In retelling what's becoming a timely recruiting tale, Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson spoke of going to middle Tennessee to scout a pitcher. "She certainly was good," Lawson said of the targeted prospect.
But the pitcher on the opposing team made a longer lasting impression.
"Country girl," Lawson recalled. "Funny-looking kid with a face mask on."
That player, freshman Kelsey Nunley, pitched Kentucky to a 6-2 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament's Lexington Regional. Her one-hitter (Lawson questioned the hometown scorer's decision that ruled a hit rather than an error) enabled UK to tie a program record for victories in a season and advance to Sunday's finals. UK (40-18) will again play Virginia Tech, which stayed alive in a 3-2, 13-inning victory over Marshall on Saturday evening.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Already UK's first 20-game winner, Nunley did to Virginia Tech what Lawson saw her do on that recruiting trip.
"She mowed over just a really, really good team," Lawson said. "I had not seen someone her age have such tight spin on multiple pitches. So right then, I knew she'd be a big-time pitcher."
Nunley looked the part against Virginia Tech just as she did in Kentucky's 2-1 victory over Marshall on Friday night. In those two games, she threw 210 pitches over 15 innings. She gave up seven hits and one earned run.
"I'm not going to say it was easy," she said of her two days of dominance. "You just have to be strong and confident in yourself that you can do it."
Two Kentucky home runs and three Virginia Tech errors helped Nunley improve her record to 26-8.
First baseman Lauren Cumbess hit a two-run homer in the first inning, her 12th of the season.
Second baseman Krystal Smith launched a solo homer in the fourth that not only cleared the 12-foot outfield wall but landed on the netting protecting the bullpen.
"It feels like I'm swinging through air when you hit through the ball," Smith said of her first home run since April 17. "... It felt great. Coach Lawson's not satisfied with just hitting it. So we have to make sure it clears (the wall) pretty far."
Lawson flashed that penchant for dissatisfaction when asked about Virginia Tech's one hit. It came in the second inning when Tech scored two unearned runs. Early in the inning, Nunley turned an ankle when she slipped to the dirt as she fielded a comebacker. That error allowed the batter to reach first. Medical personnel and Lawson checked on Nunley.
"She's a country girl," Lawson said in dismissing the notion of concern. "They don't have any trainers out there. They just get back out there."
Nunley is from the colorfully named Soddy Daisy, Tenn., which is near Chattanooga.
Noting that Nunley played volleyball and basketball as well as softball in high school, Lawson said, "So she knows what it feels like to roll her ankle. I knew she'd get up. It was just a matter of how long it would take."
A walk and a hit batter loaded the bases. Bkaye Smith hit a grounder that eluded UK shortstop Christian Stokes. The official scorer ruled it a hit.
"It was just bouncy," Nunley said. "It was hit decently hard. I guess she (Stokes) just misplayed it a little bit."
Lawson was not so ambivalent.
"I believe that was an error all the way," she said. ".... The fact that was (judged) a hit was ridiculous."
Nunley, who has worn a mask since a batted ball tipped off her glove and hit her in the face when she was 8 years old, retired the next 14 straight. Bailey Liddle became Tech's only base runner thereafter with a one-out walk in the seventh.
Lawson spoke of having pitching options for Sunday. But the UK coach clearly wanted to put her team's championship chances in the right hand of the country girl.
"Kelsey has won many games for us," Lawson said. "It would be nice to see her finish this tournament tomorrow."
Virginia Tech 3, Marshall 2 (13 innings): Hokies starter Jasmin Harrell pitched 13 innings, gave up 13 hits and struck out 13, and she still ended up on the lucky side of the score as Virginia Tech survived to clinch a rematch with Kentucky.
Logan Spaw and Bkaye Smith drove in a run apiece for the winners, who hope to play the Cats twice Sunday to win the regional title.
Marshall pitcher Andi Williamson finished a long day by allowing eight hits and striking out nine in 122⁄3 innings.
Alexandra Bayne drove in both the Herd runs.
Marshall 3, Notre Dame 1: Thundering Herd ace Andi Williamson worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the top of the seventh inning, and Marshall eliminated the Fighting Irish in Saturday's second game.
Williamson, who allowed six hits while striking out six and walking one, gave up Notre Dame's only run in the third inning.
By then, Marshall had already scored two runs — the first on a Savanah Webster home run — and was about to add its third in the bottom of the inning for what proved to be the final score.
Kentucky 6, Virginia Tech 2
Kentucky 201 120 0—6 7 1
Virginia Tech 020 000 0—2 1 3
Nunley and Joiner. Heinz, Tyler (4), Harrell (5) and C. Liddle. WP—Nunley (26-8). LP—Heinz (16-8). HR—Cumbess (UK), Smith (UK).
Records—Virginia Tech 36-20; Kentucky 40-18.
Marshall 3, Notre Dame 1
Notre Dame 001 000 0—1 6 2
Marshall 021 000 x—3 5 1
Winter and Buntin. Williamson and Lucas. WP—Williamson (33-17). LP—Winter (29-12). HR—Webster (M). 3B—Bayne (M).
Records—Notre Dame 43-15, Marshall 36-21.
Virginia Tech 3, Marshall 2 (13)
Marshall 000 020 000 000 0 —2 13 5
Virginia Tech 100 001 000 000 1 —3 8 4.
Williamson and Lucas. Harrell and Liddle. WP—Harrell. LP—Williamson (33-18). 2B—Ake, Tech.
Records—Marshall 36-22, Virginia Tech 37-20.
NCAA Lexington Regional
Kentucky 6, Virginia Tech 2
Marshall 3, Notre Dame 1 (Notre Dame eliminated)
Virginia Tech 3, Marshall 2 (13) (Marshall eliminated)
1 p.m. — Kentucky (40-18) vs. Virginia Tech (37-20)
3:30 p.m. — Same two teams meet again if Kentucky loses first game