Fresh off winning the Lexington Regional in Lexington, Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson expects "dramatically better" competition when her team plays at Arizona State this weekend in the NCAA Super Regional.
"They do everything so well," Lawson said of the Sun Devils, the No. 5 overall seed in the tournament and owners of a 38-3 home record this season. Kentucky must win twice in the best-of-three series to advance to the World Series.
The UK coach noted Arizona State's power. "They hit a ton of home runs," she said. Arizona State (48-10) has slugged 92 homers this season. By comparison, UK has hit 57.
But it was ASU pitcher Dallas Escobedo that generated much talk when Lawson and several of her players spoke to reporters Wednesday.
Escobedo, a 6-foot junior, has won 89 games in three college seasons. This season she sports a 28-4 won-loss record, and struck out 310 batters in 230 innings.
In last weekend's NCAA Regional in Tempe, Escobedo pitched her team to three victories, including a no-hitter against San Jose State. Over 21 innings, she gave up four hits and no earned runs.
Coincidentally, Arizona State's website lists "laughing" as one of her hobbies.
Kentucky (41-19) got a firsthand look at Escobedo on Feb. 9. She gave up five hits and struck out eight in an 8-1 victory over UK.
"She was strong," UK outfielder Sylver Samuel said. "She was the definition of a competitor. She'll be tough."
Lawson and her players noted that Escobedo throws hard, but she also puts noticeable spin on her pitches. The spin creates more movement on the pitches, plus makes it more difficult to hit the ball solidly.
"She's very good," senior Kara Dill said.
Arizona State also hit two homers in the regular-season victory over Kentucky. Ancient history, the Cats said.
"It seems forever ago," Samuel said.
Kentucky, which regularly starts as many as five freshmen, has grown up in the intervening months. The game against Arizona State came in a trip west to begin the season. Since then, the Cats have played 16 games against teams ranked in the top 15.
"We're a completely different team now than we were then," Lawson said. " . . . I don't think we'll be as star-struck as we were."
Added Samuel, one of UK's freshmen: "We've changed a lot. We've gotten a lot stronger and a lot closer."
The games at Arizona State figure to be a rematch of ace pitchers: freshman Kelsey Nunley (27-9) for UK, Escobedo for ASU. In 251⁄3 innings at the Lexington Regional, Nunley gave up only three earned runs.
Lawson noted how she's monitored Nunley's workload. The UK freshman has pitched 25 more innings than Escobedo this season. "She's going to be fine," the UK coach said.
Lawson said much the same about her team. Win or lose at Arizona State, the Cats can benefit. "I still think we were a little bit tight in the regionals," she said. "Every step we're taking helps them. The experience they're gaining helps them understand what they need to do to go to the World Series."
NCAA Super Regionals: Kentucky at Arizona State
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tempe Ariz.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com