Head coach Rachel Lawson looks to guide the Wildcats to their fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This UK softball season is set to feature several new additions. Head coach Rachel Lawson is looking to take her program to the next level and earn a fifth straight NCAA tournament berth after setting a school record with six Southeastern Conference series wins during the 2012 campaign.
Lawson, along with senior infielder Kara Dill and junior pitcher/first baseman Lauren Cumbess, met with the media on Monday for the annual softball media day to talk about the upcoming season.
The newest addition to the program and one that's arguably attracting the most buzz is the renovation of the UK Softball Complex into a state-of-the-art 1,500-seat facility. The stadium is scheduled to host the 2013 SEC Tournament for the first time in school history during the week of May 8-11. The upgrade to the stadium will certainly provide major boosts to the program and according to Lawson it will be among the best in the SEC, if not the cream of the crop.
"First and foremost, it is for the student-athletes," Lawson said. "It is going to provide us with an opportunity to train at the highest level possible. There are certainly unbelievable stadiums in the SEC but nobody is going to have a better set up when you take the stadium and new indoor facility into consideration."
The plan on the facility was passed by the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees on Dec. 13, 2011. Since that date, anticipation has been building for the 2013 season amongst everyone in the program. Lawson also said the field will give the Wildcats' loyal fan base an experience they deserve when watching an SEC softball game.
As for the players, Cumbess who is entering her third season, was ecstatic when asked about playing in the new stadium for the first time this year.
"We were out there a couple times this year when it was warm enough and I could not stop smiling looking at it," Cumbess said. "Everyone is really grateful for it and we are just really excited to have a nice area for all the fans to see us."
In the future, the stadium will also feature a new hitting building near the left field foul pole that will include a team lounge and locker room. Like any new facility, one of the improvements that will come of this is in recruiting student-athletes to come to UK.
And it all starts with this year's class.
Kentucky will introduce eight freshmen on its roster, a group that will likely play a vital role in UK's success. The Wildcats lost three pivotal players from last season due to graduation in Chanda Bell, Brittany Cervantes and Rachel Riley. Bell and Riley are regarded as two of the best pitchers to ever come through UK, while Cervantes exited as the school's all-time leading home run hitter.
When a team loses that much talent, it's nearly impossible to replace. But Lawson and the players are confident the newcomers will step up to the challenge and be ready to perform when their time comes.
Lawson said she expects to see a few new faces in the starting lineup when the Cats open their season on Friday, Feb. 8 against Pacific-12 Conference powerhouse and the third-ranked California Golden Bears.
Dill, who is one of two seniors on the squad, also foresees a few freshmen getting their first taste of collegiate softball when the season gets underway but is very impressed by the 2013 class and expects them to contribute right away.
"The freshman class is unbelievable," Dill said. "Offensively, defensively, pitching, they're so good. I think a lot of them are going to play, whether they start or, you know, there are eight of them, I don't think they're all going to start, but they are going to have integral roles throughout the season with our tough schedule."
Lawson touched on the impact the freshmen will have this season.
Darington Richardson (Duluth, Ga./Woodward Academy) and Sylver Samuel (Simpsonville, S.C./Hillcrest HS) will provide speed in UK's outfield, while also wreaking havoc on the base paths. The sixth-year head coach added that Samuel is by far the fastest player she has ever coached.
Dill is the lone member of the four infielders from last year that returns for UK. With that being said, Lawson made it a point to bring in some youth to help fill the voids. Nikki Sagermann (Buford, GA./Mill Creek), Ansley Smith (Newman, Ga./Northgate HS), Maisie Steed (Powder Springs, Ga./Hillgrove HS) and Christian Stokes (Chesterfield, S.C./Chesterfield HS) will all fight the veterans for playing time and are all athletically gifted in their own way.
Lawson described Sagermann as one of the best young hitters she has ever seen, Smith as a player who is solid both on the offensive and defensive sides, Steed as a very smart and heads up ball player and Stokes as one of the most athletic softball players she's been around.
To round out the recruiting class, Lawson brought in pitchers Katie Henderson (Hixson, Tenn./Silverdale Academy) and Kelsey Nunley (Soddy Daisy, Tenn./Soddy Daisy HS) to complement projected starters Cumbess and fellow junior Ellen Weaver. Lawson regards the freshmen hurlers as outstanding pitchers who will have a chance to learn from Cumbess and Weaver and provide depth in the circle.
The Wildcats begin their season this weekend when they travel to Tempe, Ariz., for the Kajikawa Classic Feb. 8-10. Kentucky will play five games over the three-day span and along with Cal, UK will face No. 4/4 Arizona State on Saturday and No. 21/20 Stanford on Sunday.
Kentucky is no foreigner to competitive schedules as the Cats compete in the toughest conference in college softball. Lawson sees this as a measuring stick of where the team is at and will help them as SEC play approaches.
Two years ago, the Cats were one win away from the Women's College World Series. Lawson has high hopes for this season and believes the team can make it to Oklahoma City, Okla., referencing that winning the SEC is actually a harder feat due to the amount of teams from the conference that make it to the final eight-team tournament.
