“We were just told to meet at ‘B.W.’s’ at 9 o’clock, so I thought it was just going to the team,” said second baseman Natalie Smith, a junior. “And then I walk in and girls got surprised with their families, and then everyone’s whispering ‘Coach Cal’s here!’ and Mr. Barnhart, all the athletic people, our media crew, academics, weight, strength and conditioning. It just shows what a family UK athletics is, and it’s just really awesome to have that support system around us.”
Yes, men’s basketball coach John Calipari and athletics director Mitch Barnhart joined in the celebration.
This was big stuff — Kentucky gets its first invitation to the NCAA softball big dance.
“It was really exciting, for the first time in my three years here,” said Molly Johnson, UK’s sweet-hitting junior shortstop. “I was really happy for the team.”
“I wanted to see what the looks on all their faces were because I’m so proud of everything that they’ve done this year,” Coach Rachel Lawson said as she relived the moment that Kentucky’s name appeared on the screen. “They deserve it. They work hard. Just for them to feel this moment for the first time, I think, is very special.”
UK (32-21) landed in the Columbus (Ohio) Regional, one of 16 four-team regionals that will be played next weekend. The Wildcats will open the double-elimination regional against Brigham Young (39-16), the Mountain West champion, Thursday at 5 p.m. Ohio State (44-9), seeded 11th nationally, will face MAAC champion Canisius (27-22) Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Play continues through Saturday. The champion will advance to a best-of-three Super Regional, May 22-23, to face either sixth-seeded Georgia, North Carolina, Campbell or Radford. Winners of the eight Super Regions advance to the College World Series, May 28-June 3, at Oklahoma City.
“Rachel and this group have done a remarkable job,” Barnhart said. “I’m really, really proud of them.”
“All the hard work has finally paid off,” Smith said. “We’re really excited to go to Ohio State. Because it’s near Kentucky, a lot of family can travel. We think we’re going to get a lot of fans, and it’s definitely a regional that we think we have a good shot of winning.
“These freshmen have no idea how big of a deal this is because they haven’t had to go through the past two years of losing seasons and just a lot of ups and downs, coaching changes. But it’s all worth it right now and any problems we’ve had in the past, everything’s just kind of melted away. It’s almost like a clean slate and we’re just ready to go.”
UK finished 20-31 in 2007 and, in Lawson’s first season as coach, 17-37 in 2008.
“It’s huge for the program,” Lawson said of what the NCAA berth means, “because I think now they finally understand they’re on the big stage. That was the coolest thing about being at the SEC Tournament, because I heard one of the players say ‘we’re a big deal.’ I don’t think they understood until they were sitting on the field in Knoxville this weekend that they understood they were a big deal. So now that they understand that they are a big deal, now it’s just a matter of winning softball games and don’t worry about anything else.”
UK is among nine SEC teams to receive NCAA bids, along with top-seeded Florida, No. 4 Alabama, No. 6 Georgia, No. 13 Tennessee and unseeded Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State. The Wildcats are coming off an SEC Tournament that saw them stun Georgia 2-0, then take Alabama to extra innings before falling 2-1.
“After the SEC Tournament, I think our confidence was soaring,” Johnson said. “That win against Georgia really helped. Then taking Alabama to extra innings, a win would have been even better, but extra innings against a top-notch team like Alabama will only help a young team like ourselves.”
“We extremely confident right now,” said sophomore Megan Yocke, who can play infield or behind the plate. “We think that we can pretty much take on anyone. We’ve faced a lot of Top 25 competition in the early season and we played extremely well against them. And we’ve gotten better throughout the season, so I think if we were to face those same teams again we could give an even better run.”
COLUMBUS REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Thursday (times subject to change):
Game 1: Kentucky (home) vs. BYU (away) – 5 p.m.
Game 2: Canisius at Ohio State – 7:30 p.m.
Friday (times subject to change):
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner – 1 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser – 3:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 4 winner vs. Game 3 loser – 6 p.m.
Saturday (times subject to change):
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner – 1 p.m.
Game 7, if needed: Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser – 3:30 p.m.
Region seeds – 1. Florida; 2. UCLA; 3. Washington; 4. Alabama; 5. Michigan; 6. Georgia; 7. Oklahoma; 8. Stanford; 9. Arizona; 10. Arizona State; 11. Ohio State; 12. Northwestern; 13. Tennessee; 14. Georgia Tech; 15. DePaul; 16. Florida State.
* Louisville was selected as a regional host. The Cardinals will open against Purdue. Also in the field are ninth-seeded Arizona and Tennessee Martin.
To see the full NCAA bracket, visit: