GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Four trips in five seasons later, Super Regionals feel different for Kentucky softball.
Unprecedented success has led to unprecedented expectations for the Wildcats. What once was a destination has become something of a birthright.
"If you took this team and it was five years ago everybody would think we were great," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said.
With her team set to take on top-seeded Florida (53-6) in a best-of-three series beginning at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Gainesville, Fla., Lawson thinks of another team back home on UK's campus in the way success is now defined for her program.
"It is kind of like Kentucky basketball," Lawson said. "If Kentucky basketball just gets to the Sweet 16, it is just an OK season. Kentucky basketball is expected to be in the Final Four and win the national championship."
Lawson knows her team has a long way to go to match its counterpart on the hardwood - eight national titles, for starters - but the comparison holds water nonetheless.
"We are not Kentucky basketball, but we are definitely in the realm where we are only one of nine teams that have been to three straight Super Regionals," Lawson said. "So it is one of those things where now when you are as good as you are everybody expects you to go the World Series all the time."
Kentucky (32-24) made its first Women's College World Series trip a season ago, but a second straight trip seemed unlikely as recently as a week ago. The Cats limped into the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game losing streak, but swept through the South Bend Regional, knocking off overall No. 16 seed Notre Dame in the process.
"It was fun," third baseman Nikki Sagermann said. "It was great to get back on the field and get the team back on track and win some ballgames. It is always good when you are winning."
That's especially true with frequent losing still so fresh in your mind. But rather than letting that derail their confidence, the Cats got to work in a crucial week of practice following a loss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"We weren't making good pitches or if we did make a good pitch we wouldn't make a good stop," Lawson said. "We just weren't very good at that time. I think now with some work I think they feel confident that they are back to doing what they do well."
UK will need every ounce of that confidence come this weekend against the defending national champion Gators. Florida will have a home crowd on its side, not to mention an offense led by SEC Player of the Year Kelsey Stewart and a pitching staff anchored by SEC Pitcher of the Year Lauren Haeger. The Gators are hitting .312 as a team and boast an earned-run average of 1.73.
"We have already faced them this year so we know that environment with the fans and we have a lot of experience with that," said Sagermann, who hit two home runs last weekend and is on a career-best 10-game hitting streak. "They are a very good team and we are going to have to be on our A game to get out of there with two wins."
The Gators swept a competitive three-game set against UK in April, winning games by one, two and three runs. Outside of a six-run inning against sophomore Meagan Prince in game two, the Cats allowed just three runs all weekend.
"Well, I thought that we played pretty well that weekend," said Kelsey Nunley, who pitched all but two innings of UK's three regional wins. "We didn't get the results that we wanted, but we fought pretty hard and played good defense and made some good contact at the plate. I hope we can carry what we learned from those loses into this weekend."
Though Florida is the top seed, UK has experience taking down a favorite in Supers. The Cats won at No. 3 seed UCLA last season.
"This is our seventh straight postseason and every year we seem to be the underdog so that is a role that we are used to," Lawson said. "Florida is a very good team. It is different in the standpoint that we are both very familiar with each other because playing an SEC team is a lot different than going out of conference. So it is a similar scenario in that we are the underdog and are going to have to do something pretty exceptional in order to win."
Exceptional, sure, but not impossible.
"They are a higher seed than us and we are obviously pretty low seeded," Sagermann said. "We are just going to go out there and play our game and put no pressure on us. We are out there just to have fun and get two wins."
Rachael Metzger had the game-winning, pinch-hit single on Friday. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Come postseason, experience was supposed to serve Kentucky well.
With numerous returners from last year's Women's College World Series team back, the veterans were the ones who would lead the way.
To start with, that's exactly how things played out.
It was junior Sylver Samuel getting on in front of senior Griffin Joiner, who laced a double to plate the game's first run. It was junior Kelsey Nunley shutting out Northwestern through four innings. It was junior Nikki Sagermann slamming a two-run home run to tie the game in the fifth inning.
But that familiar script got flipped in the sixth.
"I think what it says is you never know what's going to happen in the postseason," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The postseason is the time for--you gotta be risky, you gotta do whatever and it's really about who shines in the moment."
In the end, two underclassmen - sophomore Meagan Prince and true freshman Rachael Metzger - shined brightest and led UK to a 5-4 win to move into the winners' bracket of the South Bend Regional.
Prince came on in relief of Nunley, who gave up four runs and a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning. She tossed two scoreless innings and picked up the win in her first career NCAA Tournament appearance.
"I couldn't say enough about Meagan coming in and shutting the door," Lawson said. "Northwestern was doing a great job, they were hitting the ball hard and for her to calm down their bats a little bit was big for the win today."
