College softball's World Series crowned Florida as national champion for the second year in a row this week.
It was a World Series whose eight teams included five from the Southeastern Conference.
That said everything about the University of Kentucky's 2015 softball season, which is best described in one word: Tough.
"We did have one of the toughest schedules in the country," Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson said. "Just going up against so many quality SEC teams week in and week out, it's like you're playing a regional tournament each time you step out on the field."
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After UK finished the 2014 season with its first Women's College World Series appearance, the expectations were high leading into 2015. Those expectations went unfulfilled as the second-toughest schedule in the nation behind only Florida broke down a tired UK team.
The Cats finished 32-26 and 5-19 in the SEC.
"We didn't have any opportunity to gain any momentum," Lawson explained in a season wrap-up interview. "It was week in and week out you had to have a postseason mentality. You're always playing, the scores were really close, we had a lot of midweek games rained out or snowed out. The hardest thing is that we weren't able to get any momentum till the end of the year. When a team gains momentum, teams go on a roll, players gain more confidence and things start to go your way."
UK suffered seven straight losses to finish the regular season but regained its footing during the Notre Dame Regional, winning three straight to advance to the super-regional round. It was there that UK ran into a familiar foe, No. 1 Florida. The Gators swept UK in a three-game series during the regular season and continued their dominance in the best-of-three super regional. UK's hopes of a second consecutive WCWS were dashed as Florida eliminated the Cats in two games in Gainesville, Fla.
A lack of run support crippled UK's season, Lawson said.
"We graduated some outstanding hitters (last offseason)," she said. "We graduated Lauren Cumbess and Emily Gaines, both were outstanding. What happened was that we unfortunately didn't find anyone to be their successors in the middle of the lineup."
UK's top contributor was senior catcher Griffin Joiner. She finished with 11 home runs and 43 RBI.
"Joiner, being as talented as she was, was such a good team leader and outstanding catcher," Lawson said. "Now being able to replace her is going to be a hard task because she had so many intangibles."
However, UK enters this offseason with optimism.
It loses just two players to graduation — Joiner and Kara Howard — and returns one of the best pitching duos in the nation in Kelsey Nunley and Meagan Prince.
"I think we're going to have one of the best pitching staffs in the country," Lawson said. "And certainly, we were a good staff this year. There were a lot of games where we didn't get a lot of run support that we would have liked so that put the pitchers in a tough situation. So, I feel good where the pitching staff is at. Hopefully that will continue next season."
Lawson touted a pair of incoming freshmen — infielder Abbey Cheek and catcher Jenny Schaper — who could immediately bolster an offense that ranked 257th in the country in batting average.
"Cheek is coming in as a freshman and I know she's, in terms of power and speed and all of the physical attributes that you look at, she's arguably one of the strongest athletes we have ever brought in."
Next season is going to be interesting, Lawson added. "We're going to have a good mix of a pretty large senior class and we have some outstanding sophomores and freshmen that are really going to turn some heads next year."
UK will return 15 players from this past season, seven of which are seniors, and add five freshmen.
"I believe we're going to be in the hunt for things again next year," Lawson said. "Our schedule is going to be a bit more balanced, which I also think is going to be a good thing. I would expect that we're going to be able to produce a championship season."