EUGENE, Ore. - Kentucky's young team has been a quick study all season, adjusting on the fly through a rigorous Southeastern Conference schedule.
The Wildcats did it again on Saturday, but their response to playing "tight and tense" on Friday wasn't quite enough.
"I love that they came out fighting today," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I thought that was great. And that is something we've done all year. We went through our regional very easily. We did a great job in some series this year and when we faltered in the middle of the season we always came back and we came back better. I think that was a real sign of the future of the program."
The present for UK softball, however, is pretty painful. Facing elimination, the Cats built a 5-2 lead on No. 3 Oregon, only to see it disappear when the Ducks plated four runs in the top of the seventh inning to send UK to a 6-5 season-ending defeat in heartbreaking fashion.
"As disappointed as we are in this game, I think overall this was a good season for us for a couple reasons," Lawson said. "We replaced a lot of seniors that had four years of starting experience and for us to be able to come and go to a supers with such a young team shows that the program's in a good place."
Oregon's four-run rally came against Meagan Prince, UK's ace who came on in relief of Erin Rethlake in the fifth inning. It wasn't the end to her career the senior drew up, but the Cats wouldn't have made it to super regionals if not for her excellence in the circle and leadership outside of it.
"Her competitive drive that she has day in and day out, aside from games," Rethlake said. "She is just an outstanding leader and I think that's something that trickles down. You want to play well behind her and you want to do well for her because she's doing the same for you."
The veteran Prince is an exception on this UK roster featuring 14 freshmen and sophomores and only six underclassmen. Prince and fellow seniors Shannon Smith and Breanne Ray will depart after memorable careers, but they will leave behind a talented team.
"I think it's a big step for us that we made it to supers, but obviously our goal was the World Series," said shortstop Katie Reed who made a number of outstanding plays. "So it's disappointing. But it just gives us something to work harder for next year."
What Lawson wants the Cats to work for now is a national seed, which means the right to host super regionals. UK learned the value of that first-hand in playing in front of raucous Oregon crowds of about 2,500 on both Friday and Saturday.
"You don't just want to be a top-16 national seed," Lawson said. "I think the atmosphere, especially when they have such a great atmosphere like they have at Oregon, like we have at Kentucky with the Big Blue Nation, you want to be playing in front of your fans so when you are in a tight situation the fans can help push you over the edge."
All offseason long, Lawson expects the Cats to have that on their minds.
"I believe this is going to be the team that changes the mindset of Kentucky softball forever," Lawson said. "And I think that them coming out here and having this experience in Oregon against a Pac-12 team in such a great atmosphere is going to help them drive them over the summer and in the fall and help us do what we need to do to get all the way to the top."