The NCAA Tournament regional softball tournament this weekend at the University of Kentucky could see home run history made. The next ball UK's Nikki Sagermann hits over the fence will enable her to equal the school record of 14 homers in a season.
It will also further validate her transformation from a self-described singles hitter to slugger. The line of demarcation in her softball evolution came at a summer league tournament before her senior year of high school.
Playing at elevation in Boulder, Colo., Sagermann slugged six home runs in what she recalled was a six- or seven-game event. Unbeknownst to UK Coach Rachel Lawson, who happened to be in attendance and trying to identify possible prospects, these were the first six home runs Sagermann had ever hit.
"I thought she did that all the time," Lawson said Wednesday.
Sagermann, now a sophomore infielder from Buford, Ga., still can't explain the power surge.
"Something happened," she said, "and luckily Coach Lawson was there. Ever since that tournament, home runs have kind of been my game. So it's great that happened."
It wasn't just the sight of ball after ball flying through the Rocky Mountain air that impressed Lawson.
"What I really liked was she was hitting them to the opposite field," the UK coach said. "Young hitters don't like to hit to the opposite field. Young hitters like to pull the ball. That she was hitting into the right-center gap really told me she'd have a great RBI (runs batted in) mentality."
Sagermann, who had been considering two colleges in her home state, Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech, eagerly signed with Kentucky. It was a leap of faith considering Kentucky's modest softball history and a new stadium still in the planning stages.
Sagermann decided she wanted to play for Lawson, who has now led the UK program to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances (the only NCAA Tournament appearances in the program's history).
"I wanted to be part of a program where I could make a difference," Sagermann said.
As a freshman last season, Sagermann hit seven home runs and drove in 26 runs. She acknowledges self-doubt in making the move to playing in the Southeastern Conference.
"I wasn't 100-percent sure what I was going to be able to do in the SEC," she said. "I'm not going to lie. I was nervous."
Sagermann set a goal of doubling her home run total this season as a sophomore. One more homer will do it. Going into UK's opening game in the NCAA Tournament against Ohio University Friday evening (7:30 p.m.), she has driven in 46 runs.
During a three-game stretch in mid-April, Sagermann achieved what could be termed an Aaron Harrison-like performance. She hit game-winning home runs against three straight opponents. Of course, Harrison hit game-winning three-point shots in three straight NCAA Tournament games for UK's men's basketball team.
Sagermann attributed her improved power numbers to "just confidence."
Lawson cited a good work ethic in the offseason and the experience of having played a college season.
"The SEC is really a tough conference," the UK coach said. "A lot of young players don't know what they're getting into. She now understands she can't hit every pitch out of the park. That she had to play the game within the game. Learning what the other team was trying to do to her, and she wasn't going to get those fat ones down the middle."