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 outfielders, infielders and pitching staff. Below is part two.
This offseason head coach Rachel Lawson, associate head coach Kristine Himes and assistant coach Molly Johnson made it a point of emphasis to help improve the team offensively. The staff’s vision was better power hitting, more disciplined plate appearances and being aggressive in the base paths to get runners around.
Those areas can be improved by any number of positions on the team, but the one group that seems primed the most with those upgrades is a deep outfield corps.
A total of nine players could see time this season in the outfield, including returning leftfield starter Ginny Carroll and starting centerfielder Sylver Samuel, who are both great examples of the power and speed options Lawson has in the outfield.
Carroll has started 54 games in leftfield for Kentucky entering her senior year, including 32 last season. The native of Hendersonville, Tenn., has the ability to be a power bat in the middle of the Wildcat lineup after hitting .242 last season with 17 runs scored, seven doubles, two home runs and 22 RBI. So far this offseason, Lawson said Carroll has improved both her hitting and her defense.
“We have been really happy with Ginny and how she has worked hard to improve,” Lawson said. “She is doing a better job of covering more ground in the outfield and offensively she looks stronger and is doing a better job there. She is an athletic player that really gives us some options.”
Samuel gained control of the centerfield position last spring with 39 starts and late in the season started to show how her speed can change the look of UK’s offense. The slap hitter, who is strong defensively with great range, hit .319 last season with 22 runs scored and a team-best 21 stolen bases. The sophomore slapper gave UK a spark at the bottom of its lineup in the NCAA Regional last season, hitting .556 in the regional with three runs scored and three stolen bases.
“Sylver is coming into her own out in centerfield,” Lawson said. “Offensively, she looks more controlled in the box as opposed to just touch and go. She is doing a better job of creating things and that will continue to improve as she gets more at-bats. We need her speed. It can change games.”
A main area of focus this offseason was finding someone to replace starting right-fielder Alice O’Brien, who hit .306 her senior year in 2013 with nine doubles, eight homers and 32 RBI.
Seniors Emily Gaines and Emily Jolly could help fill the void left from O’Brien’s graduation with both showing improvements offensively over the offseason. Gaines, who played in 44 games last season mostly as a pinch hitter with a .155 batting average, and Jolly, who played in 56 games with a home run, are considered two of the most improved offensive players on the team, according to Lawson.
“Gaines has really hit the ball well and she is running down the ball in the outfield and is throwing the ball well,” Lawson said. “She is seeing the ball well right now and we hope that continues. Jolly has shown improved power this offseason and is hitting the ball really hard. We feel good about her being able to play anywhere in the outfield.”
Sophomores Maisie Steed and Darington Richardson are expected to see increased playing time in the outfield in 2014. Steed, who played in 61 games last season with 14 starts in the outfield and 30 starts at first base, is a true utility player who possesses a good combination of speed and power. The native of Powder Springs, Ga., had eight homers last season with seven stolen bases and a .351 on-base percentage. Richardson, who was injured for a majority of 2013, is nearing full strength and showing Lawson and Co. she can became a factor offensively with her speed and as a slap hitter.
“Steed can play a number of positions for us,” Lawson said. “She will definitely be at first base when Lauren (Cumbess) is pitching and looks good in the outfield. Her bat looks better and I am really impressed with the work she has put in and the improvements we are seeing from her and from Darington Richardson. She is much, much improved from last year and is running well in the outfield and, like Sylver, just looks so much more confident and controlled in the box. She is going to be a factor for us.”
The x-factor in the outfield could be true freshman Breanne Ray, who brings a powerful bat into her first collegiate season. The native of Benton, Ky., hit over .470 every year in high school and has steadily improved every day as a Wildcat.
“Breanne is going to be a good outfielder,” Lawson said. “She has a strong arm and it is one of the best in our outfield. She is a strong hitter and is learning how to hit the ball to all fields and that is something she will get better at as she gets more plate appearances. She has improved a great deal from this fall.”
Senior Sarah Frazer is practicing more in the outfield and could see time, while junior outfielder Kara Howard is still recovering from a season-ending injury last season. When healthy, Howard is one of UK’s best defensive options in the outfield.
Overall, Lawson has seen improved power and speed from her outfield corps this fall and winter, which is something she hopes to see continue.
“We felt our offense was much improved this fall and in winter practices and that should bode well moving forward this spring,” Lawson said. “I think we have a lot of options and a lot of the individuals we had in the lineup last year seem much improved and they understand their role better and they are better in certain situations.”