Bridging the Gap: A 2009 UK Softball Outlook

Feb. 4, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. -

By: Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

The gap is closing. The UK softball team is on the verge of a breakthrough season. All signs indicate it could be this year. When head coach Rachel Lawson took the reins of the program last year, she preached consistency and competitiveness. She knew the young and upstart Wildcat program had huge leaps to make if UK were to become an annual contender in the Southeastern Conference, the nation’s toughest alignment of teams.

One of those leaps came on March 15, 2008, when the Wildcats defeated perennial powerhouse and sixth-ranked Tennessee 2-0 in Knoxville, Tenn.

“It was huge,” Lawson said of last season’s marquee victory. “In fact, after we won I expected there would be a huge celebration and there really wasn’t. It was like they knew they had been there before. They understood that it wasn’t going to be the only great win we ever have."

On paper it was only one victory, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a sign that the Wildcats are ready to compete now. The Wildcats have been steadily building talent over the last few seasons, and Lawson believes 2009 could be the budding program‘s shining season.

It’s clear to the second-year head coach and the rest of the SEC that UK is turning the corner. Lawson believes there are more victories like last season’s Tennessee win in store for the Wildcats. By looking at UK’s roster, it’s pretty easy to tell why.

UK is young, but it returns the core of its squad from 2008. The Wildcats welcome back 10 players in blue and white, including All-SEC performers Molly Johnson and Natalie Smith.

The junior duo has led the Wildcats in just about every offensive category during their two years in Lexington. Johnson torched opponents at the dish in 2008, when she led the team in batting average (.401), doubles (20), home runs (six), RBIs (40), slugging percentage (.669) and on-base percentage (.472).

Johnson’s partner in crime, Smith, has hit over .300 in each of her first two seasons as a Wildcat. Last season she finished with a .337 average, including nine doubles and 21 RBI.

But the middle infielders bring more than just numbers. They bring consistency, experience and most importantly, leadership, to a team that returns just one senior in Katie McCarty.

Junior Destinee Mordecai and sophomores Meagan Aull and Annie Rowlands anchor one of the SEC’s best outfields. Junior pitcher Amber Matousek has become one of the conference’s most reliable aces inside the circle and her classmate Jennifer Young has become a reliable arm on the mound.

But the biggest difference may come from the group of sophomores who were forced into the fire last season as freshmen.

“They’re completely different,” Lawson said. “There is just a lot more confidence now in how they attack everything. Instead of worrying about everything that’s going on around them, they’ve done a better job of focusing on what they need to do to contribute to this team this year. You would never know they are just sophomores. You would think they are seasoned veterans.”

Aull and catcher Megan Yocke headline the sophomore class. Aull and Yocke combined a year ago for more than 40 RBIs and 50 runs scored, marking the second consecutive season a pair of Wildcats made the SEC All-Freshman Team.

UK could repeat that honor a third year in a row as the Wildcats welcome 10 freshmen to the team. After fighting through last season with relatively little depth, Lawson has brought in what she calls a diverse and speedy freshman class.

“Our depth provides us with diversity on the field,” Lawson said. “We are a team that can run, and we can hit with power. Depending on what we need to do to win the game, it gives us more options than we had in the past. The numbers alone will help create a smarter and more balanced team.”

As always, navigating through the treacherous SEC will determine the Wildcats’ season. UK will again go to battle with the likes of perennial powerhouses Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and much more. The key to beating those teams, Lawson said, will be the Wildcats’ ability to close the door on teams from the pitching circle.

“We’re a very strong team, a very mentally tough team,” Lawson said. “We’re very steady. Not a lot rattles us and I think that’s going to be crucial as the season comes along.”

Whether or not that translates into the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance remains to be seen, but one thing is certainly clear: UK has closed the gap. Now it’s time to start winning.

“I expect us to be in the SEC Tournament and that means you’re going to be in the top 25,” Lawson said. “That means postseason play and all those sort of things. Our expectation is to go out and win a lot more softball games. Anything less than that would be a disappointment this year.”