If there is a clutch situation on the softball diamond, Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson knows precisely where to turn.

Junior pitcher/designated player Rachel Riley has become the go-to performer for the Wildcats. On May 21 at the Ann Arbor Regional, Kentucky held a 7-1 lead against host and No. 10 seed Michigan in a winner’s bracket contest. The Wolverines stormed back in the top of the seventh inning, scoring five runs that finished with a grand slam from second baseman Ashley Lane. Riley was brought in to close out the game, pitching with no outs and a lead trimmed to one run. She struck out two of the three batters she faced and finished the inning on nine pitches.

The following day, Riley pitched a complete-game victory, allowing one run in the win that gave the Wildcats a Super Regional berth.

“I was telling coach [last] weekend that I’m pretty sure (Rachel) has nerves of steel,” said senior catcher Megan Yocke. “I don’t think she gets rattled ever. She came in during that seventh inning against Michigan, obviously a great hitting team that obviously had all the momentum, and she shut them down 1-2-3. That definitely helped boost our team going into the next day.”

UK's Road to the Super Regional
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Riley didn’t see it exactly that way.

“It was a little nerve-racking,” Riley said. “I honestly didn’t think I’d come into the game. I thought she’d let [starting pitcher Chanda Bell] finish. Then she walked out to the mound and I saw Chanda heading for the dugout, so I looked at [assistant coach Kristine Himes] and said ‘am I going in?’ and she said ‘yes.’ I went out there and tried to think of it as just three up, three down. There were not runners on and there were no outs, so I just had to hold them. It worked out our way.”

Lawson saw it from another viewpoint.

“That’s funny because in my mind, Rachel was coming in the entire time,” Lawson said. “You can put her in any time you want to. She’s someone who is very reliable, and if you give her the ball she really steps up in big-time situations.”

Those big-time situations have been part of Riley’s on-field repertoire for years. After tearing an ACL in eighth grade, she tore her other ACL, this time in the leg she lands on to complete her pitching motion, while training prior to the start of her senior high school season.

Riley had already signed her National Letter of Intent to attend Kentucky when the second injury took place. On the way home from the doctor’s office after receiving the diagnosis of a torn ACL, Lawson was called.

“Rachel got on the phone and asked me what was going to happen to her scholarship, and I told her nothing. You’ll just rehab and you’ll be fine,” Lawson said. “She said ‘OK, good. Well, the regional tournament is in four months. I’ll be able to lead my team to the state tournament.’ I’m thinking ‘yeah, right. OK kid, go for it.’ I’m thinking there’s no way.

“About three months later, I was sitting in my office scouring newspaper articles from high schools. Rachel had come back three and a half months after her injury and had thrown a no-hitter in her first game back, three months after an ACL injury. She wound up winning the state tournament and has just continued to roll since coming in to Kentucky.”

Riley’s freshman season with the Wildcats did not start out the way her high school career had ended.

“She started out in February and she really struggled,” Lawson said. “She did not do well. I remember I kept putting her on the mound because I really believed in her as a person, but she kept losing and losing badly, so I finally decided I couldn’t put her out there any more.

“She didn’t pitch again until April when our number one pitcher went down. So there we were, we have Rachel Riley and we have to pitch her against Tennessee. She hadn’t had any pitching time whatsoever and she goes into the first game and does a great job. Then she started game two and was just on fire. She was getting people out left and right. She ended up winning that game and the next weekend we wound up losing, but she no-hit Florida through eight innings. Since that week-long span, she has just taken off for us.”

That return to the pitching circle stands out in Riley’s memory as well.

“I didn’t have a very good outing at the beginning of my freshman year and I didn’t get a chance to come back in until Chanda was injured,” Riley said. “At that point, my mindset was just that I had nothing to lose, so I went out there and that’s actually when I did my best, so I tried to have that mentality all of the time. The big games, I don’t really get nervous, usually. I just try to enjoy the moment. I’m honored to play in such a big game, or have the opportunity to do what I love.”

Kentucky pitcher/DP Rachel Riley

On May 15, 2009, Riley pitched seven shutout innings and earned Kentucky’s first NCAA tournament win, a 7-0 victory against Canisius in Columbus, Ohio. Her role has grown as her career has progressed, and Riley has been able to add hitting to her repertoire. This season, she plays at DP when not pitching and is hitting .358 with eight home runs.

“Coming to college, one of my main concerns was that coach wasn’t going to let me hit if I was a pitcher,” Riley said. “Coach Lawson said if I could work my way into the lineup, she’s going to have the best hitters in the lineup. That was one of my goals coming into college.”

“Her first two years she certainly worked at hitting, but she hadn’t earned a spot in the lineup,” Lawson said. “This year, she typically bats fifth for us, but last weekend she was batting fourth. She continues to be a very steady, very confident hitter and she just keeps getting better for us.”

The Wildcats enter uncharted territory on Saturday, playing host to seventh-seeded California in Super Regional play. It will be the first Super Regional appearance in Kentucky softball history. Riley will certainly be a critical piece of the puzzle should the Wildcats continue their upset run and advance to the Women’s College World Series.

“Rachel is a huge part of our team,” Yocke said. “She doesn’t get the accolades that a lot of pitchers do because she doesn’t get the strikeouts and all that stuff. But the little stuff that she does right, like getting ground balls when we need it or getting a clutch pop-up on not necessarily her best pitch, all of those things are taken into account by the rest of our team who notice all the little things she does.”

Especially her coach.

“Before the game on Sunday,” Lawson said of the regional championship game, “ I remember saying to Himes ‘I don’t know how Rachel is going to win it, and I’m not even sure what pitches I’m going to call, but I know something good is going to happen.’”

Lawson’s instincts were correct, as Riley earned the victory that advanced the Wildcats into the Super Regional.

“I think I’ve just always been like that,” Riley said. “Even in high school when we played in the state tournament. Maybe it was the fact that I have been in those situations before. It’s never been an issue for me. When I’m pitching, I feel good and that’s where I want to be.”