Unprecedented, but not unnerving. Amazed, but not fazed.
That's how Kentucky softball players described their sense of accomplishment and anticipation going into the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
"I don't know if it'll really sink in until we take a step on the field and that first pitch is thrown," infielder Krystal Smith said Wednesday of UK's first-ever advancement to the World Series. "I can't explain. There's not enough words to explain how amazing the feeling is.
"We have to say that it can't get better than this. And we have to know that we're here not to just be here, but to actually compete and try to win the national championship."
Kentucky plays Louisiana-Lafayette Thursday (7 p.m. EDT) in its World Series opener.
At No. 14, UK is the worst-seeded of the eight teams in the World Series. The only other seed higher than an eight is No. 13 Baylor. Smith noted the mixed feelings that come with a Cinderella veneer.
"We're more than (happy) to accept the Cinderella label," she said. "Everyone loves a great story, and what better story than the first team in the Kentucky program (history) to get to the World Series and make a run? And how amazing it would be. And fans jumping onto a great story."
But, Smith added, "We all know we're just as good as all the other teams in this playing field. So we don't look at ourselves as a higher seed than the others, but . . . on the same level . . . because we all want the same goal."
Smith suggested perseverance and determination would be better labels for the Kentucky team. "I think the word that best exemplifies our team would be fight," she said.
UK showed its resilience in a super-regional victory at UCLA last weekend. Kentucky lost the first game in the best-of-three series. That meant that UK had to beat UCLA twice on Sunday to advance to the World Series. UCLA is the Kentucky basketball of softball: the winningest program and self-styled standard for others.
"There wasn't really a hill (to climb)," Emily Jolly said of being down a game in a best-of-three series. "Like, there wasn't any doubt in our mind that we couldn't beat that team."
By beating Kentucky in the opening game of the super regional, UCLA improved its NCAA Tournament record at home to 60-8. Yet, despite it all, Kentucky rallied.
"We always had a ton of confidence," Jolly said when asked if the come-from-behind series win at UCLA boosted UK's confidence. "We all think that we can beat anybody on any given day. There's not anyone that we think can just absolutely demolish us. We are as good as anyone else on any given day."
Kentucky begins proving that Thursday. The game against Louisiana-Lafayette will be televised by ESPN2.
Coach Rachel Lawson likened the competition in the World Series to the top five to eight teams in the Southeastern Conference. Translation: Formidable, but not overwhelming. "Any of us can win the national championship if you get some lucky breaks," she said.
Lawson lauded Baylor, Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 1 seed Oregon as "tremendous teams."
But, she added, "I think that the top of our conference matches up quite well against them."
When asked if the Kentucky team might be satisfied by merely advancing to the World Series, Lawson noted the disappointment she saw after a loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament finals as a sign her players want to achieve at the highest level.
"They are champions where they come from," she said. "So they understand what it feels like and they understand what they need to do to win."
Sophomore Kelsey Nunley, who has pitched every inning of every one of Kentucky's seven NCAA Tournament games, is rested and ready, Lawson said, before adding, "Well, as fresh as she can be."
In a sense, Kentucky has already won by advancing to the World Series. Lawson noted the beneficial effects of being on the sport's grandest stage.
"It will put us on the map of the sports teams for Kentucky fans that didn't previously pay attention to the sport of softball," the UK coach said. "So what I think it's going to help do is grow the sport, not only in our fan base, but also in the state and in our region. I believe that's going to be a lot of the fallout that you're going to see."