With a late-season surge in Southeastern Conference play, the Kentucky softball team played itself into tournament contention. On Sunday night, the Wildcats' hard work paid off.
UK (29-28) was selected to yet another NCAA Tournament as the Cats will make the short trip down I-64 to play in the Louisville Regional. Their first game will come against Michigan (39-15), a team UK faced earlier this season in a 3-0 loss and defeated last year to advance to the Super Regionals. The other two teams in the regional are No. 15 Louisville (53-3) and Valparaiso (42-17).
Cat Scratches caught up with head coach Rachel Lawson and star senior Brittany Cervantes to talk about the tournament.
Rachel Riley will play in the final SEC Tournament of her college career beginning on Thursday vs. Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Three years ago, the Kentucky softball team was preparing to take on the top-ranked Florida Gators and make its very first national television appearance at the UK Softball Complex. The anticipation and excitement built as the Wildcats looked to show the world what UK softball was all about.
But they would have to wait a little bit longer.
As weather sometimes does, a rain delay pushed back the first pitch. To pass the time and maintain the excitement and momentum, the UK team took to the locker room to listen to music, sing, dance, and stay loose in any way that they could.
But not a young freshman, the starting pitcher for that night's game who had not pitched in approximately a month. In preparing for her biggest pitching appearance of her rookie campaign up until that point, Rachel Riley could be found sitting in the corner. By herself. Reading a book.
"I remember I walked out of the locker room," said Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson after she had gone to check on her team, "and (assistant) Coach (Kristine) Himes was like, 'How's she doing?' And I'm like, 'She's fine. She's reading.' And she was like what do you mean she's reading? 'She's reading Gone with the Wind, she's good.' "
And Riley has indeed been good. In fact, the two-time team captain has been the "rock" for this team as long as Lawson can remember. The highs are never too high. The lows are never too low. And she's clearly left her mark on this team while making quite an impression on her collegiate head coach.
"I would vote for Riley for President of the United States," said Lawson.
There's an obvious connection and mutual affection that Lawson and Riley share. Their history together at Kentucky goes all the way back to Riley's recruitment, before either of them even thought about being at the University of Kentucky.
Riley, a Bowling Green, Ky., native, had committed to play softball for Lawson at Western Kentucky University, right in Riley's backyard. But before Riley could suit up for the hometown Hilltoppers, Lawson was hired at the University of Kentucky.
Lawson couldn't leave her behind, and Riley certainly wanted to follow. She wanted to play for Lawson all along. It was not about to end before it even started.
"I honestly can't imagine playing for anybody else," said Riley. "She's been great. She's been great as far as working with my academics, my class schedule. She's been great with my pitching. She envelops me and I can't say enough good things about her."
Riley prefers to stay out of the headlines and the media. That's not what she's about. She's hesitant to talk about herself during interviews and does her best to remain stoic when talking about her teammates. She only concerns herself with winning and serving her team. She is quite content with her fellow seniors Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell getting much of the attention. But as far as Lawson is concerned, without Riley, there is no Cervantes or Bell.
"Chanda and Brittany, they're such dynamic players," said Lawson, "I think that's phenomenal that they get so much press because it's well-earned. But all three of them need each other. When Chanda's playing a tough team, she's getting all her strikeouts, well the next game we're coming with the drop-ball pitcher, which is the opposite of her."
As far as Cervantes goes, she and Riley aren't just teammates, they are roommates and best friends. During their four inseparable years together, Riley's calm and quiet confidence have surely rubbed off.
"That's kind of a combination if you know them," said Lawson, "But then once you do get to know them, they put the team first always. And I think Rachel keeps Brittany steady, which is her biggest thing. (Brittany's) such a dynamic player, and she's as hard on herself as she is on anybody. And I think Rachel, just that kind of cool, calm confidence that Rachel has rubbed off on Brittany, and Brittany has become a steady player now, as well."
When talking to Lawson, she uses that word "steady" often to describe her senior captain. It has been a less than ideal season for Riley in her senior season, but once again, she's been steady. For her career, the two-way player is 39-29 with a 2.75 ERA. This season, Riley owns an 8-7 record in the circle with a 3.25 ERA, and in the batter's box, she's batting .260 with 7 home runs and 30 RBI in the middle of the Wildcat batting order.
But "steady" isn't always good enough for Riley. And for this team, this season has been anything but. Last season, Kentucky reached all kinds of program highs, including hosting their very first Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament. Riley had better numbers, posting a 13-5 record and a 2.56 ERA as well as a .354 batting average. So the level-headed captain has certainly had her patience tested with the struggles they've endured this year.
"It was definitely more difficult," said Riley about the team's early season struggles. "I really don't like to lose, and so, having to get through this season, it was a struggle. But it's made us stronger, and we know that we have something to play for and we're trying to get into tournament and make a good run like we did last year. I think we just need to keep looking forward"
While the team looks forward to their first round game against fourth-seeded Georgia in the SEC Tournament on Thursday, it's been Kentucky's ability to focus on the present and the task at hand that puts them in the position they are in. Kentucky, regardless of the outcome of Thursday's game with Georgia, will be eligible for an NCAA Tournament bid thanks to what the Cats have accomplished over the previous two weekends.
