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Talent, experience and one of nation’s best players has Kentucky thinking softball world series

Kentucky softball aims for OKC

Kentucky softball’s Katie Reed and Jenny Schaper have high expectations for the Cats this season.
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Kentucky softball’s Katie Reed and Jenny Schaper have high expectations for the Cats this season.

For this group of Kentucky softball seniors, it’s time — time for the Cats to stop knocking on the door of the Women’s College World Series and kick it through all the way to Oklahoma City in June.

“It’s hard to believe we’re already seniors, but we’ve had a great three years here.” said shortstop and human highlight reel Katie Reed at the team’s media day Tuesday. “Freshman year, three games from the world series. Sophomore, two. Last year, one. We kind of talk about that this year we want to break through that barrier.”

Ranked in the two major preseason polls at No. 15/13, this year’s team looks to have the right combination of experience, pitching, fielding, hitting and hunger to do it.

“We have eight returners that were in the starting lineup last year and we made it to Supers,” senior third baseman Abbey Cheek said. “We were one game away.”

The campaign starts with a doubleheader Friday as part of a tournament in Houston this weekend. And the Cats will be tested severely early, facing teams that made last year’s postseason in 15 of their first 16 games, including No. 22/21 Oklahoma State on Sunday morning.

Reed and Cheek lock down the left side of the infield. Behind the plate, Jenny Schaper completes a triumvirate that together have started nearly every game of their three-year careers. And all hit better than .320 last season as part of an offense that ranked 32nd in the nation.

“We came into this program together, and I feel like we could not be more on the same page,” Schaper said. “We know what’s going through each others’ heads. We can do it with our nonverbal communication. Obviously they are both phenomenal players, I could not have asked for two better people to take this journey with.”

Reed’s dazzling play at short and career .340 average have made her among 50 players nominated to the USA Softball National Player of the Year Watchlist. She’s been an athletic and academic all-American and her picks at short have twice been featured on ESPN SportsCenter’s top plays. The recognition is nice, but that isn’t her focus.

“I’m not a huge fan of preseason accolades, because I think it just adds a little bit of pressure, but I always just try to take care of business in the offseason,” Reed said. “Get stronger. Get faster. Continue to get better offensively and defensively and really just try to get out there every day and work hard for my team and whatever happens, happens.”

Cheek has led the team in home runs and RBI in each of the last two seasons and is just seven dingers shy of UK’s all-time home-run record.

On the other side of the infield, UK returns junior Alex Martens (career .303 hitter) and sophomore Mallory Peyton who will split time with junior pitcher Autumn Humes at first base. Peyton tied for the team lead in stolen bases (17) with junior outfielder Bailey Vick, who hit a team-leading .357 last year.

On the stripe, Humes, a Division II transfer, and sophomore Grace Baalman each have a season of SEC experience under their belts and each proved they could rack up wins (nine/14, respectively) and strikeouts (72/98).

Kentucky’s Southeastern Conference schedule begins in March. While the Cats received one first-place vote from SEC coaches, they were picked to finish seventh in the league behind No. 5 Florida, No. 7/6 Georgia, No. 8 Tennessee, No. 9 South Carolina, No. 12/14 Arkansas and No. 10/11 LSU.

Yes, the SEC is brutal.

“The SEC is one of the best of the best in softball,” Cheek said. “It’s like a Super Regional every weekend.”

Kentucky’s non-conference schedule also includes a first-of-its-kind made-for-TV tournament next weekend where Kentucky will face teams including No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 16 Texas and No. 25 Oregon in a span of three days. All of those games will be broadcast on the ESPN family of networks. ESPN helped organize the event.

“To be the best, we have to play the best and we have to win,” said UK Coach Rachel Lawson, who has led UK to nine straight NCAA Regionals, six Super Regionals and the 2014 Women’s College World Series. “That’s the message that the alumni and the fan base put down, and I think that is what (this team has) embraced. This is a great group of Wildcats.”

Friday

Houston Invitational

Kentucky vs. Illinois, 2 p.m.

Kentucky vs. Houston, 4:30 p.m.

Home opener

Mississippi State at Kentucky

When: 6 p.m. March 15

Jared Peck, the Herald-Leader’s Digital Sports Writer, covers high school athletics and has been with the company as a writer and editor for more than 19 years.
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