Feb. 4, 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 three.
When talking about the projected depth chart in Kentucky's infield in 2014 head coach Rachel Lawson said it was "pretty much the same."
That is an understatement.
Kentucky not only returns its leading starter at every position from last season, but also every player that started a game in the infield in 2013 except one.
The top returner is junior catcher Griffin Joiner, who has started 122 games at catcher in her two years with the program, including all 62 games last season. The native of Hopkinsville, Ky., is already in the UK record books as one of the best defensive catchers in school history, but her improving bat continues to make her one of the best catchers in the Southeastern Conference.
Joiner, who was named second-team All-SEC and All-SEC Defensive Team last season, was tabbed Preseason All-SEC this season for the first time in her career. She hit .322 last spring with 28 runs scored, 14 doubles, one triple, 10 homers and 41 RBI. The junior paced the squad in 2013 with a .433 on-base percentage, making her a candidate for the leadoff spot in the order this season.
That leads to Lawson's biggest question the infield will more than likely have to address. Kentucky returns every player but one from its 2013 infield corps, but that one happens to be one of the greatest leadoff hitters in school history.
Entering the 2013 season, then-senior Kara Dill was the anchor of the team and a staple at the top of the lineup. She was headed for another banner year last season when an injury in game No. 24 sidelined her for most of the rest of the season.
Dill, who would eventually return for UK's seven postseason games, could not be replaced last season and her intangibles of being a leadoff hitter are something that Lawson is still trying to replace nearly a year later.
"We are still trying to figure out the leadoff position," Lawson said. "I think that is something that we will have to make sure that someone steps up and really does that for us. We have a number of candidates for that role that certainly do everything we need, but we are still trying to figure out all our options there."
Sophomore infielder Christian Stokes, who replaced Dill last season with 36 starts at shortstop, hitting .252 with 24 runs scored, four doubles, one triple and seven homers, has a firm grasp on the starting shortstop job this season. But as the spring schedule nears it appears Lawson could be writing the shortstop position at the top of the lineup card again in 2014.
Lawson says Stokes is in the mix of candidates to hit leadoff this season and is doing a great job although it is a position in the order she has never been familiar with. Lawson says not only does Stokes look good in the leadoff spot, but she's embracing the role and running with it.
Playing to Stokes' right will be two familiar faces in sophomore Nikki Sagermann and senior Krystal Smith. The two combined to start at third base for 52 games last season with Sagermann holding the bulk of the starts after Dill's injury moved Stokes from second base to shortstop and Smith from third base to second base.
Sagermann responded to the increased playing time in the field last season, improving every game defensively at the hot corner and showing pop in her bat with a .314 average with three doubles, seven homers and 26 RBI.
Smith, who is solid defensively at both third base and second base, provided UK with big-time hits in key situations, driving in the game-winning runs in UK's victory over top-three ranked Florida and blasting a home run in UK's win over Virginia Tech in the NCAA Regional.
Another strong option for Lawson at any middle infield position is sophomore Ansley Smith, who started seven games at second base. Ansley Smith, who is also an option at catcher to relieve Joiner, has improved both offensively and defensively this offseason, according to Lawson, and gives the head coach countless options to move around the infield according to what situation or offense the team is facing. Ansley Smith earned two of her starts at the position immediately following Dill's injury and responded with solid defense and a home run in the series.
The depth doesn't stop on the infield there as UK returns star slugger Lauren Cumbess, utility player Maisie Steed and senior veteran Sarah Frazer at first base. Cumbess and Steed combined to start every game at first base last season and give Lawson options as both can play several positions on the field. Cumbess, who is an accomplished pitcher, will see a majority of time at first when not in the circle, with Steed taking first base when Cumbess is pitching. Steed can play all over the field, including any outfield position and third base and if her skills are needed there instead of first, Frazer could see time at the position.
"I like our infield," said Lawson, "we have some good experience there and feel good about it."
Now that is an understatement.