Some things about the Blue will be new as Kentucky opens its softball season Friday.
They include eight new players, all of whom are expected to see significant playing time, and a reconstructed home that will be the site of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
UK opens a three-day, six-game trip to Tempe, Ariz., Friday afternoon at 1:30 ET against California. The Cats will face Western Michigan that night.
Rachel Lawson, in her sixth season as coach of the Cats, has her team on the road for 20 games before the March 6 home opener against Marshall.
Lawson would rather not start with so many road games, but construction at home is not yet finished. With Cal, Arizona State, Stanford, Washington and Oklahoma among the first 20 opponents, UK has its work cut out.
That's great for preparing for a rugged SEC schedule, but also risky.
Last year, the Cats' RPI made them an easy pick for post-season play. But had they not won the last weekend of the regular season — on Chanda Bell's no-hitter against LSU — they would have finished below .500 and, thus, ineligible for the post-season.
Lawson sees a strong start to this campaign as "really important," for a couple of reasons. "No. 1, we have one team goal, and that's to win softball games," Lawson said. "No. 2, we've got to make sure we have a .500 record at the end of the year. But, most importantly, we've got to get prepared for the SEC. We're hosting the SEC Tournament, and we'd like to be a high seed in that tournament."
UK finished 30-30 last season, including a 1-2 mark in NCAA regional play.
The UK Softball Complex includes a new and expanded seating area, new dugouts and press box, an indoor hitting facility near the left-field foul pole, new video boards and scoreboards and a blue outfield fence that has been pushed out by about 10 feet.
"There's certainly unbelievable stadiums in the SEC, but nobody is going to have a better setup when you take the stadium and the new indoor facility into consideration," Lawson said. "It's going to allow us to prepare and it's also going to provide them an opportunity to be more efficient with their time so we continue to have a high GPA and all those things."
Infielder Kara Dill, one of only two seniors (with Alice O'Brien) on the team, had a surreal impression while practicing at the facility.
"And it's not even done yet. We just stood there and were all smiling at it," Dill said. "It was unbelievable. ... It was the coolest thing."
Dill also thinks it's cool that the Cats have more depth on defense. Offense, too.
"Last year, it was easy to pick us apart. We were varied individuals. We were hitters and baserunners, but we weren't collectively an offense," Dill said. "This year, I think we have that. We have a lot of the puzzle-pieces fitting together, and it's going to be a lot harder for opponents to defend that."
With Dill and O'Brien, returners who started at least 45 games last season, are catcher Griffin Joiner, pitcher/first baseman Lauren Cumbess, outfielder Ginny Carroll and Emily Jolly, who has moved from infield to outfield.
The highly touted freshmen are right-handed pitchers Katie Henderson and Kelsey Nunley, outfielders Sylver Samuel and Darington Richardson, infielders Nikki Sagermann, Ansley Smith and Christian Stokes, and infielder/outfielder Maisie Steed.
"Quite a few of them will start," Lawson said. "And the ones who don't start, I expect will get significant playing time right off the bat. And we also have a good core returning."
The recruiting emphasis was on athleticism; in particular, speed and power. Samuel, for example, "is by far the fastest person I have ever coached," Lawson said.
Cumbess, who will pick up much of the void left by pitchers Bell and Rachel Riley, says Nunley and Henderson have already honed their skills since arriving on campus. Bell and Ellen Weaver both have worked with the pitchers, "and I, too, have been giving them our two cents when we get the chance," Cumbess said. "I think four strong pitchers on the staff is a great thing to have, and not every staff in the country has that."
How good the newcomers and recruits as a whole can perform will begin to unfold Friday against Cal.
"I'm so excited," Cumbess said. "I've been waiting for this year for a really long time. You can't prepare for the SEC unless you play tough teams like that. It's great. I can't wait."
Kajikawa Classic at Tempe, Ariz.
1:30 p.m. — Kentucky vs. California
7:30 p.m. — Kentucky vs. Western Michigan
(Home games in capital letters; all times p.m. and Eastern unless noted)
8—a-California, 1:30; a-Western Michigan, 7:30; 9—a-Oregon State, 4; a-Arizona State, 6:30; 10—a-Portland State, 10:30 a.m.; a-Stanford, 1:30; 14—b-Cal Poly, 6:30; b-San Diego State, 9; 15—b-Washington, 2:15; 16—b-UC Riverside, Noon; b-Oklahoma, 4:30; 22—c-Presbyterian, 2; 23—c-Georgetown, Noon; c-USC Upstate, 2; 24—c-Howard, 10 a.m.
1—d-Illinois, 11:30 a.m.; d-South Florida, 2; 2—d-Loyola Marymount, 12:15; d-Central Michigan, 2:45; 3—d-Western Michigan, 9 a.m.; 6—MARSHALL, 5; 8-10—MISSISSIPPI, 5, 1, 1; 12—NORTH CAROLINA, 5; 13—SOUTHERN ILLINOIS, 3; 15-17—at LSU, 7, 7, 2; 19—WESTERN KENTUCKY, 6; 20—IOWA, 4; 22-24—MISSISSIPPI STATE, 6, 1, 1; 26—at Western Kentucky, 8; 27—at Lipscomb, 7.
3—at Louisville, 6; 5-7—at South Carolina, 7, 4, 1; 10—at Eastern Kentucky (doubleheader), time TBA; 12-14—FLORIDA, 6, 1, noon; 17—at Middle Tennessee State, 6; 19-21—at Arkansas, 7, 7, 2; 24—LOUISVILLE, 6; 26-28—MISSOURI, 6, 1, 1.
3-5—at Alabama, times TBA; 8-11—SEC TOURNAMENT in Lexington, times TBA.
a-Kajikawa Classic at Tempe, Ariz.; b-Campbell/Cartier Classic at San Diego, Calif.; c-Coke Zero Spartan Classic at Spartanburg, S.C.; d-Under Armour Invitational at Tampa, Fla.
No. Name Pos. Yr. Hometown
30 Ginny Carroll OF Jr. Hendersonville, Tenn.
19 Lauren Cumbess P/IF Jr. Normal, Ill.
15 Kara Dill IF Sr. LaGrange, Ohio
44 Sarah Frazer IF So. Louisville, Ky.
27 Emily Gaines OF Jr. London, Ky.
8 Katie Henderson P Fr. Hixson, Tenn.
24 Kara Howard OF So. Riverside, Calif.
13 Griffin Joiner C So. Hopkinsville, Ky.
21 Emily Jolly OF/IF Jr. Owensboro, Ky.
16 Aubrey Lamar IF JR North Augusta, S.C.
33 Kelsey Nunley P Fr. Soddy Daisy, Tenn.
9 Alice O'Brien OF Sr. Murfreesboro, Tenn.
43 Darington Richardson OF Fr. Duluth, Ga.
77 Nikki Sagermann IF Fr. Buford, Ga.
2 Sylver Samuel OF Fr. Simpsonville, S.C.
42 Ansley Smith IF Fr. Newman, Ga.
11 Krystal Smith IF Jr. Bristow, Va.
7 Maisie Steed IF/OF Fr. Powder Springs, Ga.
10 Christian Stokes IF Fr. Chesterfield, S.C.
26 Weaver, Ellen P/OF Jr. Salem, Va.
Head coach: Rachel Lawson; associate head coach: Kristine Himes; assistant coach: Molly Johnson; student assistant coach: Chanda Bell; volunteer assistant coach: Brittany Cervantes; manager: Ashleigh Gustafson.