After suffering a sweep at the hands of Mississippi State, Kentucky's hopes of making their fourth straight SEC Tournament and fourth straight NCAA Tournament were looking slim. But Kentucky went to Florida, a top-five team nationally, and promptly won two of three from the Gators. Then the Wildcats came home needing another series victory over Louisiana State to keep their hopes alive for an NCAA Tournament berth.
A night after a thrilling walk-off win over the Tigers in game one of the series, Riley took to the circle for her final appearance as a pitcher at home. As a senior leader is expected to do, she came through in a huge way, more than steady but victorious, tossing 6.1 innings of one-run ball to help capture the series. Kentucky would go on to record a series sweep, the first over LSU in program history.
Both weekends provided critical moments and victories to help improve their chances of earning a bid.
"They've been very crucial," said Riley. "To make it into the tournament we knew kind of put ourselves in a hole they we were going to have to have a good showing against Florida and LSU, which are really tough teams. It was crucial for us to get the wins we did, but we're still not guaranteed a spot, unless we win the tournament. It's really important that we continue this streak that we've got going."
So Kentucky heads to Tuscaloosa, Ala. for the SEC Tournament and a chance to improve its NCAA Tournament resume. It also gives Riley an opportunity to perform in front of her family for the first time ever at The John and Ann Rhoads Softball Stadium.
Riley's family has followed her throughout her career, both at home and on the road, but the only place that they had yet to travel to was Tuscaloosa. UK was scheduled to play there last season, but tornadoes ravaged the city and the series was cancelled, as was the trip.
The SEC Tournament also takes Riley back the place where she first made her mark as a freshman. The freshman from Bowling Green became the first Kentucky pitcher to win a game in postseason play in program history. She owns a 1-2 record in the tournament, but has posted a dominant 1.15 ERA.
In her very last go around in the event that put her forever in the UK softball record books, Riley isn't worried about this being her last time playing in the tournament. In fact, she doesn't approach these games any differently at all.
"I try not to think about that, to be honest, because I don't want any emotions to be involved," said Riley. "I try to come out the same way I do every game and do the best that I can, and hopefully that's enough to win."
Riley plays it cool when it comes to big games; in fact she often takes her game to another level. She may not always be found reading great American literature before every pressure-filled start, but she finds way to take the edge off. Somehow, when the intensity builds, Riley is not rattled when the situation indicates she should be.
"Every time she's under pressure, her game is on a new level," said Lawson. "Her drop ball drops off the table. And she just has such a focus about her. She's relentless. Things usually go the way that she wants them to because she wills them to happen.
"I think she has another gear that makes her special. It's not something you can teach. It's not something that you can coach. She's just a competitive person, and her ability to focus in on what she wants and to not let outside distractions get in the way is truly remarkable."
The Wildcats are on an incredible streak and are as hot as they've been all season. National pundits are talking about UK as a team to avoid in postseason play. Riley and her fellow seniors have an incredible opportunity to go out with a bang and make yet another run deep into the NCAA Tournament if they continue to hit on all cylinders.
But eventually the season will end. Kentucky will either not be selected for the NCAA Tournament, they will make it and be eliminated, or it will shock the world and win the College World Series. One way or another, it will come to an end, and Riley will play her last game with "Kentucky" across her chest.
However, thanks to the leadership, her numerous contributions on and off the field, and the legacy left by Rachel Riley, the Kentucky softball program is set up to succeed and find themselves with great opportunities for the future. It has become a place where players want to be. And "the rock" of this team for the last four years has become a cornerstone for Kentucky softball for years to come. Even when she's gone with the wind.
"What she might not have in terms of size and speed, she makes up with in intangibles," said Lawson. "She just has tremendous heart. She's such a winner. She's just the perfect person to help build this program around."
The clock is ticking down on this year in UK Athletics.
Baseball is the only team still in regular season play, while men's tennis, softball, track and field, women's golf and men's golf are all preparing for postseason play. You can find more information on each one at the individual sport pages, but I figured I would compiled and summarize information on how to follow all of your Wildcat teams in the postseason. Men's tennis - Hosting NCAA Tournament beginning Friday
For the fourth consecutive season, UK was chosen to host first and second round matches. Kentucky, the No. 6 overall seed in the tournament, will open their NCAA run against No. 75 Radford (20-5) 3 p.m. Friday at the Boone Tennis Complex. Should the Cats win, they will advance to meet the victor between Indiana (21-8) and Louisville (18-9), a match that will be played on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Boone Tennis Complex.
Tickets are still available and you can visit Tourney Central http://www.ukathletics.com/ncaatennis/ for more information. For those unable to attend, there are plenty of ways to keep up with the action:
If UK advances past the second round, it will travel to Athens, Ga., for the Sweet 16.