Also big was Metzger, who came off the bench and delivered the game-winning pinch-hit single.
The hit - which came on the first pitch of the at-bat - made Metzger the exception on Friday afternoon. The first time through the order, her teammates didn't manage a single hit against Kristen Wood.
"We had never seen her before," Lawson said. "She's a really good pitcher and she had a little bit different spin than we were used to. It didn't break as much side to side as we thought that we had seen on video. So it had a lot more downward movement than we were anticipating and once we figured that out we were able to recognize the pitches sooner and be able to square up on them."
Metzger didn't need that time.
"I had been watching previous at-bats from other batters and had watched a lot of pitches - first-strike pitches - and kind of knew she was most likely going to throw something close in my house," Metzger said. "I just kind of saw the ball and hit the ball."
Metzger promptly laced a ball down the left-field line to score Maisie Steed and stake UK to a 5-4 lead. Prince took it from there.
Even though Northwestern loaded the bases thanks to an error, a walk and a fielder's choice, Prince closed the door with a game-ending strikeout.
"Pretty stressful situation, but I trusted my teammates behind me," Prince said. "I knew when it came down to it they would have my back. So long as I just didn't give up a bomb, they would have my back."
Thanks to Prince and her teammates having her back, UK will play the early game Saturday needing just one win to reach the Regional final. The Cats will face Ball State at noon.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For seven straight seasons, the Kentucky softball team has reached the NCAA Tournament.
Leading one of just 21 programs nationally with such a streak, UK head coach Rachel Lawson knows it's a big deal.
"It means that we are able to build and that we are a program, not just a team," Lawson said.
The latest edition of the Wildcats will make its tournament debut on Friday, facing Northwestern in the South Bend Regional at 2 p.m. UK. The Cats are coming off their first Women's College World Series trip ever, but haven't performed quite up to expectations in entering the NCAA Tournament with a 29-24 record.
"We understand that we have fallen short for a lot of reasons and hopefully we have tightened up," Lawson said.
When Lawson says "tightened up," she's thinking execution, not the emotional state of her team. She learned long ago from a longtime UK administrator to avoid that kind of tightness at all costs.
"We are really fortunate because John Cropp - who our stadium is named after - used to tell me when I first got here that worrying is just praying for something bad to happen," Lawson said. "That is kind of our mindset all the time."
Instead of thinking about the fact that they have lost seven straight games - the last three in walk-off fashion to No. 8 national seed Tennessee - the Cats are trying to learn the lessons they can from the defeats and focus on what's next.
"Honestly we're just trying to take the positives out of it and kind of move on from the past and move forward and look at what's ahead," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "That's the next pitch and the next game that we play."
But practice came first.
UK fell in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday, leaving the Cats ample time to practice for the NCAA Tournament with nothing but themselves in mind.
"We have had about six great days of practice and we haven't had that since January," Lawson said. "I think the fact that we have been able to focus on those things and the individual techniques that are required so we end up coming through in the end. I think we are going to be OK."
"We just had more time to focus on the things that we need to focus on," Joiner said. "It's kind of (hard to do that) during the grind of the season. You play every day, so it's just been good to be able to slow down and focus a little bit."
Lawson expects that extra time to yield results come this weekend, when UK will look to get past Northwestern, host Notre Dame and Ball State and into a Super Regional.
"I like the intensity of the practice and the passion," Lawson said. "The other thing from a tactical standpoint was the defense was a lot better and a lot cleaner and we were making diving catches and attacking balls that we used to sit back on. The postseason is about pitching and defense and then hopefully you luck out and get those timely hits."
A season ago, UK had that recipe down pat in making that WCWS trip, riding the arm of Kelsey Nunley, a good defense behind her and a clutch offense to Oklahoma City. With numerous contributors back from that team, including Nunley and Joiner along with Christian Stokes, Nikki Sagermann and Sylver Samuel, the Cats will be calling on that experience come Friday.
"I think the team that has the most experience when you walk on the field, you are not as nervous, you know what to expect and know what pregame is about and media and all those things," Lawson said. "That certainly gives us an advantage."
An advantage, sure, but no guarantee.
The Cats might be part of something bigger than themselves when it comes to the UK program, but they're just a team when they step on the field.
"I think the other thing you understand is that when you are in the postseason: It doesn't matter what you did the previous season, you have to play well this weekend," Lawson said. "Having that mindset is what has been able to carry us and we have had that mindset for seven years now."
The Kentucky baseball team got the all-around effort it needed on Tuesday en route to a 5-1 win over Northern Kentucky.
