Posted: Dec 15, 2012 8:23 PM
Updated: Dec 15, 2012 8:23 PM
After a program-record fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance last season, the University of Kentucky softball team led by sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson has announced a challenging 2013 schedule, which features matchups against six Women's College World Series teams from a season ago, including both teams that played in the national championship series.
On top of the difficult opponents UK will play, the announcement of the 2013 schedule brings unprecedented excitement to UK softball as the program will open a new state-of-the-art facility this spring and will host the Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time in school history. UK will host 18 games at the new ballpark, not including the prestigious SEC Tournament, which is a four-day event.
Overall, Kentucky will play 18 teams that ended the 2012 season ranked in the top 60 of the NCAA RPI, which covers 31 of the 55 games. Twelve of those teams are Alabama, Oklahoma, California, Arizona State, LSU, South Florida, Missouri, Washington, Louisville, Florida, Stanford and Oregon State, which finished last season with a top-25 RPI or were ranked in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches top 25, spanning 21 games.
Kentucky will face all four teams that earned a top-four national seed in last season's NCAA Tournament, including Alabama - the defending national champions - and Oklahoma, the national runner up. The other two teams to claim a top-four seed were California and Arizona State, who were defeated by Alabama and Oklahoma, respectively, to earn a spot in the national championship series. The Wildcats will also play 2012 WCWS participants South Florida and LSU.
Last season, Kentucky knocked off 10 or more ranked foes for the second-consecutive season, the first time in school history that had been accomplished in back-to-back years. During the Lawson tenure, UK has defeated 31 top-25 teams, including 19 top-10 teams. Several of the national powers UK will face this season it has already downed under Lawson, including Alabama, Arizona State, California, Florida and LSU.
"What makes our 2013 schedule exceptional is that it is loaded with NCAA postseason opponents week to week, so we will be able to see the growth of our team as the season progresses," Lawson added. "Without question, this roster is top to bottom the most athletically gifted squad that Kentucky softball has assembled. But, in order to maximize our full potential, we will need to be battle-tested and continue to learn and move forward so that we will be strong going into the SEC tournament and deep into the postseason."
Kentucky begins its challenging slate the second week of February when it travels to Tempe, Ariz., to play in the Kajikawa Classic. The tournament features four top-25 teams from a season ago, including the host school Arizona State, which made the WCWS and finished with a No. 4 ranking. The Wildcats begin play Feb. 8 in the event with the California Bears, who finished 2012 ranked third nationally, before ending the day with Western Michigan. UK faces another tough test in day two on Feb. 9, matching up against Oregon State and Arizona State. The three-day tournament concludes Feb. 10 with UK playing Portland State and Stanford, who finished last season ranked 21st.
"Our team is looking forward to opening up the 2013 season in Arizona, where we will face off against a formidable schedule including two of the most established programs in the country," Lawson said. "With eight newcomers, it is important that we fully understand the demands required to be successful in the SEC. Like all teams at Kentucky, our goal is both the SEC championship and the national championship and every successful coach will tell you, to be the best, you have to compete against the best."
The Wildcats' 20-game road trip to begin the season stays out west for the second weekend of the year when they compete in the 23rd Campbell/Cartier Classic in San Diego, Calif. San Diego State, who finished with a No. 41 RPI last season, is hosting the event. Play begins Feb. 14 when UK faces off against Cal Poly and the Aztecs before playing Washington, who finished 2012 ranked 14th, on Feb. 15. UK concludes the event Feb. 16 against UC Riverside and the defending NCAA runners-up Oklahoma Sooners.
Lawson and Co. will head back east after the weekend in San Diego to play in the Coke Zero Spartan Classic in Spartanburg, S.C. Kentucky will play four games during the three-day tournament, starting Feb. 22 against Presbyterian College. The Wildcats will play two games on Feb. 23 against Georgetown and USC-Upstate, which is hosting the event. The tournament concludes Feb. 24 when UK faces off against Howard.
Kentucky's season-opening road stanza concludes at the Under Armour Invitational, hosted by the University of South Florida, which made the WCWS last season. UK begins play in Tampa, Fla., on March 1 against Illinois and South Florida before playing Loyola Marymount and Central Michigan on March 2. Play concludes on March 3 against Western Michigan.
The conclusion of play in the Under Armour Invitational turns the page to SEC action for the Wildcats, who will have eight SEC weekends of play, hosting Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Florida and Missouri, while traveling to LSU, South Carolina, Arkansas and Alabama.
After its home opener with Marshall on March 6, which will serve as the first game played in the new UK Softball Complex, Kentucky will open SEC play against the Ole Miss Rebels, who finished 2012 with an RPI of 92. The Wildcats won both games played against the Rebels last season in Oxford, Miss.
Kentucky will break from conference action during the midweek, hosting North Carolina, who finished 2012 with a No. 28 RPI, on March 12 and Southern Illinois on March 13. This will be the first time since 2005 that Kentucky has faced UNC with the all-time series between the two schools knotted at 1-1. UK and SIU played in 2011 but did not meet last season with the all-time series tied 1-1.
UK will travel for its first SEC road trip of the season March 15-17, making its way to Baton Rouge, La., for a three-game series against the Tigers, who ranked sixth nationally in 2012 and made it to the WCWS. The Wildcats swept the Tigers in their lone series last season, marking UK's first ever series win over the Tigers.
The Wildcats will have two more non-conference games after they return from Louisiana, starting a five-game homestand with Western Kentucky on March 19 and Iowa on March 20. The game with WKU is the first of two on the season and marks the fourth time in the last five years UK has played the in-state foe. UK owns the all-time series 11-6 over the Hilltoppers. The meeting with Iowa will be UK's first since 2003 and only the third meeting in school history.
The five-game homestand concludes with a three-game set against Mississippi State from March 22-24. The Wildcats were swept last season in Starkville, Miss., dropping each game by one run.
UK follows the MSU series with an eight-game road trip to face five different teams. The trip begins with a March 26 battle at WKU in Bowling Green, Ky., followed by a March 27 showcase at Lipscomb in Nashville. UK will return to the Bluegrass State the next week to face Louisville on April 3. The Cardinals finished the 2012 season ranked 17th in the USA Today/NFCA top 25.
The road trip continues with a three-game set in Columbia, S.C., against South Carolina from April 6-7. The Wildcats took two of three from the Gamecocks last season in Lexington. The trip concludes April 10 when UK goes to nearby Richmond, Ky., for a doubleheader with EKU.
Kentucky will have a brief stay in Lexington, hosting Florida for a three-game weekend from April 12-14. Florida, who finished the season ranked 18th in the USA Today/NFCA top 25 with an RPI of seventh, lost two of three to the Wildcats last season in Gainesville when the Gators were ranked second in the nation.
UK will hit the road on April 17 to face Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, Tenn., before continuing the road trip farther west to Arkansas on April 19-20 for a three-game series. The Wildcats spilt a two-game series with Arkansas last season in Lexington.
The Wildcats conclude the regular season with a seven-game stretch against some of the best teams in the nation a season ago. The slate begins by hosting Louisville on April 24 before a three-game series with Missouri on April 26-28 in Lexington. Missouri finished the 2012 season ranked 11th in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll. This will be the first time since 1999 the two schools have met on the diamond and the first since Mizzou became a member so the SEC.
Kentucky wraps up the regular season May 3-5 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a three-game series with the defending National Champions. Alabama swept the Wildcats last season in Lexington.
The Wildcats will host the SEC Tournament for the first time in program history from May 8-11, while NCAA Regionals will be held at campus sites May 15-19. The WCWS will be in Oklahoma City, Okla., and will start on May 30.