Unpredictable, but tough Wildcats seek strong showing in NCAA softball tournament

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By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson isn’t sure what to expect when the Wildcats open the NCAA Tournament against DePaul Friday.

“They are unpredictable,” Lawson said earlier this week. “There’s nothing I guarantee that we’re going to do.”

Kentucky pitcher Meagan Prince and the Wildcats will take on DePaul Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington (UK Athletics Photo)

The Wildcats (36-17) are one of the top 16 seeds in the 64-team field, which features all 13 Southeastern Conference squads, becoming the second conference in NCAA history to send all of its teams to the postseason. Kentucky opens the Lexington Regional against DePaul at 2:30 p.m. Friday at John Cropp Stadium.

The four-team field also features Marshall and Illinois in the double-elimination event scattered over a three-day period. Kentucky eliminated the Illini in last year’s regional, but then fell to Utah in a stunning loss at home.

Much like last year, Lawson said this year’s field will be tough to overcome as the Wildcats seek a return to the super regionals set for next week at various sites. The Kentucky coach added all three teams are “very, very feisty.”

“You’re not going to see probably a region that has three more aggressive-style coaches (and) opponents we are going to face,” she said. “They’re all incredibly aggressive.”

In order to avoid a repeat of last year’s disappointing finish in the Big Dance, sophomore shortstop Katie Reed said the Wildcats can’t afford to be overconfident.

“I think we need to come out with a chip on our shoulder, play well, not look ahead to super regionals and just focus on one game at a time.”

Kentucky defeated South Carolina but then lost to Auburn in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament last week and ace pitcher Meagan Prince, a senior, said there’s no added pressure to perform well this weekend.

“It’s just another game,” she said. “(We’re going to play it) like another game. We play the SEC here almost every weekend (and) they’re tough. They keep us prepared for this and its just another game. (We have to) go out there and leave it all on the field.”

Kentucky opened the season by winning 23 of its first 29 games, but then lost five of six games during back-to-back conference matchups against Ole Miss and Tennessee. The Wildcats were outscored 34-8 during those six games and scored one run in five of those contests.

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Despite the poor showing, the Wildcats rebounded and won one of three games against overall No. 1 seed Florida and gave the top-ranked Gators all they could handle during the three-game series.

The five losses and impressive showing against Florida gave Kentucky renewed confidence going into the final stretch of the regular season.

“I think that’s when (the turnaround) started,” Reed said. “Even towards the end of the Tennessee series, our offense kind of came alive and then from there, we kind of got rolling and I think that’s when we realized what we were capable of doing.”

Prince agreed.

“I think we developed during our SEC play,” she said. “Having to play that tough competition day in and day out and having to establish a name for ourselves. Just because we are so young, we’re not giving up this year. We’re still going to fight for what we have.”

Despite not knowing what to expect from her team this weekend, Lawson knows the Wildcats won’t lack a competitive edge, a trait her squad has developed over the course of the season.

“I think that this team has become very tough,” she said. “Early on in the year, we didn’t do a very good job of coming back. If we didn’t have the lead, we had a hard time coming back from behind. I think that’s huge and that’s something that we’ve done recently. I think that’s made us tougher and tougher.”

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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