"Never bet against Kelsey Nunley in the post-season". It's like the softball equivalent to the rules for life, right alongside "Never get involved in a land war in Asia" and "Never bet against Izzo in March." And happily, it's a rule we'll get to enjoy for one more year as Kelsey enters her senior year at Kentucky.
The 2015 season had some incredible highs: Beating #1 LSU at home was pretty awesome. So was beating #6 Florida State and #10 Arizona. But sometime in April the wheels came off the bus as the Cats dropped a series to South Carolina, and then lost to Louisville. After that they were swept by Georgia, before wrapping up the regular season in a crushing sweep at Tennessee. And because at times the sports gods are cruel, the Cats got to face the Vols and lose their 4th straight game at the SEC Tournament.
But these Wildcats never lost hope, or sight of their goal: they wanted to get back to OKC and the WCWS. And after an incredible performance in the South Bend Regional, where they beat host Notre Dame, they made it to their third straight Super Regional. Sadly, the dream ended in Gainesville, where the Cats fell to eventual National Champion Florida. (OTOH: If you're gonna go out, losing to the national champs is probably the way to go.)
As we look to the 2016 season, what should we expect to see?
- A group of incredibly talented seniors who are determined to lead their team back to OKC: Nunley, Stokes, Sagerman, Samuel, Steed, Smith, and Richardson. This group has never NOT played in a Super Regional. They've gutted out wins against powerhouse programs like UCLA, Arizona, Oklahoma and Louisiana Lafayette. They know what it takes to win in the SEC, and learned last year that they need to bring it each and every day to ensure they get to host both a Regional and a Super Regional if they want to maximize their odds of playing under the lights in Oklahoma City.
- A much larger and more experienced pitching staff: As great as Kelsey is, it's not fair to rest the entire weight of pitching on her shoulders. Coach Lawson was good to her word in 2015 and built up a solid relief staff in Meagan Prince, Shannon Smith and Erin Rethlake."Pitching by Committee" may not be the sexiest approach in softball but it does win games. Expect to see this approach in the circle this year.
- A new face behind the plate for the first time in years. Griffin Joiner, that powerhouse athlete, has graduated and moved on to begin her life in the pros. Who will step up and take her place? My money is on incoming freshman Jenny Schaper from St. Louis. Per Coach Lawson "Jenny possesses all of the tools to become an elite-level catcher. Jenny is an incredibly hard worker, an excellent receiver and most importantly, she is a natural leader. To add to her advanced catching skills, Jenny is also a fierce competitor at the plate. I am most impressed by the manner in which Jenny controls the game. She is the type of catcher that every pitcher loves having behind the plate." Sounds good to us, Coach!
- And what about the rest of the #17th ranked best recruiting class in the country? There's some terrific talent coming into the mix, to include:
- Abbey Cheek (South Carolina): As a 2nd Team All American, Abbey should help get the Kittens hittin' again. Generally considered the top prospect in South Carolina, Abbey hit a mere .549 her junior year after drilling .486 as a sophomore. Coach Lawson didn't hold back when asked about Abbey's skills, saying "I have never been more excited about the potential of one of our signees than I am for Abbey Cheek. Abbey is one of those rare athletes that can play any position on the field with speed and exceptional power...In my opinion, as Abbey develops, she projects to become one of the best players in the nation."
- Hannah Huffman (Ohio): Hannah has a reputation as a strong slapper with serious speed. Hitting .519 her junior year, she also had 21 stolen bases. When needed, Hannah can also power the ball out of the park, which should come in handy facing tricky SEC defenses. Per Coach Lawson "When I saw Hannah play, my instincts told me she was going to be a great fit for the program. Hannah brings us speed, a left-handed bat and does a great job running down balls in the outfield. In addition to her athletic talents, Hannah is a brilliant student, a skill that will allow her to adapt to the speed of the SEC at a rapid pace."
- Lauren Lewis (Tennessee): Lauren will join her new Wildcat sisters in helping add some serious oomph to the Kittens' offense. Lauren is ranked as the #26th best player in the nation by fullcountsoftball.com, and earned All American honors as a freshman. (Her father Kirk played baseball at Auburn, but we won't hold that against her!) Coach Lawson is pretty psyched about Lauren's offense prowess and speed, saying "Lauren is a gifted athlete who can play both in the infield and the outfield (who) possesses untapped speed and has a powerful bat. In addition, Lauren has played for several championships both at the high school and travel-ball level. This winning mindset is a skill set that always helps an athlete's transition into the SEC."
- Last but definitely not least we have Katie Reed (Missouri): Katie is another strong hitter, having averaged .594 her senior season. Ranked #32 in the country, Jenny is also a high school conference track champion (300m hurdles) as well as captain of her local AAA hockey team. With so much athletic talent, it's little wonder Coach Lawson is excited to have Katie in her clubhouse. "Katie is an exceptional athlete that exhibits speed, a strong arm and a quick release. In addition to her athletic tools, Katie possesses incredible instincts for the sport. Because of Katie's toughness, I am confident she could play any position on the field, but without question, Katie could develop into an elite middle infielder in the SEC."
Now that we're updated on the talent, let's talk about what our Kittens need to work on during the off-season if they want to reach that OKC goal.
- Our offense HAS to improve. Hitting an overall .251 is pretty awful but when you realize we sank to .207 in conference play? It's really not a surprise we went 5-19 against our SEC competition. I'm really excited to see the kind of hitting power Lawson is bringing in but there's a huge jump from H.S. to the SEC and we need ALL of our players focusing on offense this summer.
- Consistent defense: We were SO CLOSE on a few wins, and then the defense just fell apart. Granted we had some help there via some bad calls (cough, Florida, cough) but frankly, we shouldn't have to worry about this if the defense is solid. Errors, be gone!
- Maintaining our strong presence in the circle: Kelsey and the pitchers did a great job last season but weren't getting as much support as you'd like to see from their teammates. If they can maintain their efficiency from the rubber, and the offense and defense steps up? Watch out.
With so much returning and incoming talent, we are set to have a truly amazing year at the Cropp. Who else can't wait for softball season to start?