The Kentucky softball team tallied a 9-1 win over Wright State and a 10-0 win over Mississippi Valley State in a mid-week series that served many purposes in the midst of a grueling SEC slate.
The Wildcats easily could have overlooked the two games, sandwiched between a home series against Texas A&M and a three-game set at Ole Miss. Instead, they turned in back-to-back run-rule efforts to keep the momentum going from one conference series to the next.
"It says a lot about our team's focus," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We had a certain game plan going into the two games, and each player went out there and did their job and executed what we were trying to do, so it really says a lot about their focus and their ability to keep working towards going deep in the postseason."
Kentucky had won four of its last five heading into Tuesday's game, and the focus never wavered.
UK scored 19 runs and allowed 29 base runners in eight total innings at the plate. In the circle, three Wildcat hurlers allowed one run, six hits and notched 12 strikeouts in 10 total innings.
Aside from earning a pair of wins to boost their record to 33-8, Rachel Lawson was happy to see the Wildcats work on improving parts of their game.
"I think we were working on hitting certain pitches, instead of taking them, and I think that was good," Lawson said. "Each girl knew what her job was, what her role was, and she was able to execute, so that was great. It was also nice to put some players into positions that I believe they are going to play this weekend, which they didn't get to do last weekend, just to make them a little bit more comfortable."
Another benefit of the two-game set was getting a number of underclassmen valuable playing experience. In Wednesday's contest, freshman Breanne Ray launched her first career home run.
"It was awesome," Ray said about getting the opportunity to play today. "When Coach Lawson told me I was in the lineup, I was extra excited for today. I just wanted to show my team that I had it in me."
Ray certainly had it in her to lead off the third inning. A shot to right center was the outfielder's first home run as a Wildcat and just her second career hit.
"I couldn't stop smiling, to be honest," Ray said. "I was so happy. Then all my teammates were there to greet me, and they made me feel even better."
"She is a great hitter and we're expecting great things from her in the future," Lawson said. "The fact that she was able to sit on her pitch and drive it over the wall says a lot about how mature she is mentally. I just love how she was able to take advantage of the opportunity."
The Wildcats, now winners of four in a row and six of their last seven, look to keep the momentum going on the road when they travel to Ole Miss for a three-game set April 11-13.
Kelsey Nunley pitched a complete-game shutout in UK's win over Louisville on Wednesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The No. 12 Kentucky softball team used a complete performance in
all facets of the game Wednesday night in its 5-0 win over Louisville.
a 1-2 weekend against then-No. 21 Auburn, a complete, well-played game
against their in-state rivals was just what the Wildcats needed.
Head coach Rachel Lawson got just the turnaround performance that she was hoping for.
thought it was big," Lawson said. "Auburn was a tough weekend. I know
we took one from them, Auburn is a very good team, but I felt like we
really didn't play our best game against Auburn.
things were exposed that we needed to work on, and the fact that we
were able to work on them and turn around so quickly really shows that
the girls have their minds in the right spot and they want to get it
done and go deep in the postseason."
the Cardinals 7-3, and was able to take advantage of two errors that led
to a pair of unearned runs. The first five batters in the Kentucky
lineup all reached base at least once.
run production was a highlight, the well-rounded game started in the
circle for the Wildcats. After Kelsey Nunley allowed one run and five
hits in seven innings of work Sunday, she came back even better on
Wednesday. The sophomore hurled a complete game shutout and allowed just
three hits and two walks.
"I thought Nunley was
incredible," Lawson said. "I thought she was great on Sunday. The fact
that she was able to turn around four days later and do it again says a
lot about how strong she is as a pitcher. The fact that she was able to
change her game a little bit and keep them off balance, they're an
awesome hitting team. The fact that she didn't let very many of them
square up on the ball really says how much stuff she has and how she's
able to put the team on her back and carry them."
Defense was a point of emphasis the last few days, and it showed Wednesday night.
the field, the Wildcats didn't commit a single error and turned several
dazzling defensive plays to extinguish any Louisville scoring
"We really worked on hustling,"
Nikki Sagermann said.. "Making every play, not giving up. Just keeping
on running hard and competing on every play."
The team worked on it, and Lawson noticed.
was really impressed with them," Lawson said of the defensive effort.
