Kentucky survived the deepest and, arguably, toughest softball conference in the nation to earn a No. 14 seed and the right to host one of this weekend’s NCAA Tournament regionals. The Wildcats don’t plan to squander it.
“At first, when we were coming out (this season), we were a little scared about how we would be with us being a young team,” said Kentucky pitching ace Meagan Prince, one of only three seniors on the squad. “We didn’t really know if we would even be able to make it to regionals … . So, for us to make it to this point, it’s a ‘wow’ factor. We’ve worked really hard to achieve this. Now we’re here, so let’s just keep on going and do things people don’t expect us to do.”
“The strength of our conference speaks for itself,” said Coach Rachel Lawson, who has led the Cats to nine straight NCAA tourney appearances. “We’re always playing in front of packed houses, and I think the reason it’s going to help prepare us for the postseason is, one, we have faced all those awesome opponents; and, the other thing, is to be able to play in a stadium with that kind of hoopla, that kind of crowd.”
Everyone who was here last year, we kind of have that memory when we didn’t make it out of regionals. I think we need to come out with a chip on our shoulder and play well, and not look ahead to super regionals.
Katie Reed, UK shortstop
While the Cats (36-17) are young, they return six key contributors from last season, including All-SEC shortstop Katie Reed and power hitter Abbey Cheek, both sophomores. Last year, a senior-laden team earned a No. 9 seed, the program’s highest ever.
“I think having that experience has helped them,” Lawson said. “They know what they are getting into. They know what they are hungry for.”
Reed, who leads the team with a .351 batting average, remembers the sting of getting upset and ousted from the tournament a year ago at home at this stage.
“Everyone who was here last year, we kind of have that memory when we didn’t make it out of regionals,” 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. Just focus on one game at a time.”
UK’s fortunes largely depend on Prince (19-7) who has carried the bulk of the work on the stripe for the Cats appearing in 37 of UK’s 53 games with a 1.98 ERA. She had the most complete games in the SEC this season and also registered four saves, a rare stat in college softball. She’ll likely be spelled by junior Erin Rethlake (9-5) but, come tournament time, many softball teams lean primarily on their ace.
“Meagan has been tremendous for us, not only on the mound, but she’s a vocal leader and she’s someone who has a lot of intelligence and knows how to take the team one step further every day,” Lawson said.
DePaul, Kentucky’s first opponent, seems to have more of a one-two punch with freshman Missy Zoch (14-7) and junior Kennedy Garcia (11-9). Marshall counters with Jordan Dixon (31-8), a senior who has dominated opposing lineups with a 1.73 ERA. Illinois features Breanna Wonderly (20-14), who has put up a 2.73 ERA in the Big Ten.
The Cats’ .500 record in the SEC (12-12) suggests nothing has come easy for UK. They don’t expect things to get easier this weekend.
“The one thing that I can guarantee is that this team knows how to fight,” Lawson said. “And I don’t know that I would have said that at the beginning of the year. I think this team has become very tough.”
About the parking
If it’s been awhile since you’ve been to a UK softball game, there’s a baseball stadium being built where you probably used to park.
Parking in the paved lot next to the stadium is extremely limited, and overflow parking is now in Kroger Field’s Blue Lot with shuttles provided to John Cropp Stadium.
Reed picked up another accolade Thursday as the National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association named her to its All-Southeast Region second team. She was named first team All-SEC last week.
She becomes the fourth UK shortstop to be named All-Region and the ninth player in 10 years to be so honored during Lawson’s tenure.
NCAA Lexington Regional
At UK’s John Cropp Stadium
Game 1: Marshall vs. Illinois, noon (ESPN2)
Game 2: DePaul vs. Kentucky, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Game 3: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, noon
Game 4: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 2:30 p.m.
Game 5: Loser Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 5 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5, Noon
Game 7: (If necessary) 2:30 p.m.