With die-hard UK sports fans, there’s never really a dull moment. While it’s true that during this time of the year our Big Blue minds and hearts aren’t necessarily rising and falling with the collective fortunes of our basketball and football teams, there’s still plenty of ongoing Wildcat happenings to whet our voracious appetites. Recent newsprint and blog headlines have been flooded with stories regarding Matthew Mitchell’s woes, Coach Cal’s manifesto, ex-Cats in the NBA, current Cats in the draft lottery, the passing of Ed Davender, and the Marques Bolden recruiting saga. While all these events are certainly newsworthy, you can imagine how refreshing it was for me to finally return back “on to the field” this weekend to cover an actual competition–the UK women softball team’s postseason path through the NCAA tournament.
By virtue of Kentucky’s highest ever 9th overall national seeding, the Wildcats were selected to host the Lexington Regional at John Cropp Stadium. The double-elimination format pitted the Cats (43-12) against the Butler Bulldogs (28-22), the Utah Utes (32-19), and the Illinois Fighting Illini (35-21) with the winner advancing to the Super-Regionals in Tallahasee on May 26-29 and then possibly on to the College World Series June 2-8 in Oklahoma City.
For those of you not familiar with the venue, John Cropp Stadium sits on the East side of Commonwealth Stadium and was named for UK softball’s long-time supporter and school administrator. The $9.5 million facility was dedicated on April 13, 2013 and features 1,500 seats, a spacious press box, two luxury suites and a first-class indoor hitting/fielding facility complete with a locker room, team lounge, and offices. In other words, it’s state-of-the-art and super nice–a necessity for competing in the talent laden SEC. My press box seat right behind home plate offered a perfect panoramic vantage point of the field of play. The surrounding spectator stands are all crowd-friendly, keeping the fans intimately close to the viewing action. Even the hot dogs I sampled seem to have a bit more flavor and snap than usual.
The games themselves were just as enticing. For anyone who has never actually watched an NCAA women’s softball game in person, let me just say that this isn’t the typical pastime you see in your church softball league. The players here are all big and fast and strong and dedicated and skilled. The coaches can coach and the fans are vocal. Under overcast skies with intermittent rain showers for most of the weekend, a predominantly blue-poncho-clad crowd witnessed the Cats failing to advance to an NCAA Tournament super-regional for the first time since 2013.
After a three-hour rain delay and suspension of Friday’s opening round game, UK–behind the 5-hit pitching of junior left-hander Meagan Prince–came back on Saturday morning to ease past Butler 6-1. Surprisingly, the Wildcats followed that up with a rather lackluster performance, losing 3-0 against a well rested Utah team that had defeated Illinois 1-0 a day earlier. UK ace right-handed pitcher Kelsey Nunley was uncharacteristically wild with a season high 5 walks while failing to get any needed support from the offense the entire afternoon.
That set the stage for an evening matchup with Illinois (2-1 winners over Butler in the preceding losers bracket elimination game) with the Cats needing three straight victories in order to survive and advance. Illinois, perhaps still giddy from their extra inning escape, jumped out early 2-0. As the innings ticked by, feelings of Big Blue angst began to surface, until freshman Katie Reed came through with a clutch game tying single in the top of the 7th. Kelsey Nunley was brilliant, striking out nine batters and keeping the Illini in check until senior shortstop Christian Stokes doubled home Abby Cheek with the eventual winning run in the top of the 8th inning. In the bottom of the 8th, with one man on base, Nunley retired the last three batters to secure the heart stopping 3-2 victory. That meant Kentucky would still have to beat Utah twice on Sunday in order to keep their postseason hopes alive.
Under refreshingly sunny skies and a partisan near-capacity crowd, UK powered past the Lady Utes in the first elimination game. A rested Megan Prince got off to a shaky start, but a three-run homer by freshman right fielder Abby Cheek in the top of the 3rd inning was enough to force the winner-take-all finale as the Cats prevailed 4-0. Unfortunately the Cat’s bats ran out of steam in the final deciding game. Utah put up three runs with two outs in the top of the 5th inning while UK squandered a golden opportunity by leaving the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth. Final score: Utah 5 – Kentucky 3.
Afterwards, a disappointed Coach Rachel Lawson said, “Today was a great day for softball.” Overall, despite the final game defeat, this weekend’s experience did not disappoint. There’s a reason women’s softball enjoys such high television ratings. It’s fast paced, competitive, and extremely skill based. The fans are into it and player personalities easily shine through. UK lost but I’ll definitely be back again next year, especially to cheer on the Cats! Hope you’ll tag along for the ride.
For an exclusive behind-the-scenes report of this weekend’s NCAA tournament experience, please visit me at www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs