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Softball growing out of underdog role in 2012

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Pitcher/infielder Rachel Riley leads a six-member senior class into the 2012 season. (Joey Wilkinson, UK Athletics) Pitcher/infielder Rachel Riley leads a six-member senior class into the 2012 season. (Joey Wilkinson, UK Athletics)
Since Rachel Lawson took over as head coach before the 2008 season, Kentucky softball has made a habit of surprising people.

Playing in the nation's top conference, the Wildcats have steadily upgraded their talent and results have followed. Even so, the program has remained off the radar in spite of consecutive 30-win seasons in 2009-2010.

That all changed with UK's magical postseason run of a season ago.

After finishing 14-9 in Southeastern Conference play, the Cats charged through the NCAA Tournament to within one win of advancing to the 2011 College World Series.

No longer will Kentucky be able to use stealth to its advantage.

"Kentucky is not sneaking up on anybody anymore, which is a nice position to be in," Lawson said. "Before we were definitely the underdog and in some situations we will be but I don't think we're going to be the underdog a lot this year. To be able to have that target on your back, that's something that we're going to have to learn to deal with."

As proof of the program's ongoing evolution, the Cats were tabbed with their first-ever preseason ranking (No. 13 according to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association and No. 18 in the ESPN.com poll). With the majority of last season's roster returning, including all four members of a strong pitching rotation, UK looks on paper like a shoo-in to live up to that preseason billing. Things are never that simple though.

While it's true that most players on the 2012 team experienced the success of 2011, the Cats are tasked with replacing the 32 home runs and 112 RBI lost to the graduation of Megan Aull, Megan Yocke, Samantha DeMartine and Annie Rowlands. In their place, UK is breaking in players with limited playing experience.

"We have a lot of new people this year, not necessarily new to the team but new to the starting lineup and they've done an outstanding job," Lawson said.

While those players have done everything asked of them in preparing for the season, a few bumps in the road were inevitable. Kentucky felt a few such bumps in its first action of the season this past weekend in Los Angeles, where they won just once in four tries, losing three times to No. 19 UCLA.

Lawson's optimism for the season wasn't dampened at all by the 1-3 start. In fact, she views it in more of a positive light than anything else.

"As much as you talk to people during practice and games, young people don't really believe you when you're my age," Lawson said. "It's nice, when we were able to open up with UCLA, obviously they're going to be one of the best teams in the country. We learned a lot because a lot of the little things that you take for granted when you haven't been on the field and in that stage ever, they come back to haunt you a little bit."

Lawson and her team recognize that the long season in front of them is a marathon, not a sprint. The nonconference season gives the Cats a chance to build for a run through the demanding SEC. By the time Alabama comes to town on March 9, senior pitcher/infielder Rachel Riley expects players to be settled into their roles.

"I think people realize that there are a lot of areas for people to come in and take spots," Riley said. "A lot of positions are up for grabs and it's going to be who can produce offensively and do their jobs on defense. I think we're definitely an unfinished product right now but I think that with our work ethic, things will fall in place."

It's no coincidence that Riley referred only to the batting lineup when talking about roles still being up in the air, because UK's pitching staff of Riley, Chanda Bell, Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver appears to be fairly set. Inning distribution will certainly vary based on matchups and production, but the group projects to be among the SEC's elite.

"I don't know if we're the best pitching staff but I don't know that there's a pitching staff that's better than ours," Lawson said. "I think in the SEC, there's three or four of us that have a number of outstanding pitchers. I wouldn't trade my pitching staff for any staff in the league."

Having four pitchers as good as the ones UK has is rare in and of itself, but it's the way the styles of each complement one another that makes Kentucky's rotation so impressive.

"I think that the combination of us four is a pretty tough combination," Riley said. "Chanda throws rise balls, I throw drop balls and then we have a lefty (Weaver) and Lauren does a mix of everything. With the four of us, it's a great combination."

Softball is a sport in which teams so often rely on one dominant pitcher, but the Wildcats proved a season ago, just how well-built for the postseason they are with so much depth.

"We have something that no other team has and I think we'll be able to go deeper in the season," Riley said. "When you have a pitcher that you ride the whole season, once you get to Regionals and Super Regionals, you might play multiple games in a day. It's going to be harder on the teams that don't have that depth because we can go with different combinations."

The next step for UK is developing a defense and offense to match that pitching staff. The Cats may have been outslugged by UCLA last weekend, but the four home runs they hit showed what could be in store this weekend at the Florida Atlantic Tournament and beyond.

"It's great and it gives you hope for what we have," Riley said. "With Megan Aull and Sam DeMartine and (Megan) Yocke, they all put up 10-plus home runs. It's a great feeling as a pitcher to know we're going to be able to have some offense to back up the defense."

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