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As the 2013 Kentucky softball team entered the midway stretch of its challenging schedule it prepared to host its first Southeastern Conference series of the season against Mississippi State. After a Friday-night win in game one of the series, the Wildcats and Bulldogs squared off in a doubleheader the next day with Howard getting a start in leftfield in the day's first game.
The game started with Kentucky grabbing an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, but the Bulldogs rallied in the top of the second inning for a run and were threatening for more with a runner at second base and one out when Howard made the play of her career.
Mississippi State's Erin Nesbit hit a high fly ball down the leftfield line. Howard chased the ball all the way to the warning track and made a backhanded diving catch. A moment later, she jumped up and completed the double play by picking off the runner at second base and ending the inning.
The play later came in at No. 6 in SportsCenter's Top 10 and the video featuring it now has almost 3,000 views on YouTube.
Nearly a month later, Howard, who played in 35 of the team's first 46 games mostly as a defensive replacement, experienced the complete opposite of her ESPN appearance as she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during practice, ending her 2013 season.
For Howard, the pain from the injury itself didn't come close to matching the frustration she dealt with afterwards. The injury and the surgery to follow forced her to watch helplessly as her team put together a historic season, winning more games than any other team in school history and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional.
"I didn't realize how much I loved softball until it happened," Howard said about the injury. "Having to sit out while everyone was simply running and you can't even do that. It was frustrating. But I know I have a few more years and I can work really hard and just make it count and let this injury be kind of a moment that happened, but won't define me."
The answer to whether the injury, which she is still recovering from in preparation for the 2014 season, would define her or not was not as clear this summer as it is now.
Howard, who is the youngest of three sisters, called her dad -- whom she credits for teaching her everything she knows about softball -- immediately after the injury instructing him not to tell anyone else. But not even 10 minutes later, Howard's middle sister, Kaylan, who was in her senior year with the Oregon Ducks softball team, conveniently called to check in and see how things were going. Howard knew her Dad didn't do as he was told, but she was glad.
"On the injury, I told my dad first and told him not to tell anyone. Of course 10 minutes after that phone call, Kaylan called me up and was like, 'How are things going?' I was like, 'Wow," Howard said. "But she kept me smiling and made me laugh the whole time."
That was the least Kaylan and older sister, Kymmy, would do. Howard went home to Riverside, Calif., for the summer to spend time with family and rehab the knee. While there she received the type of motivation and "tough love" she needed to get back on the right track.
"Her (Kaylan) and my other sister (Kymmy) were my doctors this summer," Howard said. "They took me to rehab and made me do stuff. My older sister, Kymmy, hid my crutches and stole my brace because I was babying it. She said, 'You should be walking on your own by now.' "
Howard's relationship with her sisters, especially Kaylan, spans far beyond just the tough love over the summer. When Kaylan received and accepted her scholarship offer from Oregon to play softball, Howard was in the eighth grade and took notice. That is when college softball became a serious thought and an avenue toward a degree for Howard, who admitted before then she was just focused on being a Disney TV star.
"I wanted to do acting and singing," Howard said. "I was in choir, but softball gave me a path to an education so I took it on. I didn't really know much about college softball until I was 14 and under. I played some softball before then but just rec-ball ... As soon as my sister got her scholarship, it kind of clicked, like, I can do something with this. I started to put in more work and at the end of my sophomore year, in the summer, Coach (Rachel) Lawson saw me in Colorado and ever since then I knew I was going to be a Wildcat."
After she enrolled at Kentucky in the fall of 2011, Howard decided she didn't want to go through her career alone and started a pen-pal type, traditional letter-writing communication with Kaylan. In her letters, Howard would ask her older sister, who was an impact player with the Ducks, about the nerves she had before games, what to expect about college life and academics. Howard said her sister always had the answers and to this day they still write letters to each other on a monthly basis.
"Since my freshman year we have written letters to each other," Howard explained. "I started off asking her what to expect my first game and all of that and ever since then it has been what is going on with your life? How is softball? How are classes?
"She pretty much told me that I would get nervous and excited, but to just treat it like another game no different than when I was playing in high school. Once I loosened up I knew what she was talking about and I felt like I had a really good year after that."
Although the two also communicate by more modern means, the letters remind Howard to keep working hard and to never let a setback, minor or major, end her love for softball. As her career-low momentum slips further and further in the past as her knee improves daily, her goal moving forward is clear and familiar.
"First, I want to get back to where I was before my injury," Howard said. "And it's not likely, but I would love to make ESPN again. That is a goal."
The Wildcats battled until the end vs. ASU but just couldn't find the timely hits with runners on base to mount a third comeback in the game. Kentucky answered with a run each time ASU went ahead, but couldn't muster one final rally as fifth-seeded Arizona State won the super regional title in front of their home fans.
"I think we put up a good fight and that's all you can do," senior Kara Dill said. "ASU is a very good team and I think looking back, it just wasn't in the cards for us. We didn't get the big hits when we had runners on. That's all you can do: You put up the best fight you can and coming from behind is difficult but until that scoreboard says no outs you still have a chance."
