The UK Softball team advanced through the NCAA Lexington Regional on Sunday with an exhilarating 4-2 win over Illinois. The Wildcats, riding the golden arms of senior Meagan Prince and Junior Erin Rethlake together with the sizzling bat of freshman Alex Martens, swept through DePaul and the Illini twice this weekend to survive the double elimination format.
Coach Rachel Lawson’s crew now stands with an impressive 39-17 overall record for the year. The unpredictable Wildcats were .500 in the always murderous SEC gauntlet, knocking off nationally ranked powerhouses such as Florida and Texas A&M along the way. Next up for Kentucky will be the NCAA Super Regional round, a familiar Wildcat stomping ground in four of the past five years. “The one thing that I can guarantee is that this team knows how to fight,” Coach Lawson recently said. As I covered the Softball Wildcats throughout this season, I frequently questioned what motivated the team to always battle and fight at such a high level.
NCAA Athletics is often a bipolar entity. On one extreme, you have major university money makers such as football and basketball, with eye-popping budgets that would make the Kardashians blush. At the other end of the spectrum lie sports such as the afore mentioned women’s softball, where the popularity, prestige and financial fortunes of the state university aren’t necessarily linked to their performances on the field.
With UK basketball, everyone knows it’s always life or death. The fate of an entire Big Blue Nation rests precariously on whether that 3-pointer goes in or rims out. Blood pressure, emotional moods and marriage relationships can all fluctuate drastically based solely on an official’s errant call. In softball, you certainly want the team to win–but if they stumble, it’s no big deal. Just order another plate of nachos and let’s all move on to the next inning.
Access to the softball team is certainly wider and broader than with basketball. Approaching John Calipari is like facing the emperor. Everything is scripted and filtered as if he were reading from a presidential teleprompter. You always feel as if you’re somehow imposing on his precious time and that he’s doing you the big favor by gracing you with his presence. In contrast, talking with Rachel Lawson is like having a conversation with your sister—she’s just glad you’re there and laughs when you ask something stupid. “I’m probably the weirdest person you’re ever going to meet,” she candidly told me recently. “Underneath it all, I think I’m somebody who actually finds a lot of humor in life. At the end of the day, I think we’re in the business of creating memories, so I hope I’m doing that for my team, I hope we’re doing it for the fans and I hope we’re doing it for the Big Blue Nation.”
Speaking of memories, after every game, the softball players line up to sign free autographs for the fans. Forget about that ever happening in basketball. Kentucky Basketball players are shielded and sequestered like the rock stars they are. In order to have any interaction with his larger-than-life hardwood heroes, Little Johnny will have to wait for the end-of-career autograph tour, where after waiting in line and for $50 a pop, he might finally be able to procure a precious John Hancock for his leather Spaulding.
Interviewing basketball prima donnas can also be quite challenging. You frequently get one word answers, derisive looks and a cache full of clichés. You can’t really blame them because they’ve been bombarded with the same mundane questions repeatedly and they’re simply tired of looking at your ugly face. By contrast, softball players actually seem to enjoy answering your questions. They’re a bit more unguarded and honest conversational exchange is more the norm than exception.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sports is best summed up by the player’s reasons for being here. With basketball, it’s all business. The goal of one-and-done is to eventually play-for-pay. Careers are on the line and along with that comes all the associated stress and baggage. Players are driven to excel by the carrot of NBA riches at the end of the stick.
I recently asked sophomore third baseman Abbey Cheek that without a lucrative NBA contract to ink, what was it that specifically motivated her to excel. “I’ve always grown up watching softball and I’ve always wanted to go to the Women’s College World Series,” she answered. “Being able to play at the college level, at Division One and in the SEC, the best conference is what drives me every day.” Without hesitation, Senior pitcher Meagan Prince was quick to chime in. “Just for the love of the game,” she said. “For me personally, the love of competition.”
In the high stakes world of NCAA Athletics, there’s something refreshingly innocent—something true, noble, right and pure about those honest answers. Imagine just that—a make believe world where student athletes simply play for the LOVE OF THE GAME.
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on twitter @KYHuangs.