In a press conference days before the University of Kentucky softball team began its NCAA Tournament run, head coach Rachel Lawson said the postseason is all about "pitching and defense."
The Wildcats were superb in both areas during the Lexington Regional at John Cropp Stadium this weekend, but they also added another element to the mix: an offense that's firing on all cylinders.
The Wildcats routed Notre Dame for the second time in as many days Sunday, knocking off the Fighting Irish 8-0 to cap a record-breaking weekend and earn a spot in the Eugene Super Regional.
The Cats outscored their opponents 28-1 and shattered the program's previous record for runs scored in a regional (17 in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2011) as they went 3-0 in the double-elimination mini-tournament.
On Saturday, UK trounced Illinois-Chicago 10-1 in a game that was moved from its original Friday slot because of heavy storms. Jenny Schaper set the final score with a grand slam in the top of the fifth. Later that night after another long weather delay, the Cats pounded the Fighting Irish 10-0 in their first meeting as Rachael Metzger belted the team's second grand slam of the day.
In a fitting climax to UK's dominant weekend, Abbey Cheek ended Sunday's game early with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Cats became just the third team in NCAA history to win an NCAA Tournament regional by triggering the "run rule" in all three of its wins.
Lawson said the Cats' new-found firepower makes it much less stressful to manage the game.
"This weekend it was really nice," said Lawson. "The pitcher has the ultimate pressure but if I call one bad pitch that means the game is over. That's something that I've lived with every single day for the last 11 years. So to be able to have an offense that's coming out and doing their job. ... I didn't feel that pressure of 'oh god, what if I call the wrong pitch.' So I can only imagine what the pitcher feels. That was a really nice weight to have off my shoulders."
Erin Rethlake, who notched complete-game wins in both of her starts this weekend, agreed.
"It puts a different confidence in a pitcher's head when it's not 'I can't make one bad pitch,'' said Rethlake. "Our offense is doing what they need to do right now."
Not that UK's pitchers needed much cover over the weekend. Rethlake and Grace Baalman combined to allow just four hits and two walks in the three wins. Lawson apologized to Rethlake after Sunday's game, blaming herself for the one hit Notre Dame managed.
"That's my fault. I called a stupid change-up and the (batter) was sitting on it," Lawson said. "Erin would have had a no-hitter today had it not been for me."
The Cats have developed a habit of advancing to the Super Regional round. This will mark their sixth appearance in program history and third in the last four years, all under Lawson. Now, they're headed to the same place where their season ended last year with a chance for revenge and a shot at the school's second appearance in the Women's College World Series (2014).
Oregon knocked the Cats off twice in the Eugene Regional last year. This time around, the Ducks are ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll while the Cats are ranked No. 19. Oregon is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament while UK is No. 16 overall. Rethlake says rankings don't matter at this point.
"Oregon is obviously the No. 1 seed this year and everyone is kind of 'well, it's the 1 versus the 16.' It's not. Personally I think we always play well as the underdog. It's fun to be the underdog," Rethlake said. "It's not about Oregon, it's about us. ... We're excited to get back out there."