LEXINGTON — It’s ironic that UK’s John Cropp softball stadium is attached to the Wildcats’ soccer stadium because it has been as difficult for the softball Wildcats to score here in NCAA regional tournament play this weekend as it is in most soccer matches.
Coach Rachel Lawson’s softball Wildcats looked all but dead in the water midway through Saturday’s winners’ bracket final vs. James Madison, though the Wildcats trailed just 1-0 through five innings.
Such was the domination of James Madison sophomore pitcher Jailyn Ford.
Ford had a no-hitter through four innings, and a one-hit shutout through five, before Kentucky broke through for two runs in the bottom of the sixth and held on to win, 2-1.
The Wildcats, 46-15, play for their second straight regional title this afternoon at 1 p.m. against DePaul.
DePaul defeated James Madison 4-3 Saturday night to claim the losers’ bracket championship. The Blue Demons will have to beat UK twice today to take the regional crown from the Wildcats.
The regional winner advances to super regional play this coming weekend against the winner of the Los Angeles region.
James Madison’s Ford, a lefthander, came into Saturday’s battle against Kentucky with a glittering 24-6 record for the 45-14 Dukes, with a 1.23 earned run average and 226 strikeouts against just 40 walks.
The Wildcats looked largely helpless two times through their batting order.
“She was really good at getting ahead in the count, and making us chase a little bit,” UK sophomore third baseman Nikki Sagermann said of Ford. “She has really good spin as well. We had to make adjustments by the end of the game to pull out this win. It was only a one-run game, so we knew that one swing could change the whole game.”
Turns out the Wildcats needed more than one swing.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, with the pressure mounting, sophomore leftfielder Sylver Samuel came up with a hard-hit single to center, and ended up scoring when the next batter, Sagermann, ripped a double to center to tie the score at 1-1.
Junior catcher Griffin Joiner then singled home Kentucky’s second run.
Those two runs enabled the Wildcats to overcome the towering home run hit by senior shortstop Caitlin Sandy that put the Dukes up, 1-0, in the second inning.
UK’s sixth-inning rally was plenty for sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who threw a complete-game, five-hitter, with 11 strikeouts and just one walk.
It was the second straight gem for Nunley (26-7), who pitched the Wildcats to a 2-0 win over Ohio U. in the first round Friday night.
“Kelsey did a great job, especially after they came up and hit that home run,” Lawson said. “Obviously, I called the wrong pitch, and that girl (Sandy) crushed it, and that really changed the momentum.”
Lawson said she could see her hitters getting tight as the game went along, so after a couple times through the lineup, Lawson verbally jumped on Joiner and Sagermann, two of her best hitters.
“When you’re not getting a lot of runs out of the whole lineup, the few people capable of producing sometimes put too much pressure on themselves,” Lawson said. “So I did take it on myself to get on Griffin and Nikki a little bit. Those are two athletes that can handle that. Sometimes it’s that slap across the face that you need to wake up and do what you need to do. And I can’t say enough about those two.”
Senior first baseman Lauren Cumbess of Kentucky broke up Ford’s no-hit bid with a single in the fifth. Senior Emily Jolly had the only other hit for Kentucky, a fifth-inning double.