As illogical as it might sound, the University of Kentucky's first chance to play host to an NCAA Tournament softball regional has the feel of a do-over.
UK players and coach spoke of making amends during the four-team NCAA regional, which begins Friday evening at John Cropp Stadium. The disappointment with an opening-game loss in the same setting during the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week lingers.
"So now we kind of have a second chance," pitcher/infielder Lauren Cumbess said Thursday.
UK Coach Rachel Lawson cited poor offense for the SEC Tournament loss to South Carolina. "We just didn't swing the bat," she said. "They were real tentative to pull the trigger, and that's a big part of our game."
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Maybe the first experience of the tournament setting affected a Kentucky team that typically starts five freshmen.
"I don't think they knew what to expect," Lawson said. "... I think they are looking for another opportunity to prove that they are one of the best teams in the country."
Kentucky (38-18) begins regional play against Marshall (35-20). The other first-round game in the double-elimination event pits Notre Dame (43-13) against Virginia Tech (35-19).
Notre Dame is the hottest team in the regional. The Irish won 17 of their last 20 games. Pitcher Laura Winter has won 29 games and sports a 1.70 earned-run average. Virginia Tech returns to NCAA Tournament play for a second straight year.
In a regular-season game on April 9, Kentucky rallied for three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat Marshall 4-3. A freakish play helped UK's rally. Marshall's ace pitcher, Andi Williamson, inadvertently got in the way of the catcher's throw to second on a steal play. Although later determined to have suffered concussion-like symptoms, she stayed in the game.
"We had (rallied) in several games before, so that's something we do do," Lawson said before adding, "but there's no doubt that had to contribute to something."
Williamson, a freshman from Harts, W.Va., has 32 victories this season. That's the third most of any Division I pitcher. Her 344 strikeouts are the third most by any pitcher.
"Marshall's pitcher is outstanding," Lawson said. "She has a bunch of pitches. She throws hard, first of all. She does a good job on the inside part of the plate and the outside. She has a good off-speed (pitch) and she can come up with a pretty strong rise ball. She keeps batters off balance."
Marshall, which is making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, also ranks second nationally in steals.
"They like to slap and run, bunt and run, all that kind of stuff," Lawson said. "They are an exciting team to watch, so it's going to be crucial we keep them off the bases."
Kentucky gets a boost with the expected return of Kara Dill, the team's leading hitter the past two seasons. She has played sparingly since a bone in her hand was broken when she was hit with a pitch at LSU on March 15. She had been limited to pinch-running duty until being UK's designated hitter in the loss to South Carolina last week.
"Only bright spot of our game was Kara in the lineup the whole time," Lawson said. "... She'll be ready to go tomorrow. We're expecting big things out of Kara tomorrow."
Kentucky is hopeful of big things from its team, as well.
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: UK's John Cropp Stadium
Tickets: All-tournament passes: $30 reserved, $20 general admission; Single-session passes: $15 reserved, $10 general admission adults, $8 youth/seniors
TV: All games on ESPN3 only
Game 1: Notre Dame (43-13) vs. Virginia Tech (35-19), 5 p.m.
Game 2: Kentucky (38-18) vs. Marshall (35-20), 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 3:30 p.m.
Game 5: Loser Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 6 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5, 1 p.m.
Game 7: If necessary, 3:30 p.m.