As the calendar approaches March and the weather begins to warm up, the feel in the air gives fans an itch for the outdoor sports season. The University of Kentucky softball team is off to a terrific start in their 2013 campaign and should give fans plenty to be excited about.
The Wildcats have jumped out to an 8-3 record, including wins over No. 3 California, No. 20 Stanford and No. 16 Washington, as sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson believes this may be the best start in school history. UK got off to a 10-2 start in 2010, but in terms of quality opponents, the Cats have faced five ranked teams in their first 11 games, along with Oregon State and San Diego State who are receiving votes.
Kentucky, which began the year outside of the polls, has climbed into national consideration and currently sits 20th and 22nd in this week's rankings.
It's tough to gauge what your team is just two weeks into the season, but Lawson was pleased with the complete team effort she saw out of her players in the two tournaments out west. The Wildcats displayed great pitching and the offense came up with clutch hits in key situations to give Lawson confidence about her team's mental toughness.
"You can't beat those teams without great pitching so it started there and offensively, where we didn't put up a lot of power numbers, we were good situationally," Lawson said. "Some games we started off pretty hot but then in other games where they were close we were able to come up with a run at the end so that's a sign of mental toughness, which is something that we pride ourselves on and being pretty gritty."
Lawson is not surprised by her players' performance. Kentucky has several new faces that joined the roster this year and even have returners in positions they have never played before, but all stepped up when their time was called.
Sophomore Kara Howard made a possible game-saving catch against Stanford when she robbed a potential two-run homerun in the fifth inning to preserve a 3-0 lead for the Cats. Krystal Smith also stepped up, filling in at third base for the first time in her UK career. Smith's defense, specifically charging the plate on bunts, has stood out to Lawson. As far as the outfield goes, Lawson feels the entire crew is ahead of where they were last season, which was a bit of a weakness at the beginning of the 2012 season.
The Wildcats are loaded with depth and decisions are still up in the air on who has locked in positions in the lineup.
"We definitely have to figure it out," Lawson said. "The nice thing is we did so well and I don't even think the new people even came close to doing what they can do."
Kentucky features a talented freshman group that is expected to make an impact on the Cats' success this year.
Nikki Sagermann ranks second on the team in batting average, hitting at a .364 clip in nine starts and Lawson feels she is capable of even better numbers because she is yet to show off her power and slugging percentage.
Sylver Samuel has played in 10 of the 11 games and leads the team with three stolen bases, while Darrington Richardson - who has been used primarily in pinch-running situations - has swiped two bags. The two should create plenty of havoc on the base paths and Lawson believes they are two of the fastest players she's ever coached.
Ansley Smith, Maisie Steed and Christian Stokes also saw playing time in the opening two tournaments and should see their numbers rise when they get more comfortable as the season progresses.
In the circle, the Wildcats had some exceptional performances from junior Lauren Cumbess and freshman Kelsey Nunley. Cumbess gave the Wildcats a jolt of energy with a 3-2 victory over third-ranked Cal to open the season. The Lady Bears threatened multiple times in the game but the Normal, Ill., native buckled down and led the Wildcats to a nine-inning triumph.
Nunley has been arguably the most impressive player for UK thus far, posing a 6-0 record in the circle, including wins over No. 20 Stanford and No. 16 Washington. Her 32 strikeouts lead the team, while her 2.50 ERA is second to Cumbess' 2.04. The talent is obviously there for the young right-hander out of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., but Lawson says there is another quality Nunley possesses that you can't teach.
"She is just a winner," Lawson said. "She is just really tough and when you need someone to come up with an out in crucial situation, she is the one you want on the mound. There is nothing more that she would want than to be in the circle and get the big out. In that regard, she is special and you know what she does well I can't teach. If she starts to figure some things out and gets a dominant out pitch, she is going to be pretty awesome."
Not only has Cumbess been impressive in the circle, she leads Kentucky in hitting (.429), homeruns (two) and runs batted in (10). The junior has become a force in the middle of the Cats' lineup and has already garnered opposing pitcher's attention, forcing them to pitch around her.
"It is getting to the point late in the game where they won't even pitch to her," Lawson said. "Once we can tighten up some hitters behind her, she will do even better."
This weekend, UK travels to Spartanburg, S.C., to face Georgetown, Howard and USC Upstate. The Wildcats will not be facing the quality of opponents from a rankings standpoint compared to their first two tournaments. However, as Lawson says, this weekend will allow the Cats to focus on some situational hitting and an opportunity for the players to get more action under their belt.
But Lawson doesn't want to look past this weekend and will approach the games like any other.
"The goal is always to win the softball game, so first and foremost we have to win," Lawson said.