Feb. 3, 2014
Leading up to the 2014 season, UKathletics.com will breakdown the upcoming softball season with four season previews about the team. The first will be an overall preview, detailing the team’s focus heading into the season, followed by position specific previews on the pitching staff, infielders and outfielders. Below is part one.
For a while, the thought of seeing a University Kentucky softball team play in the NCAA Tournament seemed in the distant future. Then the Rachel Lawson tenure started at Kentucky and six years later, after five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and two NCAA Super Regionals in three years, making the NCAA Tournament is more than a thought.
It’s an expectation.
The 2013 season ended with Kentucky earning a school-record 41 wins, hosting a NCAA Regional for the first time in school history and a top-14 final ranking in both collegiate softball polls. But after the final out of the NCAA Tempe Super Regional no member of that team, including Lawson and her staff, was satisfied. The Wildcats were proud of what they accomplished, but also hungry and motivated for more.
"If you would have said at the beginning of the year that we would have made it all the way to supers against ASU with five freshmen starting I would have said that's a tall order, but they responded," Lawson said in Tempe last spring. "I do feel like we have a solid foundation.”
That solid foundation is built on the return of 15 letterwinners from last season including eight position starters, two pitchers and the arrival of four talented newcomers. But, for Lawson, it is more than just the stat lines returning for another year. The foundation she was talking about was the confidence, competitiveness and experience her team learned in Tempe.
“I think what they learned from Tempe was that they developed a lot of confidence,” Lawson said. “I think they have an understanding of what it is they need to get done and they are a confident group. Everybody on this team has won state championships and ASA titles and regional championships. That was a major goal when we were recruiting them. Once they figured out how to adjust to the speed of the game they were remembering who they were and where they came from. More than anything, the confidence that they have to compete at this level is at a good level right now. With that said, you can’t just be confident you have to execute as well. This team understands that now they have to prove it on the field.”
The cornerstone for 2014 returns in the form of veterans Lauren Cumbess and Griffin Joiner, who both started every game last season. Voted captains by their teammates and staff, Cumbess and Joiner are charged with the task of keeping the team focused and motivated in 2014 to avoid a letdown or complacency that some could expect after a historic year like UK achieved in 2013.
Lawson is not one of those people. She feels good about her depth heading into 2014 at every position and, most importantly, she likes how her team is competing every day in practice.
“I think when you have options in your lineup that also helps you not to worry about those sorts of things,” said Lawson, who is entering her seventh year at the helm of the program. “When you don’t have as many options and those people go into a slump and things happen as a coach you are handcuffed, but I don’t feel like that with this team. In any situation we have a number of people who can play in the infield and a number of people who can play in the outfield at a very high level. They are a very competitive group and our team is competing at everything they do so that is good.”
Couple the competitiveness of this team with solid team chemistry and a strong collective work ethic and you start seeing signs of a positive 2014 spring on the horizon.
“I think team chemistry is at an all-time high, which is huge when you go through the grind of the sport like softball,” Lawson said. “We start practicing in late August and early September and those kids are going hard straight through February. It is a good sign that they still enjoy being around each other and feed off of each other.”
In her final postgame news conference last season in Tempe, Lawson said in order for UK to take that next step they had to improve offensively, getting stronger and more aggressive as well as grasping the mental side at the plate. An emphasis Lawson put on the team this fall and winter, an improved offensive strategy and aggressiveness is also taking shape.
“I think they have caught on earlier to offensive strategy and things like that,” Lawson said. “They are a lot more aggressive. We have been making it a priority to be more aggressive on the bases and they have seemed to embrace that whereas last year they were just trying to get through practice. This year, I think they are catching on and that is good.”
Behind its highest preseason rankings in school history, the next step for Kentucky is hosting an NCAA Super Regional and advancing to the Women’s College World Series. A lofty expectation for any team, but one the current Wildcats embrace.
“When your team respects each other and all get along and have similar high work ethics, it is good,” Lawson said. “Now, once they start executing and doing those things right I think hopefully we can take the next step.”