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May 24, 2013

Softball Cats hit road to face Arizona State

Kentucky plays Arizona State this weekend in the NCAA Tempe Super Regional. The complete schedule:
SaturdayGame 1: Kentucky vs. Arizona State (10 p.m., ESPN2)
SundayGame 2: Arizona State vs. Kentucky (5 p.m., ESPN2)

Game 3: Kentucky vs. Arizona State (8 p.m., ESPN, if necessary)
The Kentucky softball team is ready for its next challenge. And the Wildcats' latest task is their biggest.

UK is two wins away from making program history and reaching the Women's College World Series, but standing in its way is the No.5 national seed, Arizona State.

The Sun Devils defeated the Cats earlier this season 8-1, but that was back in February, and UK is a changed team.

"First of all, we're starting five freshman and that was their first weekend out," UK coach Rachel Lawson said. "So they've not only had 56 games under their belt, but they've also had them in the SEC and against a lot of Pac-12 teams."

But one thing that hasn't changed since the first meeting is Arizona State's ace pitcher Dallas Escobedo. Escobedo is considered one of the top pitchers in the Pac-12 and pitched a complete-game, eight-strikeout performance in the teams' first meeting.

There's no denying Escobedo's pitching ability, but the Cats have spent a plethora of time scouting.

"She has a lot of spin on the ball and she also has a really good rise ball," freshman outfielder Sylver Samuel said. "I think that's what we learned from and that's what will make us tough to get out."

In the first meeting, Lawson said UK wasn't ready to play a top-notch team. Lawson said such young players need time to adjust to the speed of the college game, and after battling such tough teams all season, she believes her team is ready.

"Arizona State was one of the first teams that we played, so they didn't really understand the speed of the game when they first played it against Arizona State, who plays very fast." Lawson said. "Their expectation level now is completely different, and how fast we play is completely different."

The young Cats are used to big games. They stumbled in the SEC tournament, losing in the first round despite hosting at the new John Cropp Stadium.

But the Cats were given a chance a redemption and cashed in by winning the Lexington Regional to advance to the program's second Super Regional.

UK's recent success has confidence at an all-time high heading into the most important series in program history.

"I still think we were a little bit tight in regionals and I think every step that we're taking is really helping," Lawson said. "The experience that we're gaining is really helping them understand what they need to do to go to the World Series. So I think regionals were a big step for us because I think we were pretty tight on Saturday."

The last time the Cats were in the Super Regionals, they lost two games to one to another Pac-12 team, California.

The Pac-12 and SEC are considered two of the top softball conferences in the country, and the Cats aren't strangers to either.

UK finished 13-11 in the SEC and won four out of five against the Pac-12. But the lone loss came against the Sun Devils.

"They're a very tough challenge…," Lawson said. "It's going to be a challenge, but this is why we play this. It's going to be a lot of fun."

UK expects to pitch freshman Kelsey Nunley, who pitched all four games in last weekend's regional.

Nunley boasts a 1.97 ERA, 27 wins and 190 strikeouts on the season.

"I think we will rely heavily on Nunely as long as she can go and I think they will rely heavily on Dallas Escobedo," Lawson said. "In this particular Super (Regional), I believe you will see predominantly two pitchers."

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