2015 UK Softball Preview: Bull's-eye Awaiting Cats in 2015

Feb. 4, 2015

When eighth-year head coach Rachel Lawson stepped to the podium to preview Kentucky’s upcoming 2015 season at media day, she went through typical “coach speak” for her opening statement.

She joked about the team being excited to leave cold weather for a few days of Florida sunshine. She talked about the excitement the group of 17 players have for the upcoming season. She touched on a few positions she sees as strengths heading into the four-month grind. And she even tried to not put too hefty expectations on the 2015 season.

But in-between was a statement that might be as telling of her excitement for 2015 as any of the nearly 4,000 words she said during the 20-minute news conference.

“Each year our staff has been in Lexington the team that we’ve had has surpassed other goals that we have not hit the previous year,” Lawson said. “So we are hoping for that again and to have another exciting year.”

“Exciting” is exactly what 2014 was for Kentucky softball. The Wildcats ended the regular season with a 41-14 record before having the school’s best runs in two of the most prestigious tournaments in college softball. Kentucky rolled to the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship Game and earned a national seed in the NCAA Tournament. After winning the NCAA Lexington Regional for the second consecutive season, UK headed to No. 3 UCLA where it upset the Bruins and advanced to the school’s first-ever Women’s College World Series.

“Last year, hitting the Women's College World Series is obviously the pinnacle for college softball,” Lawson said. “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.”

Kentucky finished 2014 with a 50-19 record – the most wins in program history – a No. 6 final ranking – the highest in program history – and set single-season records for at-bats, runs scored, doubles, home runs, total bases, walks, fielding percentage, putouts, lowest ERA, innings pitched and most strikeouts.

So why is Lawson’s sentence above telling? On paper, there weren’t many goals the 2014 team didn’t scratch off the list. In fact, the squad achieved so much that some folks – Lawson included – feel UK will have a bull’s-eye on its back this year, possibly changing the team’s culture and approach.

“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,” Lawson predicted. “In the past, we have always been a good team but always kind of fell under the radar. Now we are going to be a target, people are going to be coming after us and we are going to have to bring our A game every time. That is something that is a challenge this team is looking forward to.”

The Wildcats agree with Lawson, they are ready for it and arguably better prepared than any other team in UK history to carry that target.

Kentucky has a roster full of upperclassmen that have been key figures since arriving on campus. The gold standard of experience is senior catcher Griffin Joiner, who has started 184 consecutive games behind the plate for Kentucky. Joiner, along with junior pitcher Kelsey Nunley, who knows a thing or two about winning games on a big stage, and junior shortstop Christian Stokes, will serve as team captains for the season.

All told, 13 letterwinners return for 2015, including six starters and three pitchers. Most importantly, all returners have not only experienced firsthand what it’s like to play in the WCWS, but they know what it takes to get there.

“When you have a number of players who get the experience to be in the World Series all they want to do is return,” Lawson said. “So 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 it has been a lot more productive.”

In fact, Lawson believes her team is further along right now than they ever have been at this point in the season due to the experience and focus the players brought with them into preseason practice.

However, there are still question marks left due to graduation as Kentucky lost six seniors off last year’s squad in pitcher/first baseman Lauren Cumbess, outfielders Ginny Carroll, Emily Gaines, Emily Jolly and Sarah Frazer, and infielder Krystal Smith. But even though they are no longer on the team, their impact is still being felt and another reason Lawson feels good about her team carrying the torch to another milestone season.

“It's the character of the team and individuals that graduated that we are going to miss,” Lawson said. “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.”

Four talented newcomers and an improving sophomore class also give Lawson hope. UK added true freshmen Erin Rethlake, Brooklin Hinz, Rachael Metzger and Haley Andrus into the mix this season. All four are expected to have an impact on the 2015 season and have bought into Lawson’s vision. The group played well during the fall and have impressed the coaches with their adjustment to college softball.

“We have some freshmen that are dynamite and once they have some experience they will do great things,” Lawson detailed. “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. 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.”

It isn’t going to take long for Lawson to see how her team responds to the bull’s-eye as UK is scheduled to play 31 games - or 55 percent of its schedule - against teams either ranked or receiving votes in either preseason ranking. The Wildcats are scheduled to play 40 games (71 percent of its schedule) vs. teams that finished the 2014 season ranked in the top 100 of the NCAA RPI, including 34 games (61 percent of its schedule) vs. top 60 RPI teams and 28 (50 percent of schedule) vs. top 35 RPI teams.

No matter the opponent in the other dugout or size of the bull’s-eye, Lawson wants her team to focus on the hard work they have put in to reach their goals and the experience they already have from reaching them once.

“The difference for us is we have a very process-oriented team and a very intelligent team,” Lawson said. “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. 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. 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.”

Starters Return at Four Infield Positions

Kentucky should look eerily similar in the infield in 2015 with starters returning at four positions.

Senior catcher Griffin Joiner, who enters the season having started 184 consecutive games at catcher, brings offensive power and defensive mastery to the position. Joiner hit .309 last season with 11 doubles, 10 homers, 39 RBI and 26 runs scored. Defensively, she had a .998 fielding percentage with 442 putouts, 32 assists, three double plays turned, 13 runners caught stealing and only one error.

