The snow is still flying, but spring sports are set to begin for the University of Kentucky.
The UK softball team travels to Tempe, Ariz., where it will compete in the Kajikawa Classic beginning Friday.
The Wildcats baseball team opens its season next week in South Carolina.
Both teams met with the media on Monday.
The softball Cats open the 2016 season against a team whose season they ended in 2015. Kentucky knocked out Notre Dame in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament, earning a spot in the super regionals where it was swept by eventual national champion Florida.
This season, UK is looking for bigger and better things.
“We are now at the point where going to super regionals is a good thing,” head coach Rachel Lawson said. “ But we are at Kentucky, that is what every team is supposed to do here. We are supposed to win championships, and we are trying to figure out a way to do that.”
Lawson begins her ninth season at Kentucky. During that time, she has led the Wildcats to seven straight postseasons. Kentucky has been to super regionals four of the past five years, and in 2014 the Wildcats reached the College World Series.
“2015 was a tough year but a cool year because we really got an opportunity to show how tough we are,” Lawson said. “Once you get to our level you’re trying to go from good to great. The thing I really liked about last year’s squad was even when things didn’t go our way we figured a way to scratch and claw our way into the super regional.”
The Wildcats finished 32-26 overall last season. They went 5-19 in the grueling Southeastern Conference and finished in 12th place but were one of 11 league teams invited to the NCAA tourney.
This season, Lawson returns a veteran squad including six seniors who have never finished lower than super regionals. The Wildcats are ranked No. 18 nationally in the coaches’ preseason poll and were picked by coaches to finish eighth in the SEC.
Lawson welcomes eight newcomers in a freshman class she expects will make an immediate impact
“These freshmen are good. You could see as many as three freshmen starting on opening day,” Lawson said. “We have a newcomer named Katie Reed who can play up the middle and is arguably one of the best people we have ever brought in defensively. Abbey Cheek has the potential to be the best offensive player who has ever came through Kentucky.”
During the offseason, Lawson emphasized offensive production to complement a deep returning pitching staff.
“Kelsey Nunley returns for us, and then we have two juniors, Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith who have had a great offseasons,” Lawson said. “Kelsey is our workhorse. If I gave her the ball for 50 starts she would start 50 times. Meagan had the lowest ERA in fall ball, and Shannon Smith is our most powerful pitcher.”
Nunley, who has won a school-record 71 games, was one of 14 players named last month to the preseason All-SEC team. The Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native went 14-16 with a 2.42 earned-run average in 2015, allowing just 73 earned runs and striking out 194 batters in 211 innings.
Despite the experience Lawson’s team brings back to the diamond, Kentucky will need to have strong left-handed hitting to battle the dominant right-handed pitchers in the SEC. For now, Lawson is excited to see her team’s offseason work pay off.
“I think we have everything in place. We are a lot better at this time of the season than we were last year, and last year we made it to supers so I feel good.”
What: Season-opening event at Arizona State University in Tempe
Friday: Notre Dame, 7 p.m. EST; Oregon State, 11:30 p.m.
Saturday: Oregon, 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: New Mexico, 5:45 p.m.
Monday: Utah, 2:30 p.m.; Arizona State, 5 p.m.