Lawson, Joiner, Stokes Preview 2015 Season at Media Day

Feb. 2, 2015


Head Coach Rachel Lawson

Opening Statement ...
"We are excited about the season opening up this Thursday, especially because we just got this cold front in Lexington. We are excited to get on a plane and we will be leaving here on Wednesday and heading down to Tallahassee. We are expecting another good year for the Wildcats. Each year that this staff has been in Lexington the team that we have had has surpassed other goals that we have not hit the previous year. So we are hoping for that again and to have another exciting year. We have a really strong team coming back, we are coming back completely up the middle. We have our catcher back, we have our starting pitcher back along with a few other returning pitchers that are sophomores. We have our shortstop and second baseman required a lot of time last year and then our centerfielder. Anytime that you have the middle of your team coming back you are always looking forward to another great season.

Last year, hitting the Women's College World Series is obviously the pinnacle for college softball. It was great for us to get that experience in that venue. We have been to Super Regionals three out of the last four years so to be able to take that next step to become one of the elite programs was big for the University of Kentucky. We are now entering a time when softball is one of the most popular sports in the spring on TV. So it is nice to be able to have a team in Lexington that wears blue and white that will get a lot of national coverage once basketball is over - because we all know that basketball is king in Kentucky. We are looking forward to being on TV a lot and looking forward to putting another team on the field.

We return our associate head coach, Kristine Himes, she is our offensive coach and return Molly Johnson-Belcher, our assistant coach. We are pretty much intact moving forward to 2015."

On if it was easier to motivate her team after advancing to the WCWS ...
"Well, we never have had a motivational problem with our softball team. We have a great team culture and we are motivated in everything that we do and incredibly strong pound-for-pound and have always been exceptional students. Last year, our team GPA was a 3.6 and we were the only BCS school in the country that was both in the World Series and top-10 in GPA. Motivation hasn't been an issue with us, but the thing that was different for us this offseason was what our team worked on was a little bit more focused. I think when you have a number of players who get the experience to be in the World Series all they want to do is return. So I think when you are doing those 6 a.m. workouts in the summer and they are all voluntary so you don't have to be there, when you are doing those extra cuts in the batting cages, your focus tends to be a little more centered and I think it has been a lot more productive. Right now, I would say that we are a lot further along at this point in the season then we had been in past year, mostly because of the experience and focus that our players had in the offseason. So when they came back, their swings were a little bit better, they were a little bit stronger and we are doing things right now that we haven't done at this point in time in the past."

On if she had any fears of complacency after the trip to the WCWS ...
"No, complacency isn't there. When you come to the University of Kentucky your goal is to win championships. So that carrot is always dangling out there and when you win one championship you want to win another championship. Complacency isn't something that we worry about. I think moving forward we have ventured uncharted waters and something that this team is going to have to manage is the expectations of being the team that people are going after. In the past, we have always been a good team but we always kind of fell under the radar. Now we are going to be a target and people are going to be coming after us and we are going to have to bring our A game every time and that is something that is a challenge this team is looking forward to."

On Kelsey Nunley's expectations ...
"I don't expect more out of Kelsey and she has handled everything fine. She is incredibly strong and she worked very hard in the offseason and is developing more pitches and she has done great in the classroom and done everything we have expected her to do. To expect her to win more than 30 games is kind of a tall order. The biggest challenge is going to be we have two returning sophomores and a freshman in the pitching staff, so what we have more been focusing on is developing a complete staff and developing additional starters and we have been putting people in different roles and closing roles. Relieving roles isn't much of an issue with us as it is for baseball because we only play the seven innings, but I am confident if people are put in that position that they have been trained for it. So it is not so much what Kelsey can do, but more about the development of the rest of the staff and making sure they can all pitch in the postseason."

On what it means to have a pitcher who can go out and beat anyone on any given day ...
"Well, it's tempting. I will be honest with you. One advantage that softball has is your starting pitcher can pitch more than, let's say baseball. So it is tempting to put them out there every single day, but you don't want to burn them out during the season. You have to be sure to develop a staff so you can make a big run in the postseason. What it does more than anything right now is it gives the rest of the staff experience that they need because they have seen Kelsey go through the postseason. They have seen her go through Supers and now seen her carry our team to the World Series. So what they have been able to do is learn what her successes are and I think the learning curve for our other three pitchers has accelerated and I think that has been the biggest role that Kelsey has played this offseason."

On the team losing focus during the regular season ...
"I think the difference for us is we have a very process-oriented team and a very intelligent team. Even though we made it to the World Series there was a lot of statistical things we could have improved on, specifically offensively we could have done a better job. I think the fact that we have been able to stay focused on our process-oriented goals: becoming a better hitting team, scoring more runs, having a higher average. Those things that you need to hopefully bring home a championship. I think our ability to focus on those goals has allowed us to become a better team. They understand that if we can get better at those things then we have a shot at winning the championship and ultimately that is the big goal at the University of Kentucky."

