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2013 season headlined by upgraded stadium and new faces for UK softball program

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Head coach Rachel Lawson looks to guide the Wildcats to their fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth. Head coach Rachel Lawson looks to guide the Wildcats to their fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This UK softball season is set to feature several new additions. Head coach Rachel Lawson is looking to take her program to the next level and earn a fifth straight NCAA tournament berth after setting a school record with six Southeastern Conference series wins during the 2012 campaign.

Lawson, along with senior infielder Kara Dill and junior pitcher/first baseman Lauren Cumbess, met with the media on Monday for the annual softball media day to talk about the upcoming season.

The newest addition to the program and one that's arguably attracting the most buzz is the renovation of the UK Softball Complex into a state-of-the-art 1,500-seat facility. The stadium is scheduled to host the 2013 SEC Tournament for the first time in school history during the week of May 8-11.
The upgrade to the stadium will certainly provide major boosts to the program and according to Lawson it will be among the best in the SEC, if not the cream of the crop.

"First and foremost, it is for the student-athletes," Lawson said. "It is going to provide us with an opportunity to train at the highest level possible. There are certainly unbelievable stadiums in the SEC but nobody is going to have a better set up when you take the stadium and new indoor facility into consideration."

The plan on the facility was passed by the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees on Dec. 13, 2011. Since that date, anticipation has been building for the 2013 season amongst everyone in the program. Lawson also said the field will give the Wildcats' loyal fan base an experience they deserve when watching an SEC softball game.

As for the players, Cumbess who is entering her third season, was ecstatic when asked about playing in the new stadium for the first time this year.

"We were out there a couple times this year when it was warm enough and I could not stop smiling looking at it," Cumbess said. "Everyone is really grateful for it and we are just really excited to have a nice area for all the fans to see us."

In the future, the stadium will also feature a new hitting building near the left field foul pole that will include a team lounge and locker room.  Like any new facility, one of the improvements that will come of this is in recruiting student-athletes to come to UK.

And it all starts with this year's class.

Kentucky will introduce eight freshmen on its roster, a group that will likely play a vital role in UK's success. The Wildcats lost three pivotal players from last season due to graduation in Chanda Bell, Brittany Cervantes and Rachel Riley. Bell and Riley are regarded as two of the best pitchers to ever come through UK, while Cervantes exited as the school's all-time leading home run hitter.

When a team loses that much talent, it's nearly impossible to replace. But Lawson and the players are confident the newcomers will step up to the challenge and be ready to perform when their time comes.

Lawson said she expects to see a few new faces in the starting lineup when the Cats open their season on Friday, Feb. 8 against Pacific-12 Conference powerhouse and the third-ranked California Golden Bears.

Dill, who is one of two seniors on the squad, also foresees a few freshmen getting their first taste of collegiate softball when the season gets underway but is very impressed by the 2013 class and expects them to contribute right away.

"The freshman class is unbelievable," Dill said. "Offensively, defensively, pitching, they're so good. I think a lot of them are going to play, whether they start or, you know, there are eight of them, I don't think they're all going to start, but they are going to have integral roles throughout the season with our tough schedule."

Lawson touched on the impact the freshmen will have this season.

Darington Richardson (Duluth, Ga./Woodward Academy) and Sylver Samuel (Simpsonville, S.C./Hillcrest HS) will provide speed in UK's outfield, while also wreaking havoc on the base paths. The sixth-year head coach added that Samuel is by far the fastest player she has ever coached.

Dill is the lone member of the four infielders from last year that returns for UK. With that being said, Lawson made it a point to bring in some youth to help fill the voids. Nikki Sagermann (Buford, GA./Mill Creek), Ansley Smith (Newman, Ga./Northgate HS), Maisie Steed (Powder Springs, Ga./Hillgrove HS) and Christian Stokes (Chesterfield, S.C./Chesterfield HS) will all fight the veterans for playing time and are all athletically gifted in their own way.

Lawson described Sagermann as one of the best young hitters she has ever seen, Smith as a player who is solid both on the offensive and defensive sides, Steed as a very smart and heads up ball player and Stokes as one of the most athletic softball players she's been around.

To round out the recruiting class, Lawson brought in pitchers Katie Henderson (Hixson, Tenn./Silverdale Academy) and Kelsey Nunley (Soddy Daisy, Tenn./Soddy Daisy HS) to complement projected starters Cumbess and fellow junior Ellen Weaver. Lawson regards the freshmen hurlers as outstanding pitchers who will have a chance to learn from Cumbess and Weaver and provide depth in the circle.

The Wildcats begin their season this weekend when they travel to Tempe, Ariz., for the Kajikawa Classic Feb. 8-10. Kentucky will play five games over the three-day span and along with Cal, UK will face No. 4/4 Arizona State on Saturday and No. 21/20 Stanford on Sunday.

Kentucky is no foreigner to competitive schedules as the Cats compete in the toughest conference in college softball. Lawson sees this as a measuring stick of where the team is at and will help them as SEC play approaches.

Two years ago, the Cats were one win away from the Women's College World Series. Lawson has high hopes for this season and believes the team can make it to Oklahoma City, Okla., referencing that winning the SEC is actually a harder feat due to the amount of teams from the conference that make it to the final eight-team tournament.

For now, Lawson will use these early games to find out some things about her team and make adjustments as the season moves forward.

"I just think that right now, at the beginning of the season, we can schedule really hard games right off the get go to see where we're at," Lawson said. "From there, I think we can really come up with a good game plan and assuming we keep our confidence up and our wits about us, I think we'll be right there in the postseason again, knocking on the door for the World Series."

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