True freshman Rachael Metzger is the backup at the position and saw time in the fall and played well. A native of Bakersfield, Calif., Metzger hit two home runs in the fall and showed improved defense behind the plate. She is expected to spell Joiner at times this season.

First base is the lone position that doesn’t return a full-time starter after the departure of 2014 seniors Lauren Cumbess and Krystal Smith. Cumbess started 40 games at the position, while Smith had 18 starts at first base. Junior Maisie Steed started 11 games at first last season before sustaining a hand injury that sidelined her for the final month. Steed hit .211 last spring in 59 games played with three doubles, seven homers and 15 RBI.

Other options at first base include pitchers Erin Rethlake and Kelsey Nunley, and Metzger. Rethlake is a true freshman that is an all-around athlete that has good softball instincts away from the circle, while Nunley spent time practicing at first last season. Metzger is a capable backup as well.

Junior Ansley Smith started 48 games at second base in 2014 and is expected to be the starter at the position for the season lidlifter. Smith missed some time during the preseason with a hand injury, but has fully healed. Last season, the native of Newnan, Ga., hit .202 with 32 runs scored, four doubles, three homers and 13 RBI.

Sophomore Stephanie Martino has impressed the coaches with her work ethic and improvements, while true freshman Haley Andrus provides quality depth to not only second base but third as well. Martino did not see playing time last season, but practiced with the team, while Andrus had an RBI in the fall.  

Shortstop will be filled by co-captain Christian Stokes, who has started 129 career games, including all 69 at the position last season. Stokes showed an improved bat in 2014, hitting .279 with 13 doubles, two triples, seven homers and 22 RBI.

Junior Nikki Sagermann will nail down the hot corner for the Wildcats after leading Kentucky in home runs last season with 13 bombs. The native of Buford, Ga., started 58 games at third in 2014 and hit .277 with 32 runs scored, 10 doubles, one triple, 13 homers and 49 RBI. Martino and Andrus are additional options at the position.

Samuel Anchors Outfield with Lots of Options

Kentucky’s outfield does not have the experience that the Wildcat infield has, but still lots of options for Lawson and Co. heading into 2015.

Junior Sylver Samuel has been a mainstay in centerfield for Kentucky, starting 62 games at the position last season. The native of Simpsonville, S.C., had six assists and only two errors in 2014, while her bat came alive late in the season, finishing the year with a .287 average, including four doubles, three triples, an inside-the-park home run and nine RBI. Samuel is dangerous when she gets on the base paths with 20 stolen bases in 2014.

Steed, who is great defensively in the outfield, has seen time at the position with three starts in centerfield last year, while any of the corner outfielders could be pulled over to fill Samuel’s shoes in a pinch. Senior Kara Howard, who missed time the last two seasons with an injury, is considered an above-average defender and can play any outfield spot.

Both corner outfield spots will have new faces often in 2015 as Steed is the lone player on the 2015 roster with a start in left or rightfield. Steed is a likely option in one of the spots when not a first base.

Junior Darington Richardson, who has seen time the last few seasons in rightfield, is also a likely candidate. Richardson, who led UK with three triples in 2014, has played in 85 games in her two-year career and has improved greatly on the defensive side during her time in Lexington.

Freshman Brooklin Hinz has impressed the coaching staff with her power bat hitting several home runs in fall play and will get some time mostly in leftfield. Howard has mostly played leftfield in the past, but could play either side, while sophomore Breanne Ray provides quality depth in rightfield after limited playing time last year that included a home run in her first career start.

Nunley’s Success Critical to Building Deep Staff

It’s obvious who the leader of Kentucky’s pitching staff is as the Wildcats return 2014 Women’s College World Series All-Tournament Team honoree Kelsey Nunley. The junior had the best season in program history last spring, winning 30 games and guiding Kentucky to the World Series.

The native of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., threw 282.1 innings in 2014 and, if all goes according to Lawson’s plan, she will throw less than that in 2015. Lawson acknowledged during preseason media day one of the things she learned during UK’s 2014 trip to the WCWS, was the need for a deep pitching staff due to college softball’s continued offensive improvements across the board.

Good news for Lawson and Co. is UK has four very talented pitchers on the roster that all possess different strengths. Returning for their second year in college softball is Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith. Prince went 8-4 last season with a 3.47 ERA in 70.2 innings pitched and is a talented lefty that showed signs of brilliance in 2014. Smith, who provides some pop in the circle, went 2-3 last season with a 2.93 ERA in 40.2 innings pitched. Both are expected to see increased time this spring.

Lawson is also excited about Rethlake, who enters college with a ton of pedigree as the Indiana Softball Gatorade Player of the Year. Rethlake didn’t disappoint this fall, throwing over 13 innings with only two earned runs allowed and 15 strikeouts.

The best news for Lawson is how her pitching staff has come together to learn from each other and improve. Prince, Smith and Rethlake had soaked up Nunley’s impressive 2014 postseason run and used her to get better.

“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,” Lawson said. “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."