On the biggest test being focused offensively ...
"I think the two challenges are making sure that we have a big bullpen and making sure we have more arms and in addition to that making sure that we have the offense that can support the pitching staff while the season is going on. In order to give pitchers experience, you need to have an offense that scores a lot of runs. If you don't score a lot of runs, you have to use Kelsey more than you like to because at the end of the day you not only have to have a high RBI, but you have to have a .500 record. And the SEC is by far the best softball conference in the country if you take into consideration how strong the teams are from top to bottom. So all of those things are going on at the same time and as long as we have the offense to back up our pitching staff we will be a team to be reckoned with."

On the challenging early schedule and its importance ...
"It is a great measuring stick to see how far you are. The fact that we are not only playing Florida State on Saturday and Sunday, but we have two additional games against Georgia Southern, so you can't use the same pitcher the entire time. You face a lot of things when you face Florida State, they are an excellent program and a program rich with tradition and we are also facing them in their home environment. I think it's a good measuring stick to see how much we have improved from last year. They have an outstanding pitching staff, they don't just have one pitcher, but two great pitchers. So I think it will be a good measure of where we are at and give us a good idea of what we need to work on for the rest of the season."

On what she learned from the WCWS ...
"Everything about the World Series, once you go there, it changes your opinion about everything. It changes what you know you need. You think you know what you need when you are moving towards the World Series, but once you are there, there are a lot of things that go on. First of all, when you are at the World Series, people in our environment you have media day and all of a sudden your squad gets separated out and you have your starters that need to make appearances and then you have other individuals that don't get to make those. A team like ours, we have great team chemistry and so in a situation like that your team chemistry gets tested. So the first think you have to do is make everyone gain experience, all 17 of them. The other thing you realize is that softball itself has changed. In the past five years, it is a much more offensive game so you need a deeper pitching staff. In the past, you could win a lot of games with one pitcher but now softball is a game where you need a few great pitchers so you can make a deep run in the World Series. I think that became very apparent in the people on our team and they hadn't seen that before. So now they understand. Finally, as a coach, you grow and develop and you have to learn how to manage a lot of different things. Scouting at the World Series is difficult because there are eight teams there and other then your first game you don't know who you are playing. So it is very physically demanding on the coaching staff to prepare your team for the next game. That is something that you have to be ready for before you ever get to the World Series, because if not, you are not only going to be pulling all-nighters, but if you are tired you have a chance to make mistakes just like the athletes. So you have to make sure your coaching staff has the experience to be competitive in the World Series and you have the knowledge and experience to compete at that level. I think now that we have been there we are going to be better prepared if we have the opportunity to go back this season. "

On what it meant for softball to be at the front of the fan base during last season's run ...
"When you get to a point where fans are second guessing decisions that is a great thing. I know that sounds funny, but there is going to be somebody that has never turned on a softball game in their life and they are wondering why the same pitcher is throwing 100 pitches at the same time because they have never seen softball. They think that is the way they want to do things because they have never seen it before. But at the end of the day when you are getting second guessed that means people are watching. If people aren't second guessing you that means that people are not watching. I am sure last night in the Super Bowl there is a lot of second guessing going on but the reality is that millions of people were watching that game. The fact that we have finally reached the pinnacle where people will criticize what I am doing means that we have finally reached the fan base of the Big Blue Nation. We have the best fans in the country and if they start watching softball games and continue to watch softball games, I think it will be better for the university and the athletic department and I just have to have thick enough skin to stay the course and understand that's my job."

On why softball has become very popular on TV ...
"There are a few reasons. Softball, when played well, stays closer to two hours. When the game gets past the two hour mark, you lose fans. I think the fact that our game is a faster pace in terms of the amount of time it's on TV has made softball very popular. The other thing that makes softball a popular sport is unlike other sports where there is a direct comparison to a male sport, so softball is very similar to baseball and baseball is the American sport, it is a great sport to watch. But in softball our base paths are a lot shorter so it makes the game faster. So for example, the fastest softball players are getting down the line in 2.6-2.7 seconds. That makes the game faster. The fastest baseball players are getting there generally around 4.3 seconds. So the game itself because of the dimensions of the field make it a faster pace game. Those two things cater to the population in general. If we can keep it a fast-pace game and make it easier to watch, it is really fun. When you see it live, it is a game you tend to get hooked on. One of my goals during our time in Lexington is to get people to come to the games because once they come they tend to come back."