Softball - Opens SEC Tournament on Thursday
With a late-season surge, UK earned the fifth seed in the SEC Tournament and the right to face fourth-seeded Georgia at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. All tournament games will be carried live on the ESPN family of networks with UK's first round game on ESPNU and ESPN3.
Just a couple weeks ago, it appeared the SEC Tournament may be UK's last chance to qualify for NCAAs, but the Wildcats are now two games over .500 and likely to reach the NCAA Tournament even with a first-round loss in the SEC. Stay tuned to the blog this evening, because we will have a feature on senior Rachel Riley to preview the tournament.
Track and field - Preparing for SEC Championships
The track and field team is already in Baton Rouge, La., where the Wildcats will participate in the SEC Outdoor Championships. The event begins on Thursday and lasts through Sunday. Metz Camfield is traveling with the team and will have updates on UKathletics.com. Also, follow @KentuckyTrack on Twitter as the Cats look to improve on an eighth-place finish at SEC Indoors.
Women's golf - NCAA bound
Last week, the women's golf team learned its NCAA Tournament path, and the Wildcats will be heading to Columbus, Ohio for the Central Regional of the NCAA Women's Golf Championship, which begins on Thursday and lasts through Saturday. The Cats will be part of a 24-team field that includes six other SEC teams as they look to finish a strong 2012 during which they've bested the school record for team scoring average by nearly two strokes.
Men's golf - Awaiting NCAA fate
The Wildcats, after a seventh-place finish in the SEC Championships, are hoping to earn their first NCAA Regional berth since 2009. If UK does hear its name called, Regionals will take place May 17-19.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, May 6:
Softball: Chanda Bell
After having simply one of the best weekends of her career in leading the Wildcats to a series win at No. 2 Florida a week ago, senior Chanda Bell went and topped that performance by leading UK to a sweep of No. 22 LSU to become NCAA Tournament eligible and clinch the No. 5 seed at the SEC Tournament. The right-hander played a part in the circle in all three victories for UK. In the opening game of the series, she worked a complete-game eight-inning win, yielding four hits and striking out 10. It was the second consecutive game against a top-25 opponent she struck out 10 or more batters in the win. In the series-clincher, she was brought into the game in relief in the top of the seventh with runners on first and second and UK clinging to a one-run lead with one out. She promptly recorded outs against the only two batters she faced to earn her third save of the season and a UK-record breaking fifth of her career. She then saved her best performance for last. On Senior Day no less, Bell tossed a no-hitter to clinch a sweep of the Tigers. She worked all seven innings, striking out six and allowing just two walks. It was the fifth no-hitter of her career, but first of the season for the Indianapolis native. Following the weekend, she moves into third in UK's single-season record books for saves (3), fourth for strikeouts (194) and fifth for wins (16). With the two wins this weekend she becomes the first pitcher in program history to have 15 or more wins in all four seasons of her career. Furthermore, she became UK's first hurler to top 900 career strikeouts with 16 tossed this weekend to run her career total to 903. Finally, her ERA falls to a program-topping 2.48 for her career.
Softball: Brittany Cervantes
Senior Brittany Cervantes was a difference-maker in every at-bat in guiding UK to a sweep of LSU which marked the first-ever series win over the Tigers in program history. In Friday night's opening game with Kentucky trailing 3-0, Cervantes delivered a two-out two-run RBI double to bring UK within striking distance. In the bottom of the seventh and with two outs, Cervantes drilled a two-strike home run over the center field wall to tie the score at 3-3 and force extra innings. Kentucky would eventually win in the bottom of the eighth. In the second game of the series, she connected for her second solo home run in as many at-bats to drive in the game's first run in UK's 2-1 series-clinching win. Following the homer, she was walked twice to avoid her bat. In the final game of the series, Cervantes opened the game with a double - to mark all four hits in the series going for extra bases. For the weekend, she batted a team-high .571 and had four RBI. Three of those runs brought in came against the nation's leader in ERA in Rachele Fico who entered the game with a 0.90 ERA. With the tremendous weekend - Cervantes advanced in a number of categories in UK's record books. She now has the fourth-most single-season doubles (16) and home runs (12) and has drawn the third-most walks (32) in a season. Career-wise, she moved into second in slugging percentage (.580), third in total bases (363), fourth in doubles (42) and runs scored (146), sixth in assists (366) and seventh in career games played (228). She already owns UK career records in RBI and home runs and pushed those totals to 160 and 47, respectively.
Baseball: Corey Littrell
Corey Littrell led No. 3 Kentucky to a 2-1 win over No. 5 Florida, shutting down the high-octane Gators by taking a shutout into the ninth inning ... Littrell dominated, striking out five batters while allowing no walks against 32 batters, with the only damage allowed coming as a leadoff solo homer to start the ninth inning with UK leading 2-0 ... Littrell's eight-inning effort is a career high, improving his overall record to a team-best 7-0 ... Littrell has become a fixture on Sundays for the Wildcats, boasting a 7-0 record with a 2.30 ERA, 61 strikeouts to just 18 walks and a team-high 74.1 innings pitched.
