Freshman Sylver Samuel was 5-for-9 (.556) while patrolling centerfield for the Wildcats in the Lexington Regional. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Kentucky softball team got its first look at Arizona State three months ago.
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."
Rachel Lawson and Kara Dill will lead the UK softball team into the Tempe Super Regional this weekend vs. Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It might be happening for the second time in three years, but Rachel Lawson isn't taking Kentucky's Super Regional berth for granted. She knows that even the best programs in the country are fortunate to be among the last 16 teams standing.
Be that as it may, this weekend is just another rung on UK's ladder to a place college softball's elite.
"To be in supers is special in the sport of softball and our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series," Lawson said.
As No. 12 UK (41-19) prepares for a three-game series with fifth-seeded Arizona State (48-10) that will begin Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, the experience of losing to California in a super regional in 2011 is fresh in Lawson's mind. In fact, she's been thinking about it all season as she tried to lead UK to its first-ever Women's College World Series.
Lawson, however, has a young team with five freshman starters. Among this year's regular contributors, only Kara Dill, Alice O'Brien and Emily Jolly saw significant time in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
"Me personally, yes, as a coach (she is approaching super regionals differently). We have prepared completely different than we did two years ago in terms of pitch selection and stuff like that, but that started in the fall," Lawson said. "But for our team, only a couple of these players were on that team and only a couple of starters."
Dill was one of them. She had five hits as UK upset Michigan to win that regional in 2011, but the Cats were a national seed and favored to reach this point this year.
"I think our team this year is better and there are more people that can do a more variety of things," Dill said. "We have more depth and are stronger as a team."
She has clear proof of that depth too.
On March 15, Dill sustained a hand injury against LSU. For the remainder of the regular season, the Cats would have to get the job done without their leading hitter from each of the past two years. Freshman Christian Stokes filled in at shortstop and UK finished 19-12 without Dill in the starting lineup.
She healed in time to return for the postseason, but if the Cats hadn't been able to hold it together in the senior's absence, she would never have gotten the chance.
"I couldn't ask for any more from them. If they wouldn't have made it this far I wouldn't have finished out the year," Dill said. "This is everything to us right now. They are incredible."
Stokes is still playing shortstop, but Dill - now at designated player - took over her customary role as UK's lead-off batter for the NCAA Tournament opener vs. Marshall. She promptly turned in two hits and a run batted in in four at-bats, providing stability at a lineup spot that had been in a state of flux since Dill's injury.
"She's an exceptional player," Lawson said after that game, a 2-1 win over Marshall. "She's also a captain, she's very steady, she's smart, she's everything you want in a student-athlete. So to get her back is cool. ... It makes me happy to know that she's going to be able to finish on a high note."
After the Cats won a regional the first time they ever hosted one, it's now just a matter of how high the finishing note will be for Dill and UK.
"This is the best time of the year and if I could pick anytime to get back out there and play it would be this time," Dill said. "The team got us here and that is all I could have asked of them."
UK defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday to clinch a berth in a Super Regional for the second time in three seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After Kentucky defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday, Rachel Lawson showed a side or herself rarely seen, particularly by her team. Fielding questions, Lawson was overcome by emotion.
UK had just fulfilled Lawson's goal of clinching a second Super Regional trip in three seasons in its brand-new venue. Sitting in the back of the room was the stadium's namesake, the man who helped bring Lawson to Lexington and build the program to what it's become: John Cropp.
Given the circumstances, it's difficult to blame her for struggling to compose herself.
"I always yell at everybody, and they don't see me like this," Lawson said. "It's the only time."
In Lawson's sixth season, the progress of the Kentucky program is remarkable, as is the resulting list of accomplishments: the first five NCAA Tournament berths in school history, two Super Regional berths in three years, state-of-the-art venue, a school-record 41 wins in 2013.
Just a couple hours prior, the circumstances - and the audience - were quite different.
After taking the first two games of the regional on Friday and Saturday, UK found that its season was on the brink following a game one loss to the Hokies. Virginia Tech had just blanked the Cats, 2-0, forcing a winner-take-all showdown approximately 45 minutes later, and Lawson wasn't particularly happy with the way her team hit or played defense.
"It was the exact opposite of the one I gave (that was) all sentimental about John Cropp and our athletic department," Lawson said of her between-game message. "That's why I hate that this one's on camera. I'd rather the other one be on camera."
No one outside the locker room got to see Lawson's speech, but the fans in John Cropp Stadium got to see the results. Even though the Cats managed just one run, they were much more effective in attacking the outside pitches Virginia Tech consistently threw.
In the field, UK was nothing short of amazing. The Cats did not commit an error, turned a pair of double plays in the game and made three plays that could all be candidates for the SportsCenter Top 10.
