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Notebook: Softball SEC Tournament storylines

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Rachel Lawson's softball team has made the SEC Tournament for a school-record third consecutive season. (UK Athletics) Rachel Lawson's softball team has made the SEC Tournament for a school-record third consecutive season. (UK Athletics)
OXFORD, Miss. -- The No. 20/22 UK softball team kicks off its run in the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Thursday. The No. 6 seed Wildcats will face off against No. 3 seed Tennessee at noon ET ESPNU. I am traveling with the team and we arrived in Oxford, Miss. on Tuesday evening.

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson on Wednesday about the tournament, the season and the matchup with Tennessee. Here are a few notes and things to watch before the first pitch.

- Much like the SEC in football or the Big East in basketball, the SEC is absolutely dominant in softball. Kentucky has had one of the most successful regular seasons in UK history, winning a school-record 36 games, but due to the strength of the conference, the Wildcats are the No. 6 seed among the eight teams playing in Oxford, Miss., this week. With four of those squads ranked among the nation's top 10 and another three checking in the top 25, the action will be highly competitive.

"This is arguably the best competition in the country," Lawson said. "This tournament has become almost like a mini-World Series. A number of the teams in this tournament have a really good shot at going deep in the (Women's College) World Series and it's really cool."

In regular-season play, UK picked up series victories over both Tennessee and Florida, two teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time and still are, so the Wildcats are more than capable of beating any team they face.

Unfortunately for Kentucky, that also means each team in the tournament is equally capable of beating UK. It's that level playing field that makes this event so compelling.

"I believe, going into this tournament, the SEC has never been more even from top to bottom," Lawson said. "Just about any team, I think, could win the tournament. There are certainly some favorites, but at any given time during the year, those teams have lost to others that are here. I think it will be some great competition. I think that it's great for TV."

Consider this: If UK continues to win and no other upsets occur in other games, the Wildcats will face No. 7 Tennessee in round one, No. 3 Florida in the semifinals and No. 4 Alabama in the finals. That's a veritable murderer's row of national title contenders.

"You're going to have to bring your 'A' game not only every game, but every inning and every pitch," Lawson said. "It wouldn't have mattered if we were playing Tennessee or Alabama or Auburn or LSU; anybody can beat anybody here."

Here's a link to the complete bracket


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- As referenced earlier, the opening round UK-Tennessee game is a rematch of a March series that saw the Wildcats take two of three from the Volunteers. The Kentucky pitching staff allowed an uncharacteristic 10 runs total in the Wildcats' two wins, but the offense picked up the slack, scoring 14 runs behind Megan Yocke, Alice O'Brien and Emily Jolly.

The Vols will be out to avenge the loss and Lawson anticipates they will be well-prepared.

"I think they'll make huge adjustments," Lawson said. "They're extremely well-coached and I think they have a whole season worth of scouting and video to use."

Lawson expects Tennessee will do its best to limit UK's top hitters."

"I think they're definitely going to game plan to really attack hitters' weaknesses and to really not let our best hitters beat them," Lawson said. "There are going to have to be some other people on our team that really step up and be heroes that haven't characteristically been in those positions."

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- The Tennessee series wasn't the only one in which the Wildcat offense excelled. UK has set school records for home runs (62), runs scored (289) and RBI (251) in spite of having seven games this season canceled due to inclement weather.

Under Lawson, Kentucky has undergone an offensive metamorphosis, but the fourth-year head coach credits assistant Kristine Himes for much of the progress.

"She's an awesome offensive coach," Lawson said. "She's very aggressive and she's done a great job with the short game. She's very intuitive, so she knows when to hit-and-run, when to bunt-and-run, when to suicide or to just go ahead and let the hitter hit."

This season, Lawson assigned third base coaching responsibilities to Himes, from which Himes makes all of UK's offensive calls.

"She has great instincts for the game and I think one of the best things that I've done this season is put her on third base in total control of the offense," Lawson said. "You can see by the results, that's where we've had the biggest jump and I think a lot of the credit does belong to her, along with our older hitters."

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- Lawson's other assistant coach is Molly Johnson, known to UK softball fans as the most decorated player in program history. Johnson graduated last May and transitioned to coach this season. The transition would not be an easy one if not for the former shortstop's maturity and the way the team has handled it.

"She's had a really easy adjustment because she is wise beyond her years and she was always a mature player anyway," Lawson said. "How our team works is we're very professional in everything we do. Not only has her adjustment been easy, but our entire team has followed suit and handled the situation well."

In her first year, Johnson quickly contributed to UK's running game.

"Molly has been awesome on the base paths for us," Lawson said. "She's a great base runner herself and has awesome instincts. She's been able to squeeze a couple extra bases out of our base runners when I don't think I would have been able to do that."

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- UK took the field this morning for practice at the Ole Miss Softball Complex and was joined by former Olympic gold medalists Jessica Mendoza and Michele Smith. The two softball legends are part of ESPN's broadcast of the SEC Tournament.

Mendoza and Smith couldn't help themselves and borrowed some UK gear and staged a quick batting practice session with Smith pitching to Mendoza and Yocke behind the dish.

Afterwards, the team posed for pictures and there were big smiles all around as the Wildcats had a chance to interact with two of their idols.

UK softball legends Michele Smith and Jessica Mendoza practiced with the UK softball team on Wednesday during practice for the SEC Tournament in Oxford, Miss. (Deb Moore/UK Athletics) UK softball legends Michele Smith and Jessica Mendoza practiced with the UK softball team on Wednesday during practice for the SEC Tournament in Oxford, Miss. (Deb Moore/UK Athletics)

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