Track & field: Keffri Neal
Ran a season-best 800m run at the Billy Hayes Invitational, finishing in 1:50.67.
Finished third in the 800m at the Billy Hayes Invitational.
It is the second-straight week that Neal has recorded a season-best time in the 800m.
Baseball: Michael Williams
Junior catcher/first basemen Michael Williams led UK at the plate during their three-games series against No. 5 Florida ... Williams hit .455 (5-for-11) during the week with one home run, two double, two RBI, 10 total bases and a .909 slugging percentage ... Williams shined in the ESNPU SEC Game of the Week, going 2-4 and drilling a two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh to bring the game within one run ... In Sunday's 2-1 win over Florida, Williams went two for three, knocking his second double of the weekend ... On the year, Williams has hit .285 (43-for-151) with six doubles, two home runs, 15 walks and 26 RBI.
Baseball - The No. 3 Kentucky baseball team broke for finals and returned to action with a stiff test, hosting two-time defending Southeastern Conference Champion and College World Series participant No. 5 Florida in a three-game set. UK suffered losses in the first two games, before riding the dominating arms of Corey Littrell and Trevor Gott to a 2-1 win in the finale. - Kentucky returns to action on Wednesday, traveling to Bloomington, Ind., to face Indiana before returning home to host the final SEC series of the year at Cliff Hagan Stadium, welcoming Alabama Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. UK will wrap up the regular season at Mississippi State the following weekend, before traveling to the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., May 22-27. - The Wildcats have amassed the fifth-most wins in program history, with their 15 SEC wins checking in third-most in program annals. UK lost its lead in the SEC for the first time in a span of eight weeks during the weekend loss to the Gators, as UK had led the conference standings for seven-consecutive weeks. UK sits a game back of the league lead, behind South Carolina (16-8) and LSU (16-8), a pair of team UK owns series wins against, with the Wildcats sweeping the Gamecocks. - UK has improved to 13-4 in one-run games, owning a 12-8 record against top-25 opponents and a 10-5 mark against top-10 foes. The Wildcats boast a 30-3 record in day games after posting the 2-1 win on Sunday vs. Florida, riding Littrell and Gott's pitching efforts. Softball - The Kentucky softball team concluded regular-season action with a sweep of No. 22 LSU this weekend to clinch the No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament and become NCAA Tournament eligible. The Wildcats entered the weekend with a 4-13 record in one-run games and a 0-5 mark in league play. All three victories against the Tigers came with UK winning by just one tally. Furthermore, LSU had never lost a game in Lexington and had never dropped a series to the Wildcats in program history. - The Wildcats needed the senior trio of Chanda Bell, Brittany Cervantes and Rachel Riley to lead them to victory yet again. In the opening game of the series, Cervantes carved up the NCAA leader in ERA (0.90) in Rachele Fico for three earned runs including a two-run double and a two-out, two-strike solo homer in the bottom of the seventh to force extra innings. - Bell worked the complete-game effort and struck out 10 in the win. On Saturday, Riley was the winning pitcher with Bell earning the save and Cervantes going yard in her second consecutive at-bat against the Tigers with a solo homer in the first frame. In the final game of the series, Bell notched the fifth no-hitter of her career while striking out six in the win. Cervantes was 1-for-2 with a double to mark all four of her hits in the series coming in extra-base fashion. - With the series win the Wildcats earn the fifth-seed in the tournament, marking their highest finish in the league under Rachel Lawson and the highest since winning the East in 2000. The 15-13 record in league play is the second-straight winning record against league foes and just the third in program history. Kentucky, with an RPI of 39 entering the weekend, became NCAA Tournament eligible by ensuring a regular-season record of above .500 (29-27) to mark the fourth straight season the Wildcats will cap the regular season with a winning record - a program record.
Men's tennis - The UK men's tennis team received an at-large selection into the 2012 NCAA Men's Tennis Tournament. Kentucky was selected as one of 16 host sites for the event, marking the fourth consecutive season the Wildcats will host the first and second rounds of the tournament. - UK, which is the top seed in the Lexington Regional and the sixth overall seed in the tournament, will be joined in Lexington by No. 27 Indiana (21-8), No. 37 Louisville (18-9) and No. 75 Radford (20-5). - The Wildcats are making their 23rd showing in the NCAA Tournament, including 18 of the last 19 years. This is the ninth time since 2000 that UK has hosted the first and second rounds, including four consecutive years. All of UK's NCAA appearances have come under Emery's direction.
Track and field - Seven UK student-athletes competed Friday at the Billy Hayes Invitational in Bloomington, Ind. - Freshman Keffri Neal ran a season-best 800m time of 1:50.67 to finish third overall. - Sophomore Matt Hillenbrand ran the second-best 800m by a UK runner all season, finishing fourth in the race with a time of 1:51.07. - The Billy Hayes Invitational is UK's final regular-season race of the year. The Wildcats will compete next in the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Baton Rouge, La., beginning Thursday.