First was a diving catch by left fielder Ginny Carroll in foul territory for the final out of the bottom of the first. Two innings later, Sylver Samuel robbed Betty Rose of extra bases with a jumping grab against the wall in center. But perhaps the best and most important of the afternoon was by Christian Stokes.
After Tech led off the fourth inning with a single, the freshman shortstop sprinted into shallow left field, dove and caught what appeared to be a sure single by Courtney Liddle. The Hokies would go on to load the bases with two outs in the inning even after Stokes' play.
"I thought Christian Stokes play, when she dove and got the play behind her, that was big," Lawson said. "Because in game one we didn't make that catch, and that's why they ran off two runs. So the fact that she made that catch and really stepped up today on her birthday was really cool."
UK pitchers Lauren Cumbess and Kelsey Nunley were the beneficiaries of all the defensive help.
After Nunley had pitched the first 22 innings of the weekend, Lawson turned to Cumbess to start the elimination game. The junior didn't allow a run in 3.2 innings of work.
"I was ready," Cumbess said. "I wanted to do whatever it took to help our team win. So to give Kelsey that little break, that's what we needed for the win."
In Lawson's mind, starting Cumbess was about a lot more than giving Nunley a few innings of rest.
"Actually when I was preparing for Virginia Tech prior to the weekend, I actually thought Lauren was the exact matchup for them because she has such a good drop ball," Lawson said. "I think Virginia Tech is a great hitting team, and I wanted to keep the ball in the infield."
Though Cumbess was effective, Lawson had to turn to her star freshman in the game's biggest spot. When Virginia Tech loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, Nunley emerged from the dugout and needed only a few warm-up pitches to coax a pop out for the third out, ending the threat.
"I was just thinking that we need an out," Nunley said. "That's all that matters."
Nunley finished the game, picking up the win to move to 27-9 and lowering her earned-run average to 1.97, second-lowest in single-season UK history. But without Cumbess, Nunley may not have been able to get the job done.
Not only did Cumbess deliver the game-winning hit - a fifth-inning infield single to score Sylver Samuel - but she also gave her fellow pitcher frequent advice after moving over to first base.
"I have to say that Lauren really encourages me," Nunley said. "She helps me just stay positive all the time and also gives me little triggers to get past batters."
In the sixth inning, Nunley seemed to begin to lose her rhythm. She allowed a pair of hits and a walk as her control faltered, a possible sign of fatigue. Cumbess, however, noticed another cause and ran to the dugout to request a towel. Nunley was simply having trouble gripping the ball as the temperature rose.
"This is the first time we've played in hot weather," Lawson said.
UK's equipment staff better make sure to replenish the towels, because the Cats could be playing in more hot weather next weekend. Kentucky will play the winner of No. 5 seed Arizona State and Georgia with the Sun Devils needing just one win in two games.
"I'm going to watch it," Cumbess said. "I bet everybody else will too. We were all out here last night seeing who we were going to play. Most of us stayed the entire extra-inning game between Marshall and Virginia Tech. So we're going to be excited to see who we play and I think it's anybody's game. Both teams are really good."
Kelsey Nunley allowed two runs - both unearned - on one hit in UK's 6-2 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kelsey Nunley is nervous every game she plays. She admitted as much after she pitched UK to victory in her first-career NCAA Tournament start on Friday.
Even so, she had little trouble dealing with the uneasiness against Marshall. Nunley tossed eight innings - allowing just one run - without once stepping into the circle with a lead.
After she pitched into extra innings with her back against the wall the night before, Nunley's teammates gave her and her nerves a reprieve on Saturday, pounding out seven hits and two home runs against Virginia Tech.
"I'm more confident in myself when we have runs," Nunley said. "That helps."
Nunley looked the part.
The freshman tossed her second complete game in less than 24 hours, carrying UK to a 6-2 victory over Virginia Tech at John Cropp Stadium. With the win - a school-record-tying 40th of the year - the Wildcats move into Sunday's final in the Lexington Regional. UK will face Notre Dame, Virginia Tech or Marshall at 1 p.m. ET with a chance to advance to a second Super Regional in three years with a win.
It's close to a lock that Nunley (26-8) will toe the rubber in that game. Considering she has allowed just one earned run on seven hits and three walks against 10 strikeouts in 15 innings of work on Friday and Saturday, it certainly makes sense for Rachel Lawson to ride her workhorse.
"We've been using and I feel confident with both Kelsey and (Lauren) Cumbess going in there and then Katie Henderson's given us some really good innings," Lawson said. "But with that said, Kelsey's won so many games for us it would be nice to see her finish the tournament tomorrow."
If not for a play in the second inning that was initially called an error but eventually changed to a hit, Nunley would enter Sunday looking for her second no-hitter in a row.
Nunley started the frame with a 2-0 lead after Lauren Cumbess hit a two-run first-inning home run, but walked the lead-off batter. The next at-bat resulted in a tapper back to the pitcher that Nunley charged. As she reached for the ball, she tweaked her left ankle and could not make the play, committing an error.