For now, Lawson will use these early games to find out some things about her team and make adjustments as the season moves forward.
"I just think that right now, at the beginning of the season, we can schedule really hard games right off the get go to see where we're at," Lawson said. "From there, I think we can really come up with a good game plan and assuming we keep our confidence up and our wits about us, I think we'll be right there in the postseason again, knocking on the door for the World Series."
The event will serve as the centerpiece of UK's spring practice schedule as well as the first chance for fans to get a glimpse of Stoops first Wildcat team. Further plans won't be announced until later and some kept secret until the day of, but this year's spring game figures to be one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory.
Fans will also have the chance to make April 13 a Big Blue Saturday as both the softball and baseball teams are in action at home that day. Softball will take on Florida at 1 p.m., while the baseball team will face Tennessee at 2 p.m.
UK Athletics may be in the middle of the offseason, but that doesn't mean its athletes aren't working hard to prepare themselves for next year. If anything, Wildcats from the women's basketball, softball, women's tennis, women's soccer, volleyball and gymnastics teams are working harder than they do during the season.
Kentucky strength and conditioning coach Stephanie Tracey-Simmons is putting athletes through each of those teams through an intense set of summer workouts. The workouts are designed to build strength, endurance and confidence for the upcoming season, but they also have effect of unifying teammates and creating bonds across sports. Jen Smith from the Lexington Herald-Leader has the story:
The UK strength and conditioning coach says it's not her mission to make athletes miserable. She wants to make them tougher and stronger, more confident.
"I always tell the basketball players, 'You guys hate me now, but you're going to love me in March,'" Simmons says.
By the time basketball season rolls around and the season starts in November, Simmons is sure of one thing. "They will have the confidence that they can run anyone in the country down and wear them out."
There's a competitive portion to the summer workouts. At the end of it, each sport's coach is provided with a chart of how each player finished, not only individually, but also against players from the other participating sports.
"It's a big competition at the end of the summer to see whose team performed the best," says Bria Goss, a sophomore guard on the basketball team. "Also, individually you're competing against other sports. We all push each other and get better."
Baseball - After falling just a win shy of claiming the second Southeastern Conference Championship in program history on the final day of the regular season, Kentucky will kick off postseason play by opening the SEC Tournament on Tuesday as the fourth seed against the ninth-seeded Ole Miss Rebels, with first pitch set for 10:30 a.m. ET at Regions Park. - UK will be making its 14th all-time appearance in the SEC Tournament, owning a 16-28 overall record, with its fifth-place finish in 2000 and 2008 marking a program best. - UK completed its regular season with the most wins in a regular season in the history of the program, equaling the 41 from the school-record 44-win season in 2008. UK also tied the school record set in 2006 by winning seven of its 10 SEC series matchups in 2012. The Wildcats led the SEC in eight of 10 weeks and boasted home series wins over No. 2 South Carolina, No. 10 Ole Miss and No. 1 LSU, and road series wins at Tennessee, No. 18 Georgia and No. 9 Arkansas.
Men's tennis - The sixth-ranked University of Kentucky men's tennis team won the doubles point, but could not continue its momentum in singles action, dropping a 4-1 decision to No. 11 Stanford in the NCAA Men's Tennis Tournament Round of 16. - The loss concludes Kentucky's season with an overall record of 28-6, the second-most wins in the history of the program. Last year's team set the school record for wins in a year with a 29-9 mark. UK ends the season with a .778 winning percentage, which is the third highest in the history of the program behind the 1988 and 1992 teams. - Kentucky ends the season with a 23-6 record against currently ranked teams. More specifically, UK was 11-6 against teams currently ranked in the top 25, including three wins over teams in the top 10. Since the start of the 2009 season, Kentucky has won an impressive total of 31 matches against top-25 foes.
Softball - The Wildcats made their fourth-consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Louisville, and dropped a heart-wrenching 3-2 walk-off loss to No. 22 Michigan in the opening round. UK then defeated Valpo in an elimination game by a 5-4 margin before falling to the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals 3-2 in the Saturday elimination game. - UK ends its season at 30-30, marking the fourth-straight season the Wildcats have posted a .500 or better record. It is the best run in school history. Sophomore Ginny Carroll led the offense with a .444 average in the tournament, which included a double and pair of runs scored. Freshman Griffin Joiner connected for a two-run homer in the Louisville contest for UK's lone long ball. - The 2012 senior class comprised of Macy Allen, Chanda Bell, Brittany Cervantes, Ashleigh Gustafson, Rachel Riley and Erika Silence are credited with changing the culture of UK softball forever. The six-member class is the lone group of letter-winners to appear in postseason action in each season of its careers. They own the school-record for most wins in a career (136). Bell and Riley rank among the top-five in every pitching category in school history. Cervantes steps away as one of UK's most prolific offensive performers owning school records for homers and RBI. Track and field - Four Wildcats were named to the Track & Field All-SEC teams. Andrew Evans was a first-team selection in the discus, Raymond Dykstra and Luis Orta were second-team selections in the javelin and 3,000m steeplechase, respectively, and Keilah Tyson was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team in the 100m and 200m. Dykstra was also named to the All-SEC Freshman Team in the javelin. - Thirteen Kentucky student-athletes have qualified for the NCAA East Preliminary, which takes place from May 24-26 in Jacksonville, Fla. Representing Kentucky will be Terence Boyd (long jump, triple jump), Raymond Dykstra (javelin), Andrew Evans (discus), Terri-Ann Grant (high jump), Isiah Kent (discus), Josh Nadzam (1,500m), Luis Orta (3,000m steeplechase), Kayla Parker (100m hurdles), Allison Peare (800m), Jennifer Svoboda (shot put), Keilah Tyson (100m, 200m), and the 4x100m relay team, which will consist of Tamyah Pipkin, Tyson, Julie Nunn and Parker.
