Some coaches have it all.
Softball head coach Rachel Lawson already has a pair of weapons few other teams in the nation could ever hope to have. There's the hard-throwing Chanda Bell, who is well on her way to becoming the greatest pitcher in UK history, and Rachel Riley, who would be the ace on most other staffs across the nation.
In a sport where just one dominating pitcher can take a middling program and turn it into a contender, Lawson now has four.
Joining Kentucky's junior aces this year are freshman hurlers Ellen Weaver (pictured to the right) and Lauren Cumbess. Both have seen considerable playing time in the first four weeks of the season and both have made significant contributions to UK's 14-3 start and No. 23 national ranking.
"Our freshman pitchers have done great, especially considering they're trying to step into the footsteps of two veterans," Lawson said. "They've worked hard all offseason for this moment. They came in and they were very competitive. It's just a matter of adjusting to the college game and the Division I game and they're adjusting faster than I think anyone could have anticipated, except for them of course."
When Lawson signed two of the country's top pitchers, she had an idea they could step in and contribute right away. Weaver was 18-3 with a 0.85 ERA and 270 strikeouts in her senior year at Salem High School (Va.), and Cumbess fanned 290 batters with a 0.45 ERA in leading Normal Community West High School (Ill.) to a regional championship her final season.
But even Lawson admits she didn't see the two coming in and having this type of an impact early on. Against some fairly decent competition, the freshman duo has combined to go 6-0. Cumbess is sporting a 2-0 record and a team-leading 0.70 ERA in four appearances while Weaver has a 4-0 mark with a 1.20 ERA in four appearances.
"Anytime you put a young person through such a demanding schedule so early, you never know how they're going to do and how they're going to respond," Lawson said. "They've actually responded like the two competitors that they really are. We've all been pleased and we feel like no matter who we roll out on the mound, they're going to keep us in the game enough to win it, assuming our offense does their job."
Ironically, Weaver and Cumbess fit the same description as Bell and Riley. Weaver, like Bell, is a fire-ball pitcher who Lawson says has the fastest pitch on the team. Cumbess is more in the mold of Riley in that, while she won't overpower hitters, she has a great mind for the game and can keep batters guessing with an arsenal of off-speed pitches.
Weaver is also the first lefty the program had in a decade, providing UK with a different dynamic. Lefty-on-lefty or righty-on-righty matchups aren't as important in softball as they are in baseball because of the lack of left-handers in the game, but having a southpaw in the circle can keep opposing teams off balance. Lawson estimates they'll see four, maybe five lefties in a 60-game schedule.
"Because there aren't a lot of lefties (in college softball), you're not used to seeing them and the ball comes from a different spot on the hip and part of the plate," Lawson said.
Pitching depth isn't overly important in softball because of the natural arm motion of a softball pitch, but the unpredictability of UK's different styles is extremely tough for a team to game plan for. Generally, in softball, two aces is a bonus, three is a luxury and four is a Godsend.
"I think that's a big reason why our team ERA is so much lower this season," Lawson said of UK's 1.22 ERA, which is on pace to shatter the program record of 2.28 set in 2000.
Although Lawson feels comfortable putting either of her freshmen into a big game, they also have the fortune of sitting back and learning from two of the Southeastern Conference's best pitchers in Bell and Riley, who were thrown into the fire as freshmen.
"I feel like the other two are learning faster because Bell and Riley are such great mentors," Lawson said. "They're really learning from them and they're taking their game into their own game, so I think these two are going to be able to surpass them simply because they're learning from them."
It also helps that both Cumbess and Weaver can swing the bat. Cumbess has 13 hits, five RBI and a home run in 44 at-bats while Weaver is a modest 4 for 16.
Weaver pitched in the higher profile game of the two , tossing 5.1 innings of two-run ball in a Garnett and Gold Tournament win in the finals against Florida State. Lawson said she didn't learn so much about Weaver in that start so much as the rest of the country learned about Weaver.
"I knew she could do that," Lawson said. "It's just a matter of finding the right time when you have so many good pitchers. I think the country got a small taste of what Ellen Weaver is really about."
Their inexperience won't stop Lawson from using them this weekend in a high-profile series against Tennessee. Lawson isn't sure yet what her pitching rotation will be against the No. 7/8-ranked Volunteers (19-2), but she said she expects to use one or both in the three-game series, which starts Friday.
The series will mark UK's home opener after four straight weeks on the road. While it will be nice to return to a normal week so school and sleep, Lawson said her players are most looking forward to a chance to vindicate their 14-3 start.
"For us, it's a really good measure to see how good we really are," Lawson said. "We've been playing well and we're definitely one of the better teams in the country, but you really get to see where you stack up when somebody like Tennessee comes to town. I think our team has been waiting for this series for about 20 games now."
More is better: Freshman pitchers give UK softball multiple options
Some coaches have it all.
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