Bailey Vick came to Kentucky just happy to be offered a scholarship. She didn’t envision earning All-Southeastern Conference freshman and defensive team honors. She didn’t know she’d be part of UK’s run to its fifth NCAA super regional appearance in seven years.
“I remember in middle school — Coach (Rachel) Lawson would come to a tournament and I would say ‘if I could just have a Kentucky uniform on. I’ll be the bat girl. I just want Kentucky across my chest. I’ll do anything,’” the sophomore out of McCracken County said. “And the fact that I get to play on the field and represent Kentucky is just incredible. Just being recognized for working hard, for putting in time, I couldn’t ask for more.”
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want more. Last season gave Vick and her teammates a taste of what’s possible.
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“I want to go further. I want to go to the World Series,” Vick said. “We all have this one goal and, now, I can even get behind it more, I feel like, because we got so close last year.”
Vick hit .321 as a freshman and returns along with Lawson’s top six hitters and a pitching staff anchored by senior Erin Rethlake, who emerged as a dominant player both in the battery and at the plate last year.
“We are definitely a team that the Big Blue Nation can get behind,” Lawson said at Thursday’s Media Day ahead of the Cats’ winter road tour that begins at New Mexico State on Saturday. “We are returning some unbelievable players.”
They will face one of the toughest schedules in the nation with 20 of their 53 regular season games against preseason Top 25 opponents.
Rated No. 13 by ESPN.com/USA Softball and No. 17 by USA Today/NFCA Coaches, Kentucky is among nine SEC schools ranked in the preseason top 25 polls, the most of any conference.
Can Kentucky make it back to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City for the first time since 2014?
Here are some of the big factors and big games that will help the Cats get there.
Players to watch
Erin Rethlake, senior, pitcher/utility: Rethlake comes off a breakout junior year, where she became a solid No. 2 starter going 10-5 behind the departing Meagan Prince. She ranked among the SEC leaders in ERA (1.95) and opponents’ batting average (.204). She’s likely to see her pitching workload nearly double as UK’s new No. 1.
“I was so impressed at the work she did in regionals and in super regionals,” Lawson said. “To be able to pitch in those games and to have that big-game experience coming back is something that our program has always had as a cornerstone.”
Rethlake also became a threat at the plate and on the base paths after switching to a slap-hitting style almost on a whim to start 2017. Batting no better than .125 in her first two years of limited action, she hit .300 in 2017 with 22 runs and 15 RBI while stealing 18 bases in 19 attempts.
Rethlake said her early struggles helped build her into the player she became last year.
“You come here when you’re used to being very good and you get knocked down,” she said. “It’s hard to handle that. It was learning how to deal with failure and turning it into a positive thing.”
Katie Reed, junior, shortstop: Reed earned All-America honors in her first year playing short for the Cats. She also led the team in batting average (.353) and had the fewest errors of any SEC shortstop.
Always a leader with her play on the field, she’s knows she has to step up as an upperclassman in the dugout, as well.
“All we needed were two more wins in the season,” Reed said of what it takes to make the WCWS. “I think I really learned that the little things count, no matter if it’s in the summer or fall training. One extra rep. One extra round of hitting. Anything you have to do, you have to do.”
Abbey Cheek, junior, third base: Cheek led the team in runs (40), home runs (13) and RBI (41) in 2017.
“I think Abbey Cheek has hit a new level,” Lawson said of her preseason work.
As for her defense, Lawson said. “In my opinion (Reed and Cheek) are probably one of the strongest left sides in the entire country.”
Pitching — Who’s No. 2? Lawson has been blessed with an outstanding 1-2 punch over the last several years with the likes of Prince and Kelsey Nunley.
This year’s rotation might lean on Lawson’s first-ever transfer in Autumn Humes, who went 33-3 with a 1.19 ERA for Harding University in Arkansas.
“I think that once she gets some big-game experience at the Division I level, she is going to be a force to reckon with,” Lawson said.
Getting them on and in: While Kentucky has five returners who hit better than .295 last season, it was last in the SEC in on-base percentage and runs scored. Lawson attributes most of that to not scheduling a lot cream-puff opponents early.
“Some of the reasons the offensive stats are low is because I’m chasing a national seed, because we are the University of Kentucky. Our goal is to win championships. The goal is just not for me to go out there and pump up our stats,” Lawson said.
Lawson believes another year of experience for a lineup that lost only one senior and gained some new blood will translate into more runs.
First big road test
Florida: Kentucky goes to Gainesville March 9-11 for a three-game set against the No. 2 Gators. The two-time national champions fell short in the final series against Oklahoma last year.
The Gators have five preseason All-SEC players on a roster picked to win the conference for the fourth year in a row. And Florida only lost five regular-season games last season. One of those was to Kentucky.
Marquee home series
LSU: The No. 8 Tigers come to John Cropp Stadium March 17-19.
Alabama: The No. 10 Tide visit March 30-April 1.
Georgia: The No. 25 Bulldogs visit April 20-22.
What else is new?
The berm: UK’s John Cropp Stadium is adding an outfield berm that will accommodate about 200 fans and will extend from the right field foul pole to left-center and will also have room between the berm and fence for about 100 fans who wish to bring camp chairs.
Kentucky at New Mexico State
When: 6 p.m. Saturday.
Dayton at Kentucky
When: 4 p.m. March 1