"Overall I'm really pleased with our defense, and I thought that was the
Without senior captain Lauren Cumbess, who is day-to-day with an ankle injury, the offense didn't miss a beat.
think the best part about it was the last few days we had really been
working on our approach, getting more aggressive," Lawson said. "It was
so nice to see the team step up. I think they knew because Lauren wasn't
in the lineup, that each person was going to have to chip in a little
extra, and I thought they really responded and we put up five runs
against a really good Louisville team."
marked the first time UK had beaten U of L in back-to-back games in
Lawson's seven-year tenure. The Wildcats will have a chance to go for
three consecutive wins at the end of the month on April 30 in
In the meantime, the Wildcats will
look to build on Wednesday's win when they host SEC-foe and 18th-ranked
Texas A&M at John Cropp Stadium this weekend. First pitch Friday and
Saturday is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET, while Sunday's contest will
commence at 1 p.m.
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."
Griffin Joiner is batting .405 with six home runs through 15 games as UK's catcher. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It would have been hard to blame Griffin Joiner if she had gotten frustrated.
With the junior catcher riding a three-game home-run streak and in the midst of a scalding start to 2014, Texas wised up and walked her four times in as many plate appearances. Only one was intentional, but it was clear the Longhorns wanted no part of Joiner as Kentucky clinched the Texas Classic.
At the FAU Invitational a week later, the trend of opponents paying special attention to Joiner continued.
"This weekend she didn't get a lot to hit," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Because of that I think she got a little out of her zone a little bit. Teams are definitely targeting her. They're aware of her power numbers. They're aware she's a difference-maker."
Facing that careful pitching, Joiner had just two hits in 15 at-bats. A testament to how good she was in her first 10 games, Joiner is still batting .405 with six home runs, 14 runs batted in and a slugging percentage of .905.
"That's elite status," Lawson said.
But here's the thing about Joiner: She doesn't have to hit a lick to make a significant impact for No. 8 Kentucky.
"It's good that I'm a catcher because let's say they pitch me really tough and I don't have success," Joiner said. "It's good that I'm able to always know that I have a role on the team, that I can always make an impact being behind the plate. I can't take what happens hitting to the field with me and I always have to focus on the next task that's at hand."
Because of the position she plays, the next task is always an important one.
"I tell everybody that probably the toughest job in Division I softball is Griffin's job, to be the catcher at the University of Kentucky," Lawson said. "We're very demanding on our catcher."
Joiner has caught every inning during UK's 13-2 start to 2014, showing more of the durability and reliability that defined her first two seasons. Save for two games at designated hitter early in her freshman season, Joiner has started every game of her career at catcher and 130 in a row.
"She's an incredibly smart person," Lawson said. "She's a great ballplayer. She's very focused on the task at hand so she does a great job of separating offense from defense. I think that's actually a great way of looking at it. While she's not getting what she wants offensively, she's a huge contributor."
Over Joiner's three seasons, Lawson -- known nationally as a pitching guru -- has come to rely on her catcher more and more.
"Behind the plate she's done an exceptional job," Lawson said. "People don't really steal on her often and she does a great job handling the pitchers."
Joiner is facing a unique challenge this season given the composition of the Wildcat pitching staff.
She is in her second season with Kelsey Nunley, a Freshman All-Southeastern Conference performer last year who rewrote UK's record books. Joiner also works extensively with Lauren Cumbess, a senior who has seen it all.
"The second year having Kelsey has been a lot better," Joiner said. "We're a lot smoother with the way we're doing everything this year as far as signs and her pace on the mound. We're used to each other and they obviously Lauren and I are used to each other."
Joiner is still building that familiarity with Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith, the two freshmen who round out the UK staff. So far, she likes what she's seen.
"Meagan's really competitive. I really like that because I'm competitive too," Joiner said. "Shannon, she's a go-getter whenever she's on the rubber and she's fun to catch."
To this point, the group has combined for a 2.06 earned-run average and 93 strikeouts in 105.0 innings.
"All the pitchers are a lot different," Joiner said. "In the offseason, having all the bullpens with them, it's a lot of fun. You never know which pitcher you're going to get. They all have a different variety of pitches."
That diversity has played a role in UK's success on the mound, but Joiner is the glue that holds it all together.
"Without her, we wouldn't be where we are defensively," Lawson said. "Our pitchers have done a great job and I've never seen a great pitcher who didn't have a great catcher."
As UK prepares to host a three-day tournament beginning with its home opener on Friday at 3 p.m. ET against Butler, Joiner will be trying to help her pitchers remain as close to unhittable while hoping to see some hittable pitches herself. But even if she doesn't, Joiner plans to stay within herself.
"It's a good feeling knowing that everybody on the team's a good hitter," Joiner said. "If I don't get the job done, somebody behind me is going to. I can always count on that."
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 ESPN.com/USA 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.
Kara Howard making a diving catch in Kentucky's win over Mississippi State last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In a span of a month, Kentucky softball outfielder Kara Howard experienced her career-high moment and career-low moment. The former earned her a spot on ESPN's SportsCenter Top 10, while the latter is one she promises to never let define her.