Wednesday, May 9 Baseball at Indiana - 3:00 p.m.
Thursday, May 10 Softball vs. Georgia - 5:00 p.m. (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) Track and field at SEC Championships (Baton Rouge, La.) Friday, May 11 Men's tennis hosts Radford - 3:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball vs. Alabama/Mississippi State - 5:30 p.m. (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) Baseball hosts Alabama - 7:00 p.m. Track and field at SEC Championships (Baton Rouge, La.)
Saturday, May 12 Baseball hosts Alabama - 2:00 p.m. Men's tennis hosts Indiana/Louisville - 2:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball SEC Championship - 8:00 p.m. (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) Track and field at SEC Championships (Baton Rouge, La.) Sunday, May 13 Baseball hosts Alabama - 1:00 p.m. Track and field at SEC Championships (Baton Rouge, La.)
In the final home start of her UK career, Chanda Bell hurled a no-hitter against LSU to clinch a crucial series sweep. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It would be awfully difficult to write a script more fascinating for this weekend than the way things unfolded in a three-game series with LSU in Lexington. But it would be impossible to match the ending.
Needing a series sweep over the Tigers to guarantee an above-.500 record for the regular season, senior pitcher Chanda Bell toed the rubber for her final appearance in the circle at the UK Softball Complex. Opposing one of the best pitchers in the country in LSU's Rachel Fico, Bell would not be upstaged.
Bell recorded the fifth no-hitter of her career Sunday in front of a full house to clinch the fifth overall seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament with a 1-0 victory. For Bell, she couldn't imagine a better way to cap off an emotional Senior Day.
"This was the best weekend ever," Bell said. "And I think it was better that it was Senior Weekend and we needed these wins... and it just couldn't have been any better."
Not only was the no-hitter impressive, but it was much needed when facing one of the nation's stingiest pitchers.
Kentucky had a great opportunity to get to Fico in its first at-bat. Senior third baseman Brittany Cervantes, as she has all weekend, got things going with a leadoff double to left field. Fico would then load the bases with still no outs in the inning. But as a true ace is wont to do, she battled back to get two strikeouts and a fly out to lead the runners stranded.
Though they knew they missed a great opportunity, Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson said her team remained optimistic.
"We weren't deflated," said Lawson. "When you have a season full of ups and downs, you get so used to when things don't go your way, you're pretty resilient. So we're a pretty resilient group, and it was definitely not ideal to go down after having bases loaded with nobody out, but we've been in those situations so many times that it wasn't as nerve-wracking as I think it was for other people who haven't been in that situation 15 times."
And the Cats continued to battle at the plate despite the lack of success they were experiencing against Fico. They worked the LSU starter into deep counts all day long, including a 16-pitch at bat by senior Rachel Riley in the first inning.
Both pitchers were cruising after the first inning until the fifth inning. Bell allowed her first base runner of the game when she hit LSU's Allison Falcon. Immediately Tiger's head coach Beth Torina lifted Falcon for pinch runner Alex Boulet. Boulet tried to swipe second base on the very next pitch, but Griffin Joiner gunned her down to end LSU's mini-threat.
Kentucky finally began to put things together in the sixth inning when Joiner coaxed a one-out walk. Joiner advanced to second on a Ginny Carroll come-backer that served as a sacrifice bunt. Alice O'Brien strolled to the plate with an opportunity to drive in the game's first run. O'Brien made contact and placed a perfectly hit ball slowly up the middle. An aggressive call by third base coach Kristine Himes sent Joiner, who was running on the pitch, home as Falcon dove up the middle to stop the ball. Falcon's valiant effort came up short as the throw was off line as Joiner slid home safely for the go-ahead run.
O'Brien had a notion before her game-winning hit that something good was on the way.
"Griffin was going on the pitch," said Lawson. "And O'Brien in the at-bats before was like, 'I'm seeing the ball, I just got to stay behind it and I got to put it up the middle.' So, she had actually planned that two innings before her last at-bat. So for her to be able to do that is really hats off to her focus and her determination to make it happen."
The rest was up to Bell, who would only need that lone run. And did she ever deliver.
Bell recorded a perfect seventh inning, including blowing away the last batter of a game for her sixth strikeout on the day. It was a familiar, yet still incredible feeling for the senior righthander who has accomplished so much in her four season's at Kentucky.
"I thought I jinxed myself a few times because I knew I had a no-hitter going on," said Bell. "So with that in my head, I knew right away. And I knew (Ashley) Langoni was one of their best hitters, so just being able to get her out, especially on a strikeout, was just a great feeling."
Bell defied the proverbial no-hitter jinx Sunday and propelled the Wildcats to the fifth seed in the SEC Tournament. While Kentucky will head to Tuscaloosa, Ala. next week to try to improve their NCAA Tournament resume, Sunday was all about this impressive senior class. Bell and Cervantes, along with fellow seniors Rachel Riley, Erika Silence, Macy Allen and Ashleigh Gustafson were Lawson's first recruiting class at UK. There's no question that this special group of players have left their mark on a rising Kentucky softball program as the winningest class in school history.
