She pitched in the Tokyo Olympics. Now, she’s a key to Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

·8 min read

Hanging above Alexia Lacatena’s dorm room bed is an Italian flag, filled with signatures and serving as a reminder of her time on one of the biggest stages in sports.

Before her first college class and first college game with the Kentucky softball team, Lacatena — a UK freshman from northern New Jersey — pitched for the Italian national team during the Tokyo Olympics in summer 2021.

Lacatena pitched in four games for Italy, starting once, totaling 9 2/3 innings pitched while striking out seven and allowing opponents to hit for just a .206 average against her.

Her only start came against the host nation, and eventual gold medalists, Japan. There was a relief appearance against the United States, the eventual silver medalists, in which Lacatena got Italy out of a bases-loaded jam.

But for all those on-field experiences, the flag above Lacatena’s bed in Lexington — which she got during the opening ceremony of the Olympics and had signed by her Italian softball teammates — represents the mythical elements of the Olympic experience.

“People like Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman (of the United States), the pitchers that I grew up watching. I learned from them, I watched slow-motion videos of them pitching,” Lacatena said of facing the U.S. in her first Olympic game. “Being on the same field as them, literally pitching against them, it was so, so crazy, because I never thought I would actually be able to do that.”

Lacatena was able to accomplish her goal of pitching in an Olympics earlier in life than she could have imagined, but that didn’t guarantee her immediate success at the college level.

Southeastern Conference softball is a different beast, almost a different sport, compared to the international game.

It’s been an up-and-down freshman season for Lacatena with Kentucky, which begins NCAA Tournament play Friday afternoon in Blacksburg, Virginia.

But if the Wildcats are to make an upset run on the road and advance to a super regional for the fifth-straight tournament, Lacatena will have a role to play.

“You’re seeing her get a little bit better every single week. She’s definitely trending in the right direction,” UK head coach Rachel Lawson said in April. “I think what you’ll see when she gets a little more consistency under her belt you’re going to really see her take off.”

Alexia Lacatena is shown pitching for the Italian national team. Prior to enrolling at UK last fall, Lacatena won the WBSC Women’s Softball Europe/Africa Qualification Event with Italy to reach the Tokyo Olympics, then she pitched in four games for Italy during the Olympics.
Alexia Lacatena is shown pitching for the Italian national team. Prior to enrolling at UK last fall, Lacatena won the WBSC Women’s Softball Europe/Africa Qualification Event with Italy to reach the Tokyo Olympics, then she pitched in four games for Italy during the Olympics.

Lacatena pledges to play SEC softball

Before the Italian national team call-ups and the whirlwind Olympic experience that followed, first there was a softball camp.

Lacatena went to a summer Kentucky softball camp as an eighth grader. Even at that age, Lawson was struck by Lacatena’s talent as both a pitcher and hitter (Lawson expects Lacatena, who also plays shortstop, to be a regular in the UK batting order in the future).

From a young age, Lacatena had the goal of wanting to play SEC softball.

That summer camp visit to Lexington reinforced that belief, and the facilities and team culture she experienced further sold Lacatena on UK.

“Just having coach Lawson talk to me, the players were really open to talking to recruits as well. They were just really talkative and they made me feel like I was allowed to be there and I was allowed to talk with them,” Lacatena recalled. “They made it very inviting.”

“It’s crazy that they made me feel at home,” said Lacatena, who was part of Kentucky’s seven-player 2021 recruiting class that was ranked No. 9 in the country by Extra Innings Softball. “It’s just a feeling that you just know. You’re like, ‘Yeah, this is the place I want to be.’”

Kentucky freshman Alexia Lacatena pitched for the Italian national team during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Lacatena has pitched 55 1/3 innings for the Wildcats this season, the fourth-most on the UK staff.
Kentucky freshman Alexia Lacatena pitched for the Italian national team during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Lacatena has pitched 55 1/3 innings for the Wildcats this season, the fourth-most on the UK staff.

‘I just started crying’

Lacatena has two sisters that also played college softball: Maria and Milena, both at Youngstown State.

Maria also played for the senior Italian national team, and Lacatena wanted to play internationally as well.

So at age 15 Lacatena went to Italy for a tryout and to visit family. She impressed enough to earn playing time on both the under-19 and under-22 Italian national teams.

When Lacatena was 17, she earned the call-up to the senior Italian team.

“That was my first time seeing Japan, Mexico, Australia, teams like that,” Lacatena said. “It was really breathtaking to be at that same level with everyone.”

Lacatena has been a part of the senior national team ever since, and often visits family in Locorotondo (in the heel of the Italian boot) when she travels to be with the national team.