As the 2013 Kentucky softball team entered the midway stretch of its challenging schedule it prepared to host its first Southeastern Conference series of the season against Mississippi State. After a Friday-night win in game one of the series, the Wildcats and Bulldogs squared off in a doubleheader the next day with Howard getting a start in leftfield in the day's first game.
The game started with Kentucky grabbing an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, but the Bulldogs rallied in the top of the second inning for a run and were threatening for more with a runner at second base and one out when Howard made the play of her career.
Mississippi State's Erin Nesbit hit a high fly ball down the leftfield line. Howard chased the ball all the way to the warning track and made a backhanded diving catch. A moment later, she jumped up and completed the double play by picking off the runner at second base and ending the inning.
The play later came in at No. 6 in SportsCenter's Top 10 and the video featuring it now has almost 3,000 views on YouTube.
Nearly a month later, Howard, who played in 35 of the team's first 46 games mostly as a defensive replacement, experienced the complete opposite of her ESPN appearance as she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during practice, ending her 2013 season.
For Howard, the pain from the injury itself didn't come close to matching the frustration she dealt with afterwards. The injury and the surgery to follow forced her to watch helplessly as her team put together a historic season, winning more games than any other team in school history and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional.
"I didn't realize how much I loved softball until it happened," Howard said about the injury. "Having to sit out while everyone was simply running and you can't even do that. It was frustrating. But I know I have a few more years and I can work really hard and just make it count and let this injury be kind of a moment that happened, but won't define me."
The answer to whether the injury, which she is still recovering from in preparation for the 2014 season, would define her or not was not as clear this summer as it is now.
Howard, who is the youngest of three sisters, called her dad -- whom she credits for teaching her everything she knows about softball -- immediately after the injury instructing him not to tell anyone else. But not even 10 minutes later, Howard's middle sister, Kaylan, who was in her senior year with the Oregon Ducks softball team, conveniently called to check in and see how things were going. Howard knew her Dad didn't do as he was told, but she was glad.
"On the injury, I told my dad first and told him not to tell anyone. Of course 10 minutes after that phone call, Kaylan called me up and was like, 'How are things going?' I was like, 'Wow," Howard said. "But she kept me smiling and made me laugh the whole time."
That was the least Kaylan and older sister, Kymmy, would do. Howard went home to Riverside, Calif., for the summer to spend time with family and rehab the knee. While there she received the type of motivation and "tough love" she needed to get back on the right track.
"Her (Kaylan) and my other sister (Kymmy) were my doctors this summer," Howard said. "They took me to rehab and made me do stuff. My older sister, Kymmy, hid my crutches and stole my brace because I was babying it. She said, 'You should be walking on your own by now.' "
Howard's relationship with her sisters, especially Kaylan, spans far beyond just the tough love over the summer. When Kaylan received and accepted her scholarship offer from Oregon to play softball, Howard was in the eighth grade and took notice. That is when college softball became a serious thought and an avenue toward a degree for Howard, who admitted before then she was just focused on being a Disney TV star.
"I wanted to do acting and singing," Howard said. "I was in choir, but softball gave me a path to an education so I took it on. I didn't really know much about college softball until I was 14 and under. I played some softball before then but just rec-ball ... As soon as my sister got her scholarship, it kind of clicked, like, I can do something with this. I started to put in more work and at the end of my sophomore year, in the summer, Coach (Rachel) Lawson saw me in Colorado and ever since then I knew I was going to be a Wildcat."
After she enrolled at Kentucky in the fall of 2011, Howard decided she didn't want to go through her career alone and started a pen-pal type, traditional letter-writing communication with Kaylan. In her letters, Howard would ask her older sister, who was an impact player with the Ducks, about the nerves she had before games, what to expect about college life and academics. Howard said her sister always had the answers and to this day they still write letters to each other on a monthly basis.
"Since my freshman year we have written letters to each other," Howard explained. "I started off asking her what to expect my first game and all of that and ever since then it has been what is going on with your life? How is softball? How are classes?
"She pretty much told me that I would get nervous and excited, but to just treat it like another game no different than when I was playing in high school. Once I loosened up I knew what she was talking about and I felt like I had a really good year after that."
Although the two also communicate by more modern means, the letters remind Howard to keep working hard and to never let a setback, minor or major, end her love for softball. As her career-low momentum slips further and further in the past as her knee improves daily, her goal moving forward is clear and familiar.
"First, I want to get back to where I was before my injury," Howard said. "And it's not likely, but I would love to make ESPN again. That is a goal."