LEXINGTON, Ky. – After a slow offensive performance by the University of Kentucky softball team in game one, sophomore outfielder Sylver Samuel provided the spark UK needed early on in game two, hitting an inside-the-park home run into the gap in right-centerfield, igniting the Wildcats to a 10-1 victory over DePaul on Sunday in the NCAA Lexington Regional Final at John Cropp Stadium.
The win for Kentucky (47-16) advances the Wildcats to the NCAA Los Angeles Super Regional against No. 3 seeded UCLA next week. Dates and times for the Super Regional are still to be determined. The win marks UK’s second consecutive appearance in a NCAA Super Regional and third in the last four seasons. All NCAA Super Regional appearances have come under seventh-year head coach Rachel Lawson.
After DePaul defeated Kentucky, 2-1, in 10 innings in the first game of the regional final, the Wildcat offense responded in a big way in game two, posting 10 runs on eight hits to grab a 10-1 win in five innings. The 10 runs were the most UK has ever scored in an NCAA Tournament game and tied the second most runs scored this season by UK.
Samuel was the star for Kentucky, going 2-for-3 in the game with two RBI and two runs scored. With one out in the bottom of the first inning, Samuel grounded a ball sharply through the infield that found a hole in right-centerfield and rolled to the warning track. The speedster rounded third as the ball was being thrown back into the infield and crossed home without a throw to put the Wildcats up 1-0. The homer was the first of her young career and the first inside-the-park home run for Kentucky since Megan Yocke hit an inside-the-park homer against UCLA in 2009 at neutral field in Las Vegas.
Although the Wildcats didn’t score any more runs in the first inning, Samuel had shifted the momentum back to the Wildcats as Kentucky scored six times in the second inning to take control of the game. After a groundout and a strikeout started the frame, senior outfielder Emily Jolly reached on an error before senior infielder Krystal Smith singled to put two runners on for sophomore Ansley Smith, who walked to load the bases. Sophomore Christian Stokes made the Blue Demons pay, launching a double off the top of the wall in leftfield to clear the bases and put Kentucky up 4-0. Samuel followed with a triple – the first triple ever hit by a UK player in an NCAA Tournament game – into the gap in left-centerfield to score Stokes before sophomore Nikki Sagermann walked to put two runners on for junior catcher Griffin Joiner, who doubled down the leftfield line to score two more and give UK a 7-0 lead.
DePaul (44-11) scored an unearned run in the third inning, before Kentucky blew the game open in the bottom of the frame with three runs behind a pair of DePaul errors to give the Wildcats its eventual 10-1 victory in five innings.
Stokes finished the game 1-for-3 with a run scored and three RBI, while Joiner was 2-for-3 with two RBI and Jolly was 1-for-2 with two runs scored. Krystal Smith was 2-for-2 in the game with two runs scored, while Ansley Smith scored a run. Senior pitcher/infielder Lauren Cumbess paced UK in the first game by going 1-for-3 with an RBI double. Samuel’s homer in game two was UK’s 65th of the season, tying the school record for homers in a year.
Sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley was impressive in the circle for Kentucky, throwing every pitch of both games to move to 27-8 on the year. Nunley picked up a tough-luck loss in the first game, throwing 9.1 innings allowing two runs – one earned – on five hits with nine strikeouts. She followed with five innings in game two with five hits allowed and one unearned run with two strikeouts.
The win for Nunley ties the school record for wins in a season, equaling her win total of 27 last season. Nunley has 54 career wins in her two short seasons at Kentucky, tying Keary Camunas (1997-2000) for the second most wins in a career in program history.
The win continues UK’s program-best record after breaking the school record for wins last week at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. UK has 47 wins this season, six better than the previous school record of 41 set in 2013. The Wildcats have consecutive 40-win seasons for the first time in program history.
Kentucky played host to the NCAA Lexington Regional for the second consecutive year after earning a top-16 national seed for the second straight season. UK is making its sixth straight appearance in the tournament with all six appearances coming under Lawson in successive seasons. UK is 14-12 all-time in the NCAA Tournament.
DePaul, who was the home team in game one Sunday, won the first game on a walk-off single by senior pitcher Kirsten Verdun, who picked up the win in game one with 10 strong innings, allowing one run on two hits with 11 strikeouts. Verdun started the second game but lasted only two innings, allowing seven runs – one earned – on five hits. She was replaced by Hannah Penna, who went one inning allowing three runs – two earned – on two hits. Mary Connolly tossed the fourth inning, allowing a hit.