KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Behind one of the best defensive performances of the season and a two-run home run from junior Molly Johnson the Kentucky softball upset No. 7 Georgia, 2-0, in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament Thursday afternoon at Lee Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
The victory in the conference tournament is the first in school history for the Wildcats. Freshman pitcher Rachel Riley picked up a complete game win and got a tremendous effort from her defensive unit.
“I’m very proud of this team, because they came out and played like they have all year,” said Head Coach Rachel Lawson. “You never know what you are going to get when you haven’t been in postseason play for a long time and you have so many young players. They played their game, they played well and they hung in there until the end, so I was very proud of them.”
Kentucky improves to 32-20 on the season and knocks off their fourth top-25 opponent of the season, but first top-10 opponent this season. The seventh ranked Bulldogs fall to 39-10 on the season.
Sophomore Samantha DeMartine opened the fifth inning with a single into left field. Junior Destinee Mordecai advanced pinch runner Macy Allen to second on a masterful sacrifice bunt to put a runner in scoring position for All-SEC performer Johnson. The junior shortstop fell behind in the count 0-2 and then fended off six consecutive pitches to stay alive during the at-bat. Kentucky’s leading hitter delivered with a two-run home run over the left field wall to give Kentucky the only runs it would need for a 2-0 win.
“I just do whatever I can to help my team,” Johnson said. “Rachel Riley did a fantastic job keeping them scoreless through seven, and our defense helped her out. The offense really had no choice but to help our pitcher out and finish what our defense had been starting.”
In the top of the first inning Kentucky’s offense got a great start, but was unable to push across a run. Sophomore Meagan Aull tallied a one-out single through the left side and then both sophomore Megan Yocke and freshman Brittany Cervantes walked on four straight pitches. However, UK’s next two batters fouled out and then grounded out to third to end the inning.
Kentucky’s pitching was stout in the opening frame from the right-arm of Riley. Riley sat Georgia’s Taylor Schlopy down on strikes and then forced Kristin Schnake into a groundout to her on the mound. Alisa Goler flew out to Aull in centerfield as UK sat the Bulldogs down in order to start the game and begin to gain its confidence in the field.
The Blue and White suffered a three-up and three-down in the top of the second as the game remained scoreless. Georgia’s Kristyn Sandberg registered the first hit of the game for the designated home squad with one out in the bottom half of the stanza. Riley and the UK defense tightened as the next two batters flew out and grounded out to end the threat.
UK suffered three straight outs in the top of the third behind a pair of deep fly balls and a groundout to third base. Despite a lead off base hit from Tess Echols, UK’s defense once again forced three straight outs to end the inning unscathed.
Junior Natalie Smith sent a well-hit ball into deep center field, but Schlopy made a great grab to keep Kentucky off the base paths for the third straight inning in the fourth. Riley got tremendous support from her defense in the fourth as sophomore Annie Rowlands made an outstanding grab in left field and Cervantes snagged a line drive to keep Georgia from charting a hit in the bottom of the stanza.
Johnson’s blast in the fifth inning gave UK a lead it would never relinquish. The Blue and White would then ride the right-arm of Riley and continued impressive performance from its defense clinging to the 2-0 advantage.
“That (Molly Johnson’s home run) was everything,” Lawson said. “We have a good defense, and we are very confident in our pitcher, so it’s all a matter of whether we can get the runs to support them. When that happened, I think that was a big relief and a big weight off our shoulders. We were just able to go out and finish the game.”
Georgia answered with a lead-off single off the bat of Tori Moody into centerfield. The Bulldogs advanced the runner on a sac bunt, but Riley got pinch hitter Jennie Auger to sit down on strikes. The final out came on a groundout to Cervantes at third to end the scoring threat and preserve the two-run lead.
Yocke opened the sixth with a single into left field and was then able to scoot over to second on an errant play by Georgia’s left fielder. However, UK hit a wall from there and the next three batters got out. Smith was robbed once again by Schlopy who made a spectacular diving snag to steal another single from UK’s junior.
For the second straight inning Georgia produced a leadoff single through the left side. However, the inning ended much like the fifth frame with a runner stranded. Riley got consecutive fly outs to keep the Bulldogs from advancing any further than first base.
The Wildcats never threatened in the seventh as they sat down in order leaving the game on the defense’s shoulders.
In the bottom of the seventh, Riley got Sandberg to swing at the first pitch and pop up to Johnson at shortstop. Moody grounded out to Johnson for the second out of the inning. With two outs, Ashley Pauly found a hole in left center for a stand-up double to put a runner on base for the Bulldogs. The game would not be prolonged any longer as Echols grounded out to Cervantes at third for the final out of the game and Kentucky’s first win at the tournament in school allure.
Kentucky will play the winner of the Alabama and Arkansas game tomorrow. First pitch Friday will be at 5 p.m.