COLUMBIA, S.C. - With the No. 15 University of Kentucky softball team leading 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded, sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley earned arguably the biggest strikeout of her young career, sealing a victory over No. 7 Tennessee to send the Wildcats to the semifinals of the 2014 Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time in program history.
Kentucky (43-14) will play top-25 ranked and No. 6 seeded LSU (35-21) in the first semifinal game Friday at 3 p.m. ET at the Carolina Softball Stadium in Columbia, S.C. LSU advanced to the semifinals after a 6-0 victory over No. 3 seed Missouri on Thursday morning.
“I love softball so it's not hard to enjoy this,” UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. “I love our team, I love being here. I think the SEC is a great conference. I love watching excellent athletes on both sides, so enjoying our success is an easy thing to do. But with that said, being in the SEC, you are only as good as your last games. We have a really tough opponent tomorrow and (LSU head coach) Beth (Torina) is one of the best pitching coaches in the league. So while this is fun, we have to stay focused on the end goal, which is winning the next game.”
For the second day in a row, Nunley was brilliant in the circle for Kentucky, tossing seven scoreless innings, allowing only five hits with seven strikeouts and one walk allowed. The shutout for Nunley was her sixth of the season, sitting third most in a single season in program history in that category. It marked only the second time this season that the high-powered Tennessee offense was held scoreless and the 13th time the Lady Vols have been limited to five hits or less.
“I think coach really did a good job at calling pitches and keeping Tennessee off balance,” Nunley said. “I made them guess at what I was throwing and I think it worked.”
Nunley, who earned the win in Wednesday’s first round game vs. Mississippi State with nine strong innings pitched, moves to 23-7 in the circle this season. The native of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., has 50 career wins in her young stint with the Wildcats, ranking third most in a career in UK history. Nunley is the only player in UK history to win 20 or more games in a season, accomplishing the feat in each of her two years with the Wildcats.
Offensively, it was sophomore Christian Stokes leading the way again for Kentucky, with the Chesterfield, S.C., native going 3-for-4 with her 11th double of the season and seventh homer of the year. Stokes has been on fire in the SEC Tournament, sitting 6-for-8 in the event with two doubles, two homers, three RBI and a .778 on-base percentage. Stokes has a hit in five of her last six games, including an RBI in four of those contests.
“It's always good when you are hitting good,” Stokes said. “I am just trying to stay comfortable in the box, stay confident and clear my head before each at bat. I'm not thinking too much about what the pitcher is going to pitch before I go up there, I just have a clear mind and I know I'm going to get it done when I get in the box.”
Senior outfielder Emily Gaines had a 2-for-4 game with two singles, including a rally starting single in the fourth inning that led to Kentucky’s first run. After Gaines ripped a single to rightfield to start the frame, she was pinch ran for by sophomore Maisie Steed, who moved to second on a passed ball and to third on a perfect sacrifice bunt by senior Lauren Cumbess. After junior Griffin Joiner was hit by a pitch, senior outfielder Emily Jolly continued her streak of strong at-bats with a RBI groundout, putting the Wildcats up 1-0. Stokes took it from there, belting a one-out home run in the fifth inning to give Nunley all the run support she needed.
UK infielders Nikki Sagermann and Krystal Smith also had singles against Tennessee pitcher Ellen Renfroe, who received the loss in the game to move to 26-6 on the season. Renfroe tossed seven innings, allowing two runs – one earned – on seven hits with seven strikeouts and four walks.
The Lady Vols’ offense got a 2-for-3 day from leftfielder Lex Overstreet, while infielders Taylor Koenig and Cheyanne Tarango each had singles. Freshman catcher Annie Aldrete had the lone extra-base hit for UT, hitting a double to centerfield in the fourth inning before Nunley struck out the next three batters she faced to end the threat.
Tennessee’s lone scoring chance came with two outs in the seventh inning after Overstreet and Tarango singled before Rainey Gaffin reached on an error to load the bases for the top of the order in Haley Tobler. Tobler worked the count full against Nunley with SEC Player of the Year Madison Shipman on deck, before the UK sophomore got a strikeout looking to end the inning and seal the UK win.
The win continues UK’s program-best record after breaking the school record for wins Wednesday. UK has 43 wins this season, two better than the previous school record of 41 set last season. The Wildcats have consecutive 40-win seasons for the first time in program history. The victory over the highly ranked Lady Vols is the 13th this season for UK over a team ranked or receiving votes at the time UK played team. Thursday’s win marked the 50th for Lawson over a ranked foe, including the 27th over a top-10 ranked team.
Kentucky earned the No. 7 seed in the tournament with a 13-11 conference record, marking its fourth straight winning season in league action. Prior to seventh-year head coach Rachel Lawson taking over the program, UK had only posted a winning SEC record one time. The appearance in the four-day event is the sixth-consecutive for Kentucky and it’s eighth all-time. UK’s two wins in this year’s tournament triple the number of wins UK had all-time in the event entering this season. This is the first time UK has advanced to the semifinals of the tournament in program history.
Friday’s semifinal matchup between Kentucky and LSU marks the first of the season between the two programs. The Tigers swept the Wildcats last season in Baton Rouge, La., and lead the all-time series in games played 35-6. UK and LSU have met once in SEC Tournament play, with the Tigers claiming a 2-1 victory over the Wildcats in Fayetteville, Ark., in 2010.
The event, which is considered one of the most prestigious softball tournaments in the nation, started with two first-round games Wednesday, followed by Thursday’s quarterfinals. Friday will feature two semifinal contests before the championship game on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. The championship game will be televised on ESPN2, while all other games will be shown on ESPNU.