Wildcats’ tough schedule pays off

Playing in SEC prepares UK for do-or-die regional victory

By Brian Rickerd Published:

LEXINGTON — Moments after her Kentucky Wildcats lost a 2-1, 10-inning nail-biter to the DePaul Blue Demons Sunday in NCAA softball regional play, forcing a second and decisive game for the region title, UK coach Rachel Lawson played the SEC card in her mind.

“The nice thing about playing in the SEC is you play so many tough games,” Lawson said after 14th-seeded Kentucky (47-16) won the second game, 10-1, to advance to super regional play this weekend at No. 3 seed UCLA.

“So this wasn’t the first time we were in a situation like today. We know what it feels like to lose a game and bounce back. I just think the strength of our conference really prepares you to move on very quickly.”

Lawson also said DePaul, out of the Big East, is plenty good enough to be a competitive team in the SEC. It took all the mettle the Wildcats could muster to escape the upset bid of the 44-11 Blue Demons.

DePaul had come into play Sunday out of the losers bracket of the double-elimination tournament, with UK as the winners bracket champ after close wins over Ohio University (Friday) and James Madison (Saturday).

But trying to break through against DePaul senior pitcher Kierstin Verdun (33-7) in the first game Sunday was like pounding a fist against concrete, who limited the Wildcats to two hits in 10 innings.

Verdun, however, threw 166 pitches in the opener, after throwing all but one of the Blue Demons’ 21 innings tournament innings coming into this one.

“Did I feel tired? Yes,” Verdun said of her between-game mindset Sunday. “Was I concerned? No. I was going to throw until my arm fell off.”

But Verdun had little gas for a second game and Kentucky broke through for a run in the first inning, six in the second and three in the third.

The Wildcats cranked out eight hits in the decisive game, topped by an inside-the-park home run by sophomore center fielder Sylver Samuel and a three-run double by sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes.

That was more than plenty for UK sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who pitched all four games for the Wildcats this weekend and was outstanding every step of the way.

This is Kentucky’s second straight super regional appearance. There are eight such tournaments in the country, with the winners of the best-of-three events moving on to the College World Series, May 29-June 4, in Oklahoma City.

The Wildcats have made the super regional stages in two of the past three seasons, losing to California in three games in 2011 and at Arizona State in two games last spring.

Lawson was asked what it would mean to get over the hump this time and reach the CWS for the first time in school history.

“Well, it would mean everything,” Lawson said. “When you are at a school like Kentucky, your goal is to win the SEC championship and go to the World Series. So you grind and you grind and you grind, and to finally get there would really validate what you’ve been doing all year. It would mean a lot for our program.

“Last year we did a nice job competing, but we fell a little short defensively, and we made some mental mistakes that allowed Arizona State to score,” she added. “We have an interesting mix this year. We have some seniors, but a lot of our major contributors are sophomores, and they were all in the super regional last year. I think we know the game a lot better now, and that will help us against UCLA.”

Win or lose versus the traditional power Bruins, however, these remain heady says for Kentucky softball.

This is UK’s sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in Lawson’s seven years as coach. Kentucky never made the NCAA Tournament in the 11 years the program was around before Lawson arrived.

“We have great people,” Lawson said when asked about the growth of UK softball. “They have great respect for each other, great respect for Kentucky, and they love what they are doing. And when you have all that, and you love the people around you, and you work hard, anything is possible.

“Add some softball intelligence to that and you have a program.”

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