LEXINGTON Ky. - Over the next week, UKathletics.com will breakdown the upcoming 2013 softball season with four season previews about the team. The first will be an overall preview, detailing the team’s focus heading into the season, followed by position specific previews on the pitching staff, infielders and outfielders. Click here or read below for part one.
LEXINGTON, Ky. – The spring of 2013 is shaping up to be one filled with excitement and firsts for the Kentucky softball program. On top of opening up a newly renovated stadium, the program will host the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time in school history from May 8-11. Combine those with a veteran group of returners and eight talented newcomers and you begin to grasp the growing excitement around sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson and Co.
The excitement began on Dec. 13, 2011 when the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees approved UK Athletics’ initial scope proposal to renovate and upgrade the UK Softball Complex. Since that time, the old bleachers have been removed, the dugouts torn down, and the future of UK softball has begun to take shape.
The initial plans for the facility are to build a new hitting building near the leftfield foul pole that will include a team lounge and locker room. The project will also include additional seating along both lines and a new press box with the grandstand holding approximately 1,500 fans. Prior to the 2012 season, the facility received a new UK blue outfield fence, which was pushed back approximately 10 feet, new foul poles and a new video and scoreboard.
The facility will have a grand first season by hosting the SEC Tournament. Ticket information for the four-day event, which is considered one of the game’s best tournaments, will be released in early February on UKathletics.com.
“I think more than anything with the stadium, and we have been able to go out there and practice a little bit, and when you walk out there you are in awe,” Lawson said. “The buzz for these women is that there has never been anything like it for them and there will never be anything like it again. This is an exciting experience and the moment it has created is special and they will never forget it.”
On the field, the Wildcats look poised to continue their streak of four-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, ranking as one of 27 schools throughout the nation to claim that honor. UK posted a 30-30 record last season, while boasting a school-record tying 15-13 record in conference play, winning a school-best six SEC series.
But it won’t be easy work in 2013 for Lawson, associate head coach Kristine Himes and assistant coach Molly Johnson, who will have to find ways to replace the most decorated starting pitching tandem in school history and arguably the best power hitter in school annals. UK will be without the winningest class to every put on a UK softball jersey this spring, losing star pitchers Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley, and the school’s all-time leading home run hitter in Brittany Cervantes.
Bell, Riley and Cervantes left lasting marks on the UK softball program, marking their names all over the UK record book and becoming the first players in school history, along with Macy Allen, Erika Silence and Ashleigh Gustafson, to make the NCAA Tournament all four years. The question for Lawson and Co. will be how to replace the talent and intangibles each brought to the park.
“I don’t know that we’ve replaced Brittany’s bat yet in terms of at the end of last year,” Lawson said. “The last month, there was not one player better in the SEC. She single handedly, offensively, carried us into the postseason. I certainly believe (Nikki) Sagermann has the ability to and the power already. Chanda Bell just had a niche for striking people out and can (Kelsey) Nunley do that? Because, that’s who you look to next to see, ‘Can you do that?’ So, I think it’s more of a talent thing. I think they’ve got a lot of personality and a lot of attitude in that freshman class, but can Nunley produce an out pitch, like Chanda Bell had a strikeout pitch. Sagermann has the mind and the power. Can she hit the ball square enough to put up the type of numbers Brittany did and be our homerun leader? Riley, also, in the postseason, was exceptional. Can Lauren (Cumbess) or Ellen (Weaver) or Nunley do that same thing that she did in the postseason? So, it’s more of a talent thing.”
One thing that has eased Lawson’s thinking about replacing last year’s seniors is the exceptional depth the 2013 squad possesses. UK returns 12 players from last season, including second-team All-SEC honoree Kara Dill, who led the team in batting average, and junior Lauren Cumbess, who led the team in ERA. UK also returns SEC All-Freshman team selection Griffin Joiner and senior outfielder Alice O’Brien, who finished third and fourth on the team in batting average, respectively. But a talented, hungry group of eight newcomers has really taken the team’s depth to another level.
“This year is the first year we’ve had a ton of depth,” Lawson said. “With that said, the competition at practice has been outstanding. But, we have quite a few people that could start and this year I’m trying to see who’s going to win those positions. I’m not sure who starts at the beginning necessarily will be the ones who start in the middle of the season and the end of the season because I think they’re so good and they can do so many things. This is the first year I’ve had an issue of wondering who I’m going to put where just because they’re so good and we have a number of people we can put in the batting order that I know once they get their at-bats, they’re going to be pretty good.”
Although Lawson sees the depth talent wise and the competitive nature of practice, she is still waiting to see if the 2013 Wildcats have, what she called, “it.” Lawson said former stars like Meagan Aull, Molly Johnson, Megan Yocke, Riley and Bell, all had “it”, meaning they practiced and played with a high level of intensity and focus, knowing what it took to win on and off the field.
“The one thing that we didn’t have necessarily in (last year’s) junior class is they were trying to figure out that ‘it’ factor,” Lawson said. “Now, I believe the freshman class, when you look at them, a lot of them have that factor. I believe (Christian) Stokes really has that factor. When you look at her and how she handles people and she’s just super competitive. So, if this freshman class, in terms of attitude, can replace that ‘it’ factor, we feel good about ourselves. Kara Dill has ‘it’ a little bit. Kara Dill is exceptionally smart and on game day, she’s really, really good. But, the thing that made those other people special is they had ‘it’ every single day, in everything they did. Now, Kara Dill has certainly had ‘it’ this year. But, that’s what we’ve got to figure out. If we don’t replace that ‘it’ factor, it’s not going to matter. But that’s what this freshman class, I think, provides that I don’t think we’ve had in a while.”
UK should find that answer rather quickly as the Wildcats will play one of the most challenging schedules in the country. Kentucky will be on the road the entire month of February, traveling to Tempe, Ariz., San Diego, Calif., Spartanburg, S.C. and Tampa, Fla., the first four weekends of the season. Last week, UK received votes in the 2013 USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25 Preseason Poll, while it will play 21 games against 12 teams that were ranked in the top 25 poll, including No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 California and No. 4 Arizona State. The Wildcats begin the season Feb. 8-10 against some of the best teams in the nation in the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz.
“We’ve got a pretty good schedule at the beginning so those young kids, they’ve never seen anybody like Cal or Arizona State or Oklahoma,” Lawson said. “I’m curious to see how they’re going to do once they step against them, but I know once they figure it out they’re going to be pretty tough.”
As for team goals, Lawson said she isn’t one of those coaches who believe in having a bunch of goals for your team. Simply put, she said this team’s goal is to win softball games.
“We only have one team goal and it’s to win softball games,” Lawson said. “We don’t have 10 or 20 different goals. We have one. That is our goal: win games. Whatever we’ve got to do to get that done, that is our goal.”
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