UK softball goal in knocking on World Series door: “burst through it”
To borrow from Bob Dylan, the seniors on the University of Kentucky’s softball team go into this weekend’s NCAA Tournament super-regional series at Washington with a feeling of knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.
It’s their third straight year in a super regional. And their last chance to advance to the Women’s College World Series.
As freshmen, the players came within three victories of the World Series. As sophomores, the players came within two victories. The knocking on the door grew louder still last year when UK came within one victory of the sport’s grand stage.
“I just want to burst through it, really,” catcher Jenny Schaper said this week. “I mean, yeah, going to the supers is great. But that’s not our goal. Our goal is to take it a step further and get to the World Series.
“And so for myself, personally, (and her fellow seniors), we’re going to give it everything we have to get there.”
Coach Rachel Lawson downplayed the notion that the oh-so-close of the past might translate into pressure this weekend. Kentucky’s only previous World Series appearance came in 2014.
“For this class in particular, they seem to be a little bit more relaxed, I think,” she said. “Because they’ve put in the hard work and because they get along so well. And they know each other so well.”
There’s an inter-dependence that leads to a shared responsibility to help the team win, Lawson said. “They’re not scared to pass the bat down. That allows each one of them to relax.”
The best-of-three series between Kentucky and Washington suggests a battle of contrasting approaches. UK (36-22) is known for hitting. Senior third baseman Abbey Cheek holds UK career records for home runs (61) and runs batted in (202). She became the first UK player to be named the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Year.
Washington (48-7) rides good pitching and defense. The Huskies have the fifth-best earned-run average in the nation (1.51). Their top pitchers are Australian Gabbie Plain (21-2, 1.21 ERA) and Taran Alvelo (25-4, 1.58 ERA).
Plain and Alvelo will not be new puzzles for Kentucky to solve. Both pitched in a regular-season game against UK. Washington won 4-2 on Feb. 22 at Palm Springs, Calif.
“Probably both are going to be All-Americans,” Schaper said. “But I think we rise to that challenge. You know, we step out there and we have a game plan and if we can know what we want to do and execute it, I think we can really give them a run for their money.”
One source of confidence for Kentucky comes from last year’s super regional. UK went to No. 1 Oregon and extended the series to a third and deciding game.
“I think that shows us we can compete with any team in the country,” Schaper said.
Kentucky also rides the momentum from last weekend’s regional in which it outscored Toledo and Virginia Tech by a combined score of 26-4.
When asked about the confidence those blowouts instilled, shortstop Katie Reed said, “Oh, I would say it’s really high. I mean, we’re producing one through nine in the lineup. We have runners getting on base, and then our RBI hitters are hitting them in. And that’s all you can really ask for.”
Advancement to the World Series would cap the Kentucky seniors’ careers.
“It would be a dream come true,” Reed said. “That’s everyone’s dream. From being a little girl watching, that’s where you want to go. To have another chance, another opportunity to get there, we’re going to leave it all on the field.”
No. 14 seed Kentucky at No. 3 seed Washington
What: NCAA Tournament super regional
Where: Husky Softball Stadium in Seattle
When: 9 p.m. EDT Friday, 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 p.m. Sunday (if necessary)
Records: Kentucky 36-22, Washington 48-7
Format: Best-of-three series
At stake: Series winner advances to Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City May 30-June 5