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Wildcats' mental toughness drawing Lawson's attention

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Sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner leads the Wildcats with three home runs on the year. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner leads the Wildcats with three home runs on the year. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)

Another week means more wins and a different storyline this season for Kentucky softball. The Wildcats traveled to Spartanburg, S.C., last weekend where they had the likes of Georgetown, Howard and host team USC Upstate awaited their arrival.

After a grueling first two weeks of the season during which the Cats faced five nationally ranked teams in their first 11 games, they had an opportunity to work on some things offensively and defensively while allowing some players to see some live action.

The first two games of the weekend went as planned with Kentucky rolling over Georgetown and Howard. Junior hurler Ellen Weaver earned her second start of the season against the Hoyas, while head coach Rachel Lawson gave the ball to freshman pitcher Katie Henderson for her first career start against Howard.

The final game of the three game set came against USC Upstate, which sported a 10-0 record coming into the game. UK had yet to its their top two pitching performers in junior Lauren Cumbess and freshman Kelsey Nunley and Rachel Lawson elected to give the nod to the veteran Cumbess.

Lawson describes the game as a "boxing match" as both teams traded blows in an 11-inning affair in which the Cats prevailed 12-8. Kentucky fell behind in the game 4-0 after a first-inning grand slam by Upstate and Cumbess was knocked out of the game after just two frames.

"When they started off the first inning and they hit the grand slam, very easily we could have packed in," Lawson said. "Their stadium was packed and it was a really small environment so it was pretty loud. A young team a lot of times when they are in that situation sometimes gets a little nervous and they don't do well but in our case the cool thing was we kept chipping away and fighting back."

The sixth-year head coach then turned to her dynamic freshman right hander. Nunley pitched the final nine innings and the Wildcats fought back to finish 3-0 on the weekend.

Lawson said the game was probably one of the best her team has played all season because it was a total team effort. Offensively, Alice O'Brien and Griffin Joiner each connected for a round tripper, while Sylver Samuel and Ginny Carroll contributed late in the game with some clutch performances. Defense doesn't show up in the box score, but senior Kara Dill played tremendous at shortstop making play after play and O'Brien made a catch in right field in the later innings to keep the Cats' hopes alive.

According to Lawson, Upstate was one of the best hitting teams UK has faced this season and Nunley kept the Cats in the game shutting down the Spartans through the final nine innings, giving up just two earned runs.

Although Nunley is a freshman, she never feels alone in the circle because she has her counterpart in Cumbess playing defense right beside her and encouraging her every pitch.

"Shes always encouraging me telling me, 'You got this, you can do it," between every batter and that's really helped me along the way," Nunley said.

Lawson always prides her teams' mental toughness and Sunday's game was an epitome of what she instills in her players. Not only did Kentucky have to battle back from a 4-0 deficit, but the Cats also responded after Upstate tied the score in the seventh and ninth innings to extend the game.

It's tough for Lawson to say if this is the most mentally tough team she has ever coached because the season is so young and Southeastern Conference play is still ahead, but the Cats definitely are stacking up well so far.

"If we can continue to exhibit this mentality throughout I would argue this is probably our toughest team from game one all the way through the end," Lawson said. "I do believe right now this team is exhibiting as much mental toughness as I have seen out of any softball team."

The Wildcats are now 14 games into the season and Kentucky's eight freshmen have had a chance to get their feet wet at the collegiate level. That experience is manifesting itself in increased confidence, particularly in Maisie Steed, who had a home run and three RBIs against the Spartans.

Steed and Nunley were huge for the Cats over the weekend but the rest of the freshmen are starting to get more comfortable in their surroundings and finding their roles on the team.

"There was a lot of unknown when they went out to play Washington and Stanford and Cal. They had never seen anything like that," Lawson said. "I think they are just a lot more confident in the box, they understand they belong here now as opposed to wondering where they fit in. I think as they continue to get more opportunities and more at bats you are going to see them get better and better as the season progresses."

Kentucky returns to action this weekend when the Cats travel to Tampa, Fla., to play five games in three days. UK will face better overall competition than they did last weekend, including 2012 Women's College World Series participant South Florida.

Although the competition gets tougher, Lawson believes no team this weekend will be as good as what they faced against USC Upstate. If her team can play with that same intensity and mental edge as the Cats did versus the Spartans and are more aggressive at the dish, the weekend will be a success.

"I'm hoping they just pick right off where they left off with the Upstate game except for maybe a little better job in the circle so we don't give up as many hits," Lawson said.
"I would like us to get back into a more aggressive-type mindset offensively instead of sitting. There is nothing wrong and I like us taking pitches but you can't be taking strike three especially when people are on base so that was something that we did poorly this weekend and I would like to see that turn around coming into Florida."

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