When Meagan Prince made an unofficial visit to Kentucky a few years ago as a standout pitching recruit from Martin, Tenn., it didn’t matter that UK softball’s facility was under construction after the old one had been torn down to make way for what would be John Cropp Stadium.
Something about being there felt right. She got out of her car, looked at her parents and “I felt I’d finally achieved my dream,” Prince said. No visit to any other campus gave her that feeling. She would get to play college softball — SEC college softball.
Since then, the junior has undergone her own rebuilding project — her pitching mechanics have been torn down three times over two years — to transform the raw talent that got her recruited into one of the most dominant pitchers in the SEC. Her success is a big reason why No. 14 Kentucky has already exceeded its win total of last year with a little less than a quarter of the season left.
The Cats host No. 18 Missouri this weekend, with Prince likely to start Saturday in the three-game series.
“I can’t say enough about Meagan,” UK Coach Rachel Lawson said after Prince came on in relief Wednesday against Eastern Kentucky to earn her 16th win of the season, tied for most in the conference. “She’s just done such a good job. We’re very confident if she’s on the mound. Every one of her innings this year — and I don’t want to jinx her — has been great. She does such a good job of putting us in a position to win softball games. And she’s a lot of fun to play behind.”
I can’t say enough about Meagan. She’s just done such a good job. We’re very confident if she’s on the mound. ... She does such a good job of putting us in a position to win softball games. And she’s a lot of fun to play behind.
Rachel Lawson, UK head coach
Prince (16-2), who calls herself a groundball pitcher, has already surpassed her wins (13) and innings (104) totals from last year and has three no-hitters. Last Sunday, a week after getting knocked around a bit by No. 3 Auburn, she pitched a five-hit shutout at then-No. 9 LSU.
Together with senior ace Kelsey Nunley last weekend, the Cats swept LSU in Baton Rouge for the first time in program history, pitching three consecutive complete-game shutouts.
Nunley (15-4) has been UK’s best pitcher since she put on a Kentucky uniform her freshman year in 2013, and she had the best season of any UK pitcher ever as a sophomore. Now, with Prince keeping pace inning-for-inning and win-for-win, the Cats have their sights on making another run to the College World Series.
But it hasn’t come easily.
A pitching evolution
“She’s really kind of gone through three transformations, and it’s probably never happened in my career this way, but the great thing about her is that she’s so coachable,” Lawson said of Prince. “She’s so open-minded. It took about a year and a half to get completely comfortable. I really started seeing her get comfortable at the end of last year.”
There were the strange apparatuses Prince had to step into to get her feet right. And there were the video sessions to break down every aspect of her motion and to learn from the delivery of Nunley and other UK pitchers. The tweaks came with trials, as the Kentucky staff noticed that while she had improved, SEC batters were still able to get too good of a read on her. So they would go back to the drawing board again.
“Once I got better at all those things, I was able to really start honing in on my pitches,” she said. “Working on hitting spots, working on making pitches break more and being able to have more command.”
There were also the weight-room sessions and the running and the bullpen work to refine her muscle memory and build her stamina so that she wouldn’t need to be taken out for getting tired in the fifth inning every game as she did many times in 2015.
“She worked really hard in the summer,” Lawson said. “And, now you’re really seeing the fruit of all of her labor.”
Prince was 13-8 last year, pitching less than half of Nunley’s total innings (104 to 211) and had 13 fewer starts. And Nunley struggled under the load, going 14-16 with a 2.42 ERA in 2015. The team struggled as well, going 32-26 last year and just 5-19 in the SEC. But the Cats had enough quality wins to make the postseason and enough grit to advance to the NCAA Super Regional before falling to eventual College World Series champion Florida.
This year, the Cats have blown away those numbers, going 35-8 and 11-4 in the SEC. Prince now has almost as many innings as Nunley and five more starts while compiling an earned run average of 1.55, 12th best in the SEC. Nunley, obviously benefiting from Prince’s improvement, has recovered her form from two seasons ago, posting an ERA of 0.97, fifth best in the SEC.
“This year, I’ve had the endurance to last a full seven innings,” Prince said. “I still throw hard from the get-go to the very end. And just because I’m able to have better command and mix up my pitches more, I’m able to keep the batters off balance for a longer period of time.”
The increased confidence on the mound has bolstered confidence in the field and at the plate for the rest of the team, Lawson said.
“I think what’s rolling for us is, number one, when you have a pitching staff like this, the hitters are able to relax,” she said. “The other thing we’re doing really well is the great defense behind them now. I think the team finds a lot of confidence in their defense and a lot of confidence in their pitchers, so they’re able to go into the box and they don’t press late in games.
“Last year, we used to press late in games and lost a lot of one-run, two-run ball games. Now, we’re ending up on the winning end of all those.”
UK’s stadium, regarded by many to be one of the best softball facilities in the country, makes the Cats a prime candidate to host postseason games any year they get in the tournament.
Learning to relax
When No. 3 Auburn came to town two weeks ago, Lawson said the coaching staff probably put too much pressure on the team to make a statement in that series. Auburn’s high-powered offense opened the series with a 9-0 win, with eight runs charged to Prince in just 2 1/3 innings.
Though the Cats and their aces got swept, they were able to take something from it.
Prince and Nunley “told each other after the Friday night game that ‘hey, Saturday and Sunday, we have nothing to lose,’” Prince said. “We’ve got to just get out there, trust ourselves, throw our pitches. We know our defense has our backs.”
The Cats’ aces kept UK in the close losses that weekend and the Kentucky coaches adjusted their mindset moving forward.
“Last week, we took a little bit different approach as a coaching staff,” Lawson said. “(We) just got more into the classroom-type teaching. Still demanding, but kind of changed our thought process about it, and I think it’s helped them relax.”
How relaxed? Kentucky scored all of its runs in the sweep of LSU with two outs.
For Prince, an agricultural biotech major who hopes to one day be a large animal veterinarian, the achievement of her dream of playing college softball was just the beginning. The hard work and success are now part of the journey.
“I didn’t come in thinking I would automatically get to start,” she said. “I came in with the understanding that it was going to take a while. … There’s no doubt you have to earn it. And it can be done by anybody. You can have a freshman come in and earn a spot over a senior. Coach is going to put the best nine on the field that she thinks is going to be able to compete for her that day and is going to be able to win the ball game.”
No. 18 Missouri at No. 14 Kentucky
When: 6 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday, Noon Sunday
TV: Sunday’s game is on ESPNU