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UK softball’s season ends one step short of College World Series for third straight year

For the third straight year, the University of Kentucky softball team’s season ended one step short of the Women’s College World Series.

Facing one of the country’s best pitchers in a game that began late Saturday and ended early Sunday morning, UK’s vaunted offense sputtered for the second game in a row. The Wildcats managed just two hits as they fell to host Washington, 5-0, in the NCAA Tournament’s Seattle Super Regional.

Washington, the No. 3 overall seed in the tournament, shut out the No. 14 seed Cats 3-0 on Friday in the opener of the best-of-three series. With Saturday’s win, Washington (50-7) earned a trip to the College World Series in Oklahoma City for the 14th time in program history. Kentucky (36-24) made its only College World Series appearance in 2014.

In both losses to Washington, the Wildcats failed to solve First-Team All-Pac 12 pitcher Gabbie Plain. The sophomore from Australia with a unique delivery pitched the final 3 2/3 innings to pick up the win on Friday, then tossed a complete-game two-hitter in the series-clincher. She struck out eight batters and improved to 23-2 on the season.

“I thought the story today was definitely: great pitching will stop good hitting any day of the week,” said UK Coach Rachel Lawson. “This weekend, overall, they had outstanding pitching and I thought Gabbie Plain was just tremendous.”

A wild play in the top of the first inning proved to be all the Huskies needed. Morganne Flores laced a hard double to left field and advanced on a UK fielding error. She then scored when the throw to third ricocheted off her leg toward Washington’s third base coach, who inadvertently kicked the ball into the Wildcats’ dugout. After a lengthy conference, the officials allowed the run to stand despite a protest from Lawson.

Kentucky starter Autumn Humes kept the Wildcats in the game through five innings, working around a pair of lead-off walks in the second and third innings and a lead-off single in the fifth. But the Huskies went up 3-0 on a pinch-hit two-run homer by Noelle Hee with two outs in the sixth. Washington added two more insurance runs on a bases-loaded single in the top of the seventh.

“I thought Autumn did a great job. She commanded her pitches for the most part,” Lawson said. “Washington has a very good offense, they’re a great situational hitting team and Autumn did a great job of keeping them at bay for five innings.”

Humes pitched a complete game for the Cats, allowing eight hits and five walks while striking out three as she fell to 15-11 on the season. The junior figures to combine with sophomore Grace Baalman, who pitched five strong innings despite getting hung with the loss in Friday’s series opener, to again form the core of the Wildcats’ pitching staff next season.

It was a tough series for Kentucky’s departing senior class. Jenny Schaper, Katie Reed, Abbey Cheek and Kelsee Henson combined to go 2-for-24 at the plate in both games. Cheek and Henson had hits in the first game while Reed drew a walk. Senior reserve Sarah Rainwater did not play in the series.

Despite the disappointing ending, UK’s seniors have made their mark on the program. Cheek will graduate as UK’s all-time leader in home runs (61) and RBI (202) and this season became the first Wildcat to be named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Katie Reed ranks in UK’s top 10 in a number of categories and will go down as one of the best defensive players in school history, having made the SEC All-Defensive Team in each of her final two seasons. Schaper made the All-SEC First Team and the SEC All-Defensive Team this year.

“This senior class is great because we’ve always been known as a team who played great defense and who could pitch, we’ve never really been known as an offensive team,” Lawson said. “… Overall for the past two years this particular senior class, along with their supporting cast, has done a really good job putting us on the national level when it comes (to offense). I think that’s something that we will carry with us for the future and I think it’s something that’s gonna help us get over the edge and then continue to allow us to go on to Oklahoma City.”

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