UK softball heads to Texas with offense humming

mmaloney@herald-leader.comFebruary 12, 2014 

Griffin Joiner connected with the ball as UK softball played the University of Florida on Saturday, April 13, 2013. Photo by Mark Ashley

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  • This weekend

    Texas Classic at Austin, Texas

    Friday's UK games — Louisiana Tech, 11 a.m. EST; Texas, 5 p.m.

    Saturday's UK games — Kentucky vs. IPFW, 11 a.m.; TBA, 5 or 7:30 p.m.

    Sunday's UK game — TBA

Off to the best start in school history, Kentucky has big plans for this softball season.

The Wildcats opened play with five wins last weekend in California, topped by a 10-inning win over No. 2 Oklahoma.

As a result, UK is ranked No. 7 and No. 9 in this week's national polls.

Five more games are on tap this weekend in tournament play at Texas, starting Friday against Louisiana Tech and Texas.

"Yeah, our team has a lot of high expectations," said Rachel Lawson, the winningest coach in program history. "They want to go to the World Series. We've been in (super regionals) two out of the last three years, we've been to post-season five years in a row. So for our program, the next step is the World Series."

UK won a school-record 41 games last season, hosting an NCAA regional for the first time, and finished with a No. 14 ranking in both polls.

Back are 15 letter winners, including eight position starters and two pitchers, joined by four newcomers.

What will it take for UK to make it past super regionals and into the World Series?

"The key, obviously, it starts in the circle. You have to have good pitching," Lawson said. "But for us the major goal this year is to really amp up our offense, and I think you saw a little bit of that (last) weekend.

"Our main focus is to be able to have more production offensively, both in power numbers and the ability to create against some of these dominant pitchers we are going to face in the SEC."

UK scored 31 runs last weekend. The Cats' 48 hits included 12 doubles and seven home runs.

"The key so far was our off-season," said senior left fielder Ginny Carroll. "We worked extremely hard this off-season in the weight room. And then ... we were just really confident going in."

The biggest pop on offense thus far has come from junior catcher Griffin Joiner, national and Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. She went 10-for-15 last weekend, with two doubles, three homers and nine RBI.

"I definitely think that our off-season helped us offensively, and we came out strong with that," Joiner said. "... Our offense was able to produce top to bottom throughout the whole lineup."

After Joiner's 10-hit weekend, UK was led by Ansley Smith and Christian Stokes with seven hits each.

Four different pitchers had complete games, including a no-hitter by Kelsey Nunley against Santa Clara. The staff has three shutouts, only five runs allowed and 39 strikeouts.

"All of them had great outings," Lawson said. "Nunley came back with the highest ERA, but she had the toughest game to pitch. She threw a ton of pitches against Oklahoma. Long Beach State is a very good team and they've been to the post-season a lot, and (Lauren Cumbess) only had to pitch 66 pitches, which was pretty cool.

"And then to have two freshmen (Shannon Smith and Meagan Prince) come out and do so well in their first weekend really says a lot — about our recruiting classes that we have been able to win and just how good they are at this point in their career."

With plans for much more this season.

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @MarkMaloneyHL. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.

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