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Kowalik's Robbery Leads UK To Victory

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(Photo Courtesy of UK Athletics)

Kentucky freshman Kayla Kowalik is used to being a stopper on defense but not the way she has been for No. 14 seed Kentucky in the Lexington Regional.

Recruited out of St. John Paul II High School in New Braunfels, Texas as a catcher, the only obstacle between an erratic pitch and the backstop, Kowalik found herself patrolling center field for the majority of the 2019 season.

But further from the plate than she is accustomed to playing, Kowalik snagged the biggest catch of the Wildcats (35-22) postseason thus far in the hosts 8-1 win over Virginia Tech.

In the middle of a tense pitchers duel, Kowalik robbed the Hokies Kelsey Bennett of a potential home run and shifted the momentum toward Kentucky.

Making catches like it is the result of a lot of hard work.

"It's taken a lot of work. If you'd seen some of my catches, or not catches, at the beginning of the season, I never would have expected to make plays like it now," said Kowalik.

The biggest challenge in moving from catching to the outfield is perspective, Kowalik said, but it is a change she was willing to make to hit the team.

Kowalik's bat also made a difference with her bat by going 3-of-4. Her second hit of the started a three-run rally in the bottom of the 4th that gave the Wildcats a lead they never relinquished.

Her final hit of the contest was an RBI single in the bottom of the 5th, part of a four-run outpouring spurred on by three of Virginia's Tech four errors.

The Hokies starting pitcher, Carrie Eberle (25-7), showed why she was the ACC Player of the Year, breezing through the first time she faced Kentucky's order.

"She did such a good job. She mowed us over," said Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson.

The Wildcats stayed patient though, something Lawson preaches daily in practice, and eventually, their time came.

"What I was so proud of our team for doing is that that they didn't let that inning define the next inning or the rest of the game," said Lawson. "What they learned from those at-bats is that the people behind them positioned themselves better, angled better and picked up the pitcher."

When Eberle faltered, Kentucky's Grace Baalman (10-9) remained calm under pressure. The sophomore allowed a base runner in six of the seven innings she pitched, and she gave up eight hits total. Baalman didn't allow a runner past second base, though, until Tech's Emma Strouth homered off of her in the 6th.

Sherlund's Shot Sinks Toledo

A bad pitch can instantly spoil a fabulous outing in the circle. A good pitch, thrown well but hit better has the same effect, and Erin Hunt believes that her 2-0 offering to Illinois Kiana Sherlund, destined to be a two-run walk-off homer, was not bottom barrel.

"I think it was 2-0 at the time, so obviously I didn't want to walk the girl, there was already somebody on second, so I came back at the top of the strike zone, and she kept her hands high and hit it," she said.

Her catcher vouched for her appraisal.

"It wasn't a meatball," said Kaitlyn Bergman

Still, Hunt and the Rockets (29-28) had nothing to hang their heads about.

Hunt (17-13) threw a magnificent 6.2 innings. Only allowing two runs on five hits with six strikeouts to her name. She repeatedly halted the Fighting Illini anytime they got a runner on the base path and started building momentum.

The issue, Illinois Sydney Sickles (19-13) overcame five walks with seven strikeouts, and limited the Rockets to three hits, none of which got a runner past second base.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, Toledo head coach Joe Abraham celebrated his team's achievements this season.

"We just talked in the locker room about how proud we are of this team, and how far they've come. Once again, they showed that they can play with anybody in the top five power teams in the country."

Hokies Storm Back

The difference maker in Virginia Tech's 5-1 win over Illinois was old-fashioned rage; that and twin homers from Al Velazquez and Caitlyn Nolan in a three-run 5th inning that swung the game in the Hokies (47-10) favor.

Velazquez leadoff the top of the frame with a no-doubter to the berm beyond the center field wall and the sophomore said she came out swinging with furious intentions.

"I remember that I was mad," she said after the game. "I seem to hit better when I'm mad. It helps me take better takes and see the ball better."

The Minnesota transfer admitted her strategy "is weird" and that there isn't anything that stokes her internal fire besides "some things happened" that she had to deal with.

Nolan's two-run jack was born out of frustration.

"I was tired of getting jammed," she said. "I was just trying to get something and pull it really hard."

Tech's starter Keely Rochard (22-3) was rock-solid in the circle, going the distance. She gave up a run against four hits in her second victory of the weekend over the Illini (33-25).

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NFCA Brings Back Division I Leadoff Classic For 2020

For the first time since 2014, the NFCA will host its Division I Leadoff Classic in 2020.