"It's great because what people don't realize is Riley and Cervantes were my first two recruits at Kentucky," said Lawson after the game. "So even though I've been here for five years, that's pretty special. And this whole group, we've been through the whole thing for four years together. They're a special group and I can't say enough about how incredible they are as people, in the classroom, in the community, and on the ball field.
"We're going to miss them, but they've given us a lot to build on, and I'm really excited for the future they've built for us."
Senior Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell helped lead UK to a 2-1 victory over LSU on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Up until Friday, the Kentucky softball team had never even defeated Louisiana State University at the UK Softball Complex. Until Saturday, they had never taken a series from LSU. After Saturday's 2-1 victory, Kentucky has accomplished both.
And it could not have come at a better time.
Kentucky (28-27, 14-13 SEC) came into this weekend needing a series win to ensure a record of at least .500, the minimum for eligibility for the NCAA Tournament. They have now taken the first two, which will afford them the luxury of needing just one win in the SEC tournament to maintain the .500 status.
The focus coming into Saturday's match up was just that: Saturday.
"It's not a cliche, we really are a one pitch at a time mentality," said Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson. "Because I think when you get too inundated with the big picture, you just don't perform well, so we're just, believe it or not, our team's just having fun and enjoying the moment and trying to make it last as long as we can."
And they have performed well. Friday night, they faced the NCAA earned run average leader in Rachele Fico who entered the game with a 0.90 ERA. They scored four runs (three earned) and came up with a much needed 4-3 victory in eight innings behind the pitching performance of senior Chanda Bell.
Today, Lawson handed the ball to another senior in Rachel Riley. With her turn in the circle, Riley knew the importance of Saturday's game.
"I think we needed it," said Riley. "We've been working all year and we're trying to make it to postseason, so any win we can get is good."
But the significance never wavered Riley's approach. In order to be at her best, she would have to treat it just like any other outing.
"It was the same as any other day," said Riley. "I was just going to go out there and throw my game, and hopefully it would be O.K."
She was better than O.K. Riley gave up six hits and a walk, but limited the Tigers to just one run in 6.1 innings. It could have been worse, though.
Kentucky had some shaky play in the field early, but buckled down as the game progressed as the Wildcat defense turned in a few gems. Second baseman Emily Jolly started a brilliant 4-6-3 double play just pitches after getting banged up on a pick-off attempt at first base. Late in the seventh inning, Kara Dill saved a run when Simone Heyward stole third base. Griffin Joiner's throw to the base seemed doomed for left field before Dill snagged it out of the air to hold the runners.
"It was huge," said Lawson of the stellar UK defense. "Ginny Carroll came in, made a nice catch. Jolly is so tough, she came in, she had a tough play. But Kara Dill, as far as I'm concerned is our defensive MVP. She made so many great stops today. And then that stop today in the seventh inning pretty much saved the day for us."
Not only did Carroll come in and make some nice defensive plays, but it was her bat that did the most talking. Carroll started the day as the designated player but moved into the left field in the middle of the game. After preserving the 1-1 tie in the field, she instantly gave Riley a 2-1 lead with a solo home run in the fifth, the second of the day surrendered by LSU pitcher Brittany Mack.
"Mack is such an outstanding pitcher," said Lawson. "You're not able to string many hits together, so even though we didn't have a lot of hits, the ones we did have went pretty far. So, anytime you play somebody like her, that's awesome."
The first home run allowed came off the bat of Brittany Cervantes, her 12th of the year, which gave Kentucky the early 1-0 lead to leadoff the bottom of the first inning. It was the second straight at-bat that Cervantes had gone deep, going back to her game-tying home run Friday night.
Riley went back out to the circle to try and seal the deal in the top of the seventh. But she could only manage one out while allowing two runners to reach base. With Bell already loose, Lawson called on her ace for the final two outs. Bell recorded a pop out and a groundout to close the game for her third save of the year.
It was a huge performance from the two senior pitchers.
"(Riley) was incredible," said Lawson. "To be able to keep them to so few hits was tremendous. And then for Chanda to come in to shut down the top of the order the way she did was also key for us."
The 2-1 win Saturday makes for a tremendous opportunity for Kentucky. Win Sunday, and UK greatly improves their chances of making the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, these seniors, as they've done all weekend, will have to come through at the UK Softball Complex one last time. It would be quite a way to go out.
"This is a huge weekend for us," said Lawson. "First, it's senior weekend this weekend. So anytime your seniors can perform like ours have this weekend, it's huge. But more importantly we have a good RPI. And really, for us to have a good shot at postseason we need to be above .500. So every win right now is crucial."
A little after noon on Friday, John Calipari and the national champion Kentucky Wildcats will board a plane to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the White House and visit with President Barack Obama. We will be live tweeting the trip from @UKAthleticsNews, but there will likely be a hiatus in our coverage during the tour and visit itself. Fortunately, there are a few ways you can watch the proceedings:
ESPNU's SportsCenterU Special: Kentucky at the White House (begins at 5 p.m.)