The day after Italy qualified for the Olympics, the coaching staff sat all the senior team players in a room and began naming those who would be on the Olympic roster.

“I was the youngest person there . . . it was really nerve wracking . . . it was really intense,” Lacatena said. “As soon as he said my name I just started crying. I didn’t know what else to do . . . just overtaken with emotion because this is something I wanted for so long and I never thought it would come so soon.”

The Tokyo Olympics — delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic — were held without public spectators. It was a singular Olympic experience, without fans in stadiums for games or an expectant crowd during the opening and closing ceremonies.

But there were still plenty of opportunities for Lacatena to be awestruck and starstruck by the experience.

Walking by NBA star Luka Doncic in the Olympic Village still sticks out in her mind.

“It was just crazy to see someone like that there, just walking around getting food,” Lacatena said.

But there were also moments to learn on the softball diamond, to further refine her pitching abilities now on display with Kentucky.

“Being on a big stage like that, you have to take a step back and take one pitch at a time and one breath and everything,” Lacatena said.

Alexia Lacatena is 7-3 with a 3.29 ERA in her freshman season at Kentucky.
Alexia Lacatena is 7-3 with a 3.29 ERA in her freshman season at Kentucky.

Adapting to rigors of college softball

In the buildup to the 2022 season, senior catcher Kayla Kowalik picked on Lacatena the most among Kentucky’s seven freshmen.

Why? Because Kowalik saw the talent in Lacatena.

“I like to pick on her the most because I know she can handle it and I know that she’s going to be very, very good,” Kowalik said before the season in February. “I love playing with her. I definitely think she’s going to be a reliable asset on our team this year.”

Kowalik’s prediction has come to fruition.

Lacatena has tossed the fourth-most innings of all UK pitchers this season (55 1/3), to go along with a 3.29 earned run average, 7-3 win-loss record and a pair of complete games. She boasts a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and the second-lowest WHIP on the UK team (1.37).

It hasn’t been a perfect season for Lacatena — who also credits junior Sloan Gayan with helping her get adjusted to the college game — but it’s one that’s been full of progress.

“On the international stage she is very good, (but) international softball is not SEC softball . . . in international play you’re relying more on yourself,” Lawson, who calls all of UK’s pitches from the dugout, said. I think we’re finally seeing her understand how to maneuver the grind of college and SEC softball.”

Part of this has come with the normal growing pains every college freshman faces: Learning how to manage time, developing relationships with new people and managing expectations, both internal and external.

In Lacatena’s case, part of it was understanding that Olympic success wouldn’t automatically carry over to the SEC.

“The athletes in the Olympics, are elite-level athletes, no question . . . their coaches are elite-level coaches and they know how to play the game for sure,” Lawson explained. “The difference though, in the SEC, is the resources and in terms of scouting and the number of personnel. We have more coaches, we have more money. We have all these video systems that people are constantly logging in pitches and things like that.”

“SEC is just a different breed. . . . I think that one through nine you have anyone that can make anything happen at the snap of a finger,” Lacatena added about SEC hitters. “Everyone can be a home run hitter. Everyone can put the bat on the ball no matter what. You always just have to be on you toes.”

Kentucky is guaranteed at least two more games this postseason, having been selected as an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament for the 13th straight year. The Wildcats were placed in the Blacksburg Regional along with host school Virginia Tech, Miami (Ohio) and St. Francis (Pa.).

Lacatena isn’t Kentucky’s ace — at least not yet — but she’ll be called upon when the time is needed.

Just like she was in Tokyo, and now with that Olympic experience to draw from.

“They taught me how to slow down the game,” Lacatena said of the Italian national team and what she’s been able to take from Tokyo. “Just doing what I could do, what I know how to do best.”

Kentucky is scheduled to open NCAA Tournament play on Friday afternoon in Blacksburg, Va.
Kentucky is scheduled to open NCAA Tournament play on Friday afternoon in Blacksburg, Va.

Friday

Kentucky vs. Miami (Ohio)

What: NCAA Tournament opener

When: 4:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Tech Softball Park in Blacksburg, Va.

Records: Kentucky 35-17, Miami (Ohio) 39-15-1

TV: ESPN Plus (online only)

Notes

The Blacksburg Regional is hosted by No. 3 overall seed Virginia Tech and also features UK, Miami (Ohio) and St. Francis (Pa.).

On Friday, Virginia Tech will play St. Francis to begin the regional at 2 p.m.

The regional is a four-team, double-elimination tournament. The winner advances to the super regionals, which will be held at eight campus sites.

Kentucky has lost this season to both Virginia Tech and Miami (Ohio). UK has not played St. Francis (Pa.).

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