That's exactly what the Cats did all season. They fought until the very last out of the game and showed the toughness that head coach Rachel Lawson praised since day one.
Kentucky's 2013 season was one for the ages and the Cats broke several school records along the way. Lawson became the program's all-time winningest coach, the team set the wins record for a single season, freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley surpassed the single-season wins mark and the Wildcats hosted their first NCAA Regional in their brand-new venue, just to name a few.
"Overall we had a very good season," Lawson said. "We have been very good, this is our fifth straight postseason and we have been to two super regionals. With that said, in order to get to the World Series your team usually has to figure out how to host and we did that from the beginning of the year on. I think that was a big step for our program and hopefully it will pay off in the future."
Dill will leave a mark on UK softball as she exits the program. She was an all-league performer in 2012 and led the Wildcats in hitting twice. She ends her career fifth all-time with a .330 average, sixth in stolen bases with 57, seventh with 119 runs, eighth with 201 hits and tied for eighth with nine triples.
It was a difficult season for Dill, who broke her hand back in March in a series against LSU. Her recovery timetable would allow her to return to the field only if UK were to make the postseason. She asked one thing of her team and they came through for her by punching a ticket into the NCAA Regional.
"Obviously it's not the way anyone wants their year to go but the team did a really good job and I told them, 'I need you to get me to postseason, I need to have a chance to play again.' They did that and I couldn't ask anymore of them. It is special we are one of the top-16 teams right now. You would like to be the top eight but to get to this point I think it was a great ending."
The Wildcats will also say farewell to senior Alice O'Brien, who set the single season sacrifice fly record with five in 2013.
It was a memorable year for UK softball and sets the stage a bright future. Just to put in perspective, Kentucky had five freshmen in the starting lineup against ASU this weekend, including sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner.
The Wildcats have a lot of youth to go with a core group of upperclassmen for next season. The experience UK will gain from hosting its first-ever regional and traveling to Tempe, Ariz., and taking the high-powered Sun Devils to the limit says a lot for a young team.
"If you would have said at the beginning of the year that we would have made it all the way to supers against ASU with five freshmen starting I would have said that's a tall order, but they responded," Lawson said. "I do feel like we have a solid foundation but we are going to have to figure out how to replace Kara Dill and we are going to have to figure out how to do better offensively."
As for the freshmen, third baseman Nikki Sagermann likes where the program is headed and is ready to get back to work and hopefully play late in the postseason again this time next year.
"This experience has been amazing," Sagermann said. "It was pretty special for us freshmen because it's just going to prepare us even more for the future because we plan on being back here."
The Sun Devils topped the Cats 5-4 on Saturday evening to take a 1-0 lead in the super regional final. The winner of the three-game set will earn a trip to the 2013 Women's College World Series.
ASU looked dominant early as junior pitcher Dallas Escobedo was dealing and the Sun Devils got on the board with a three-run shot be Cheyenne Coyle. The Wildcats couldn't help but be reminded of their 8-1 loss to ASU back on February 9 when Arizona State extended their lead to 5-1 in the bottom of the fifth.
However, the Wildcats never backed down.
Freshman Christian Stokes got the Cats on the board in the top of the fifth with a solo shot to dead center to cut ASU's lead to 3-1. After the Sun Devils extended their lead to four, junior Lauren Cumbess began UK's sixth with a solo shot to left field. Two batters later, O'Brien connected for her eighth home run on the year and Stokes would follow later in the inning with her second home run off Escobedo. The Wildcats hit four solo shots off ASU's junior ace and even made head coach Clint Meyers make a pitching change going into the top of the seventh.
UK seemed to have made some adjustments since the last time they had faced her and even tinkered with their approach during the game.
"My first at-bat wasn't too good so I knew I had to make and adjustment and I knew she was coming with a rise ball," Stokes said. "She had a really good jump on her rise ball and I just tried to look for something low that I could drive."
Escobedo hadn't given up a single run in 31 innings coming into Saturday and the Wildcats roughed her up to the tune of four runs and seven hits in six innings of work. The fact that Kentucky chased Escobedo and made ASU make a pitching change is a feat on its own.
"I thought our team did a nice job off of (Escobedo)," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "That's the best hitting performance we have had in a little while so I thought we did a nice job squaring up on some of her pitches. She has a couple different heights that she uses and luckily we didn't fish too often at the super-high ones. I thought we did a nice job putting the barrel on it and being on time for it."
The game could have very easily gotten out of hand. The sold out stadium with 2,001 fans in attendance was rocking when ASU took a commanding 5-1 advantage. Instead of putting their heads down and playing scared, the Wildcats stuck together and gave Arizona State all they could handle.
In the top of the seventh, the Sun Devils brought in junior Mackenzie Popescue for the save. After recording the first two outs in the frame, sophomore Griffin Joiner drew a walk to bring Cumbess to the plate as the potential go-ahead run
"I don't think it's over until it's over," Stokes said. "We just kind of ran out of time in the end but we were on (Escobedo) pretty good."
