Though this weekend’s NCAA Tournament regional may be the final time Kentucky’s seniors play at John Cropp Stadium, a couple of freshmen will play an important role in whether the Wildcats advance.
Rookies Abbey Cheek and Katie Reed have been as good, if not better, than advertised when the out-of-state stars signed, providing offensive punch for a Kentucky team that is 43-12 overall and the No. 9 national seed when it opens postseason play Friday at 1:30 p.m. against visiting Butler.
“I have a hard time believing there are many freshmen that are better than them in the country,” UK Coach Rachel Lawson said Tuesday.
Cheek, a third baseman from Inman, S.C., is hitting .327, second on the team behind Sylver Samuels’ .348. Cheek leads the team in homers (nine), RBI (49) and slugging percentage.
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Reed, a second baseman from St. Louis, is hitting .316 with three homers, 19 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Reed began her college career with at least one hit in each of her first 18 games, a school record.
“I realized I can do this; this is top-level, but I can do it,” Reed said Tuesday of her hot start.
“First, they’re winners,” Lawson said. “Their work ethic is unbelievable. There’s not a day that goes by when you don’t see one of their cars in the parking lot, (they’re) hitting extra in the cages, doing whatever they need to do.”
First, they’re winners. Their work ethic is unbelievable. There’s not a day that goes by when you don’t see one of their cars in the parking lot, (they’re) hitting extra in the cages, doing whatever they need to do.
Rachel Lawson on Katie Reed and Abbey Cheek
Cheek was rated as South Carolina’s top prospect after hitting .591 with 12 homers and 32 RBI as a senior at Chapman High School. Lawson’s attention caused Cheek to leave her home state and play at UK.
“They were always about me and were always at my games,” Cheek said Tuesday. “I really felt like they really wanted me and on my visit here it felt like home. It’s a big family.”
Reed switched commitments late in the process, changing from Louisville, where she had committed as a junior, to Kentucky, where she joined another freshman from St. Louis, catcher Jenny Schaper.
“Since Coach Lawson has been here, how much this program has grown and just seeing the team play, like in the World Series (in 2014), all that kind of attracted me to come here,” Reed said.
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These Cats would like to get back to Oklahoma City. That road starts Friday when the Cats begins double-elimination play against Butler (28-22) after Illinois (35-21) meets Utah (31-19) at 11 a.m.
“I think Butler is incredibly well-coached,” Lawson said Tuesday. “Right now, they are playing exceptionally well. They’ve had two unbelievable come-from-behind wins that have propelled them into the postseason. They’re really playing hot right now.”
Kentucky hopes to cool down the Bulldogs. Though the No. 9 seed is the highest in school history, this is the Cats’ eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. They’ve advanced to the super-regional round four of the last five seasons.
“It’s going to be a blast,” Reed said. “I’m looking forward to it. The postseason is like a different time. It’s a fresh start.”
The key could be a pair of freshmen whose college careers are off to a fast start.
Game 1: Illinois vs. Utah, 11 a.m.
Game 2: Kentucky vs. Butler, 1:30 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 3:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 7: If necessary, 3:30 p.m.
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: UK’s John Cropp Stadium
Schedule: Page 3C