It was the team win the Wildcats were looking for after a dropping the final two games of a weekend series vs. Georgia and before the final regular-season series of the year, at Missouri beginning on Thursday.
All but one starter had a hit, and the four-man pitching staff combined to allow one run and nine hits. The all-around effort saw just two Wildcats, Evan White and Storm Wilson, with more than one hit, and no pitcher took the hill for more than three innings.
As head coach Gary Henderson looked back at the win, it was the pitching that stood out.
"It was a really good team win tonight," Henderson said. "Starting with two innings from Andrew [Nelson] on the mound, then to be able to get three out of Brad [Schaenzer] and three out of Zach [Pop] and then one out of Bo [Wilson], in a different role for Bo. I was really pleased with all four of those guys."
Nelson got the start and worked two innings. The senior righthander allowed no runs on just two hits with three strikeouts. In the first inning, he walked two and NKU loaded the bases, but a lineout to left ended the threat with the bases full.
Schaenzer came in the start the third. The freshman allowed a two-out single in each inning, but nothing more. Schaenzer added four strikeouts and walked none.
Next in line was Pop, another freshman. He was nearly as good as Schaenzer, but a pair of doubles in the eighth plated the Norse's lone run.
With Kentucky's lead cut to 3-1, the offense scored two in the bottom of the eighth before Wilson closed it out in the ninth.
Offensively, the game was just as clean and well-rounded for Kentucky. Eleven hits distributed among nine players, and the five runs were scored and batted in by a combined seven Wildcats.
"We came up with a couple of key hits when it mattered," Henderson said. Greg [Fettes'] hit in the eighth was huge. It was certainly a lot better than the offensive showing on Sunday. We were able to get some guys some at-bats and get some hits and drive in some runs with guys on base. That was nice. Obviously that was a little bit of a battle for us on Sunday, but they did a nice job today."
Fettes, in his first at-bat of the game, launched a two-run home run in the eighth. The shot to left scored Wilson and came a half-inning after Northern Kentucky scored its only run.
The offense got a quick start to the game in the first, as Kyle Barrett singled to lead off the game. He scored on White's double, who scored on a JaVon Shelby groundout. Four batters into the game for the Wildcats and they held a 2-0 lead. UK's lead grew to 3-0 after White scored in the fifth.
It was a big win for Kentucky because of what's next. Wednesday's day off includes a trip to Missouri, where the Wildcats open a three-game set on Thursday. Then, the postseason begins at the SEC Tournament on Tuesday.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes still up in the air, Kentucky will need some wins this weekend against the Tigers. However, the Wildcats will have some momentum on their side as they take the field for the final time in the regular season.
"It's a lot better than not having the win," Henderson said of momentum going into the Missouri series. "Hopefully we'll go from this and we just have to play well. We're very capable of playing well on the road, and the team knows that. That'll be our job, that's our challenge, and we need to go to Columbia and play well."
With series wins in two of its last three three-game road SEC series, UK certainly knows how to play well on the road. That should only add to the momentum.
The Kentucky softball team is headed to Notre Dame.
Making their seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats were sent to the South Bend Regional during Sunday night's Selection Show. UK will open tournament play against Northwestern at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, with host and No. 16 seed Notre Dame taking on Ball State afterward.
Head coach Gary Henderson was forced to play Dorian Hairston.
The junior is swinging a hot bat, and there's no way he can't be in the lineup night in and night out.
Friday was Hairston's 11th consecutive start, and he celebrated it with a three-run home run in the third inning, the eventual game winner in UK's 6-2 victory over Georgia.
"That's a phrase that the kids are very familiar with, force me to play you," Henderson said about Hairston playing his way into the lineup. "Take it out of my hands, make it a no-brainer, you have to play."
Friday was the 19th time Hairston's name was listed on the lineup card in UK's last 21 games. Before that, he started just five times.
The home run was Hairston's fourth career long ball, all coming this season in conference play. Hairston has plated the game-winning run for the Wildcats in three of their last four wins, two of those coming against top-six teams.
Friday's blast cleared the fence in left-center came on a 2-1 pitch. A curveball from a righthanded pitcher was not a problem for Hairston tonight.
"That was huge," Hairston said. "That's been my big weakness. Since I've been here, it's always been 'we have to figure out a way to get you to hit the righthanded off-speed breaking pitch. I actually wasn't even looking for that pitch, I thought he was going to throw a fastball, it's a 2-1 count, I'm thinking he doesn't want to get to 3-1. He floats that thing over there and it hangs a little bit. I was able to keep that front shoulder in and turn it around, and now it's a 3-0 ballgame. That was huge, that was big for my confidence.
"He hung a curveball in my first at-bat, and he hung it again in the second, it was a 2-1 count and I took advantage of it."
