The Kentucky softball team’s season came to an end Sunday as Utah knocked off the Cats 5-3, ending a record-breaking year for UK and sending the Utes to the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Cats forced a decisive Game 2 in the Lexington Regional finals at John Cropp Stadium after defeating Utah 4-0 in Sunday’s first game on the strength of a four-run third inning capped by Abbey Cheek’s team-leading 10th homer of the season.
Game two was a pitcher’s duel until Utah struck in the fifth inning, scoring three runs with two outs. After three straight singles broke the scoreless tie, Anissa Urtez roped a two-RBI drive to left field off reliever Kelsey Nunley to give the Utes a 3-0 lead. Urtez vexed the Cats all weekend. The junior shortstop blasted a two-run homer in a 3-0 win over UK Saturday, which forced the Cats into Sunday’s back-to-back must-win games scenario.
“Anissa was great, I kept hoping she was up every inning,” said Utah Coach Amy Hogue. “All year it’s been Anissa for us, and she worked really hard for that.”
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The Cats fought back, finally getting to Utah starter Katie Donovan when Jenny Schaper belted a solo home run to lead off the fifth inning before Donovan retired the next three batters. Utah added another run in the top of the sixth, but in the bottom of the frame a double by Katie Reed and a single by Brooklin Hinz each brought in a run to close the gap to 4-3.
But Utah answered once again in the seventh on an RBI-double by Hailey Hilburn and the Cats would get no closer. Reed sent a flyout down the left field line to end UK’s postseason run.
A weather delay Friday forced UK to play three games Saturday. After Sunday’s loss, UK head coach Rachel Lawson said the cumulative effect of all those innings may have taken a toll on her pitchers.
“We’ve never played three games in one day and then had to turn around and play two more. We’ve never played five games in two days,” she said. “Obviously it takes a toll on your pitching staff, and I think that was kind of the case in game two (against Utah). Our pitchers just weren’t as sharp as they could have been had we not had to play so many games.”
Kelsey Nunley, who went 21-6 as a senior and was named a finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year, said despite the disappointing finish she’s glad she had the chance to suit up for the Cats.
“It didn’t end how my class wanted it to, but at the end of the day I’m just thankful that I was able to play at UK,” she said. “You’re so thankful to be at such a great school. You have so many people that care about you and help you.”
Kentucky set program-best marks this year for regular season wins, Southeast Conference wins and highest postseason seed (9). Lawson remarked on how far the program has come during her nine-year tenure at the helm.
“Four years ago before this class started, to be up at a podium and talk about being upset was unfathomable, because we were always the team that if we were to win it was always an upset,” she said. “And now I think about what this program has become … a lot of that has been because of this senior class.”
Lawson expects UK to continue its rise up the college softball hierarchy, noting that six starters will return to the lineup along with junior pitchers Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith.
“If you look at our team today, we had a freshman batting second, we had a freshman batting fourth, we had a freshman batting fifth and a sophomore batting sixth,” she said. “So even though we had a great senior class we also had a lot of youth … I believe we have a great team moving forward.”