Toughness UK's Calling Card Heading into Regional

Rachel Lawson is confident heading into an NCAA Tournament regional Kentucky will host starting on Friday. 

That doesn’t mean she has any idea what to expect this weekend.

“They are unpredictable, so there’s nothing that I guarantee that we’re going to do,” Lawson said of her team.

The Wildcats, seeded No. 14 overall, have won (and lost) games in nearly every conceivable fashion. They’ve come on top in slugfests and pitcher’s duels alike. They’ve pounced on opponents early, but also come back late.

Lawson doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen when UK (36-17) hosts DePaul (29-21) at approximately 2:30 p.m. on Friday. There is, however, one certainty in her mind. 

“The one thing that I can guarantee is this team knows how to fight,” Lawson said.

That’s a trait the Cats have developed over the course of the season.

“I think that this team has become very tough,” Lawson said. “Early on in the year, we didn’t do a very good job coming back. If we didn’t have the lead, we had a hard time coming back from behind. But then about three-quarters of the way through the season, we figured out how to come from behind. I think that’s huge and that’s something that we’ve done recently. I think that’s made us tougher and tougher.”

UK began to build that toughness when it went through its first extended stretch of failure.

The Cats were cruising through a 23-6 start to the season when it hit, as UK lost five of six Southeastern Conference games in back-to-back series against Ole Miss and Tennessee. UK was outscored 34-8 over those games and scored more than two runs just once -- a 9-4 series finale loss to the Volunteers.

“I think that we’ve faced some adversity a little bit during SEC play against Ole Miss and Tennessee,” sophomore shortstop Katie Reed said. “I think that’s kind of when it started. But even towards the end of the Tennessee series, our offense kind of came alive and then from there we kind of got rolling and I think that’s when we realized what we were capable of doing.”

The next weekend, Florida came to town. The Gators boast one of the best pitching staffs in the country and are now the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, but the Cats fought them tooth and nail all weekend and even won the Saturday game, 5-1. 

“I think we developed through our SEC play,” senior pitcher Meagan Prince said. “Having to play that tough competition day in and day out and having to establish a name for ourselves. Just because we are young, we’re not giving up this year. We’re still going to fight for what we have.”

That fight was on display the following weekend, as UK capped a sweep at Missouri by scoring seven runs over the final two innings to complete a 10-8 comeback. Then came the Cats’ signature series win of the season: taking two of three from No. 4 Texas A&M.

“When we beat Texas A&M, that’s when we realized we were up there with the top,” Reed said. “And when we beat Florida, same thing. I think we know what we can do now.”

That will be put to the test this weekend against DePaul and the other two teams coming to UK for the regional: Marshall and Illinois. Lawson has already been hard at work reviewing tape of all three. That has revealed that this weekend’s opponents will bring lots of speed to the table, as well as an attitude similar to UK’s 

“The other thing that all three of these teams have in common is they all are very, very feisty,” Lawson said. “You’re not going to see probably a region that has three more aggressive-style coaches, opponents that we’re going to face. They’re all incredibly aggressive.”

One of those opponents, Illinois, will be returning to Lexington after playing in a 2016 regional hosted by UK. The Cats eliminated the Illini last year, but eventually were upset by Utah. 

“I think everyone who was here last year, we kind of have that memory of last year when we didn’t make it out of regionals and we had the opportunity to host,” Reed said. “I think we need to come out with a chip on our shoulder and play well and not look ahead to super regionals and just focus one game at a time.”

The Cats don’t expect to have any trouble doing that.

“It’s just another game,” Prince said. “Just play it like another game. We play the SEC here almost every weekend. They’re tough. They keep us prepared for this and it’s just another game. Go out there and leave it all on the field.”