If not for the fact that Nunley is from a small town called Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and played basketball and volleyball growing up, Lawson would likely have been much more concerned about her star pitcher when she came up lame.
"The one good thing about having a country girl on your team is their parents usually just strap 'em up," Lawson said. "They don't have athletic trainers out there or anything, so they don't know any different. They just get back out there."
That's exactly what Nunley did, taking one warm-up pitch to test the ankle beforehand.
She retired the next two batters on a strikeout and groundout before hitting Kiara Ota with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. Nunley then coaxed a grounder to shortstop that looked like would end the inning, but the hard-hit ball took a big hop that Christian Stokes could not corral. After a scoring change, the play would cost Nunley a no-hitter.
"One hit, we won," Nunley said. "It doesn't matter."
Nunley is thinking much more about the way UK's ascendant offense performed.
After the Wildcats were handcuffed in a loss to South Carolina in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Lawson made it clear to her hitters that they would need to improve for UK to advance in the postseason. After pounding out 10 hits against Marshall star Andi Williamson on Friday and showing some power against three different Virginia Tech pitchers, the Cats have proven the were listening.
"I think we came out knowing that this is our time, this our stadium and we have to make sure that we own it," said Krystal Smith.
Entering the matchup with Virginia Tech, the UK second baseman had not homered in a month and a day. But on Saturday, Smith counted a two-run home run among her two hits. The blast landed on top of the batting cage over the fence in left field and provided Kentucky's final 6-2 margin.
"We've been practicing all week on the pitches that we were going to be expecting to see," Smith said. "So I think I went up there with a lot of confidence in my swing."
Confidence is a word that comes up a lot in talking to the Cats right now. If they can sustain it, UK could make a lot more noise in this NCAA Tournament.
"The fact that we came out and hit the ball hard against such a good pitcher and then today to be able to have so many different looks and to hit a couple home runs, hit the ball hard, do that is really encouraging as we move forward," Lawson said.
Nikki Sagermann had two hits and the walk-off RBI in UK's 2-1 win over Marshall on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Heading to the eighth inning, Nikki Sagermann was due up fourth as the Kentucky softball team looked to break a 1-1 extra-inning tie against Marshall at John Cropp Stadium.
She watched from the dugout as Griffin Joiner led off with a double and Lauren Cumbess was intentionally walked. Sagermann was in the on-deck circle when runners advanced to second and third on an Andi Williamson wild pitch and she quickly realized it would all come down to her.
When Marshall opted to load the bases with a second straight intentional walk, the freshman third baseman was left pondering how she would approach her potential game-winning at-bat.
"I was just thinking, 'Get a sac fly,' " Sagermann said. "Because if they catch it, they can run home easily."
But just before she strode to the plate, her head coach pulled her aside. Rachel Lawson wanted her to think in even simpler terms.
"Coach told me to get behind the ball and get the ball on my barrel," Sagermann said.
Sagermann did exactly that, delivering a clean single up the middle to score pinch runner Sarah Frazer and give UK its first-ever postseason extra-inning win and school-record-tying seventh on the season.
"I got a hit, so it's even better," Sagermann said.
Sagermann - who went 2-for-3 in her NCAA Tournament debut - did a lot more than just hit on Friday. Against a Marshall team intent on keeping the ball on the ground and capitalizing on its speed, Sagermann's glove was put to the test. She responded with a team-high six assists and three more putouts, the last of which - a leaping catch of an Alexandra Bayne line drive - preserved a tie in the top of the eighth and stranded runners on second and third.
"That was crazy," Sagermann said. "That was a lot of emotions going on. I was really happy, still am."
Sagermann's happiness was clear as she fielded questions from reporters with a nearly constant smile, though she was a bit uncomfortable talking nonstop about what an excellent game she had just played.
"She's so used to me yelling at her all the time, she doesn't know how to take all this," Lawson said.
Through the first half of the season, most of that yelling was about Sagermann's defense. Her role was mostly limited to a role as designated hitter early in the year due to defensive limitations, but Lawson believed she was capable of more. One practice, Lawson told her that she could be UK's regular third baseman by simply being consistent with the glove.
"Since then, she's been making the plays," Lawson said. "And so as a coach it was really cool for me to see her - not just that last catch that she had - she made a lot of catches in that game. To see how far she's come in such a short amount of time has really been something special."
Sagermann was joined in the postgame press conference by fellow freshman Kelsey Nunley, who pitched all eight innings to move to 25-8 on the season. Three more classmates were also in the starting lineup: shortstop Christian Stokes, centerfielder Sylver Samuel and leftfielder Maisie Steed.
"I love our freshman class," Sagermann said. "We're a big family. We love each other and our team is really accepting of us. They had really had to teach us and make us adapt to be better."
