SB: Lawson Hopes Leaders Carry 2016 Wildcats
The 2016 senior class for the Kentucky softball team has seen unprecedented success during their careers in Lexington.
The group has set a school record for wins in a season (50 in 2014), made UK’s first appearance in the Women’s College World Series (2014) and been to the Super Regionals in each of their three seasons in the Bluegrass.
Now, the six seniors are set to lead a talented group of younger players into a season that head coach Rachel Lawson hopes can be truly special.
“We have a lot of positives going into 2016,” Lawson said on Monday at UK’s softball media day. “We have a veteran squad with six seniors who have never finished worse than Super Regionals, so they have a lot of pressure on them. We’ve been to the Women’s College World Series with this group, but we are hoping for bigger and better things now at the University of Kentucky.”
Lawson knows that this group fits her definition of leadership.
“I think a lot of times the word leadership gets confused with the word production,” she said. “A lot of times, people think that a player is going to be a leader just because a player is productive.”
Luckily for Lawson, she has players that are both.
Leading the way is senior pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who is already one of the most decorated players in school history. A 2016 preseason All-SEC selection, Nunley is already the school leader in ERA (2.12), wins (71) and saves (eight).
“When you look at Kelsey Nunley, she’s not only a great pitcher, but she’s fun to be around,” Lawson said of her standout pitcher. “She’s an unbelievable teammate and a great person and a player that players really like to play behind.”
On offense, Lawson is counting on a pair of seniors for big production this season. Both third baseman Nikki Sagermann and center fielder Sylver Samuel will be expected to lead the team in 2016.
“I do believe that Nikki Sagermann and Sylver Samuel are great leaders, but they are also very productive,” Lawson said. “I think it’s important that they continue with their production.”
Sagermann is the team’s leading returner on offense after batting .303 last season with eight home runs. Samuel hit .297 last season and led the team with 20 stolen bases.
Senior shortstop Christian Stokes has started 187 of the 189 games she has played in as a Wildcat. Last season, Stokes posted a career-best .299 batting average with seven home runs. But over the summer, Lawson knows that Stokes proved her leadership not only to her teammates, but to other UK athletes as well.
“One of the cool things that happens at Kentucky is that we have an unbelievable strength and conditioning program, and in the summer those (athletes) who choose to stay and voluntarily work out, they work out together and teach together,” Lawson said. “So you’ll see a softball right next to a basketball player, right next to a volleyball player next to a soccer player, so it’s an awesome environment and one that the athlete can grow in. Christian Stokes was one of the leaders amongst all of the workouts this summer among all of the sports.”
Lawson also expects more production this season from Maisie Steed, who hit .282 last season with seven home runs.
“She trimmed down, she’s a lot faster, she’s leaner – and she’s our smartest base runner,” Lawson said of Steed. “So, now that she’s faster, she is really unbelievable and she has really grown as a leader.”
Senior Ansley Smith also returns for the Wildcats. Smith started 56 games last season and brings not only experience, but also intangibles to the team.
“When we write down all of our intangibles that this team needs, she is someone who exemplifies all of the tangibles,” Lawson said of Smith. “We have a lot of scrimmages, and we have a lot of video at those scrimmages – and every time she’s not involved in the play, you see her going over there whether somebody made an error and she’s picking them up – or somebody who did something great and she’s the first one to be there to congratulate them. I’m really impressed with the intangibles and the leadership that she has brought.”
If the Wildcats are to make another run to the Women’s College World Series, the senior class will lead the way.
“The question for us is are we going to be able to take everything that we’ve done in the offseason and transition that to the playing field,” Lawson said. “And then, once we figure that out, are we going to be able to sustain that through the season and go through the gauntlet of the SEC, which is by far the best conference in the country and finish things off in the Women’s College World Series and do it on the final day.”
Kentucky begins its season on Friday, facing Notre Dame in the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz.