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Softball Cats set to defend their new turf in SEC tourney

Kentucky freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley pitched a Southeastern Conference-leading 2231⁄3 innings this season. She has 24 wins.
Kentucky freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley pitched a Southeastern Conference-leading 2231⁄3 innings this season. She has 24 wins.

Sweet home, after Alabama.

Coming off a stunning series victory at defending national champion Alabama, Kentucky's softball team is set to host the Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time.

Play opens at the new John Cropp Stadium with eighth-seeded Alabama taking on ninth-seeded Texas A&M at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Then it will be No. 7-seed Kentucky versus 10-seed South Carolina at 6:30 p.m.

Play continues in the single-elimination tournament with quarterfinals Thursday, semifinals Friday and the finals Saturday night at 8.

And, yes, it does help to be playing at home, UK Coach Rachel Lawson said.

"It absolutely does," she said. "First of all, everyone knows that there is nothing better than Kentucky fans. When the Big Blue Nation comes out, it's pretty impressive, as we showed two years ago when we hosted a super regional.

"Even when they're not softball fans in general, just being a Kentucky fan really helps us out a lot. It's nice to be able to have that crowd behind you when you're playing such awesome opponents."

Kara Dill, who batted at Alabama for the first time since being hit on the hand by a pitch on March 15, seconded her coach.

"Our fans are here," Dill said. "The comfort of being home. This incredible facility that people built for us. All of those are advantages."

Kentucky (38-17, 13-11 SEC), ranked 19th nationally, shut out Alabama 5-0 last weekend. After falling 14-0 in the second game, the Cats came back to claim the series with a 9-5 win in eight innings.

"To be able to go into Alabama and get a win is huge. We've never done that before, so I think it gives us a lot of confidence," Lawson said. "I think it gives the younger players a lot of confidence. They went in there and they hit two very awesome pitchers, so I believe that shows them that they can get it done. Because in order for us to get where we want to go, which is the World Series, we're going to have to go through pitchers like the ones they have at Alabama."

UK swept the Gamecocks (31-22, 8-16) a month ago. But Carolina has heated up at the right time.

The Gamecocks closed SEC play by taking two of three from Auburn, sweeping at Mississippi State, and salvaging the series finale against top-seeded Florida.

Carolina has won six of its last nine in SEC play, nine of 12 overall.

"Our preparation really started in January. It's been going all season long, but certainly nothing prepares you better than the 24 SEC games we've played against top-level competition," Coach Beverly Smith said during an SEC teleconference. "There's been some great games we've played in, so I'm excited because our team is continuing to grow and competing and playing well right now."

Senior utility player Samie Garcia, hitting .417, leads Carolina in runs (47), hits (75), doubles (16), triples (7), steals (18) and on-base percentage (.475).

Sophomore Julie Sarratt leads the pitching staff with a 10-7 record and 3.11 ERA, with 69 strikeouts over 110 1/3 innings.

"Every SEC team is a tough opponent," UK outfielder Alice O'Brien said, "and we're just going to go out there and play our 'A' game, like we always do."


WEDNESDAY

Kentucky vs. South Carolina

What: First-round game

When: 6:30 p.m. TV: ESPNU

Where: UK's John Cropp Stadium

Records: No. 7 seed UK (38-17), No. 10 seed South Carolina (31-22)

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