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Softball notebook: Cats younger, but still deep at pitcher with losses to graduation

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Junior captain Lauren Cumbess looks to be a force in the circle and at the plate this season for the Wildcats. Junior captain Lauren Cumbess looks to be a force in the circle and at the plate this season for the Wildcats. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Last season, Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley were a two-headed monster for Kentucky as they combined to start in 41 of the 60 games and earn 25 of the Cats' 30 wins, guiding UK to its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

The two left their mark on UK softball but it's time to move forward and juniors Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver along with freshmen Katie Henderson and Kelsey Nunley are ready to shine.

Cumbess finished last year with a 3-4 record in nine starts but boasted a team-best 2.78 earned-run average in 45.1 innings pitched. The Normal, Ill., native will most likely get the nod in the Cats' season opener vs. Cal and showed signs of brilliance last year when she no-hit Georgia. Cumbess has been known to play first base when she isn't in the circle and her athleticism is maybe the one thing Lawson likes the most out of her junior hurler.

"It's funny because she is probably one of the best athletes that has ever come through here," Lawson said. "What gives me confidence is not only that she's a superior athlete but that she's proven she could do it on a national stage last year. I would argue that at the beginning of the season she was our top pitcher and then she certainly showed it when we played Georgia and no-hit them."

Weaver provides some experience for the Cats, appearing in 14 games last season and had three complete games to her credit. Henderson and Nunley will get a taste of collegiate softball when they stand in the circle for the first time this season.

Cumbess is confident in the rotation the Wildcats will feature this season and likes the rarity of a four-person pitching staff.

"I think four strong pitchers on the staff is a great thing to have and not every staff in the country has that so we are very lucky to have four strong pitchers," Cumbess said. "We all complement each other really well so it's going to be very fun to see us work game-to-game together since we are all so different."

Cats hit the road

Fans will get a quick answer of where the Wildcats stand against the top teams in the country as UK will challenge No. 3/3 Cal, No. 4/4 Arizona State and No. 21/20 Stanford this weekend in the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz.

This weekend will also be a perfect time for Lawson to find out what her group of pitchers are made of as the Cats are slated to play five games in a span of three days. A lot of questions will be answered this weekend but this is just the start of a rough opening 20 games of the season for the Wildcats.

UK will hit the road for the first 20 games of the 2013 campaign, playing in four tournaments before returning home and introducing the renovated UK Softball Complex for the first time on March 6 against Marshall.

Lawson realizes this isn't the greatest situation for her Cats but there is only so much she can control and it's a hump the team will have to make it over.

"You never want to go on the road for the first 20 games," Lawson said. "First of all, it's nice sleeping in your own bed and second of all, we do have an unbelievable fan base which you can start to see that the SEC home-field advantage is really starting to take effect in the last couple of years in the sport of softball."

This is nothing new to Kentucky given its limited ability to begin hosting games in Lexington due to the weather in the month of February. What also prevented UK from hosting some early season tournaments was the UK Softball Complex.

With the upgraded stadium, Kentucky will host its first SEC Tournament this year and Lawson says fans will see a change in the schedule from here on out due to the luxurious new stadium.

"That's also why I'm excited about the new stadium because we'll be able to host," Lawson said. "Next year, you'll see our schedule is going to be a little different in that we can host a couple of tournaments at our own field."

Finding Leadership

Kentucky enters this season with just two seniors in Kara Dill and Alice O'Brien, who were both named team captains along with Cumbess.

Dill had a fantastic 2012 season posting team-highs of .351 average and 21 stolen bases, earning her way on the All-SEC second team. O'Brien had a fine year herself, finishing fourth on the squad by hitting at a .265 clip. Cumbess had success in the circle but was also productive at the plate and should see ample time at first base.

Although the team has a lot of youth, Lawson doesn't see a lack of leadership. She is very confident that her captains will step up and take charge but is also looking for her sophomores and juniors to lead as well.

"I believe there are a number of people on our team that step up in different situations," Lawson said. "I'm pretty fortunate that in this program, we year-in and year-out have brilliant student-athletes. They're good in the classroom, they're good on the field and they're blue-collar, level-headed people. I'm not worried from the standpoint that we have two seniors because what everybody provides collectively is pretty special."

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