(UK Athletics, Chet White)
For the fifth consecutive season, the Kentucky Wildcats softball team has received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament — one of only 23 schools who can make that claim. This is just the fifth bid ever for the program, and all have come under head coach Rachel Lawson. What’s more, the selection committee named Kentucky as the No. 12 national seed and one of the 16 regional hosts for the first time in the program’s history. The team will have home field advantage through the first set of games, and if the No. 5 seed in the bracket above in knocked out, Kentucky will own the Super Regional host as well.
Before falling in the first round of the SEC Tournament to South Carolina last week, the Wildcats were continuing a stellar season, and making history by taking two games out of three against 10th-ranked Alabama on the road. The wins in Tuscaloosa marked the first in school history, and the softball team’s first-ever series win against the Crimson Tide.
Now the focus lies on the double-elimination regional, which features Kentucky (10 RPI), Virginia Tech (38 RPI), Notre Dame (43 RPI), and Marshall (90 RPI). The Cats will be looking to top its 2011 run which included winning the Ann Arbor regional after knocking off the 10-seed Michigan Wolverines in two games, before being eliminated by 7-seed California in game three of the Lexington Super Regional. Just one win away from a trip to the Women’s College World Series.
First up for the Wildcats is the Marshall Thundering Herd. These two teams met a little more than a month ago in Lexington, and resulted in a thrilling come-from-behind walk-off win for the Cats in the bottom of the 7th inning. Down 3-1 with three outs to go, the Wildcats were able to plate three runs for the victory with the winning single coming off the bat of junior Ginny Carroll.
Since that game, the Herd posted a 10-6 record through the last part of its Conference-USA schedule, none of which were against ranked teams. While the Wildcats went 10-8 against far superior competition; all but three of those games were against ranked teams.
Marshall finished fourth in the C-USA standings with a 13-10 record, but earned its NCAA Tournament bid by winning the conference title. Paced by senior ace pitcher Andi Williamson who ranks third in the country in total strikeouts (332), the Thundering Herd will be looking to “shock the world” in this tournament. They are clearly the underdogs in this regional, if not the entire bracket.
Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley has been the stud in the circle for the Cats and will be the key in guiding Kentucky to the WCWS. She has set a school record for wins in a season with her 24-8 record. The frosh has a stellar 2.10 ERA with 175 strikeouts in 230.1 innings and tops the freshman SEC season leaders in wins, strikeouts, and ERA.
Sophomore Griffin Joiner is calling the signs, but her damage is done with the sticks. She paces the UK offense overall with a .327 average, 13 doubles, 41 RBI, and 10 home runs. Senior shortstop and slap hitter Kara Dill leads the team in batting average with a .361 mark and a .411 on-base percentage.
Game one of the Lexington Regional starts at 5 p.m. Friday with Notre Dame and Virginia Tech squaring off. Game two will begin after, scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. with Kentucky and Marshall. Both games will be available on ESPN3.com. The Regional will continue on Saturday and conclude on Sunday with the Championship game at 1 p.m. and the “if-necessary” game at 3:30 p.m.
This Kentucky team is poised to make a deep run. With as tough of a schedule as the team played, and as well as it came out, these Wildcats have a monster ceiling and are feeling as confident as ever. It would be wise for you to hop on the bandwagon now if you haven’t already.