Victory at UCLA this weekend would be game-changer for Kentucky softball

jtipton@herald-leader.comMay 22, 2014 

  • NCAA Softball Tournament super regional

    What: Best-of-three series in the tournament's round of 16

    Where: Easton Stadium in Los Angeles

    Teams: No. 14 overall seed Kentucky (47-16), No. 3 overall seed UCLA (51-6)

    Schedule: Game 1 is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT; Game 2 is Sunday at 3 p.m.; Game 3 follows Game 2 (if necessary)

    At stake: Winner advances to Women's College World Series May 29-June 4 in Oklahoma City

    TV: All games on ESPNU

    All-time series: UCLA leads 4-0

    Last meeting: UCLA won 6-2 on Feb. 11, 2012, at Los Angeles.

Kentucky's trip to UCLA for a softball super regional this weekend has a been-there/not-done-that quality. It will be the program's third trip to a super regional in the last four years (and the first three ever).

Yet UK's softball renaissance under Coach Rachel Lawson has yet to include advancement to the Women's College World Series. This leads Lawson to embrace the notion of the best two-of-three at UCLA beginning Saturday as a potential milestone series.

"It'd be everything," she said Wednesday when asked about what beating UCLA would mean. "It would validate everything we've done here at Kentucky. ... Every game we do better, every step we take further really validates the blueprint we put out there at Kentucky does work.

"So getting to the World Series would mean everything to not just the program, but to the university itself."

Lauren Cumbess, UK's leading hitter (.317 average) and a senior who's experienced the program's entire super-regional history, also saw the program-changing possibility in the games at UCLA.

"It would just be really cool to set the tone for the next coming years," she said. "The girls who will be coming in, we can show it is possible to get there. And it's not an easy feat, but I know we can do it."

Center fielder Sylver Samuel (pronounced Sam-well), whose inside-the-park home run sparked Kentucky's victory over DePaul in the regional championship game Sunday, agreed.

"It would be a new era," she said of Kentucky beating UCLA. "And it would be something we can only imagine right now."

Standing in the way of all this what-if is UCLA, the overall No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins are the Kentucky basketball of women's softball: a dynasty that expects to win ... national championships. UCLA has won 11 (coincidentally, the same number won by UCLA's men's basketball teams).

"They're used to being on the national scene," Lawson said of the Bruins' softball teams. "They're used to going to the World Series. When they play a team like Kentucky, we're just a stepping stone to where they want to go. They're not going to feel a lot of pressure. We're just another cog in that wheel. I think that presents a little bit of a problem for us and more of an ease for them."

Kentucky has experienced being at the business end of UCLA's softball tradition. UCLA swept UK in an early-season series in Los Angeles in 2012.

"We were horrible the last time we were out there," Lawson said. "... I think we were just shell-shocked to be in L.A. That's softball Mecca."

Cumbess and Samuel took solace in how Kentucky's program has grown since those games at UCLA in 2012. If UCLA considers Kentucky as a mere stepping stone, so be it.

"Our team, we're a big fighting team," Cumbess said. "... We recognize they are an awesome program, and they think they might just want to beat us easily, maybe.

"I don't really know what they're thinking, but, you know, we're going to go out there and give them a good fight, and, hopefully, beat them."

Lawson noted that Kentucky's 23 games against ranked teams this season should eliminate the chance of sticker shock at UCLA.

"What I think it does is it helps calm the nerves," the UK coach said. "When you see a hitter get into the box that's 5-10 and big and strong and all that, you get a little nervous if you haven't faced that before. But because we play in the SEC and because we played so many ranked teams, we're used to seeing outstanding hitters and we're used to seeing outstanding players."

Pitcher Kelsey Nunley, a 27-game winner with an earned-run average of 1.89 this season, bolsters UK's confidence. "Very steady," Lawson said of her ace.

As a plus, Nunley pitched for Kentucky in the super regional at Arizona State last year. So she's got the kind of experience a senior like Cumbess started gaining three years ago.

"My freshman year, we were just really happy to get there," Cumbess said of UK's first super-regional appearance.

As she mulled a question about Kentucky advancing to this year's World Series, she could not suppress a laugh.

"It would be incredible," Cumbess said. "I get so happy talking about it. Because it's just never been done before (by a UK team).

"This team already has made so much history."

This UK team has already won a school record 47 games, posted the program's best finish in the SEC Tournament and set new standards for homers and doubles in a season.

Advancement to the World Series fits the pattern.

Said Cumbess: "We're just saying, why not?"

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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