Maybe the Cats ran out of time tonight but they sure showed the Sun Devils they are in it to win it. Kentucky will come back Sunday at 5 p.m. ET with a mindset of winning two ballgames and there is no doubt in the Cats' minds that they can take games two and three.
"Our confidence level is always the same; that's one of the products of being in the SEC or Pac-12," Lawson said. "Every game is a new game and you know you can go out and get beat one day but you are a good enough team to come back the next day. That's the one thing that these power conferences prepare you for because every time you wake up you know you have to play an outstanding team. While ASU is certainly incredible, we have been through this before. I think more than anything we are steady and our confidence usually remains the same."
The Wildcats traveled to Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 9, falling 8-1 in just their fourth game of the season. Sun Devil ace Dallas Escobedo was dominant and Arizona State pounded out 11 hits against a UK team heavily reliant on freshmen.
The second time around, Arizona State will see a very different Kentucky team, particularly the five first-year players who will start.
"Arizona State was one of the first teams that we played, so they didn't really understand the speed of the game when they first played it against Arizona State, who plays it very fast," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Their expectation level now is completely different and how fast we play is completely different. I think we won't be as star-struck as we were in the beginning of February."
However, the stakes this time are much higher.
The 12th-seeded Wildcats (41-19) will face off against the No. 5 seed Sun Devils (48-10) in a best-of-three series at the Tempe Super Regional, beginning with the first game on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET. But after playing 26 teams who are currently ranked or receiving votes in the top 25, not to mention they compete in the country's toughest league, Lawson doesn't expect the stage to be too much.
With such a young team, UK is gaining more and more confidence with every win. The Wildcats were bounced in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at John Cropp Stadium, which left a sour taste in their mouths heading into regionals. Kentucky got a chance for redemption in front of its home fans as they were selected to host their first regional in school history last weekend. This time, the Cats took care of business and advanced to their second super regional in the last three seasons.
After an unsatisfactory showing at the conference tournament, the regional victory gave UK a little bit of their swagger back going into this weekend.
"I still think we were a little bit tight in regionals and I think every step that we're taking is really helping," Lawson said. "The experience that we're gaining is really helping them understand what they need to do to go to the World Series."
En route to the regional title, Kentucky outlasted a pesky fourth-seeded Marshall squad, 2-1 in eight innings in the opening round. The Wildcats then prevailed over Virginia Tech to advance to Sunday's final. The Hokies would get their rematch with UK and won game one before the Cats ended their season with a 1-0 triumph in the nightcap.
Yes, UK accomplished a huge feat by taking care of business and winning the regional over some quality opponents, but Arizona State is a different animal. Lawson is well aware.
"I think they're going to be dramatically better (than the teams UK faced in the regional)," Lawson said. "I think that they do everything so well. I think Dallas Escobedo's one of the best pitchers in the country. Offensively, they hit a ton of home runs and I don't think very many home runs were hit this past weekend. I think it's going to be completely different. You're taking that next step up, but that's what you expect when you go to Supers."
Escobedo is expected to shoulder the load for the Sun Devils and she hasn't allowed an earned run in 28 innings of work. The senior is 28-4 on the year with a 2.10 ERA and is coming off a regional performance where she was 3-0 with a no-hitter.
Last time the two teams met, Escobedo tamed the Wildcats, allowing one earned run, scattering just five hits and striking out eight. Kentucky has seen high-caliber pitching in the SEC and are approaching the rematch with confidence.
"She has a lot of spin on the ball and she also has a really good rise ball," freshman centerfielder Sylver Samuel said. "We have learned from it and I think that's what's going to make us tough to get out this week."
Arizona State will be playing on its home turf at Farrington Stadium, where the Sun Devils are 38-3 on the year. The Sun Devils are hitting .334 on the year with 92 home runs and 403 runs scored, compared to the Cats who are posting .269, 57 and 277, respectively, in those categories. Along those lines, ASU has five batters with 10 or more home runs and four with 40 or more RBI, while junior Lauren Cumbess (12 HR, 42 RBI) and sophomore Griffin Joiner (10 HR, 40 RBI) are the only two Wildcats to reach those numbers.
Kentucky will once again turn to freshman sensation Kelsey Nunley to lead them to Oklahoma City, Okla. The right-hander faced ASU in the first meeting, surrendering five runs on seven hits in three innings of relief. The Sun Devils roughed up Nunley, but the freshman was making just her third-career appearance at the collegiate level.
The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native has made tremendous strides in her first season, breaking UK's all-time single season wins mark with 27 on the year and being named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.
On paper, Arizona State looks like the heavy favorite in this series, but the Wildcats will give the Sun Devils a different look from what they saw back in February. If one thing is for certain, UK has complete trust in Nunley and will give it their all this weekend to back her up.
"Kelsey is really strong," Samuel said. "When she is out there we know that she is competing and giving everything to win so we give everything we have behind her. She is a strong freshman and we are proud of her."