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Fresh off record-setting opening weekend, UK softball has high expectations

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Rachel Lawson and the UK softball team look to build on a 5-0 start to the season at this weekend's Texas Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Rachel Lawson and the UK softball team look to build on a 5-0 start to the season at this weekend's Texas Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team is coming off a record-setting opening weekend. UK is off to a perfect 5-0 start for the first time in program history, including an upset win over then-No. 2 Oklahoma, a year after a school-record 41-win campaign in 2013.

As UK prepares for its second weekend of competition -- the Texas Classic in Austin, Texas, Feb. 14-16 -- one would assume the Wildcats and head coach Rachel Lawson are feeling pretty good about things. After all, the perfect start to the 2014 season vaulted the Wildcats to seventh in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 and No. 9 in the Softball Top 25, both the highest in team history. UK advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals last season for the second time ever.

Having moved past last year's success before fall training began, Kentucky is far from satisfied.

"Yeah, our team has a lot of high expectations," Lawson said. "They want to go to the World Series. We have been in Supers two out of the last three years and been in postseason five years in a row so for our program the next step is the World Series."

They are really happy that they were able to get some good games under their belt and to win. I think that is a really exciting thing for them."

Big expectations are the norm in the Southeastern Conference. The league is arguably the toughest in the country, with back-to-back College World Series title game appearances, including Alabama claiming the SEC's first softball national championship in 2012.

The Wildcats won't get too excited over a 5-0 weekend, knowing there is plenty left to play for and a multitude of big games ahead. Twenty-two games await UK the rest of the season against teams currently ranked or receiving votes in either poll.

"As much as they had a really good weekend, they are very focused on the end goal," Lawson said. "Being in the SEC, we are going to have so many big games ahead of us. They are taking it in stride."

"I think our offseason helped us offensively," junior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "We came out strong this weekend with that and I think this weekend we played good teams like Oklahoma and it gave us confidence. It was good to play teams like that because that's the type of teams we play in the SEC. It's nice to win the early season tests and have an extra-inning game to get prepared for SEC play."

Joiner had 10 hits with a .667 batting average in the opening weekend and was named the season's first SEC Player of the Week on Feb. 10. She slugged three home runs and had nine RBIs to pace the Wildcat offense.

Hearing Lawson and the players talk about what's ahead, and the goals for the team, there is no secret that the Women's College World Series is the target. School records, national accolades and NCAA Super Regionals aren't enough. The Wildcats want to make it to Oklahoma City and play as one of the final eight teams.

There are several important factors for UK to be successful and make it to the College World Series this year. Of course, offense, defense and pitching are important, but Kentucky's depth will be just as crucial.

In the Wildcats' opening weekend, it was a balanced attack that provided their run production.

"Actually, I was incredibly impressed by that," Lawson said of her team's depth in the first five games. "If you really went into the play-by-play of all the games, for example, when we played Oklahoma and beat them they got their runs from 1-2-3 in the order and we got our runs from 7-8-9 in our order, which is pretty cool. The top of our order did produce, but just to be so strong top to bottom is a lot of the reasons we won pretty convincingly this weekend. At no point were we out of it this weekend, it didn't matter who was up. We had a lot of key contributions from a ton of people and that is a good thing. In order for us to go where we want to go you have to be strong."

Going forward that depth will have to continue to be a strength. The Wildcats open the Texas Classic with Louisiana Tech and No. 15/16 Texas on Friday before facing IPFW Saturday. The weekend will continue with seeded contests Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning to conclude the five-game weekend.

"I think this is the most depth that we have ever had during my career," senior outfielder Ginny Carroll said. "Before the season when the players were talking with each other about what the lineup might be, and we had no idea. There are so many options. Each game could be different, which is great for competition and practice and then also seeing who is hot on that particular day. I think the competition makes everyone work harder, and no one can be complacent. It's really nice we've got a lot of good stuff."

So many options. Lawson and the coaching staff have to like that. While a consistent lineup might fall into place, the ability to have different options could be UK's secret weapon in 2014.

With their sights set on making the program's first trip to the World Series, the Wildcats will need as many of those secret weapons as possible.

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