(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – For the fourth year in a row, the Kentucky Wildcats Softball team will be hosting a Regional at John Cropp Stadium. These postseason soirees are becoming rather routine—business as usual for Coach Rachel Lawson, the winningest coach in program history. You know the resume. Eleven straight NCAA tournaments with thirty or more wins (2009-19), six NCAA Super Regionals (2011,’13,’14,’15,’17,’18), a first-ever College World Series appearance (2014), a program-best fifty win season (2014), and SEC Coach of the Year honors (2016). It’s almost as if the program is a victim of its own success—year after year of consistency and excellence, now unfairly expected and taken for granted.
That’s why it’s especially important for all of BBN to show up in force for the party this year. RSVP your personal invitation exclusively online through UKathletics.com/NCAATickets. The festivities begin at noon on Friday with ACC champion Virginia Tech (45-9) squaring off against at-large selection Illinois (32-23). Then at approximately 2:30 p.m. ET, the 14th-seeded Wildcats (33-22) will take on the Toledo Rockets (29-26), the Mid-American Conference Tournament champions. The double elimination format runs through the weekend, with the winner advancing to the Super Regional Round—where if the seeding holds out—the 3rd-seeded Washington Huskies will be eagerly awaiting.
In the month of May—for Kentucky fans at least—an exciting softball run toward the College World Series is as good as it gets. With Citrus Bowl memories fading fast, the adrenaline of March Madness disappearing, and the Baseball team on life support, what better way to get your Big Blue fix than cheering on the softball team? I’ve been covering the team pretty closely for a few years now. Personally speaking, even with all the successes of seasons past, there’s one specific reason this particular UK team seems especially easy to root for. It’s the senior class.
Abbey Cheek, Katie Reed, Jenny Schaper, Sarah Rainwater, and Kelsee Henson are no strangers to postseason parties. Every single year they’ve been invited to the dance. They’re talented, smart, dedicated, and focused on the season-long goal of reaching the World Series.
“It’s always on our mind,” said Cheek. “We always talk about it every day. It’s really cool that we’re starting the postseason. If we take it game by game, we should have a good shot of making it.”
The UK career home run leader and National Player of the Year candidate has been very intentional about improving her own game. “What Abbey’s done is that she’s always wanted to carry the team,” explained Coach Lawson. “She’s always wanted to come up with the big hit. But we could have been down by five and she would be trying to hit it over the berm to get a five-run homerun.” Now Cheek has figured out how to master herself. She worked hard on early pitch recognition during the course of the season, improving her vision and discipline at the plate. Because of that, she’s taken her game to a whole other level. Abbey Cheek is easy to root for.
Developing and sustaining winning softball programs, however, involves much more than just on-the-field improvements. “I think the coolest part is that all five of them (the seniors) are graduating in four years in the major they want to be in,” beamed Coach Lawson. “That’s incredibly important when you’re in college athletics because it’s not an easy thing to do.”
As a pre-dental major, All-American shortstop Katie Reed knows how difficult the scholastic grind can be. “I’ve always been pretty serious about academics,” she admitted. “It’s just an honor to be recognized for my hard work on the field and off.” When I asked what was her most difficult class, she answered without hesitation. “Biochemistry,” she said, as she flashed that always captivating smile. Katie Reed is easy to root for.
Catcher Jenny Schaper also made the All-Conference team this year. With her quiet, but confident leadership skills behind the plate, she’s been a cornerstone of the team her entire college career. In terms of career years, Kaylee Henson has certainly had one. The Paducah native has come in and gotten some huge hits for the team—contributing in ways that have been somewhat unexpected, making her performance this year even more special. It’s easy to root for both Jenny Schaper and Kaylee Henson.
And finally, Sarah Rainwater is back this year after a devastating knee injury. The homegrown East Jessamine product not only adds additional defensive and baserunning skills, but also personifies the Big Blue spirit so coveted within the search for statewide talent. “I’m getting to play in front of the Big Blue Nation one more time—it’s awesome,” she said regarding the upcoming Regional. “It means everything.” It’s easy rooting for Sarah Rainwater.
Coach Lawson summed it up beautifully. “It’s a tough class,” she emphasized. “And (it’s) a lot of the reason why we’ve been so successful for the last four years.”
I couldn’t agree more. Now it’s up to YOU to show up and root ‘em on!
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.