Being strong up the middle should translate into a strong season all-around.
That's how Coach Rachel Lawson sees things for her Kentucky softball team, which is coming off its first trip to the College World Series.
"We're expecting another good year for the Wildcats," Lawson, entering her eighth year as coach, said Monday in the Commonwealth Stadium Wildcat Den. "Each year that this staff has been in Lexington, the team that we have has surpassed other goals that we had not hit on the previous years. So we're excited for another good season."
UK, 50-19 last season, opens play Thursday at Florida A&M. The Cats will remain in Tallahassee, Fla., through the weekend, playing two games each against No. 5 Florida State and Georgia Southern.
The Cats are sixth in the nation in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association rankings, the highest pre-season ranking in program history, and No. 7 in the ESPN.com/USA poll. UK has been to the NCAA Super Regionals three of the last four years.
"In the past, we've always been a good team, but we've always kind of been underneath the radar," Lawson said. "Now we're a target. People are going to be coming after us, and we're going to have to bring our 'A' game every game. That's something new, and that's a challenge that I think that this team is looking forward to."
Shortstop Christian Stokes says the Cats have the right mindset.
"I think that the mindset is determined," she said. "Obviously we accomplished our goal of last year of going to the World Series. But it's always a goal to get to the World Series. I think that's another goal for us this year, and maybe make it even further than we did last year."
Motivation has never been a problem, Lawson said. And this team is focused.
"The thing that was different in the off-season is that what our team worked on was a little bit more focused," Lawson said. "I think when you have a number of players who get the experience of being in the World Series, all they want to do is return.
"So I think when you're doing those 6 a.m. workouts in the summer, and they're all voluntary so they don't have to be there, when you're doing those extra cuts in the batting cages your focus tends to be a little more centered and I think it's been a lot more productive. Right now I would say we're a lot further along at this point in the season than we have been in past years, mostly because of the experience and the focus that our players had in the off-season."
The strength up the middle starts with the battery of pitcher Kelsey Nunley and catcher Griffin Joiner.
"We definitely lost a lot (to graduation). But we're all just individually trying to get better and improve so that we can pick up from what we've lost," Joiner said. "And we've also added a good freshman class."
Also returning up the middle are Stokes and second baseman Ansley Smith, along with center fielder Sylver Samuel.
The freshman class is led by outfielder Brookin Hinz and pitcher/outfielder Erin Rethlake.
"I think the two challenges are making sure that we have a big bullpen — making sure that we have more arms," Lawson said. "Then, in addition to that, having the offense that can support the pitching staff while the season is going on. In order to get pitchers experience, you need to have an offense that scores a lot of runs.
"If you don't score a lot of runs, you have to use Kelsey more than you would like to. Because at the end of the day you have to not only have a high RPI, you have to have above a .500 record. And the SEC is by far the best softball conference in the country if you take into consideration how strong the teams are from top to bottom."