While the baseball team claws to get back into the Southeastern Conference race, the gymnastics team prepares to host its first NCAA regional and the football team gears up for its annual Blue/White Game, another team is quietly making a push for yet another historic run.
Just a year removed from the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance, the UK softball team has put itself in decent position to make the school's second postseason appearance with a little more than a month left to play.
The Cats, at 22-16, 7-9 in the Southeastern Conference, certainly have a lot of work to do to make the tournament, but the mere thought of making two straight NCAA Tournaments two years ago after years of mediocrity seemed like something out of a fairytale for the players.
One of the biggest reasons Kentucky is back in the mix to make the postseason is senior second baseman Natalie Smith. A year after hitting .255 at the plate, Smith has inflated her batting average to .353, second on the team.
On Friday, just a day before UK kicks off a critical three-game stretch with South Carolina, Cat Scratches sat down with Smith to talk about the Cats' postseason push, her change in her approach at the plate and the progress the program has made in her four years at Kentucky.
Cat Scratches: Can you tell me about how the year has gone so far as a team and for you individually?
Natalie Smith: Well it has been an interesting softball season so far. We have had some ups and downs as a team, but we are always looking to improve and we are looking forward to winning as many SEC games as we can. That is definitely our main goal and then to make it to the NCAA tournament."
CS: You all are in the middle of the pack in the SEC. Can you talk about how critical these next few weekends are coming up in order to make the NCAA Tournament?
NS: We play LSU and Florida and those are going to be dog fights, but if we can pull a couple of games out of each series, that would definitely be a bonus. The South Carolina game this weekend is number one on our minds. We need to take these three games to have a shot at postseason. We are in the middle of the pack right now, but to get into the tournament, you only need to be ahead of two or three teams, so hopefully we can make the tournament and that can confirm a four or five spot in the regionals somewhere.
CS: Did the team making its first NCAA tournament appearance last year put some pressure onto the team or did it build momentum, or was it a combination of both?
NS: It was a little bit of pressure last year because after a few years of experience that winning was great and everything, but no one was expecting us to win last year. When we came out and were beating teams, I think that caught everyone off guard, so that was definitely to our advantage. This year, everyone knows we are a lot better than we were, and everyone is looking to beat us, so there is definitely some pressure to get back to the tournament and to make a real change in the program, but that is what we are trying to do.
CS: Do teams seem a little bit tougher this year since they know that you all can't be taken lightly anymore?
NS: I would say so. It's great playing in this conference and I wouldn't want to be on any other team. Every game, anybody can win and you just have to go out and play hard, and that is why it is so much fun. Competition is at such a high level. Now that teams are gunning for you, it makes it that much more exciting when you beat them.
CS: Do you feel like you are in good position right now to make the NCAA Tournament again?
NS:Yeah, we will be fine. As long as we take care of business, we can afford a few losses here and there, but we really need to take care of business this weekend and Ole Miss in a couple of weeks during finals will be a really big series for us, too.
CS: Can you talk about your offensive game this year? You are hitting in the mid 300s right now. Talk about how the year is going for you individually.
NS: Well I just have been slapping a lot more and trying to get on base. I don't have a ton of extra-base hits. I just really try to create an offense and put the ball in play and it is really fun to get on base. Last year my goal was one RBI per game and this year my goal has been more to just try to get on base and create offense for the rest of the team. I just try to do what I can. This is my last year and I think that kind of helps being a senior and having experience and just going out on a good note, there is going to be a lot of motivation to try to help the team.
CS: Did you know you were going to be in a different role this year as a slap hitter and did you have to make any adjustments in the offseason to kind of change your game a little bit?
NS: I started to change around postseason last year and I had great results, but I was hitting in the five spot last year behind a power hitter trying to drive in runs and it just wasn't as acceptable last year as it was the first two years when I had much more slapping in. I decided to mix it up more this year and really try to play the defense to my advantage, so I made some adjusting in the offseason and worked on my slapping and my bunts because I'm not that fast. Hopefully the hard work will pay off and I will have another great year.
CS: Can you explain the differences in the approach at the plate between slapping and trying to drive runs in?
NS: If there is no one on base, I am looking more towards slapping or bunting. I usually hit away if there are scorers in scoring position or if I am really hitting well off of the pitcher. But if the pitcher has my number then I am going to go to the slap because I want to put the ball in play. As a personal goal of my own is that I don't like to strike out that much so slapping guarantees that I at least put the ball in play and I am going to make the defense work to make a play. I think that is the biggest difference, just looking to get on or to catch somebody off guard and I can slap or bunt, plus I can slap for power, too, so it is really nice to get an outfield that really doesn't know how to play me.
CS: Are you surprised how far this program has come?
NS: I'm really not surprised. I enjoyed my first year even though it was under a different coaching staff than we have now, but Rachel Lawson came in and really gave this team some heart and some tradition and has really been working hard in changing this program around and it has definitely paid off, bringing in great players and just building everything up. I think this senior class has a lot of pride in what we have accomplished and I think as a group we are really proud of the mark we are going to leave and hopefully we can say that we were part of that change.
CS: You and Molly Johnson and Amber Matousek came in at the same time and knew each other before coming to UK. Talk about the benefit of having two other players your age to lean on during the tough times the first two years and how gratifying is to be winning together now.
NS: They were definitely part of the reason I came here. I knew I was going to have two friends from home that I had already played summer ball with. Me and Molly have played the infield together for six years now, so it's really nice to know that you don't have to communicate that much. We just know where the other person is going to be. She's a great a player and Amber is a great player and it's just nice to know that you're having an off day that somebody can pick you up. With Molly, I've played against her since I was a little kid. I always knew whatever happened to her and where she went that she was going to be a stud. I've been following her my entire career so I was happy to go to the same school as her and not have to play against her.