Kentucky softball aims for OKC
Kentucky softball might not be able to steamroll its way through this weekend’s NCAA Regional at John Cropp Stadium like it did last year, but it seems to have an even more explosive offensive team thanks in large part to the maturation of Southeastern Conference player of the year Abbey Cheek.
Cheek, a senior third baseman out of Inman, S.C., who was already on pace to become one of UK’s all-time greats, propelled herself into the stratosphere this season with numbers that have her in consideration for national player of the year.
And she’s done it by trusting her teammates more rather than putting the pressure all on herself.
“I’ve really just been focusing on pitch selection and staying in the zone and not trying to swing out of the zone, because I know that people in front of me and behind me can do it as well,” Cheek said ahead of Friday’s NCAA Regional game against Toledo. “I don’t just have to do it by myself. It’s really cool to have the people behind me to get it done too.”
But Cheek is getting things done, too. She is now UK’s all-time career leader in home runs (61), RBI (200), runs scored (170), slugging (.695) and total bases (447). And she ranks in the top 10 all-time in batting average (.347), hits (223) and walks (115).
Her .448 batting average this season is eighth in the nation and her ridiculous .629 on-base percentage ranks second. She has 20 home runs (tied for ninth) and 63 walks (tied for 1st).
Of all her stats, the walks are probably the most telling of how Cheek has changed her game. Before this season, she never had more than 19 walks in a year. She had a total of 52 walks her first three seasons.
“She’s always wanted to carry the team. She’s always wanted to come up with the big hit. We could have been down by five and she would be trying to hit it over the berm to get a five-run home run,” UK Coach Rachel Lawson said. “And when you try that hard, what happens is you end up swinging out of the zone. She’s learned how to master herself. She’s picking up the ball early and just trying to lock in and hit the ball hard as opposed to hit it far. And because of that, her vision is so much better. Her plate discipline is so much better. She’s taken her game to a whole ’nother level.”
It helps that UK has six batters hitting more than .300 around her. Fellow seniors and all-SEC honorees Jenny Schaper and Katie Reed set the table in front of her and junior Alex Martens protects her from the fourth spot in the order. Martens leads the team with 58 RBI.
“Being able to have batters one through nine being able to produce is something that every team wants and to be able to have that this year has been really special,” Reed said. “If you look at our RBIs, everyone is way higher than last year.”
Kentucky has 325 RBI in 55 games this season as compared to 2018’s 276 in 56 games. It’s quite a turnaround for Lawson, who’s early Kentucky teams were more known for their pitching prowess.
“For the first nine years of my part of the program we were a team who was one of the top teams in the country in pitching and we’d always have a great defense and then you’d have to figure out how to score a run or two. Every game was 3-2 and it was nerve-wracking in that way,” Lawson said.
These days, Kentucky can score with anyone at 6.45 runs per game, but …
“Now, we have a situation where our ERA is a little bit higher (4.06) and … you don’t feel like the other team’s ever out of it,” Lawson added.
Kentucky’s first opponent Friday in this weekend’s double-elimination round is Toledo, coming in on a five-game win streak and averaging 4.5 runs per game in the Mid-American Conference. Virginia Tech, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season champ, and Illinois, a regular visitor to Lexington in the postseason, round out the group.
“I think it’s one of the tougher regions in the country,” Lawson said.
Kentucky faced one of the toughest schedules in the nation to get here and got to host a regional despite having the least impressive win-loss record among national seeds in the tournament at 33-22. Going 14-10 and finishing in a three-way tie for second in the SEC helped.
Kentucky hosts a Regional for the fourth-straight season and is looking to make its third straight Super Regional appearance. Last season, Kentucky finished one win away from going to its second-ever Women’s College World Series.
“Every game counts. It’s a new season,” Reed said. “Everybody’s 0-0. Every team’s going to come out ready to play. We’re just going to try to cherish every moment. It’s always great to practice on our field. … We’ll definitely have the advantage this weekend, but we’ve still go to come out and play well.”
NCAA Softball Lexington Regional
Where: John Cropp Stadium
Game 1: Illinois vs. Virginia Tech, noon
Game 2: Toledo vs. No. 14 Kentucky, 2:30 p.m.