LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — When it comes down to it, pitching and defense win championships and Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson hopes the Wildcats have enough experience to make a serious run in the NCAA Tournament.
“The postseason is about pitching and defense," Lawson said. "Our pitchers have seen some of the best hitters, they've gone through the murderer's row of the SEC. They do that week in and week out. Just to be able to learn how to survive it and then, learn how to get people out is quite a challenge. For them to be able to do that week in and week out in the SEC I think is really going to bode well for us in the postseason."
Kentucky (31-19) reached the 30-win plateau for the 10th straight season and will take on University of Illinois-Chicago (33-19) in the Lexington Regional at 2:30 p.m. Friday. In the opener, Notre Dame (32-21) meets Michigan (43-11) at noon. The double-elimination regional tourney will be played at John Cropp Stadium.
The Wildcats played 25 ranked opponents during the season and the team’s schedule was ranked the second toughest in the nation, earning Lawson’s squad a national seed for the third year in a row and for the fifth time in the past six years.
Kentucky’s pitching staff is anchored by Grace Baalman, who recorded 12 victories and compiled a 2.37 earned run average. Harding University transfer Autumn Humes is 9-7 and takes a 3.27 ERA into the second leg of the postseason.
A concern earlier in the season, Lawson said her two pitchers are ready for the challenge that awaits the Wildcats this weekend.
“I think, going through a whole season, (Baalman and Humes) are both obviously a year older,” she said. “(Finishing classes) and being able to focus on softball has helped a lot."
Catcher Jenny Schaper agreed.
"They're awesome, I couldn't ask for more from them," she said. "Being two new players to the SEC, they're fearless. They step out on the mound and it doesn't matter who we're playing. We had the second hardest schedule in the country and they just stepped right into it and hit the ground running."
Like her coach, Schaper said the Wildcats are ready for the NCAA Tourney.
“I feel like we're as prepared as any team in the country," Schaper said. "Playing the SEC schedule every single weekend, every pitcher you get is dominant."
In addition to Baalman and Humes, Erin Rethlake, a senior, gives Kentucky a third option in the pitcher’s circle.
"Erin Rethlake has been outstanding the last couple of weeks," Lawson said. "I think her ability to get on the mound and command what she wants to know is going to be a big deal for us moving forward. I feel really good about where our pitching staff is right now."
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.