After the stop at the White House has concluded, look for post-event coverage here and on Twitter, including stories, video and photos.
Now, here are a few more notes to kick off your Oaks Day:
-Baseball mounted a comeback Thursday night against No. 5 Florida, but it fell just short in a 5-3 loss, Kentucky's fourth in five games. The streak is the Wildcats first extended stretch of things not going their way, but head coach Gary Henderson and his players believe that, with final exams finally coming to an end and their track record of bouncing back from series-opening losses, they won't have any trouble rebounding. LHP Jerad Grundy (4-1, 4.29 ERA) will start game two, which begins at 7 p.m. at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Neil Price will have the radio call on the UK IMG Network while CSS will televise the game. If your cable provider does not have CSS, ESPN3 will be live streaming the game here.
-The other UK team in action this weekend is playing a huge series against No. 22 LSU. As Ryan Suckow wrote about in a feature from earlier this morning, UK softball is playing with its back against the wall, needing to take at least two of three from the Tigers to climb back to .500 and remain in contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Head out to the UK Softball Complex to take in the action.
-Anthony Davis sure has a lot of cool stuff going on in his life. He's the player of the year and a national champion. He is about to meet the President and become the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and now he has a chance of becoming an Olympian. Davis has been selected as a finalist for the 2012 USA Basketball Men's National Team. He will attend a training camp from July 6-12 in Las Vegas, Nev., with the 16 other finalists, among whom 12 will be selected for the final roster that will look to win Team USA's second straight gold medal at the London Olympics.
Brittany Cervantes and Chanda Bell (center) are part of a six-member group of seniors that will play its last home games this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After a surprising series victory over No. 2 Florida last weekend in which the Wildcats took two-of-three games, the Kentucky softball team has put itself in a position where it controls their postseason destiny.
Louisiana State comes in, another ranked opponent at No. 22, with the Wildcats needing to, at the very least, take the series from the Tigers. Kentucky (26-27, 12-13 SEC) is projected as a bubble team at the moment, and would likely need a .500 record or better to make the NCAA Tournament.
While last year's team at the same point in the season was a lock for the field, Kentucky's postseason hopes hinge on the final games of the schedule. And while the pressure mounts, this team is enjoying the chase for a postseason berth.
"This team loves to compete," said Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson. "We've never made anything easy, especially this senior class. They've never made anything easy over the last four years. So to be able to end on such a push is actually fitting for them."
Lawson, of course, said that jokingly. But other than last season, it hasn't always been easy for this group of seniors. That's why it's only right that they go out this way, grinding and making one last push for the NCAA Tournament. That final push begins Friday at 6 p.m. at the UK Softball Complex.
"I think they love the limelight," Lawson said. "They love playing on the national level. They love the SEC. I mean they love everything there is about Kentucky and softball. So I think from that perspective, it's kind of fun to see if they can get it done."
Senior pitcher Chanda Bell expressed a similar sentiment about this team making a late-season surge. Of course, it was Bell who mowed down Florida Gator hitters twice this past weekend, getting wins on Friday and again on Sunday to seal the series victory. Her performance over the weekend garnered SEC Pitcher of the Week honors.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing for Bell this year. After a fantastic 2011 season in which she went 15-8 with a 2.24 ERA, Bell's season started slowly thanks to an injury she sustained at the beginning of the season. As of late, however, it appears she's gotten back into the groove.
"Coach was doing a great job of mixing all my pitches," said Bell. "I've added a couple of pitches this year, and just the fact we were able to mix some different pitches in there, and not being predictable helped a lot."
Lawson complimented Bell for the way that she's come back and battled this season, noting that she has been rock-solid the last few weekends. Bell now has her numbers back to where she is used to seeing them, sitting at 14-10 with a 2.61 ERA for the season.
And if Bell's been the key to the pitching lately, fellow senior Brittany Cervantes is responsible for kick-starting the offense. In a similar situation, Cervantes struggled to get back into last season's form.
After belting 35 home runs in her first three seasons as a Wildcat, Cervantes didn't hit her 36th until the 26th game of the season. The 36th home run gave her the all-time record at UK, and since then, Cervantes has been on a tear.
The senior third baseman leads the team with 10 home runs and has since been moved to the leadoff spot in the lineup in an attempt to get the offense going. Though it was a bit unnatural for her at first, Cervantes is relishing the role as the team's table setter.
"Actually, I'm not the most comfortable in the leadoff spot. I wasn't, but now I'm totally fine with it," said Cervantes. "I kind of want to set the tone for the game. Even though there's high expectations for it, I feel comfortable in the leadoff position. And I think I've finally turned it around."
And it's important that she has. The resurgence of these two seniors has come at an opportune time.
With possibly just a few games left in their careers, both Bell and Cervantes feel a bit of urgency to perform well this weekend to set themselves up for the best possible position to find a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
"Well we know it's a pretty big weekend; we need to take two out of three," said Cervantes. "A sweep would obviously be ideal. These games are pretty important, obviously because we need them, but it's also the senior weekend. We want to go out and bang 'em in our last home games. We can't go in tense, but I think we need to have the same demeanor we had when we went into Florida."
