win their first SEC Tournament title, they must win four games in four days. Kentucky knows who its ace is and the Cats are going to ride her as long as they can. Nunley once pitched three straight games this season, firing over 300 pitches in a weekend series against Missouri.
After Nunley 2-0 against the defending national champions Alabama last weekend, Lawson is not going to be hesitant and just hopes she can see how long Nunley can go. So don't be surprised if you see Nunley out in the circle in Saturday's championship game, preparing to pitch her fourth game in as many days.
"Hopefully we will have the offense going so we have a chance to see that. I know she has pitched three in a row so four would be something she hasn't done but I believe she can do it," Lawson said.
The University of Kentucky celebrated its 146th May Commencement on Sunday. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
During the University of Kentucky's 146 May Commencement on Sunday, 49 UK student-athletes received degrees. Forty-seven earned undergraduate diplomas and two received graduate degrees.
(Note: Includes student-athletes who received degrees after their completing eligibility.)
Baseball Thomas McCarthy Zac Zellers (Will complete coursework this summer)
Football Aaron Boyd La'Rod King Quentin McCord Craig McIntosh Kevin Mitchell Matt Smith Taylor Wyndham (Note: 2012 seniors Mikie Benton, Gabe Correll, Gene McCaskill, Morgan Newton, Cartier Rice, Collins Ukwu, Steven Duff and Sam Simpson graduated previously.)
Gymnastics Caitlyn Ciokajlo Storey Morris Whitney Rose
Men's basketball Twany Beckham Marquis Estill Jon Hood Jarrod Polson (Graduated in three years) (Note: Jamal Mashburn also received an honorary doctorate of humanities.)
Men's golf Joseph Barr
Men's soccer Pedro Andreoni Gabriel Conelian Barry Rice
Men's swimming and diving Jon Bullock Jon Keltner Ben Russell
Rifle Heather Greathouse
Softball Chanda Bell Kara Dill (Graduate degree in exercise science) Alice O'Brien Erika Silence
Track and field Katy Achtien Keith Hayes Ben Mason (Will complete coursework this summer) Chelsea Oswald Shiara Robinson Josh Nadzam (Masters of social work) Danielle Sampley Rashaud Scott Samantha Stenzel Hiruni Wijayaratne Megan Wright
Volleyball No graduates this weekend, but seniors Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann had already graduated.
Freshman Kelsey Nunley has been a force in the circle for UK this year, breaking the single-season wins mark with 22 on the year. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky softball team travels south to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend, the Wildcats will be faced with a tall task.
They begin a three-game road set against Alabama, a team that has more than had UK's number over the years. The Crimson Tide leads the all-time series over the Cats, 38-2, and are vying to defend a national championship after being crowned at the 2012 Women's College World Series.
Playing the defending champs will always give you that little extra adrenaline when lacing up the cleats and emotions will no doubt be running high. UK freshman pitching sensation Kelsey Nunley admits she will be a little anxious before the game, but that doesn't mean she lacks confidence.
"I'm nervous I'm not going to lie about it, but I think if my team and I can play to our full potential we can beat them," Nunley said.
One of the biggest reasons for Alabama's success over the last few years has been their junior ace Jackie Traina. For the second straight weekend, the Cats will be stepping into the batter's box against a two-time All-American. Last weekend, UK lost two out of three games to Missouri, with the two losses coming to the hands of Chelsea Thomas. Kentucky will face Traina at least two times this weekend but may have an idea of what they are up against.
Head coach Rachel Lawson views the two All-Americans as fairly comparable pitchers with electric movement. The difference between the aces is the amount of pitches in their repertoire. Thomas uses one dominant pitch - her dropball - to baffle hitters, while Traina has a more diverse arsenal.
"Traina has more pitches to work with so she can go head-to-head when she needs to but she is unpredictable so that makes her scary," Lawson said. "She can throw the ball high and low and on both sides of the plate. They are different in that standpoint where I think Traina has more pitches but she is definitely comparable. She is as good as Thomas and I think they are two of the best pitchers in the country."
Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy - now in his 15th season at the helm - has done an exceptional job. Since Murphy has been in Tuscaloosa, UA has been known to hit the long ball. However, the Cats will be wary of Bama on the basepaths as the Tide has swiped 107 bags on the year compared to UK's 65.
To put it succinctly, the Crimson Tide have it all. They can hit, run, play defense and great pitching, but Kentucky may have just the answer to slowing down Alabama: Nunley.
She was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Week on Monday, racking in her second SEC weekly accolade of the year. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native leads all freshmen in the conference in strikeouts (156), earned-run average (2.02) and wins (22).
Unlike most aces in the SEC, Alabama will see a new face in the circle for the Wildcats and with Nunley likely getting the nod on Friday, the Cats could have a solid chance of containing the Tide's bats and knocking off the defending champs in the opening game on Friday.
Nunley has several qualities that make her a great pitcher, but one in particular stands out to Lawson.
"I always knew she was very good and what she's great at I can't teach," Lawson said. "She's very competitive and has great command of the zone so once she's figured out how to adjust to the college game she is able to do a nice job attacking batters where she wants to. I'm not surprised that she has been successful."
What has made Nunley so successful in her debut season at Kentucky has been her ability to paint the corners of the plate and be in control of the count. She consistently stays ahead of hitters and heavily uses the inside part of the plate to jam opponents.
Nunley hasn't always been a control pitcher growing up as she would blow hitters away at the high school level. However, this season she has had to change her style a bit in adjusting to the collegiate ranks.
While training in the preseason, she was throwing a bullpen and found a pitch and location that has helped carry her to UK's all-time single-season wins record.
"I remember it was one day in practice I threw a pitch on the wrong side of the plate and Coach was like, 'Wow that's a good pitch,' " Nunley said. "That's been one of my best pitches and we just figured it out two months before the season."
As the season winds down with the SEC Tournament to follow next weekend, the Cats could use a lift to ride the momentum into the league tournament and regionals. Whatever the result is in the showdown against Alabama, UK will likely receive a shot of energy with senior co-captain Kara Dill set to return in the coming weeks.
Dill, who has led Kentucky in hitting each of the last two seasons and was named an all-league performer in 2012, had her cast removed on Monday from her broken left hand. She is currently going through rehab and Lawson believes Dill will be ready come regionals.
Lawson has options to choose from when her all-conference player returns. If Dill isn't 100 percent on defense, freshman Christian Stokes has done a tremendous job filling in at shortstop. Lawson can use Dill at the designated player slot and insert her back into the leadoff position - a place in the lineup where UK hasn't been all that consistent.
Either way, Dill will provide the Wildcats with a boost coming at the right time during the postseason.
"I believe that offensively, if she is able to do what she can and see pitches she would do an outstanding job at DP and she would fill a major role for us," Lawson said. "She was our best hitter the last two seasons so to get her back in the lineup is our first priority, but if her body responds I feel very comfortable putting her out on defense as well."
Baseball - The No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats completed a season-long seven-game road trip with a four-game week, including an 18-inning game at Western Kentucky on Tuesday and a historic series win at No. 16 Ole Miss during the weekend. UK will break for finals during the week and return to action on Friday in hosting preseason top-ranked Arkansas, currently tabbed as high as No. 14, in a three-game series. - After an 11-5 loss on Friday, the Wildcats posted a comeback 5-4 win on Saturday to claim the series against the Rebels, behind Corey Littrell's 20th career win. It marked UK's third all-time series win in Oxford and its first since 2007, also winning in 2001. - The Wildcats have been led offensively in average by freshman right fielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .347 with four doubles, one triple, 11 RBI and four steals in 2013. All-America two-way start A.J. Reed leads all NCAA sophomores in homers and RBI, batting .310 with eight doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 40 RBI.