On having success in the WCWS ...
"Yeah, one of my goals as a coach is you want to win every game once you are there, but it was very important to me that we came out and had a great showing from the get-go. A lot of teams go out to the World Series and because of the newness of the situation they bust and they bust early. So the longer we could stay in it, it gave the team and the program the confidence that we needed and they could say, `Well, we fell short in that aspect, but if we continue to work hard we have the opportunity to be an elite program year in and year out.' So the fact that we went out there and did well against Louisiana-Lafayette really showed that this program has come a far way in the last seven years that I have been in Lexington."

On the loss of last year's seniors ...
"We are going to miss them. Lauren Cumbess was a phenomenal player for us because she gave us time on the mound and she was a great first baseman and great hitter, but what made her special was she was an excellent team leader. The culture and identity of our team, a lot of that came from the leadership that Lauren gave us when she was here. The other players are going to be missed to. The year that Emily Gaines had was unprecedented. I mean, she went from somebody who didn't get any playing time to somebody who becomes our hero. That is just incredible to see that happen to a Kentucky kid. Krystal Smith was a career less than .200 hitters and was one of the hottest hitters during the postseason. The rest of that class, they meant a lot to our program because when they came here as freshman no one had it harder than that class. They were one of my first classes in entirety and they had to earn everything. A lot of them didn't get a lot of playing time until their senior year and they continued to work hard and did great by the university and they finished strong. I think it's the character of the team and individuals that graduated that we are going to miss. But fortunately they instilled such a great atmosphere in our program and that has continued. The team chemistry this year and culture of the program is still top notch and I contribute that to all the individuals that have played here since I have got to Lexington."

On if she is still optimistic she will have a good offensive team ...
"I believe so. We had a number of starters last year that were sophomores so the experience along, hopefully if they learned from their experiences last year they are going to be better. Christian Stokes is somebody that has been really impressive this season and has great presence in the box. She is hitting the ball very hard. Sylver Samuel is also somebody to watch. She looks outstanding and is so strong now. Even though she is skinny when she runs out there, she is so strong and her commitment in the weight room has made her such an exceptional athlete. There are other players. Nikki Sagermann is a tremendous hitter. We have some freshmen that are dynamite and once they have some experience I think they will do great things. I think Brooklin Hinz is someone to watch and hopefully she will in the future provide some power in the lineup that we are missing from that graduating class. I think Erin Rethlake is going to prove to be one of the better freshmen in the country once she gains the experience and knowledge she needs to be successful at the next level. But just the experience alone has been awesome this offseason so I am expecting we are going to have people show up this season and do things we haven't seen in the past."


#13 Griffin Joiner, Senior, Catcher

On finally achieving the goal of getting to the World Series ...
"It was definitely a great achievement to finally get there. We set a goal and we actually know what it's like to accomplish that. I think that it has added extra motivation for us this offseason because we have always talked about going to the College World Series and how great that would be, but now that we have actually made it there it's actually added a lot of determination to get back this year."

On being preseason top-10 team ...
"I think that just shows the success we had last year and speaks to the great conference we play in. There are a lot of teams in the top 25 from the SEC so it's just exciting for us to be up there with the other teams. We're going to get to play the other teams that are ranked so we're really excited about that."

On having Kelsey Nunley back ...
"Oh that is a great feeling, I think mentally she carried us last year in the postseason as a pitcher. We have a freshman pitcher this year in Erin Rethlake, we think that she is going to be really good. Obviously we have Shannon Smith and Meagan Prince back they'll be sophomores this year and have gotten a lot better. I think that we're just excited to bring all of them together and use the pitching staff more this year."

Starting with Florida State on the schedule ...
"Yeah I think it's good because it's a good test this year right away. I mean it kind of shows what we have been working for in the offseason just to see. It's a good thing to play the best the first time out. That's why you play the game, you want to know how you can do against the best."

#10 Christian Stokes, Junior, Shortstop

On the team's mindset this season ...
"I think the mindset is determined. Obviously, we accomplished our goal last year of going to the World Series, but it is always a goal to get to the World series and it's another goal for us this year and maybe even try to get a little further. That is what we are getting focused on."

On what the team lost last year and how the freshmen look ...
"We have a lot of freshman this year that I think are going to contribute to our team. But, we definitely have some big shoes to fill. I think we have been working hard and can do that, but we are going to miss the players that graduated last year. It is not necessarily one thing we have to replace. I think everyone has the experience and we were prepared for what we were going to lose and know what we needed to do this offseason."

On how the pitching staff looks ...
"I think it looks really good and I'm excited about our pitching staff. I am looking forward to playing defense behind them. "

On what she learned from the WCWS ...
"I think just experience was the biggest thing. Just playing on that big of a stage and how to compose yourself in front of all of those people and just realize it is just another game. Obviously, it is one the biggest games of your life, but just soaking up that experience was the biggest thing."