Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson offered a glimpse of how deeply she cares about her players during the team’s preseason news conference this week.
When she was asked whether this season might be a rebuilding year for the Cats, ranked No. 20 in two preseason polls but returning just three seniors, her eyes welled up as she looked over at pitcher Shannon Smith in the back of the room.
“It’s important to me that Shannon Smith has a big senior year,” she said as her voice began to crack. “So, I have to make sure that I’m retooling every time that I have a senior class.”
Lawson fought back tears, mad at herself for letting them rise. “I’m really not that soft,” she said, smiling. “Everybody is important to me, and everybody’s career is important to me. If you just try to figure out how to rebuild, all you’re doing is you’re saying all of the people on my team can’t get it done. …
“So, when I coach, I not only think about winning now, I think about winning in 10 days. I think about winning at the end of the season. I think about how I’m going to win next year. And I’m thinking about how I’m going to be able to develop my current freshman class so that they can be standing in Oklahoma City.”
Moments earlier, Lawson recalled her first meeting with Smith, at a softball camp when Lawson was at Massachusetts and Smith was 8 years old.
“She just knew what she wanted to do at that age, and you could tell she was very, very good.” Lawson said. “About a year later — she was already pitching full-go off of the mound in her little league — and she was the cutest little kid. She didn’t like me very much. She had a different pitching coach, but she was like, ‘When I want to get a strikeout I just put my visor really low and I put the ball right here, and I throw the ball as fast as I can.’
“And I never forgot that, because she has really grown into a great power pitcher.”
Smith, an occasional starter for the Cats during her career, should see her role increase this season with the departure of Kelsey Nunley, the All-American who helped lead the team to four straight NCAA appearances, including three super regionals and a College World Series berth in 2014.
“Obviously, Kelsey Nunley not being here is different,” Smith said. “We have very much of a staff mentality. … Everyone has different strengths, and we all know that. And Coach Lawson has a gift of being able to read other hitters, and so she does a good job of pairing us with our strengths against their weaknesses.”
Fellow senior Meagan Prince will anchor the staff. Prince emerged last year as a dominating starter, going 21-6 with a 1.85 earned run average and three no-hitters. She said she’s always prepared to do whatever Lawson needs to get batters out.
“If she feels I’m being effective all seven innings, then I’ll probably stay in all seven innings,” Prince said. “If I’m getting hit and someone else is better suited then I’ll probably come out in the fifth or the third or whenever I need to come out. And I trust her decision on that.”
Lawson’s retooling effort also includes an offense that returns four of the Cats’ top six hitters and a lot of speed.
Freshmen Bailey Vick and Brynlee Bigelow are expected to help burn up the base paths along with sophomore Katie Reed and junior Erin Rethlake.
“We’ve always had fast people on our team — but we have never had this many fast people on the same team at the same time,” Lawson said.
Some combination of those players will help set the table for sophomore Abbey Cheek, who was an All-SEC freshman team selection, hitting .326 last year with 10 home runs and a team-high 52 RBI. Junior outfielder Brooklin Hinz offers some pop as well, hitting .310 last year with seven homers and 35 RBI.
“The goal, always, is to be standing in Oklahoma City,” said Lawson who is entering her 10th season at UK. “I believe if we can do what we need to do throughout and we are intelligent, mindful and we are plugging away — I believe that we are going to have the staff that is going to be able to stand there at the end of the season.”
Season opener: Kentucky vs. Florida A&M
When: 10 a.m. Friday
Where: Orlando, Fla.
Home opener: Dayton at Kentucky
When: 6 p.m. March 9
2017 Kentucky roster
St. Louis, Mo.
St. Louis, Mo.
Aliso Viejo, Calif.