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Stokes brings presence, stability to leadoff position

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Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Shortstop Christian Stokes successfully stepped into the leadoff role during UK's record SEC Tournament run last weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The importance of the leadoff hitter has never been more obvious than in the Kentucky softball team's Southeastern Conference Tournament run this past weekend.

Going into last week's SEC Tournament, Kentucky was coming off a three-game sweep suffered at Georgia. The Wildcats scored just one run in each game, and Rachel Lawson was looking for a spark at the top of the order.

Enter sophomore shortstop Christian Stokes.

"What happened after the Georgia series was I thought we needed a change in tone, a different way to start off the game," the UK head coach said. "So we put her in the leadoff position and just her presence alone, I believe she set the tone for the entire tournament. She set the tone in all of our wins in her first at-bat of every game. It's the ability to be able to put everyone on your back and have great presence in the box from the get-go."

On the third pitch of the bottom of the first inning in UK's opening-round win over Mississippi State, Stokes sent a shot over the right field wall to give UK an early 1-0 lead. As her teammates poured out of the dugout to greet her at home plate, it was apparent the offensive spark that Lawson was looking for had been found.

In four games leading off at the SEC Tournament, Stokes' numbers were beyond impressive. She hit .429 with six hits, two home runs and three RBI. She scored a run in each of Kentucky's three wins and reached base a total of nine times for an on base percentage of .529.

The Chesterfield. S.C., native had a 1.000 slugging percentage in her home state. She was rewarded by being named to the SEC All-Tournament Team.

"Coach Lawson really wants me to work on my presence in the box, that's been a huge thing," Stokes said. "Starting off the game, showing a presence from the first swing is the main thing I've been thinking about. Just being confident, getting up there and doing my thing."

Stokes was 3-for-4 in that first game against Mississippi State, with another RBI and a double in the ninth inning to set up fellow sophomore Nikki Sagermann's game-winning hit.

The following day against Tennessee, Stokes was 3-of-4 again. She led off the game with a double, and her home run in the fifth inning put UK ahead 2-0 and gave sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley all the insurance runs she would need.

In Kentucky's win over LSU to send the Wildcats to their first SEC Tournament Championship Game in program history, Stokes was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning and scored the first of two runs in the final frame.

As the Wildcats prepare for NCAA Regionals this weekend at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Stokes hopes to continue her hot hitting. It will help that the confidence from the SEC Tournament can carry over into this weekend.

"Once you're confident, your confidence keeps on carrying for a few games or even the rest of the season," Stokes said. "It will help with my approach and all the things I'm doing well in the box right now. I think the presence is a big thing too, my presence will maybe help my teammates' presence as well."

The leadoff position was one of inconsistency in the regular season. Stokes led off 14 times and is one of six Wildcats to have hit in the No. 1 spot this season. None of them led off more than 16 times in UK's 55 regular season contests, and no one did it for more than six games in a row.

Going into the postseason, Lawson knew it was essential to have a leadoff hitter who could get things going for the rest of the offense. 

"You look at all the dominant teams in the country, they all have a strong batter in the leadoff position," Lawson said. "Christian's strength alone helped match what all the other teams did. In fact, this past weekend, she surpassed that. I couldn't be happier with it, and in my opinion, she and Kelsey Nunley were the MVPs this past weekend."

Stokes has started all 59 games at shortstop this season, but has batted in nearly every spot in the order. In addition to the 14 times she has led off, she has batted ninth 20 times, sixth nine times and second, fifth, seventh and eighth at least once.

Despite her spot in the batting order changing, Stokes doesn't find any added pressure with having to set the tone at the top of the lineup.

"I think it's easy, because everyone on our team steps up at different times, which is great," Stokes said. "I always know my teammates have my back, and they know I have their back, so it's easy to be a leader on our team."

It isn't hard to see that Lawson has been impressed with Stokes as a hitter, no matter her spot in the lineup.

"Her overall competitive spirit, and her presence in the box is something that really impresses me," Lawson said. "I love it, I think she does a really good job, she competes, she swings the bat hard, she runs hard. Just that overall attitude really helps the team get ready to hit. She's quietly been a leader. She's been getting big hits when we needed her to."

That competitive spirit and attitude will help lead Kentucky into the NCAA Tournament opener Friday against Ohio. Kentucky has made the NCAA Regionals in six consecutive seasons and advanced to the Super Regionals in two of the past three years.

After a grueling SEC schedule, things won't get any easier in the postseason, but Stokes presence and ability to get things started at the top of the order should help alleviate some of that pressure brought on by the NCAA Tournament.

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