Softball - The No. 19 Kentucky softball team posted two wins over the week, defeating No. 7 Louisville and No. 11 Missouri to increase its win total to 36. The week started with Kentucky taking down in-state foe and highly ranked Louisville 2-1 in a thrilling seven-inning battle. Junior Lauren Cumbess was the hero in the game with a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning to win the game. Freshman Kelsey Nunley earned the win in the circle, throwing a complete game and allowing only one run. - Over the weekend, UK went 1-2 against Missouri, earning the win Saturday after a hard-fought nine-inning loss on Friday. Kentucky's win on Saturday against Missouri was its seventh over a ranked foe this season and 38th all-time under Lawson. The Wildcats started the year with a win over then-No. 3 Cal while it also has wins over then-No. 3 Florida, No. 7 Louisville, then-No. 16 Washington, then-No. 20 Stanford and then-No. 25 North Carolina. - Nunley earned the win Saturday in the circle, throwing a complete game and allowing two runs. For the week, Nunley was 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA, striking out 16 in 23.1 innings pitched. Offensively, senior Alice O'Brien and junior Ginny Carroll paced UK. O'Brien had a double and home run on the week, while Carroll had two doubles and two RBI.
Track and field - Michelle Canterna raised the UK pole vault record 3.96 meters / 12'11.75" en route to the Miami RedHawk Invitational on Saturday. - UK competitors also competed at the Penn Relays and Triton Invitational last weekend. - 2012 SEC Discus Champion Andrew Evans threw a collegiate-best 60.12M / 197'03" to place 9th in his signature event at the Triton Invitational. - The Kentucky women's team moved up 17 spots to No. 24 in last week's national rankings. - Kentucky appeared in the outdoor top-25 for the first time since checking in at No. 21 in the 2010 preseason poll. - A three-day total of 111,284 fans watched the Kentucky Wildcats compete at the 2013 Penn Relays.
Friday, May 3 Track and field at Billy Hayes Invitational - 3:00 p.m. (Bloomington, Ind.) Baseball hosts Arkansas - 6:30 p.m. Softball at Alabama - 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 4 Softball at Alabama - 3:00 p.m. Baseball hosts Arkansas - 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 5 Baseball hosts Arkansas - 1:00 p.m. Softball at Alabama - 2:30 p.m.
UK freshman Kelsey Nunley stifled Missouri's bats on Saturday as the Wildcats evened the series with an 8-2 victory. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Different day, different pitcher and different result.
The 19th-ranked Kentucky softball team defeated No. 11 Missouri on Saturday, 8-2, to even the three-game series with the rubber match to be played on Sunday. The Wildcats fell to the Tigers in the opening game on Friday, 2-1, in a game they let get away and as two-time All-American pitcher Chelsea Thomas dominated.
Saturday was a different story as UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was the one in the circle controlling the game. She gave up just one earned run in a complete-game effort, while striking out four UM hitters. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native did what she has been doing all season, working the corners and keeping hitters guessing at the plate.
Nunley lived on the inside corner, jamming several Missouri batters while painting the outside corner from time to time leaving the Tigers with little chance to connect the barrel of the bat with the ball. Location has been key for Nunley, who leads the Wildcats with a 22-7 record on the season. She lives and dies by painting the black of the plate and knows just where the zone is by figuring out the umpire early in the game.
"She's been doing that her whole life," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The one thing she does exceptionally well is she has great command and she locates it well. Once she figures out an umpire's zone she's pretty good at attacking it and locating the ball where she wants to and that's really the name of her game is being able to locate and attack batters and giving the umpire what they want."
After Missouri tied the game in the top of the fourth at 1-all, the Tigers filled the bases with two outs in the inning. Nunley threw a pitch on the inside corner that UM's Rachel Hay could do nothing with but fly out to left to end the threat. That pitch looked to be the turning point in the game as Kentucky plated two runs in the bottom half of the inning to stretch its lead to 3-1, taking command the rest of the way.
Nunley hurled 120 pitches in the game and has now thrown over 200 pitches in less than 24 hours after tallying 91 in four innings on Friday. That's a lot of pitches for anyone but to ask out of a freshman is saying a lot. The right hander has been huge for UK all season and is a large reason for its success this year.
"She's a very strong girl and she's been exceptional for us, especially for a freshman to be able to throw as many pitches as she does a game and as many games as she has," Lawson said. "We have been really lucky this year but she has been able to step up and act like a real veteran."
