Back in the day, the Kentucky Wildcats began playing intercollegiate softball. And that day – all of them – had to be miserable.
Those days are long gone now. The softball Wildcats have reached new heights.
There was probably some fun mixed in there on occasion during the early days, but for the longest time, softball was another one of those sports that was an afterthought, something to provide scholarship opportunities for women, in order to comply with Title IX. Even when they moved to an on-campus facility, for the longest time the Wildcats were barely competitive.
Then Mitch Barnhart upped the ante. The softball budget grew and with it, a sparkling new stadium, as well as an indoor practice facility.
But before any of that happened, Barnhart hired Rachel Lawson away from Western Kentucky, where he couldn’t help but notice her Hilltopper teams giving the Wildcats all they could handle. Lawson’s first Kentucky team finished 17-37. Since then, it’s been nothing but victories and NCAA regional appearances.
In fact, the Wildcats have played in super regionals three of the last four years, the level of the NCAA tournament that had them one step from the Women’s College World Series. In the first two, they fell short. On Sunday afternoon, they broke through. And it was in the most unlikely of places - Westwood, in Los Angeles.
UK actually hosted its first super regional appearance, in 2011, by virtue of a Kentucky upset of Michigan in the regional round, and the fact that California couldn’t host the super because its stadium was being renovated and construction already had begun. Far from home, the Golden Bears pulled out the victory before an overflow crowd at John Cropp Stadium.
Last year, the Cats won another regional title and were sent to Tempe, where they were dispatched by powerful Arizona State in two games. When they left they were proud, but unfulfilled.
This month, a victory in the Lexington Regional punched their ticket to another super. Their reward – a matchup with homestanding UCLA, which has won 11 NCAA championships, plus an AIAW title.
And if that weren’t enough, the seniors on this third-seeded Bruins team were highly motivated. They had never made it to a WCWS at a school where that was the standard. In fact, the super they were hosting was their first. Compared to UCLA, the Wildcats were veterans when it came to super regional appearances. But Kentucky figured to be little more than a speed bump on the Bruins’ way to Oklahoma City. And it certainly looked that way after the opener.
The Cats blew a 4-2 lead in game one Saturday night, UCLA answering Griffin Joiner’s grand slam with one of its own. But the Cats came back on Sunday and took two, earning the program’s first trip to the WCWS.
You can point to a lot of different ways Lawson made this happen but her brightest move, by far, was recruiting and signing Kelsey Nunley, the sophomore right-hander from Soddy Daisy, Tennessee. Nunley threw every pitch in the super regional, including the fastball that UCLA’s Delaney Spaulding knocked out of the park with the bases loaded Saturday night.
On Sunday, her teammates staked Nunley to a 5-1 lead after the first inning in game one. Nunley struck out just two but walked only three after wrestling with wildness on Saturday, when she threw 128 pitches in six innings. In the all-important opener Sunday afternoon, Nunley threw “only” 129 through seven, and then sat down for about 45 minutes between games.
The rubber game was scoreless until the third inning, when both teams scored a run. It was in the fourth that the Cats broke through with three unlikely runs. With two on and nobody out, Krystal Smith, she of the .168 batting average, ripped a double down the leftfield line, driving in a run.
After a ground ball out, senior Ginny Carroll squibbed a bouncer toward first off the end of the bat. She might as well have used a cue stick, for all the English the ball had on it, spinning away from the Bruins’ first baseman and beyond the reach of their second baseman. Two more runs scored and Kentucky was in command, 4-1.
The Cats scored three more insurance runs in the seventh and Nunley set the Bruins down in order in the bottom of the inning. The celebration was on. Kentucky is heading to the Women’s College World Series.
That’s in Oklahoma City – a long way from Woodland Park.