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Roger Moore | | May 30, 2014

First time is the charm

cumbess-kentucky.jpg Kentucky's Lauren Cumbess went 3-for-3 with a home run on Thursday.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first time is often the most memorable.

For a number of college softball student-athletes, Thursday marked their first experience on the expertly manicured Hall of Fame Stadium field. Throw in 8,000 energetic fans and you've got the makings of lifetime's worth of memories.

Kentucky had never played a Women's College World Series game before facing off with Louisiana-Lafayette, a program not in OKC since 2008.

"I didn't know what to expect because in the middle of the third inning, [Christian] Stokes goes 'wow, look at all the people,' and she was on deck," Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson said. "I said, 'wow, look at the ball.' So I'm really proud of my team for the way they came out and played [Thursday]."

For Wildcat senior Lauren Cumbess, it may have been the highlight of her sporting life -- so far.

"There definitely are nerves, but I think it is more excitement," said Cumbess, who had an RBI-double and home run in her squad's 4-1 victory against the Ragin' Cajuns in the third game of the WCWS. "In the SEC we play on a big stage on all the time, so I don't think the big crowds bother us as much; with the TV and the big crowds, I think we play better."

"We just love being here. We talked about it as a team, that we want to enjoy every moment."

Cumbess, from Normal, Ill., finished 3-for-3 in her first WCWS game.

Sophomore Kelsey Nunley, from Soddy Daisy, Tennessee, also had a night for the scrapbook. Nunley, a right-hander, the only pitcher Lawson has used this postseason, was once again very good in the circle. She gave up an early home run to Lexie Elkins, but did not allow another hit the rest of the way in a one-hit gem.

"I think the nerves we had were good nerves," said Nunley, who has earned the victory in thirty of the 'Cats' fifty wins in 2014.

Kentucky has appeared in five consecutive NCAA tournaments, but 2014 is the first at the WCWS for a program coached by someone who played for a Massachusetts program that was in OKC in 1992.

"You here about the World Series all the time and you know that it is special, but to see how it is pulled off first-hand is just incredible," Lawson added. "I can't say enough about the last two days; it's just been really special."

The tournament's opening contest saw a Florida team that certainly was not caught up the moment. The Gators continued to hammer opponents, getting a fifth-inning walk-off grand slam by freshman Chelsea Herndon, in her first WCWS at-bat, to run-rule Baylor 11-0. Florida (51-12) has outscored its postseason opponents 60-4, getting six shutouts from the circle.

"That first time, you are here for the experience, having a good time, and there are a lot of nerves," said UF senior hurler Hannah Rogers, making her third trip to the WCWS. "It's my third time here, so I have the experience, the confidence that comes with being through this a few times.

"The way our offense has been going, it allows you to just go out there and have fun, not feel any pressure."

Herndon, a native of Carrollton, Texas, could not have asked for a better memory.

"I just went up there with a clear mind, stayed calm, and didn't let my nerves get a hold of me," said Herndon, who hit the homer off of high school teammate Heather Stearns. "When I saw a good pitch I took a good hack at it."

Familiarity often breeds comfort.

"It feels like another SEC road trip," said UF head coach Tim Walton, who has brought the Gators to OKC six of the past seven years.

Two of the nation's top pitchers went at it in the second game – USA Softball Player of the Year Lacey Waldrop of Florida State and Oregon sophomore Cheridan Hawkins, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year. Hawkins, a left-hander from Anderson, Calif., will certainly remember her first appearance, tossing a one-hit shutout to lead the Ducks past the Seminoles.  Like Rogers, a fellow All-American, Hawkins got a ton of offensive support as the Gators rocked Waldrop for 10 hits and chased her from the game in the sixth inning.

"I was nervous and excited and I was working through those emotions, but after the first inning I settled down," Hawkins said. "But I definitely was nervous."

Now, with one day in the books, all those first-timers can consider themselves seasoned veterans. 

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