The UK softball team fell to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, 6-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team couldn't recover from a four-run third inning and a dominant pitching performance from South Carolina hurler Julie Sarratt, as UK was ousted in the first round of the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday evening, 6-3.
The evening kicked off what was supposed to be a memorable event for UK as the SEC Tournament made its way to Lexington for the first time in school history in the newly renovated John Cropp Statdium. However, the Wildcats seventh-inning rally fell short after scoring two in the frame and bringing the tying run at the plate before Sarratt ended the game on a strikeout.
The result wasn't what the Cats wanted, but it wasn't enough to make them look past what this weekend means to UK and its softball program.
"I would like to thank the SEC and the University of Kentucky for putting on this venue right now," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I think the SEC is a special tournament because all the teams who come here, all 10 of them are exceptional teams. I think it's a great venue and barring the rain everything else has turned out really nice, both from the SEC side and from our side."
UK freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team earlier in the week and had been reliable for the Cats all season, especially down the stretch. Wednesday just wasn't her night either, as South Carolina had a good game plan adjusting to her attack.
Nunley had been on fire for Kentucky, winning two games over perennial powerhouse and defending champion Alabama last weekend. It turned out she just didn't have it tonight and Lawson gives credit to the Gamecocks for having a good scouting report on her freshman.
UK came off one of its biggest series wins over Alabama last weekend and figured to carry that momentum into this weekend's tournament. That series win may have bit them in the rear-end as the Cats seemed to have locked themselves into good position as far as seeding goes in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has essentially clinched an at-large bid into the postseason and are hoping to host a regional tournament, while South Carolina had a little more to play for being considered on the bubble.
"I think at times, especially when you are dealing with a team so youthful with five freshmen and a sophomore behind the plate, I think sometimes their focus is a little misguided," Lawson said. "I think beating Alabama was a big deal to them and beating South Carolina three times earlier in the year, offensively we didn't start strong and they came out and seemed a little hungrier than us."
Looking forward the Wildcats can learn from their mistakes and will have some time off to shake this loss off and look ahead to achieving their ultimate goal of making it to the Women's College World Series.
"We need a day off so tomorrow we will take off and watch the teams who are playing," Lawson said. "Obviously we have good pitching, we have won a lot of games. Offensively, I think we are going to have to do a better job of mixing things up. I think we have a good game plan we just didn't execute them this weekend. We have a lot of big wins and a lot of experience going into postseason I just think it depends on if it's a good matchup for us or not."
Baseball - Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning. - The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of nonleague play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action. - UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team recently completed one of the most successful weekends in school history, taking two of three games against No. 7 Alabama - the defending national championships - in Tuscaloosa. The series win was the first for Kentucky against the Tide in school history and also marked the first time UK had won in Tuscaloosa. - The wins moved UK to 13-11 in SEC play, earning the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has now posted three straight winning conference seasons under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson, advancing to five straight SEC Tournaments. The two wins over Alabama give UK nine against ranked foes this season and 40 against ranked foes under Lawson, including 24 against top-10 teams. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend, winning both games she started, throwing 15 innings, allowing only four earned runs with 11 strikeouts and a 1.87 ERA. Nunley shutout the Tide Saturday, marking the first time a pitcher had shutout Alabama at home since 2010. Fellow freshman Nikki Sagermann went 3-for-5 in the series finale with a school-record tying six RBI. Sagermann blasted a three-run home run in the eighth inning, giving Kentucky the win.
Track and field - Matt Hillenbrand finished as top collegiate finisher in the IU Billy Hayes Invitational 1,500 meters on Friday. - Hillenbrand ran a personal best time 3:44.66. - Adam Kahleifeh finished the same race fifth in 3:45.99. - Hillenbrand's time is second-fastest in the SEC this season. - Kahleifeh's time ranks No. 8 in the conference. - Keffri Neal posted No. 3 SEC time over 1,500 meters at the Stanford Invitational earlier this season. - Friday's race was Kentucky's final tune-up for the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin Thursday, May 9. - The conference championships will be held at the Audrey J. Walton Track Stadium at the University of Missouri in Columbia from May 9-12. - Kentucky will enter the SEC Championships defending one individual championship, as Andrew Evans claimed the event title last season in Baton Rouge, La. Upcoming schedule
Tuesday, May 7 Baseball def. Wright State, 4-1
Wednesday, May 8 Softball hosts South Carolina - 6:30 p.m. (SEC Tournament)
Thursday, May 9 Track at SEC Championships - 12:30 p.m. (Columbia, Mo.) Softball hosts Tennessee - 4:00 p.m. (SEC Tournament) Women's golf at NCAA Regionals (Auburn, Ala.)
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."