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Lawson coaching tree comes full circle Tuesday in Huntington

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Head coach Rachel Lawson and former pitcher Chanda Bell talk during a game in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Head coach Rachel Lawson and former pitcher Chanda Bell talk during a game in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last summer when the sun set on the most successful softball season in Kentucky history, upon the horizon rested the possibility that a day like Tuesday might come soon.

Two staples of her program over the last half decade, Chanda Bell and Brittany Cervantes, had completed their playing careers and degrees and were moving on. Bell earned a job at Marshall as a pitching coach, while Cervantes accepted an assistant coaching job at Loyola (Chicago), giving the Rachel Lawson coaching tree its first two Kentucky limbs.

Months later, Lawson faces a pupil for the first time in what should be a unique Tuesday afternoon in Huntington, W.Va., as No. 8 Kentucky plays Marshall in a non-conference showdown at Dot Hicks Field at 4 p.m. ET.

"It is going to be great to see her and I love her dearly, but I know that she will have her game face on and I will have to bring my A game as well," Lawson said. "Chanda was as emotional as I can remember someone being on Senior Day a few years back and she turned a page that day and threw a no-hitter to get us to postseason play. I am pretty sure she has ice water running through those veins so as much as I want to view her as my own, I will have to see her as an opponent."

Bell, who spent last season at Kentucky as an undergraduate assistant coach, is the most decorated pitcher in school history, ranking first all-time in opponent batting average, strikeouts, wins and saves.

But the uniqueness of Tuesday's battle doesn't center solely around Bell having played for Lawson, but more so that she had such a positive impact as a coach last season on the winningest team in program history.

Lawson, who gives Bell a lot of credit for the development of All-Southeastern Conference pitcher Kelsey Nunley, said Bell spent more time with the UK pitching staff last year during practice than she did. And every pitch that Lawson called last year from her bucket at the top step of UK's dugout, Bell was by her said, soaking it all in, and helping execute game plans. 

"I think it is going to be a good game," said Cervantes, who stated she was jealous of Bell for getting a chance to play against Kentucky this season. "I think Chanda is going to be pretty competitive sitting in that dugout. The thing is, Chanda knows a lot of the UK hitters really well and I am really anxious to see how that goes."

Lawson and Co. started planning ahead this summer, developing a new system for signs.

"We changed our signs this year knowing that this was going to happen," Lawson said. "We will be using a set that Chanda won't know. As much as I know she bleeds blue, she will want to win and is very competitive."

Bell said the realization of how unique this experience Tuesday would be hit her when she returned to Lexington to help coach at a youth camp this winter. Bell, who wore her green Thundering Herd gear to the camp, said the UK players were giving her a hard time about the game and asking what pitches she would call against them.

"Nikki (Sagermann) asked me what pitch I thought she couldn't hit," Bell said laughing. "It was all in fun and the game is going to be fun, whatever the outcome is."

Tuesday will not be the only time this season that Bell has looked in the opposing dugout and seen a familiar face. On the second day of the season, Bell and Cervantes, who spent the better part of five years on the same team building the UK program into a national contender, squared off for the first time against each other as Marshall defeated Loyola (Chicago) 8-1 in a tournament in Auburn, Ala.

"I was like, 'Hey, you are in the wrong dugout, get over here,'" Bell said about seeing Cervantes in the other dugout. "It was definitely surreal knowing that we are not playing together anymore but still on the field because we love it so much."

"It was kind of weird because she is my friend and my pitcher and over there calling pitches again my hitters," Cervantes said. "I was trying to put myself in the mind of Chanda and how she would call pitches and then I knew she learned from Coach Lawson so I was trying to think how Coach Lawson would pitch my hitters. It was fun. It was like a little piece of home when I saw her."

Lawson said she watched the game from a distance, keeping her eye on the box score and reading the recaps online to see what happened. The veteran head coach said it was an impossible position for her to be in.

"It is kind of like a parent when you have two siblings play against other," Lawson said. "I don't know whose side I would take. On one hand, Chanda was my pitcher and we spent a lot of time in the bullpen together, but on the other hand Brittany spent as much time with me in the bullpen. I figured it was best to stay out of that one."

Although Lawson didn't partake in that game close up, she said she would drop everything to help one of them if they needed it.

When Lawson was coming up through the coaching ranks her mentors let her develop her own coaching style and personality. That's what she wants to do with Bell and Cervantes.

"I would be there for them anytime they needed me at the drop of a hat, but I think it is important that an individual establishes who they are as a coach and have their own personality," Lawson said. "After you figure out who you are, then you will be a better coach and the technical stuff is easier to deal with."

Cervantes, who earned three SEC weekly honors during her time at Kentucky, ranks first all-time in runs batted in and home runs at UK, while she is also fifth in games played, tied for fourth in doubles, second in walks, third in runs scored and second in slugging percentage. The Chatsworth, Calif., native said her biggest adjustment has been learning there are only so many things you can do to impact a game, something she now realizes Lawson tried to impart to her when she was playing.

"Anytime I am out there, I don't know how Coach Lawson did it," Cervantes said. "You want them to play so hard and I know Coach Lawson talks about that all the time. There are things that I say and I'm like, 'Holy cow, I sound just like her.' It is scary when you can relate to Coach Lawson because she is a unique person."

For the ever humble Lawson, having the two branches of the coaching tree fulfil their dreams this year doesn't reflect on her. She gives the credit to the sport they fell in love with and the institution that gave them a chance to play it.

"When people leave and want to stay in the sport of softball and want to coach that says that they love the game and loved their experience as a division I athlete and continuing it means, I think, that we are doing things right at this program," Lawson said. "I am very proud."

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