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Kiddie Cats are in NCAA picture

Most years, the end of regular-season play in the Southeastern Conference has been the end of the line for Kentucky's softball team.

The two times that the Wildcats qualified for post-season play, the road ran out at the SEC Tournament.

But 2009 is not most years. For UK, it is an extraordinary year.

As the Cats wrap up the regular season Sunday at South Carolina, they already know that they will be playing in the SEC Tournament, which opens Thursday at Tennessee. That hasn't happened since 2001.

With an RPI of 18, UK also might receive its first NCAA Tournament bid.

"That's in the hands of the NCAA," said Rachel Lawson, in her second season as coach of the Cats. "I'd like to hope that we're going to be in it, and we're certainly putting ourselves in a good position to be considered."

UK (31-19, 13-13) has gotten contributions from across its roster.

Molly Johnson, a junior shortstop, is USA Softball's national player of the week after batting .682 and scoring six times (and setting a UK season record of 46 runs).

What has created the biggest buzz, though, is UK's tandem of freshman pitchers: Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley.

Bell, from Indianapolis, has an 18-8 record, 3.21 ERA and a UK single-season record 206 strikeouts.

Riley, out of Greenwood High School in Bowling Green, is 5-5 with a 3.50 ERA. When not pitching, she often fills the designated player role. Last week, she went 3-0, also cranking her first two career homers, including a grand slam. She was named SEC Freshman of the Week.

Lawson expected success from her freshman pitchers. Besides athletic ability, "they're both very smart, and they're both very, very mature," the coach said.

"I knew that would help them. It was just a matter of seeing what they can do on the mound and how quickly they could get comfortable. And, shockingly, they've both been very comfortable very fast."

Riley, two-time state tournament MVP while helping Greenwood to back-to-back state titles, was a four-year Academic All-State selection. She finished high school with a 4.0 grade-point average.

Bell, who graduated inthe top 10 percent of herclass at Franklin Central High, is majoring in bio-chemistry, with plans to continue in pre-med. She'd like to become a cardiovascular surgeon.

Bell has carved up UK opponents from the get-go.

Three days into the season, Feb. 15, Bell struck out a school-record 15 in a 7-1 victory at UNLV.

In March, she matched that total in wins over Auburn and Arkansas, then threw ano-hitter to beat Western Kentucky 1-0. The no-hitter, UK's first, came two days after Bell broke the Cats' season strikeout record of 164, set 10 years earlier by Keary Camunas.

"No, I didn't expect to be breaking any records," Bell said. "It's pretty cool, though, that I was able to get to, and it was great that my teammates were there to help me out, too."

However, a leg injury knocked Bell out of the circle for about three weeks.

Riley, who had thrown 10 innings all season, got thrown into action in a doubleheader against Tennessee. In the opener, a 14-2 loss, she got her feet wet with two innings in relief. She started the nightcap, going the distance for her first collegiate win, 6-5.

Her second start came against top-ranked Florida. Riley gave up only one hit, in the ninth inning, but came away a 1-0 loser as a sacrifice fly accounted for the run.

With Bell nearly 100 percent again, the Cats can pick their poison on the mound. The freshmen thrive with contrasting styles. Bell is a strikeout pitcher with plenty of power. Riley relies more on control, pitching to contact.

"Chanda's more of a rise-ball pitcher. She throws a lot up," Riley said. "I throw more drop balls, down. So I think together we can work and make an even bigger impact."

An impact that has the Cats feeding off one another.

Bell's early dominance built confidence, Lawson said. Riley continued the good vibes, and the team has kept pace.

"Our team had a lot of assists, a lot of putouts and just played great team defense, so we were able to stay in the games," Lawson said. "Offensively, I think that confidence helped us at bat, and we were able to get some runs that ( Riley) needed to support her.

"So it's been the entire team, obviously, but those two have been tremendous and, without them, I know we wouldn't be where we are."