The Cats' offense came alive on Saturday after recording just five hits and one run in nine innings against Thomas on Friday. Senior Alice O'Brien regained the lead for UK, connecting on a long homerun to right center in the bottom of the fourth inning. Junior Ginny Carroll and freshman Christian Stokes charted two RBI each as the Wildcats had nine hits and eight runs on Saturday.
UK is going to need that same offensive-minded attack on Sunday as they will most likely see Thomas in the opposing circle again on Sunday. Having already faced the two-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Year once, Lawson feels the Cats can make some adjustments the second time around.
"I think yesterday we made contact with some balls but we didn't hit them square and stay behind them," Lawson said. "We hit a lot of balls but they were just ground balls in the infield and we swung around a lot of pitches. We are going to have to do a better job hitting the higher dropball that she brings and second when she does bring it a little bit lower we have to do a better job of staying behind it and driving through it as opposed to moving it around and trying to run."
Sunday is meaningful because the winner of the game will take the series and have the tiebreaker when it comes to seeding for the SEC Tournament. However, Sunday also marks Senior Day for two Wildcats. Kara Dill and O'Brien have been key components for Kentucky over their four years.
Dill, who is a former all-league performer, broke her hand earlier in the year and has been limited. That hasn't stopped her from competing as she will enter the game as a pinch runner and is willing to help out the team in any way possible. O'Brien has had a great year at the plate for UK, hitting in the cleanup position for the majority of the season.
"Senior day is always a big day," Lawson said. "This year is a little bit different because it won't be our last game on this field for them. With that said, Kara and Alice have meant so much to the program. They have been starters for four years, they're awesome contributors on offense but more importantly they are great people. They are great students, they do exceptionally well in the classroom, they do well in the community and they have been an asset to Kentucky."
UK celebrates after its walk-off victory over Louisville on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and Missouri's first softball matchup as conference mates is set to be a big one.
With just one Southeastern Conference series left after the Tigers come to town, the Wildcats will look to strengthen their position for the postseason against a quality opponent. If the regular-season ended today, the Wildcats (35-14, 10-8 SEC) would be the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament, while Missouri (27-8, 11-6 SEC) would be the five seed.
It's obvious on paper how much this means for the winner of this series, and with a trip to No. 4 Alabama up next for the Cats, there is an opportunity for UK to climb in the SEC standings by finishing the season out strong.
"Right now everybody is bottle-necked basically three through 10 so we want to have a good seed for the SEC Tournament," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Well first you have to make it and second you want to have a good seed. If we can do something pretty cool against Missouri that would really help our standing and move up."
This is obviously a big weekend for UK and with Missouri ranked 11th in the country, it magnifies the matchup. However, even though wins and losses will likely determine Kentucky's seeding in the postseason, junior Lauren Cumbess knows the right way to approach the series.
"It's nothing different than any other SEC team we have played because they are ranked," Cumbess said. "Our conference is really tough but it's fun so when you do come away with a win it's huge for our team and gets us ready for postseason."
Kentucky will be riding a momentum swing after a walk-off 2-1 victory over rival Louisville on Wednesday at John Cropp Stadium. The win was a team effort as UK had great performances offensively and defensively as well as a gem from freshman hurler Kelsey Nunley.
Louisville defeated UK three times last season, including 3-2 in the regionals to end the Wildcats' 2012 season. This year, the Cardinals won the first meeting between the schools by knocking off the Cats 5-1 in Louisville.
U of L has had UK's number over the last few matchups but the Wildcats were finally able to get over the hump on Wednesday to pick up a momentum-building win heading into the final weekends of the season.
"It's very exciting because last year we didn't beat them and they beat us this year the first time we played them, so we were really looking forward to this game," Cumbess said. "To finally get a win over Louisville, that's huge for us. We evened it up for the year, until postseason anyway."
With just six games left in the season the Wildcats are approaching postseason play where they will need to take their game to the next level to compete with the best teams in the country. Cumbess believes the team is peaking at the right time and is playing their best ball of the year.
"I feel like our team is coming together and finding that chemistry and we are moving up and almost at our peak to play our best," Cumbess said.