But without the commitment by the freshmen to improve, none of the five would be in this position and their team likely wouldn't either.
"It's nice to see all their hard work pay off in the postseason and win their first game," Lawson said.
A victory in their first game now sets up an opportunity for their second on short rest. UK will take on Virginia Tech - which defeated Notre Dame 4-3 - at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday. But for at least a short while, Sagermann is going to enjoy this first one.
"I just lived the dream, and I'm still living it and I have three more years of it," Sagermann said.
So how does a college freshman celebrate one of the best nights of her career?
"I usually just hang out with my family and eat," Sagermann said.
Kentucky will host an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history at John Cropp Stadium this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the University of Kentucky softball team will get back in action as the Wildcats host their first NCAA Regional in school history. UK earned the No. 12 national seed in the tournament and will square off with Marshall on Friday evening at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium. No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Virginia Tech will kick off the four-team regional at 5:00 p.m. on Friday.
Kentucky (38-18) played a tough non-conference schedule to go along with its difficult Southeastern Conference slate of games. To put in perspective how competitive the league is, the SEC had a NCAA-record 11 teams make the field of 64.
After wrapping up the regular season and SEC Tournament last weekend, the Wildcats are ecstatic to get the postseason underway and be rewarded for a year of hard work.
"It's huge for us, we've never hosted a regional and we have never been a national seed here at UK," junior Lauren Cumbess said. "It's great for the program and we have worked really hard for it so it's exciting."
For UK, it's a shot at redemption after being ousted in the first round of the SEC Tournament by South Carolina last Wednesday. The Wildcats had high hopes going into the weekend as they were hosting their first conference tourney in school history.
Kentucky came out a little slow and found itself in a hole, trailing the Gamecocks, 6-1. UK made an attempted rally in the seventh but the deficit was too much to overcome in a 6-3 defeat. The Wildcats didn't swing the bats well and freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley wasn't as dominant as she had been in the second half of the season. Having five freshman starters playing for the first time on a postseason stage didn't help matters.
The result didn't go in the Cats' favor, but UK has a rare chance to make up for the loss and give the Big Blue Nation a more deserving performance.
"I think they were shocked," Lawson said. "Last week was the first time we had played in that setting here so I think that was a great experience for our younger kids and I don't think they knew what to expect. I think they understood and I think they were very disappointed in their performance last week and they are looking for another opportunity to prove that they are one of the best teams in the country."
UK has had all week to prepare for the regional this weekend and players can go through several mood changes in a week's time. Coming off the loss to USC, one might think the Wildcats are questioning themselves, but Cumbess in confident that's no issue.
"We were all real excited when we found out we were going to host," Cumbess said. "Practice has been really upbeat and everybody is trying to get better and improve the little things each day. Everybody has been in a really good mood and we are having fun. We play our best when we are having fun."
The Lexington Regional is regarded as one of the toughest regions in the country. Marshall, the Conference USA Tournament champion, is no slouch as the No. 4 seed. The Thundering Herd gave the Cats all they could handle back on April 4 in Lexington in a game UK would rally to win, 4-3, on a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll. It starts in the circle for Marshall, where senior Andi Williamson (32-16) has a 2.01 earned-run average with an astonishing 344 strikeouts in 296 innings pitched.
If UK is fortunate enough to get past Marshall, the Cats will face the winner of Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. The Fighting Irish are making their 18th NCAA appearance and enter the game having won 17 of 20 games. Virginia Tech is also an experienced bunch that is playing in its sixth NCAA Tournament and second straight.
With such a tough region, it's going to be very important for Kentucky to play as few games as possible this weekend by staying in the winner's bracket of the double-elimination tournament.
"It's crucial to come out strong," Lawson said. "Certainly teams can come from behind, that has definitely happened before, but anytime you can stay in the winner's bracket, that means your pitchers are fresh and that keeps the crowd coming back and that's more of a confidence booster."
Senior Kara Dill has played sparingly for Kentucky due to a broken hand, but has seen at bats in the last two games, delivering a pinch hit against Alabama and filling in as designated player vs. South Carolina. Dill, who has been UK's leading hitter over the last couple of seasons, batted in the eight-hole against the Gamecocks and Lawson says with more repetitions this week she is considering inserting her back into the top of the order, which would help jumpstart Kentucky's offense.
The Wildcats' want to make a different impression on their fans this time around and as the host and the favorite of the regional, their goal is to make it to super regionals. The recipe for success for the Cats is simple.
"We are going to have to do a good job offensively and we are going to have to attack good pitches," Lawson said. "We have to execute, put the ball in play, hit behind runners, bunt and do all those things you need to do because every pitcher is good. Then I think we have to have a strong showing on the mound by both Nunley and Cumbess. I think in order for us to go further it has to start with those two things."