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Rachel Lawson and the UK softball team look to build on a 5-0 start to the season at this weekend's Texas Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Rachel Lawson and the UK softball team look to build on a 5-0 start to the season at this weekend's Texas Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team is coming off a record-setting opening weekend. UK is off to a perfect 5-0 start for the first time in program history, including an upset win over then-No. 2 Oklahoma, a year after a school-record 41-win campaign in 2013.

As UK prepares for its second weekend of competition -- the Texas Classic in Austin, Texas, Feb. 14-16 -- one would assume the Wildcats and head coach Rachel Lawson are feeling pretty good about things. After all, the perfect start to the 2014 season vaulted the Wildcats to seventh in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 and No. 9 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25, both the highest in team history. UK advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals last season for the second time ever.

Having moved past last year's success before fall training began, Kentucky is far from satisfied.

"Yeah, our team has a lot of high expectations," Lawson said. "They want to go to the World Series. We have been in Supers two out of the last three years and been in postseason five years in a row so for our program the next step is the World Series."

They are really happy that they were able to get some good games under their belt and to win. I think that is a really exciting thing for them."

Big expectations are the norm in the Southeastern Conference. The league is arguably the toughest in the country, with back-to-back College World Series title game appearances, including Alabama claiming the SEC's first softball national championship in 2012.

The Wildcats won't get too excited over a 5-0 weekend, knowing there is plenty left to play for and a multitude of big games ahead. Twenty-two games await UK the rest of the season against teams currently ranked or receiving votes in either poll.

"As much as they had a really good weekend, they are very focused on the end goal," Lawson said. "Being in the SEC, we are going to have so many big games ahead of us. They are taking it in stride."

"I think our offseason helped us offensively," junior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "We came out strong this weekend with that and I think this weekend we played good teams like Oklahoma and it gave us confidence. It was good to play teams like that because that's the type of teams we play in the SEC. It's nice to win the early season tests and have an extra-inning game to get prepared for SEC play."

Joiner had 10 hits with a .667 batting average in the opening weekend and was named the season's first SEC Player of the Week on Feb. 10. She slugged three home runs and had nine RBIs to pace the Wildcat offense.

Hearing Lawson and the players talk about what's ahead, and the goals for the team, there is no secret that the Women's College World Series is the target. School records, national accolades and NCAA Super Regionals aren't enough. The Wildcats want to make it to Oklahoma City and play as one of the final eight teams.

There are several important factors for UK to be successful and make it to the College World Series this year. Of course, offense, defense and pitching are important, but Kentucky's depth will be just as crucial.

In the Wildcats' opening weekend, it was a balanced attack that provided their run production.

"Actually, I was incredibly impressed by that," Lawson said of her team's depth in the first five games. "If you really went into the play-by-play of all the games, for example, when we played Oklahoma and beat them they got their runs from 1-2-3 in the order and we got our runs from 7-8-9 in our order, which is pretty cool. The top of our order did produce, but just to be so strong top to bottom is a lot of the reasons we won pretty convincingly this weekend. At no point were we out of it this weekend, it didn't matter who was up. We had a lot of key contributions from a ton of people and that is a good thing. In order for us to go where we want to go you have to be strong."

Going forward that depth will have to continue to be a strength. The Wildcats open the Texas Classic with Louisiana Tech and No. 15/16 Texas on Friday before facing IPFW Saturday. The weekend will continue with seeded contests Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning to conclude the five-game weekend.

"I think this is the most depth that we have ever had during my career," senior outfielder Ginny Carroll said. "Before the season when the players were talking with each other about what the lineup might be, and we had no idea. There are so many options. Each game could be different, which is great for competition and practice and then also seeing who is hot on that particular day. I think the competition makes everyone work harder, and no one can be complacent. It's really nice we've got a lot of good stuff."

So many options. Lawson and the coaching staff have to like that. While a consistent lineup might fall into place, the ability to have different options could be UK's secret weapon in 2014.

With their sights set on making the program's first trip to the World Series, the Wildcats will need as many of those secret weapons as possible.

Video: Carroll, Joiner on 2014, strong start

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Video: Lawson's media day press conference

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Howard relying on family to come back from injury

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Kara Howard making a diving catch in Kentucky's win over Mississippi State last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kara Howard making a diving catch in Kentucky's win over Mississippi State last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In a span of a month, Kentucky softball outfielder Kara Howard experienced her career-high moment and career-low moment. The former earned her a spot on ESPN's SportsCenter Top 10, while the latter is one she promises to never let define her.

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."

Video: Behind the scenes at softball photo day

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Senior Kara Dill ends her career as one of the all-time greats in UK softball history. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Senior Kara Dill ends her career as one of the all-time greats in UK softball history. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Kentucky softball team's 2013 season came to a close on Sunday as the Wildcats fell to Arizona State. UK, who dropped game one on Saturday, was ousted in the best-of-three series.

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."

Wildcats celebrate after freshman Christian Stokes connects for her second home run of the game against Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The Wildcats celebrate after freshman Christian Stokes connects for her second home run of the game against Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Game one of the Tempe Super Regional didn't go in Kentucky's favor, but the Wildcats showed plenty of signs of life.

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."

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  • BBN#1Fan: Was the first time I EVER watched the draft! It was great to see BBN doing great on this nite! read more
  • Berdj J. Rassam: Another great night for UK in the NBA draft. read more
  • Brooklin Lee: One loss does not mean you lose anything. Just try again in the next matches. I know the Wild Cats read more
  • Floyd Ballard: CONGRATULATIONS!! I watched the run Saturday on TV, and you looked fantastic. read more
  • Walter Leonard: President? Why would Cal want to take such a drastic pay cut? As long as he can still coach here, read more
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  • Tom Minney: Nice story about 3 outstanding young guys and the power of love. Debre Libanos is an outstanding place to visit, read more
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  • Carla Blair: God is good! Be grateful for this experience. And this opportunity. read more
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