The University of Kentucky softball team faced the second toughest schedule in the nation this season.
That grind resulted in a 31-19 record for the Wildcats and a 10th-place finish in the Southeastern Conference.
The reward comes this weekend.
Kentucky will host an NCAA Tournament regional at John Cropp Stadium Friday through Sunday.
The Wildcats are the No. 16 overall seed in the 64-team tournament. The top 16 seeds each host regionals so, in terms of hosting, UK was a "bubble team" until the end, according to head coach Rachel Lawson.
"We certainly had a good schedule this season and we came up with some quality wins and we were really strong at the end," Lawson said. "But we didn’t know where we were going. We were ready to pack, we were ready to stay. We weren’t sure, but we’re really excited to be here for sure."
UK earned the right to host a regional for the third season in a row. Ranked No. 19 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, Kentucky topped the 30-win mark for the 10th straight year. The Cats have reached the NCAA Tournament in each of those seasons.
The Wildcats will be joined in the double-elimination Lexington Regional by Michigan and Notre Dame, both of whom received at-large bids like Kentucky, and Illinois-Chicago, which qualified automatically by winning the Horizon League Tournament.
"I'm really excited about this draw," Lawson said. "I think this is probably going to be one of the toughest regions in the nation this year. "
The regional begins Friday with Michigan and Notre Dame meeting at noon. UK will take on Illinois-Chicago at about 2:30 p.m. Three games are scheduled for Saturday, with Friday's winners facing off at noon and Friday's losers following at about 2:30. The losers of Saturday's first two games will play at about 5.
The two surviving teams will take the field at noon on Sunday and will play again about 2:30 if necessary.
"The team is really well prepared," Lawson said of Kentucky. "We’ve played some of the best pitchers in the country, certainly on this side of the country. That really matters when you get into the postseason because the postseason is about pitching and defense.
"Our pitchers on the other hand have seen some of the best hitters. They’ve gone through the murderer’s row of the SEC and they do that week in and week out. … I think that’s going to bode well for us in the postseason."
The Wildcats' stiffest competition in the regional might be Michigan. Ranked ahead of UK in the coaches poll at No. 16, the Wolverines finished the season with a record of 43-11, winning the Big Ten regular-season title with a league mark of 18-3 before falling in the second round of the conference tournament.
UK and Michigan have met three times in NCAA regionals with the Cats owning a 2-1 edge in those games. UK ended the Wolverines' season in 2011 with two wins in the Ann Arbor Regional. Michigan topped UK 3-2 in the 2012 Louisville Regional.
Notre Dame and Illinois-Chicago finished the regular season unranked in major polls. The Fighting Irish are 32-21 overall and finished tied for the fourth-best record in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 13-10. Illinois-Chicago is 33-19 overall and won the Horizon League regular-season title with a 19-4 record.
What about the weather?
It appears this weekend's games could be affected by wet weather. Friday's forecast calls for a high temperature of 77 degrees and a 90 percent chance of rain. Saturday's high is 78 degrees with an 80 percent chance of rain. Sunday's forecast is a bit less dire with a 50 percent chance of rain, mostly in the evening, with a high of 86.
The NCAA will have a representative at John Cropp Stadium who can elect to extend the regional into Monday if the weather makes it necessary. However, if a regional winner can't be determined by Monday night the highest remaining seed will automatically advance to the super-regional round.
All-session tickets and single-session tickets are available through UKathletics.com. All-session seats are $25-$40 each and single-session seats are $10-$15.