Tuesday, May 22 Baseball vs. Ole Miss - 9:30 a.m. (Hoover, Ala.) Wednesday, May 23 Men's tennis in singles and doubles draw (Athens, Ga.) Baseball vs. LSU/Arkansas/Mississippi State (Hoover, Ala.)
Thursday, May 24 Men's tennis in singles and doubles draw (Athens, Ga.) Track and field at NCAA East Preliminary Round (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Friday, May 25 Baseball vs. TBA (Hoover, Ala.) Men's tennis in singles and doubles draw (Athens, Ga.) Track and field at NCAA East Preliminary Round (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Saturday, May 26 Baseball vs. TBA (Hoover, Ala.) Men's tennis in singles and doubles draw (Athens, Ga.) Track and field at NCAA East Preliminary Round (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Sunday, May 27 Men's tennis in singles and doubles draw (Athens, Ga.)
Monday, May, 28 Men's tennis in singles and doubles draw (Athens, Ga.)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If you had asked any of the Kentucky Wildcats a month ago whether they would take a berth in the NCAA Tournament, they would have jumped at the chance. Sitting at 23-36, the Cats looked like relative long shots to even reach softball's biggest stage.
After a furious rally to close the regular season, UK made it to the postseason after all, but the end of their run left them wanting more.
On Saturday, the Cats won an elimination game against Valparaiso, 5-4, to force another one against archrival Louisville. The Cardinals charged ahead with three runs in the first inning, but behind the steady hand of senior Rachel Riley and a fifth-inning home run by Griffin Joiner, the Wildcats close to within 3-2.
Ginny Carroll, who has been UK's hottest hitter in the NCAA Tournament, came to the plate with a runner on and two out in the final frame. She lifted a high fly ball deep to left field, but U of L's Jennifer Esteban retreated to make the catch and put an end to a season that likely won't be duplicated anytime soon.
"Our record is 30-30, and that's probably perfect for this team," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "It's not the record you want, but about two months ago, I didn't even think we'd be sitting here right now. I think what this team has done over the last month, I've never seen a team do that before."
UK, along with the three other teams in the Louisville Regional, has helped provide a national television audience on ESPN and ESPN2 with late-inning drama over the last two days. Moreover, the Cats helped attract the largest crowd in the history of U of L's home field.
Saying goodbye to a six-member senior class of Riley (who pitched 10.2 innings and got a win over two games Saturday), Chanda Bell (who got her fourth save against Valparaiso), Brittany Cervantes (who scored two runs over the two games), Macy Allen, Ashleigh Gustafson and Erika Silence who were largely responsibility for UK's recent ascendance is tough, but the legacy of the class is beyond question.
"I feel good about our team," Lawson said. "You never want it to end, but I feel good that we had the fight in us, that we had the character to pull ourselves of the bottom and be able to play in this kind of stage is pretty cool."
In the video below, Lawson talks about the day and the end of the 2012 season:
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For right or wrong, the word "heartbreaking" is often used to describe defeats. There's no question whether the term was appropriate after Kentucky's 3-2 loss to Michigan on Friday.
In the Wildcats' first game of the NCAA Tournament, they scored two runs in the top of the seventh to take a 2-1 lead over the Wolverines. With senior ace Chanda Bell in the circle, Michigan got a two-out, two-run double from freshman Sara Driesenga on a two-strike count to walk off with the win.
"I think we gave ESPN what they wanted," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said of the late-inning drama.
Ginny Carroll had three hits, including one in the seventh-inning rally, while Bell tossed six innings of one-run ball before allowing two runs in the final frame. In the video below, Carroll, Bell and Lawson talked about the defeat and previewed what's next.
What's next is a matchup at 5 p.m. on Saturday against the loser of Louisville and Valparaiso. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and ESPN3. Now playing in the losers' bracket, the Cats will have to win four in a row to make their second appearance in a row in the Super Regionals. Fortunately, rebounding from adversity is something UK is used to doing.
"That's who we are, so I'm not really worried about that," Lawson said. "I think the cool thing about team is we're very analytical about what happens and so I think we'll go back, we'll process what happened and make some adjustments and hopefully we'll come back better (Saturday). This team has got a lot of character. They know how to bounce back."
Lawson has not yet announced who will pitch for UK. Regardless, we will have complete coverage here on Cat Scratches and UKathletics.com, with another live blog beginning a few minutes before first pitch.