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One night in April changed everything for UK softball. Now, Cats are taking aim at No. 1.

Kentucky's Jenny Schaper (6) celebrated with Katie Reed (23) after Shaper's grand slam home run against Illinois-Chicago last Saturday at John Cropp Stadium. Coach Rachel Lawson said the Wildcats are playing more freely at the plate since a midseason change in team philosophy.
Kentucky's Jenny Schaper (6) celebrated with Katie Reed (23) after Shaper's grand slam home run against Illinois-Chicago last Saturday at John Cropp Stadium. Coach Rachel Lawson said the Wildcats are playing more freely at the plate since a midseason change in team philosophy. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Kentucky should be intimidated by nothing.

The Wildcats play in the most formidable softball conference in the nation. They are led by one of the most respected coaches in America. They play in the postseason year in and year out.

And yet …

There is Oregon.

For the second year in a row, Kentucky’s path to its first Women's College World Series appearance since 2014, runs through Eugene, Ore., home of the now possibly mightier than ever Ducks.

Pacific-12 champion Oregon has played in four of the past six College World Series but has never advanced beyond the semifinals. The Ducks (50-7) entered this NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, and there is an air of unfinished business surrounding the program.

Kentucky and Oregon open a best-of-three super-regional series Thursday night at Jane Sanders Stadium. The winner advances to the College World Series.

The same tipping point unfolded last year in Eugene, with Oregon sweeping the Wildcats 4-0 and 6-5. In the clincher, the Ducks scored four times in the top of the seventh as Kentucky melted in front of the raucous home crowd.

All three of this weekend’s games at “The Jane” are sold out, with more than 2,500 fans expected for each.

“They’re not going to be as surprised as they were last year with the environment from the Jane, so we’ve got to come with our A game for sure because they’re a good team,” Oregon catcher Gwen Svekis told The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene this week. “I think we’re calm, cool and collected. We’re trying to tell the younger girls that this is when it’s fun and this is when it gets real.”

Kentucky defeats Notre Dame 10-0 in the NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional on Saturday night at John Cropp Stadium.

So, is Kentucky intimidated?

Facing the nation’s No. 1 team on its formidable home field might not be the exact spot Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson would prefer her team be, but such a crucible can be defining.

“The goal is always, when you’re in the SEC, a national championship, and that’s something that you work toward every year,” Lawson said of the challenge.

A simpler approach

To get past Oregon, the Wildcats (34-19) will have to overcome one of the nation’s premier pitching staffs.

Sophomore right-hander Miranda Elish is 22-1 and junior righty Megan Kleist is 21-5. Both boast ERAs of 0.92. The Ducks have posted 24 shutouts this season. Oregon has yielded just 72 runs in 57 games.

Lawson called Oregon’s pitching staff “deceptive” because of each pitcher’s ability to play to different strengths, but this weekend will be about Kentucky keeping things simple.

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Erin Rethlake is 11-4 with a 2.77 ERA for Kentucky this season. Rethlake and freshman Grace Baalman will handle the bulk of the pitching for UK this weekend. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

“We’re really excited,” Kentucky senior pitcher Erin Rethlake said. “Obviously, everyone really thinks of Kentucky as the underdog, but it’s not about who we’re playing right now. It’s about Kentucky and us playing together. We’re more focused on us than anything else.”

That focus revolves around a simplified approach to offense the team has adopted since midseason. A narrow escape of a 1-0 victory at Eastern Kentucky on April 10 opened Lawson’s eyes to what was needed to get her team postseason-ready.

EKU spent that game substituting pitchers to great effect depending on the strength or weakness of the UK batter.

“I was like, this is going to never happen again,” Lawson said. “I’ve got to have an offense that no matter what pitches are thrown or when we know they’re going to switch an approach we have to be able to switch that quick. The only way you can make those kind of switches quickly is if you have a simplified approach.”

Kentucky defeats Illinois-Chicago 10-1 during the 2018 NCAA Softball Regionals Saturday at John Cropp Stadium.

Lawson said she and her coaching staff borrowed a page from Major League Baseball’s embrace of analytics, which encourages players to avoid ground balls and drive the ball hard into the air.

"Coach Lawson has been simplifying our game plan in the box,” Rethlake said. “It’s finding our pitch and driving it to the big part of the field. … Sitting on our pitch, waiting for it and doing what we know how to do.

“It’s taken us a little bit to get used to it. … You can tell everyone is getting comfortable at the same time.”

Kentucky was clearly comfortable last weekend, when it won the NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional with a 3-0 record, sweeping to two mercy-rule wins and outscoring opponents 28-1.

“I don’t believe in my tenure we’ve ever had a point where we’ve strung together three dominating performances like that against such great competition,” Lawson said. “That really bodes well for this upcoming weekend, I think.

“When you’re in the postseason, statistics don’t really matter that much, nothing matters,” Lawson said. “It’s just win that at-bat, win the battle and move on. This style caters more toward that.”

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Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson has led her Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament super-regional round for the sixth time. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

What about the pitching?

Kentucky’s statistics last weekend were impressive, but so were Oregon’s. The Ducks, who have won 16 games in a row, allowed only 10 hits and struck out 36 in 21 innings in wins over Albany (4-0) and Drake (5-0 and 3-0).

“They do everything well,” Lawson said. “Obviously, they pitch, and everybody talks about that, but their offense is tremendous.”

Kentucky’s top two pitchers are Rethlake (11-4, 2.77 ERA) and Grace Baalman (13-8), 2.28). UK's work in he circle has been solid but not spectacular.

“Their pitching is maybe something we can get after if you look at their numbers,” Oregon Coach Mike White told the Daily Emerald, the Oregon student newspaper.

After last year’s come-from-behind Oregon clincher over Kentucky, Lawson knows what to expect.

“They know how to get it going. They do a good job putting the ball in play. They play great situational softball. They’re just a really well-coached team. They buy in and, of course, they have great athletes.”

Thursday

What: Game 1 of best-of-three NCAA Tournament super-regional series

Where: Eugene, Ore.

When: 9 p.m. EDT

TV: ESPN2

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