Softball Future Bright After Young Squad's Memorable 2013
June 26, 2013
LEXINGTON, Ky. - The University of Kentucky softball team turned its calendar to the 2013 season with a youthful team. A majority of the roster were underclassmen, including eight true freshmen experiencing collegiate softball for the first time. And although six talented juniors and two seniors headlined the top of the roster, a challenging early season schedule and the rigors of the Southeastern Conference would have appeared, on paper, to possibly be too much for the squad to handle.
But what Kentucky fans - and soon the nation - figured out was Rachel Lawson's 2013 team would not focus on the future, but take full advantage of the present, earning its fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament - one of just 23 schools to claim that honor - and making it to the school's second ever NCAA Super Regional.
"If you would have said at the beginning of the year that we would have made it all the way to NCAA Super Regionals against ASU with five freshmen starting, I would have said that's a tall order, but they responded," Lawson said after the team's final game of the year in Tempe, Ariz. "I do feel like we have a solid foundation, but we are going to have to figure out how to replace Kara Dill and Alice O'Brien, and we are going to have to figure out how to do better offensively."
Kentucky ended the season at 41-21, surpassing the previous single-season win mark in school history, which was 40 wins set by the 2011 team that went on to a NCAA Super Regional for the first time in school history. The winning season, which was the fourth in Lawson's six-year tenure, was filled with many other team accomplishments, including tying the school record for most runs in a game in the 18-0 win over North Carolina, which was also the largest margin of victory in school history. UK also tied the school record for most extra-inning wins with seven, while its five home runs hit against Middle Tennessee State was the most in a game in school history.
The Wildcats' accomplishments started when the team began the season with a 19-4 record, tying the best start in school history. In that fast start, UK won eight consecutive games, which tied the longest winning streak in school history. The eight consecutive wins came in back-to-back weekend tournaments, marking the first time UK had gone undefeated in consecutive tournaments in school history.
On top of the fast start, Kentucky played well in SEC action, finishing with a winning record in conference play for the third consecutive season and only fourth time in school history. The SEC regular season was capped off with an historic series win at top-10 ranked Alabama, as the Wildcats not only won their first ever game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., against the Crimson Tide but claimed their first ever series win against the perennial national power.
The big series win over Alabama propelled UK into postseason play as the Wildcats hosted the 2013 SEC Tournament for the first time in school history. Kentucky's postseason success continued when it was chosen as the No. 12 national seed in the NCAA Tournament, hosting a NCAA regional for the first time ever. The Wildcats went 3-1 at the regional, defeating Marshall in the opening round before taking down Virginia Tech twice to punch its ticket to Tempe, to face No. 5 Arizona State in an NCAA Super Regional.
The Wildcats dropped both games in Tempe, falling 5-4 in game one and 5-2 in game two. Kentucky launched four homers in game one, marking the most home runs a UK team has ever hit in a NCAA Tournament game. Freshman infielder Christian Stokes had two homers in game one, becoming the second UK player ever to homer twice in a NCAA Tournament game.
Overall, UK played one of the best schedules in the country with 34 of its 62 games against teams that finished the season ranked or receiving votes in either the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 or USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25. UK won 17 of those games. UK had nine wins during the season against teams ranked at the time UK defeated them, including five top-10 teams and ranked SEC foes Florida, Missouri and Alabama.
Kentucky finished 12th nationally in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25, which ties the highest final ranking in the poll in school history. Kentucky also finished 12th in 2011 after its first-ever trip to a NCAA Super Regional. UK was 14th nationally in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25, which is the school's second highest final ranking in that poll after the 2011 team finished 13th.
The Wildcats started the season receiving votes in both polls before a strong opening weekend pushed Lawson and Co. into the top 25 of both polls. UK stayed in the top 25 in both polls the rest of the season.
"Overall we had a very good season," Lawson said. "We have been very good. This is our fifth straight postseason and we have been to two NCAA Super Regionals. With that said, in order to get to the World Series, your team usually has to figure out how to host and we did that from the beginning of the year on. I think that was a big step for our program and hopefully it will pay off in the future."
On-field accomplishments aside, Kentucky's 2013 season will forever be remembered as the opening season of John Cropp Stadium, a new $9.5 million softball complex. The stadium was officially dedicated and named in a pregame ceremony on April 13, marking the official grand opening of the new stadium. Kentucky defeated No. 3 Florida 4-2 in the game. John Cropp Stadium features 1,500 seats, a spacious press box, two luxury suites and a first-class indoor hitting/fielding facility, complete with a locker room, team lounge and offices.
Another key accomplishment during 2013 was Lawson becoming the winningest head coach in UK history. UK's 6-2 game-one win over EKU on April 10 propelled Lawson into the UK record books with win No. 182. Lawson ended the season with a 194-154 record at Kentucky, taking her career record to 286-238.
Kentucky not only shined as a team in 2013, several players had record-breaking seasons. Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley busted onto the scene in the circle for Kentucky, going 27-11 with a 2.14 ERA, striking out 193 in 268.2 innings pitched. Nunley's impressive win total is the most by a pitcher in a single season in school history, while her ERA ranks third lowest in a single season in school history. The native of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., also finished with the fifth most strikeouts in a single season in school history, while her .725 winning percentage is the third best ever by a UK pitcher in one season. In fact, Nunley's 2013 season was so impressive she currently ranks sixth all-time in career strikeouts and is tied for seventh in career wins.
Junior Lauren Cumbess, who shined at the plate and in the circle in 2013, also made her mark in the UK record book. The native of Normal, Ill., ended the season second in ERA at 3.88 with a 10-7 record, while leading the team in hitting with a .323 batting average. Cumbess paced the team with 13 homers and 43 RBI on the season. Cumbess' 2013 season ranks as one of the best offensively in school history as she ranks top 10 in UK's single-season record book in at-bats, doubles, home runs, RBI and total bases.
Sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner, who started all 62 games behind the plate, had an incredible 2013 season at the dish, hitting .322 with 14 doubles, one triple, 10 homers and 41 RBI. The native of Hopkinsville, Ky., also ranks top 10 on UK's single-season record listing in doubles, home runs and RBI.
Seniors Kara Dill, who missed a majority of the season with an injury, and Alice O'Brien also had good seasons for UK at the plate. Dill hit .321 with 29 runs scored and seven stolen bases, while O'Brien hit .306 with career highs in doubles (nine), homers (eight) and RBI (32). O'Brien also had five sacrifice flies on the year, which tied the school record for most in a single season.
A lot of UK's success in 2013 was due to solid performances by its eight-member freshmen class. Nunley's impact in the circle was obvious, but several other members had strong years at the dish. Outfielder Sylver Samuel led the group in hitting at .319 with 22 runs scored and a team-best 21 stolen bases, while infielder Nikki Sagermann provided the most power, hitting .314 with three doubles, seven homers and 26 RBI. Christian Stokes, who moved from second base to shortstop after Dill's injury, hit .252 with seven homers and 29 RBI, while Maisie Steed spent most of the season at the leadoff spot with a team-best 33 runs scored a .351 on-base percentage.
Although UK loses Dill and O'Brien heading into next season, it will return 16 players from its memorable 2013 season. The experience those players had this season and confidence they gained, coupled with the addition of three talented incoming freshmen, sets up for another special season next spring.
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