UK

Abbey Cheek and Rachel Lawson watch the action from the dugout Sunday. (Kentucky Today/Keith Taylor)

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – During the Regional competition just completed at John Cropp Stadium, I caught myself thinking about the many reasons why NCAA Softball has become so popular. It’s fast paced, exciting, and consists of skilled athletes playing mainly for the love of the game. It’s also a game that everyone’s familiar with—having at some point faced the indignity in their church leagues of striking out with the bases loaded or dropping that routine fly ball.

There was neither much striking out nor routine drops for members of the Kentucky Softball team this weekend, as they cruised through the Lexington Regionals, on their way to the Wildcats’ seventh Super Regional in the last nine years. An 11-1 trouncing of the ACC champion Virginia Tech Hokies allowed Kentucky to easily march unscathed through the double elimination format, outscoring its opposition 26-4.

“It amazes me how much softball has grown,” said UK coach Rachel Lawson when asked about the huge fan turnout. “Specifically, I love how it’s grown at the University of Kentucky.”

Reasons for growth are numerous, a lot of them having to do with dollars invested in the program. Shiny new stadiums, luxurious player lounges, and indoor practice facilities don’t grow on trees. When you’re a member of the million-dollar club—also known as the SEC—you best be ready to write those checks. Facilities wise, either compete with the Joneses or wind up on their dinner plates when all is said and done.

“I think it definitely helps playing in the SEC,” said junior second baseman Alex Martens, whose three hits and five RBIs helped carry her team to Sunday’s victory. “If you notice, every SEC team is in the post season. Everyone is either hosting a regional or at a regional, so playing every weekend against the best teams across the country is what prepares you for the Super Regional.”

It’s really no different than in marquee sports such as basketball. Great players want to play in the best league with other great players. That’s how you end up with elite talent like Martens, or National Player of the Year candidate Abbey Cheek, or All-Conference shortstops like Katie Reed, vying in Lexington for a coveted NCAA crown.

Softball’s rising popularity, when compared to that of Kentucky Basketball, is not lost on Coach Lawson. Winning begets winning, so expectations naturally skyrocket with the team’s success. Super Regionals you say? Been there, done that. This year, it’s another College World Series or bust for this special group of Wildcats.

“Me and Cal (UK men’s basketball coach John Calipari), right there,” Lawson joked, with her boss, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, lurking in the back of the media room. “The pressure’s on. “I can’t believe Mitch hasn’t fired me yet.”

Perhaps it’s time for Mitch to cobble together another lifetime contract. After all, the success of the Kentucky Softball program speaks volumes. Regardless of money spent on facilities, league affiliation, or the intricacies of the game itself, the popularity of UK Softball centers directly on the head coach’s relationship with her players. That—and winning, of course. Coach Lawson understands that championship trophies are ultimately what counts.

“I love the BBN,” Lawson said, as emotions welled up inside. “If they weren’t invested in winning, we wouldn’t have all this. So their expectation level at Kentucky is to win championships…but nobody will ever put more pressure on themselves to succeed than I will. As much as I feel it’s my responsibility to carry them, I don’t want to let them (the players) down. I just don’t want to let them down. That’s what drives me.”  

Should seedings hold up, a trip to Seattle to face the 3rd-seeded Washington Huskies will be a daunting task. If anyone can pull it off, Coach Lawson and crew certainly have what it takes. For the University of Kentucky Softball program, the hunt for national titles is now par for the course.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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.

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