LEXINGTON, Ky. – When you look at the list of letter winners lost for the Kentucky softball team heading into the spring of 2013, two names, for good reason, pop out more than the others: Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley.
Both names cover the UK record book with Bell holding the career record for opponent batting average (.200), strikeouts (910), wins (68) and saves (6), while sitting second all-time in appearances (143), innings pitched (724.0), games started (105) and ERA (2.55). Riley’s numbers were equally as impressive, sitting third in wins (40) and ERA (2.68), fourth in strikeouts (259), innings pitched (477.1) and opponent batting average (.255), fifth in appearances (97), and seventh in games started (57).
And that is just career records, both players rank in the top 10 in nearly every single-season pitching and individual-game records as well. But how many programs can graduate two players the caliber of Bell and Riley and still have a player on the roster that holds the second-lowest ERA in a single season and another that owns the best win-loss percentage in school history? Head coach Rachel Lawson and the UK softball program can with the return of juniors Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver.
“We did graduate two pretty good pitchers, but I think that Lauren and Ellen are ready to take a bigger role in terms of playing time,” Lawson said. “With the innings they’ve gotten, they’ve done very well and I think you have to start in the circle with them coming back. I think that’ll be a strength of ours.”
On paper, it appears Cumbess and Weaver could be more than a strength but another dynamic duo in the making. Cumbess, who led UK in ERA last season with a 2.78 mark, has a career ERA of 2.36 with 97 career strikeouts, while Weaver owns a 3.40 career ERA and 102 strikeouts.
But it’s not their career numbers that are giving Lawson and Co. optimism heading into the 2013 season, but how the duo has performed against some of the best teams in the nation in previous years. In Southeastern Conference play last season, Cumbess threw 17 innings, allowing six earned runs, while striking out 19 and posting a 2.47 ERA. Cumbess’ best performance of her career actually came against top-10 ranked Georgia in 2012, where she threw her first career no-hitter in a seven-inning shutout performance.
Weaver had similar success her freshman season, throwing 31.1 innings against quality SEC competition, allowing only 13 earned runs with 40 strikeouts with a 2.90 ERA. Her best performance game in a shutout against Mississippi State in 2011, going the distance with seven strikeouts. Last year, Weaver’s top performance came against highly ranked Tennessee, going five innings and only giving up one earned run with three strikeouts to earn the win.
“Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver have some good pitching time in and they certainly have had some big wins against some top-25 and top-10 teams,” Lawson said. “I think with Lauren and Ellen, it’s nice to have that kind of experience coming back in the circle.”
The addition of two talented freshmen pitchers in Kelsey Nunley and Katie Henderson have also eased Lawson’s mind. Both were dominating pitchers in high school.
“We have two young pitchers who are outstanding,” Lawson said. “When they’ve been in their scrimmages, they’ve gotten a lot of strikeouts and they’re very mature for their age. They know how to win. I think they will be a good compliment for Lauren and Ellen when they’re on the mound and I feel good about it.”
Nunley’s impressive high school career did not go unnoticed. The native of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., was a Gatorade Player of the Year and a Wendy’s Heisman Award winner in high school, while also earning All-America honors from the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, MaxPreps and ESPN. Nunley, who struck out 13 batters in the Tennessee-Georgia All-Star Game last season, holds the Tennessee record for most shutouts in a season. Nunley had 27 career no-hitters in high school to go along with 1,104 strikeouts and only 78 walks.
“I think Kelsey Nunley, when she’s been on the mound for us in our scrimmages, she is good,” Lawson said. “She locates her pitches where she wants to and does it exceptionally well for a freshman. She’s got good movement. She’s like a boxer. She’ll get in the ring and she’ll go after you. She’ll go head-to-head against the batters. She doesn’t try to dance around them. She really tries to attack them and that’s pretty special for somebody so young. Assuming that she takes all of that stuff that we’ve seen in practice and in the scrimmages into live game situations, I think she’ll do a nice job for us once she, again, she also has to get battle tested.”
Henderson was an accomplished pitcher in high school as well, earning All-District honors all four years and All-State honors her senior season. The native of Hixson, Tenn., finished her senior season with 235 strikeouts and six shutouts, including two shutouts that helped her team make the state tournament. During her freshman campaign, Henderson threw a perfect game and led the city of Chattanooga with 207 strikeouts.
“Henderson is going to be a good pitcher for us,” Lawson said. “She has great spin on her pitches and does a really nice job of commanding the strike zone. She will provide us with the depth that we need to compete in the SEC.”
One major plus for the young pitchers this season has been the coaching of Bell, who stayed with the program as a student assistant coach. Lawson said Bell has helped reinforce to the young pitchers what she is looking for both mentally and mechanically.
“Chanda has done a great job with the pitchers, especially the two young pitchers, at really conveying the mechanics of pitching and things like that and helping a little bit with the mental side of it,” Lawson said. “So, they know the mental part of the grind of the SEC and I think that’s what they’re conveying to them and will continue to help us as the season goes. Not so much as a physical example but a mental example of, ‘This is what you need to do to go to the postseason so let’s get there.’ They’ve (Bell and volunteer assistant coach Brittany Cervantes) been good additions for that.”
Lawson’s main question heading into the season isn’t if her pitching staff can fill the shoes of Bell and Riley, but if they can surpass them.
“Can they do what those other people did and then surpass them,” Lawson said. “We’re going to find out.”
For the latest on UK softball, follow “@UKSoftball” on Twitter or like Kentucky Softball on Facebook.