LEXINGTON, Ky. – It seems in almost every sport that teams live and die by the old adage that, “defense wins championships.” That was a scary thought for the Kentucky softball team last season, which was never able to find its footing defensively. But for head coach Rachel Lawson, the slow start defensively was just that, a slow start.
In Southeastern Conference play, the Wildcats performed a lot better defensively earning a school-record tying 15-13 record en route to winning more SEC series than any other team in school history. In fact, the Wildcats played nearly the same amount of non-conference games as they did conference games, yet committed almost 20 fewer errors in SEC play.
Individually, then-freshman Griffin Joiner paced the Wildcats defensively in 2012, finishing top 10 in the league in fielding percentage in conference games, while her 390 putouts was a single-season record for any Wildcat. Joiner ended the year with a .986 fielding percentage, which was the highest mark ever set by a UK freshman. The native of Hopkinsville, Ky., finished the season tied for third catching 16 base runners stealing and only had three passed balls.
“I don’t know what happened at the beginning last year, defensively,” Lawson said. “We were not very good, but I like how we finished. We have a heck of a lot more talent defensively this season because we have a lot of people that can do a lot of things. Last year, if someone was having trouble seeing the ball or having an off night, we didn’t really have another option. Even though our attitudes have always been great, our work ethic has always been great, that intangible of having someone behind you is necessary. That, defensively, has made us better.”
Options seem to be plentiful for Lawson this season, especially in the infield. On top of the return of two All-SEC infielders in senior shortstop Kara Dill and Joiner, the Wildcats return several veterans that have innings under their belt and showed improvement during the offseason in sophomore Sarah Frazer and juniors Aubrey Lamar and Krystal Smith. Junior Lauren Cumbess, who ranks ninth all-time in school history with a .979 fielding percentage, is projected to play first base when she is not in the circle this year. Fellow junior Emily Jolly, who has played mostly in the infield in years past, has made the switch to the outfield.
Dill is the leader of the infield, serving as one of three team captains this season. The native of LaGrange, Ohio, led UK in batting average last season and has started 133 consecutive games for the Wildcats. Joiner, as noted above, had a great first year with UK, while Frazer played in 23 games with a .250 batting average and Lamar started 13 games. Smith has the most experience, playing in 41 games last season with 29 starts.
“Infield wise, Kara Dill is obviously a team leader,” Lawson said. “She’s, I would say, our top returning player both offensively and defensively. She’s brought her A-game to practice every day, which has been really nice. Also in the infield, Krystal Smith has certainly gotten some starts and improved. She’s doing a nice job, she’s doing a better job offensively and she’s just a lot stronger and a lot more mature. When (Lauren) Cumbess isn’t on the mound, she’s projected to be at first base. Joiner, even though she’s a sophomore, she’s certainly, arguably, one of the best catchers in the league. She’s very solid behind the plate. She’s got an outstanding arm. She’s a good hitter and a hard worker. She’s the best of every world. So, I feel really good about the returners in our infield.”
The key to the infield depth will be the development of a talented group of freshman in Nikki Sagermann, Ansley Smith, Maisie Steed and Christian Stokes. Sagermann projects as a third baseman, while Smith will mainly play up the middle. Stokes could see time at almost every infield position, including catcher, while Steed, who is learning a new position at first base, could also provide depth in the middle infield.
“Defensively, we have outstanding players both in the infield and the outfield,” Lawson said. “I think Nikki Sagermann has done an awesome job offensively and Christian Stokes is one of the best defensive players I’ve ever seen. She can play every position on the field. Ansley Smith is a great middle infielder and a great hitter. Steed is an outstanding player. She’s learning a new position right now but, she is such a competitor and she runs well. She can also play every position on the field. When she gets comfortable in the box, she will help us.”
Sagermann, Smith, Steed and Stokes were all impressive offensive and defensive performers in high school. Sagermann hit over .500 her junior and senior seasons, including 11 homeruns and hitting for the cycle last season. Smith, who helped her team win the state championship her senior season, hit .419 her final year in high school with a .569 on-base percentage with seven homers and 25 RBI. Steed ended her high school career with career records in hits, batting average, doubles, walks, stolen bases, runs scored and games played, while Stokes won three state championships in high school, launching 11 homers her senior year and six her junior season.
The inevitable part of having newcomers is getting them adjusted and integrated into the system. Good thing for Lawson that she has a fantastic leader on the field in Dill, who has really helped bring the infielders along.
“She’s done a really nice job of kind of showing the younger kids how to play the game, and she plays it really hard,” Lawson said. “I think she’s helped them progress quite a bit.”
The talented senior admitted it is out of her comfort zone to be a vocal leader, but knew her team needed that out of her to be successful this season.
“Definitely have felt it was time for me to step up and have a leadership role,” Dill said. “I think my personality has always been more of an action-based leadership. Being a captain this year, I have had to step out of that comfort zone and be more of a vocal leader, which I am not used to. For me, that was a big part of stepping up and out of my comfort zone and doing what is best for the team. We lost six seniors last season and they were all integral parts of our program and now there are only two seniors with that experience. So I feel we have to make a bigger impact on the newcomers even though there are less of us.”
Although UK lost six seniors to graduation last season, the main loss in the field was power hitter and strong defender Brittany Cervantes, who became one of the better third basemen in the league last season. Cervantes hit .310 with 13 homers and 35 RBI in 2012 and is the school’s all-time leading home run hitter. Cervantes, who was named to the All-SEC Defensive Team last season, played 44 games at third base, eight games at first base and three behind the plate last season. Lawson said she isn’t for sure if UK has been able to replace Cervantes’ bat, but thinks overall UK has more offensive weapons this season than in years past.
“Offensively, we’ve done a better job focusing on our offensive strategy,” Lawson said. “While we’ve always been a gritty team, we’ve even put more of a premium on being a more aggressive base running team and trying to extend and push the defense and try to really create some opportunities for us there. While I don’t know if we’ve replaced Brittany’s bat yet, I certainly know that our lineup is a heck of a lot more powerful, one through nine, and we have more speed in our lineup. We definitely have added to our offense and, defense, it’s night and day different. I expect that our errors are going to be a lot fewer.”
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