So what has changed since mid-march for the Lexington native?
It began with a start in right field on March 22 vs. No. 20 Mississippi State, where he went 2-4 with two RBI. Three games later, he had two more starts under his belt. After another day off, the stretch of 19 starts in 21 days began.
"Confidence," Hairston said. "I feel a lot more confident at the plate, I feel like I'm starting to prove myself and show that I've earned some playing time. Through that, I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate and I'm finding some success with it."
In his last 19 games, Hairston has recorded at least one hit in all but five games. He has 12 RBI with seven extra-base knocks.
His confidence is up, but Hairston is also seeing the ball better and picking the right pitches to swing at.
"He's doing a better job of swinging at strikes, he's doing a better job of laying off balls out of the strikezone, same thing," Henderson said. "He's become much more proficient in clobbering soft stuff that's a mistake, which is what he got tonight. He's a good rightfielder, plays smart, he cares. Kids respect him, coaches respect him."
Swinging a hot bat, Hairston will see plenty more time in the lineup. After all, he has forced his way in.
Dustin Beggs struck out 12 batters in 8.1 innings as UK defeated No. 6 Vanderbilt, 11-5 on Saturday (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Saturday, Kentucky faced a team that scored 13 runs the night before and had tallied nine or more runs 17 times. The opponent was the defending national champions and sixth-ranked Vanderbilt.
For UK's junior righthander Dustin Beggs though, who recorded his four consecutive win, it was business as usual.
Beggs went 8.1 innings and allowed just three runs. It was all the Wildcats needed as the offense exploded for 11 runs in an 11-5 win to even the three-game series at 1-1.
"I felt really good," Beggs said after the game. "[Head coach Gary] Henderson and I have been working in the bullpen, getting everything going in the right spot. Mesh everything together, get fastballs and curveballs working together. I think it's been working out well."
Saturday was Beggs' fourth win in as many starts, going at least eight innings in each appearance. He earned his team-high eighth quality start of the season as UK improved to 8-4 on the year with Beggs on the mound.
Last week's win came at No. 5 Florida with a career-high 8.1 innings pitched. The 8.1 frames Saturday vs. the sixth-ranked Commodores matched that.
With a career-best 12 strikeouts Saturday and having reached the ninth inning in back-to-back weeks, Beggs has continued to get better week after week.
"We certainly have high standards for him, but he's gotten better as the season has progressed," Henderson said. "He's gotten more stamina, he has the ability to concentrate longer. His concentration now, compared to where it was in February is in a noticeably different spot."
Beggs has recorded six or more strikeouts in four consecutive games and in six starts total in 2015. Saturday's 12 was the first time in his career that he sat down more than eight opposing batters.
The curveball was Beggs' go-to pitch on Saturday.
"I was able to switch sides well, and my curveball was working really well. I was getting a lot of swing-and-misses on that, before there were two strikes, so it worked well."
Following a 13-run outburst from Vanderbilt in Friday's series-opener, including back-to-back five run innings, Henderson was especially impressed with how Beggs handled a rocky first inning on Saturday.
The Commodores sent eight batters to the plate and they had three hits. VU loaded the bases with two outs, but a flyout to center ended the threat with just one run across.
Beggs had his first two strikeouts in the opening frame, and after allowing the three hits, he settled down to give up just four the rest of the night.
"What Dustin did in the first inning, it wasn't very clean," Henderson said. "It had the chance to be a mess but he got out of it. He found his rhythm and really found his command after that, I thought that was as impressive as anything we'd seen in a while.
"Early on, they were clearly sitting on the outer half [of the plate] on the fastball. So we got him off the fastball a little bit, and he did a much better job of mixing the sides of the fastball. It was much better than we did last night."
Tomorrow, the Wildcats go for their fourth Southeastern Conference series win against a top-20 opponent in six chances. On the mound, Beggs has played a significant role in UK's success against ranked foes.
The senior has three wins over ranked opponents and a no decision in another two.
Along with an 8.1-inning, 3-run showing last week to clinch the series at No. 5 Florida, Beggs earned a win vs. No. 20 Mississippi State when he allowed three runs in 6.0 innings on March 21.
At No. 1 LSU on March 28, Beggs gave up just two runs, one of them earned.
It's performances like that that helps give his teammates confidence against ranked opponents.
"I think we really get a boost of confidence when we come in," Beggs said. "We think we have the team that's capable of doing it. We just go out and play our game and don't let anything affect us, and we've been doing well with that."
If Beggs keeps on pitching the way he did Saturday night, he and the Wildcats will have a few more big wins under their belt before his senior season comes to a close.