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.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the first time in program history, the Kentucky softball team is headed to the SEC Tournament Semifinals, and for a second consecutive game, it was sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley leading the charge.
A day after a nine-inning, walk-off win over Mississippi State, the seventh-seeded Wildcats faced No. 2 seed Tennessee. UK squeaked out a 2-0 win over the Lady Vols in a pitcher's duel in the semifinal contest.
"I thought today was a good day for us," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "It was a great day on the mound for both pitchers. It was a real pitcher's duel and I felt pretty lucky to be on the winning end of it."
Nunley was once again a force in the circle for the Wildcats. She pitched a complete-game shutout to earn the win after throwing 142 pitches in Wednesday's victory. The shutout was Nunley's career-best sixth of the year, tied for the third most in a season in program history.
The Lady Vols were held scoreless for just the second time this season. Only 13 times have they been limited to five hits or fewer.
"I think Coach Lawson really did a good job at calling pitches and keeping Tennessee off balance," Nunley said. "Making them guess at what I was throwing and I think it really worked."
The sophomore showed no signs of wearing down in a second consecutive game with temperatures near 100 degrees. Nunley allowed just five hits and worked quickly. She gave up one extra-base hit -- a leadoff double in the fourth -- but proceeded to strike out the next three UT batters.
Nunley was making quick work of UT until the seventh inning. With two outs and the bases empty, Tennessee tallied back-to-back hits followed by a UK fielding error to load the bases. That's when leadoff hitter Haley Tobler came to the plate.
Tobler worked the count full, and on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Nunley threw a changeup. Tobler's bat never left her shoulder, and with that, the final three of UT's seven base runners were stranded, the winning run on first base.
"When you look at it, [Madison] Shipman was on deck so it was going to be the end of the game either way," Lawson said of the pitch selection to Tobler. "Either Kelsey was going to look really good throwing a strikeout or Shipman was going to look really good hitting a grand slam. Whichever way you look at it, I felt like it was a win-win situation for us. It may have seemed pretty gutsy to everyone else but it felt like a no-brainer to me so either way it was made for TV."
Nunley's changeup was working all game long and helped her to seven strikeouts. Tennessee, one of the conference's best hitting teams, was never able to adjust.
The second win of the tournament for Nunley now gives her five postseason wins in less than two seasons, tied for the most in school history.
"She's awesome, she works so hard and she did great today," senior Emily Gaines said. "I'm so proud of her. It was really hot out and she was just mowing them down. She was awesome."
On the other side, Tennessee pitcher Ellen Renfroe was nearly as effective, but not quite enough. She limited the Wildcats to seven hits and left eight UK runners on base.
It was single runs in the fourth and fifth inning though that gave Nunley all the cushion she needed to send Kentucky to the semifinals.
Gaines got the offense going in the fourth with a single, the only hit of the inning. Sophomore Maisie Steed went in as a pinch runner, advanced to second on a passed ball and was bunted to third. An Emily Jolly groundout scored the speedy sophomore to give the Wildcats a 1-0 advantage.
An inning later, it was South Carolina native Christian Stokes who sent a smash over the left field fence for a valuable insurance run. Stokes, who is 6-for-8 in the tournament, also had a homer to lead off Wednesday's game.
With two tournament wins and a semifinal berth secured, the history has been made for Kentucky. But with this team, they have no reason to stop now. They'll have another chance to make more history against sixth-seeded LSU on Friday. First pitch between the Wildcats and Tigers is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A trademark of the 2014 Kentucky softball team has been its ability to bounce back and never give up. That was never more apparent than in its 4-3, nine-inning win over Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday.
The never-say-die attitude has fueled UK to a perfect 7-0 record in extra inning contests, but the most recent win meant just a little bit more than the previous six.
The victory -- the Wildcats' first in the SEC Tournament since 2008 -- gave them a school-record 42 wins on the season.
Wednesday, it was sophomore Nikki Sagermann with a walk-off hit in the ninth inning after Kentucky lost a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning.
"That's one thing about our team, we don't give up," Sagermann said. "We're known for that. If we get behind, we're going to do anything we can to come back and have a good game. I was pretty confident actually. Our top of the lineup was coming through, I was confident we were still going to win, I wasn't worried too much."
UK jumped out to a 3-0 advantage in the first inning and sophomore right-hander Kelsey Nunley was dealing in the circle through the first five frames. Four outs away from a win, the Wildcats gave up three two-out runs in the sixth to let MSU tie the game.
The game was tied, and the UK offense had scored just one run since it chased starter Alison Owen in the first inning, but the confidence never wavered. The philosophy was simply to not give up.
The patience paid off in the ninth when a trio of sophomores, facing Mississippi State relief pitcher Alexis Silkwood for the fourth time, came through. Ansley Smith led off with a walk and sophomore Christian Stokes doubled her to third. After Sylver Samuel fouled out, Nikki Sagermann stepped to the plate in a situation she loves.
"I was pretty excited when I came up," Sagermann said. "I was seeing the ball pretty well. I know I was only 1-for-3 before it, but especially with one out and a runner on third, I knew I had to get it through the infield, a sacrifice fly or a base hit. I love situations like that. I was ready."
Sagermann sent a liner into center to give the Wildcats the win and set up a quarterfinal matchup with rival Tennessee on Thursday.
After the Bulldogs tied the game in the sixth, they had multiple chances to score the go-ahead run in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Seven of MSU's 12 runners left on base came in the final three frames.
Mississippi State had runners on second and third in the seventh, first and second with one out in the eighth and the bases loaded with two down in the ninth. Nunley and the UK defense did not allow a single runner to score.
"Just keep fighting," Nunley said of her mentality in the circle with runners on base. "They're going to get on. They're a good hitting team, they're going to find ways to get on. I had to just keep on battling, keep throwing hard."
Nunley kept battling. Even after she hit six batters in the final three innings, she kept battling and got those clutch outs. The righty threw 142 pitches, and while she might have had her best stuff in the first five innings, her ability to get the clutch out in the late innings was most important.
"My team told me they had my back," Nunley said. "I knew to just go out there and no matter what happened, just give it all I had and my team would be behind me. That's what I did."
Clutch pitching, timely hitting and a never-say-die attitude were the keys Wednesday. Thursday, it will take that and more to top second-seeded Tennessee. The seventh-seeded Wildcats have never advanced to the SEC Tournament's semifinals, but that won't stop this year's team from believing.
In a season of record-breaking wins and firsts, there's no time like the present to add another note to the long list of accomplishments for the 2014 season and the senior class. Especially for a team that will never give up.
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.
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.
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!
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.