Missouri is one of the top teams in the country and features two-time First-Team All-American and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year in Chelsea Thomas. Thomas is a pitcher that relies heavily on the dropball and that's exactly what UK saw when facing Louisville hurler Rachel LeCoq.
The Tigers are no strangers to big games as they appeared in the 2012 Super Regionals before falling to LSU in three games. The Cats are hoping the emotional win over Louisville will motivate them and boost their confidence the rest of the way.
"I hope it's going to carry on big," Lawson said. "Missouri is an awesome team, they have an incredible pitcher and they hit the ball well. The confidence and knowledge that we gain from (Louisville) is great and plus she is a drop ball pitcher in Chelsea Thomas and while she has a lot of other pitches the drop is a huge pitch for her. To be able to work on that against Louisville a little bit is good coming into this weekend."
Junior Lauren Cumbess' walk-off RBI single gave UK a 2-1 victory over Louisville Wednesday evening. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth on a wild pitch that scored Kentucky sophomore Sarah Frazer, the Louisville Cardinals came to bat with UK three outs away from defeating it's in-state rival. Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley toed the rubber looking to finish off her complete game shutout.
However, the leadoff hitter in the inning for the Cards, Taner Fowler, had other ideas. The junior took Nunley's 2-1 offering down the left-field line over the fence to tie the game at 1-all. Instead of getting down on herself, Nunley stepped right back in the circle and got the Wildcats back in the dugout without further damage.
The UK offense had Nunley's back and took care of the rest as the Wildcats loaded the bases with Lauren Cumbess stepping to the dish. The junior got a pitch she liked over the plate and ripped an infield single to the left side hole that was too much for Louisville shortstop Whitney Arion to handle and driving in the game-winner to give the Wildcats a 2-1 victory over the eighth-ranked team in the country.
Following the game-timing home run, Nunlely admitted she was a little rattled but quickly regrouped to give the Cats a chance to win in the bottom half.
"Right after she hit that homer I was a little shaky but you kind of always get shaky after that happens," Nunley said. "You just have to regain your confidence and go back out there."
Cumbess and the rest of the Wildcats seemed to keep their cool after the home run by Fowler. She kept reminding herself the advantage of playing at home and having the last at-bat. As Kentucky filled the bases in the seventh, Cumbess stepped in the box in the most pressure situation of the game.
The Normal, Ill., native may have been one of the coolest members in the ballpark. She was seeing the ball well all game and felt extremely confident when it was her time to deliver.
"I was actually pretty comfortable surprisingly," Cumbess said. "I feel like I had been seeing the ball pretty well all game even though I had only had one hit before. I was pretty comfortable and it was exciting. I always love being in those kinds of positions."
Head coach Rachel Lawson also felt good seeing Cumbess at the plate in the pressure situation. Lawson has coached the junior for close to three years now and knows just how smart and how good of a hitter Cumbess is.
In fact, if the sixth-year head coach could have chosen anyone on her roster to get the job done, it would have been Cumbess.
"I have a ton of confidence in Cumbess," Lawson said. "She's a strong woman and she's both physically and mentally strong. She loves softball and she knows the game really well so if I was going to have anybody up to bat I would want it to be Lauren."
The win was big for UK, who evened the season series after falling to U of L back on April 3, by a score of 5-1 in Louisville. The Cards have controlled the series between the two schools for a few years so the win was extra sweet for UK.
"Oh its huge. They have had our number for quite some time so to be able to come in and play it was actually a very fun game," Lawson said. "It was a fast game I thought both pitchers did a nice job. To be able to come out on the winning end is pretty exciting."
Time and time again The Wildcats has shown toughness to will themselves to wins. UK showed it again tonight by collecting themselves after the Louisville home run and producing in the seventh to get the win.
It was an all-around win for the Wildcats, who got production from the entire lineup, both offensively and defensively along with a great effort in the circle from Nunley.
"To get production in the entire batting lineup is big for us," Lawson said. "We were able to do that on Sunday against Arkansas and that has been a big thing for us. The fact that we showed toughness on defense, throughout the order and on the mound was big for us."