Bell was passionate in talking about making the postseason in her final year, regardless of how much pressure was involved. She wants this badly.
"I want to go to postseason so bad," said Bell. "Knowing that we need to take two, we really need to take three this weekend. It's a lot of pressure even though we do have nothing to lose right now."
There's no doubt the pressure will be high, as are the stakes. Knowing that, Bell has the utmost confidence, as she should after her performance last weekend, that she can come up big again this weekend.
"I always feel like I perform better when the pressure's on, it's really fun," said Bell. "I don't really get nervous in pressure situations. I always seem to do a little better, I think. So hopefully our team can too."
Kentucky will no doubt fell the pressure. And they do have to play well this weekend or risk having to run the gauntlet in the SEC Tournament next weekend to nab a postseason berth. But there was pressure last weekend too. Lawson says that no matter how much is at stake, it is important that her team stays focused and have fun playing the game no matter the outcome.
"I think having those two wins against such an awesome opponent, I think it gives you a lot of confidence that if we can bring our 'A' game this weekend, I think they know they can end up on the winning side of things," said Lawson. "On the other hand, it was just fun. They play the best when they're fun and they let the game come to them. I think they've just had a great time with it, and I hope we can take that attitude against LSU."
Baseball - The Kentucky baseball team suffered its first Southeastern Conference series defeat of the year last week, falling in a rubber match on Sunday at the hands of defending conference champion Vanderbilt, also dropping a midweek game at No. 20 Louisville. UK breaks for final exams and returns to action on Thursday, hosting No. 1 Florida in a three-game series at Cliff Hagan Stadium. - Kentucky sits in a three-way tie atop the conference standings, joining Western Division leader, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 South Carolina. UK has three conference weekend meetings remaining, hosting No. 1 Florida and Alabama, and traveling to Mississippi State. The Wildcats own league series wins over South Carolina, LSU, No. 10 Ole Miss, No. 9 Arkansas, No. 18 Georgia and Tennessee. - The UK series with Florida will pit the Wildcats against the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the nation, with the Gators setting a Baseball America record with seven members of the preseason All-America team. Florida will face UK at Cliff Hagan on Thursday in the ESPNU Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week at 7:30 p.m. ET, following College Baseball Live on ESPNU. On Friday, the series will resume at 7 p.m. ET and conclude on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. - The Wildcats have been paced by an offense that ranks among the SEC leaders in nearly every offensive category, batting .309 with 94 doubles, 48 homers and 312 runs scored. Individually, freshman Austin Cousino owns a .348 average with 18 doubles, one triple, eight homers and 37 RBI, stealing 10 bases. Luke Maile has hit .329 with 10 doubles, 11 homers and 43 RBI, stealing nine bags. Thomas McCarthy has hit .323 with 15 doubles, five homers and 26 RBI, while outfielder Zac Zellers has hit .310 with eight doubles, five homers and 18 RBI. Freshman A.J. Reed has a .302 average with nine doubles, three homers and 39 RBI, while Cameron Flynn owns a .286 mark with nine homers and 30 RBI.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team charted a 3-1 week, which included a series-upset of No. 2 Florida in Gainesville this weekend. It marked the second consecutive season the Wildcats have captured the series from Florida, and it was the first series this season the Gators had dropped in conference play. - The tremendous week was led by the senior trio of Chanda Bell, Brittany Cervantes and Rachel Riley. Bell picked up both victories in the Florida series working 14.0 innings and allowing just one run. She struck out 21 batters, including a season-high 13 in the series-clincher. For the weekend, she struck out 10.5 batters for every one she walked. - Riley batted .500 for the week which included the game-winning bases-clearing double in the series win over Florida. She also pitched UK to a victory in the midweek contest with Morehead State striking out seven and giving up just three hits. - Cervantes led the bats with a .583 week which included hitting what would become the game-winning solo homer in the opening win of the Florida series. With that long ball she became the only UK player in school history to hit 10 or more homers in all four seasons of a career. - With the wins over Florida, the Wildcats also guaranteed themselves a spot in the SEC Tournament for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year.
Track and field - Freshman Keilah Tyson finished second in the Women's 100-Meter Dash Championship at the Penn Relays on Saturday, clocking the third fastest 100m dash in UK history and the fastest ever by a freshman. - Senior Luis Orta finished fourth in the men's 3,000m steeplechase with a career-best time of 8:47.52. Orta's time is the second-fastest steeplechase in Kentucky history. - Sophomore Andrew Evans won the Men's Discus Throw Championship by six inches at the Penn Relays on Friday, throwing 185-06/56.56m. - Senior Jennifer Svoboda finished fifth in the Women's Shot Put Championship on Thursday at the Penn Relays, throwing a season-best mark of 50-10/15.49m.
Thursday, May 3 Baseball hosts Florida - 7:30 p.m.