The University of Kentucky softball team hopes to reap the benefits of its brutal 2015 schedule, even if the Wildcats were unable to compile the record they'd hoped.
One year after playing in its first Women's College World Series, Kentucky enters the Southeastern Conference Softball Tournament, which begins Wednesday at Baton Rouge, La., as the event's lowest seed.
This from a squad that opened the season ranked No. 6 in the nation and was projected to contend for the SEC title.
A failed season?
Despite its 29-23 overall record and 12th-place finish in the 13-team SEC, the Wildcats are still a good bet to hear their name called during next week's NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
The always-imposing SEC schedule, combined with Kentucky's challenging non-conference schedule left the Wildcats playing the second-strongest slate in the nation.
That's good news now that it's time to tally up what the regular season meant.
UK is ranked No. 25 in the USA Today coaches' poll. The Cats are No. 21 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll. And, most importantly, they stand No. 23 in this week's NCAA Softball RPI, in front of three teams (South Carolina, Mississippi State and Mississippi) they trailed in the SEC standings.
The Wildcats played 52 regular-season games in 2015, including 25 against top-25 RPI teams and 34 against top-50 RPI teams. Kentucky has played 26 straight games against top-50 RPI teams and has not played a team outside the top 50 since March 18. UK has only one loss this season against a team ranked outside the top 50.
As many as 11 SEC teams are projected to be selected for NCAA Tournament play.
All that said, it would not hurt Kentucky to get some work done this week.
No. 12 seed UK plays No. 5 Tennessee on Wednesday night, the last of four opening-round games in the single-elimination tournament.
The Cats and Vols will be familiar foes, having just completed a three-game series Sunday in Knoxville that Tennessee swept by scores of 7-1, 6-5 and 4-1.
Kentucky is 4-10 all-time in the SEC Tournament, making its seventh consecutive appearance and ninth all-time.
Kentucky has been led this season by junior infielder Christian Stokes, who is hitting .320 with 32 runs scored, nine doubles, one triple, seven homers and 24 RBI. Senior catcher Griffin Joiner, whose last three hits have been home runs, is hitting .302 with 11 homers and a team-best 39 RBI. Junior infielder Nikki Sagermann is hitting .299 with six homers and 20 RBI. Junior utility player Maisie Steed is hitting .277 with seven homers and 27 RBI. Junior outfielder Sylver Samuel has a .289 average and team-best 20 stolen bases.
Junior pitcher Kelsey Nunley is 12-14 in the circle with a 2.40 ERA in 1751⁄3 innings pitched with 160 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting just .229 against Nunley with only 13 home runs this season. Sophomore Meagan Prince has pitched 1011⁄3 innings with a 12-8 record and 3.53 ERA.
Joiner earns All-SEC defensive honor
Kentucky senior catcher Griffin Joiner was named Tuesday to the SEC's All-Defensive Team by the league's coaches for the third season in a row.
Joiner, who has started all 243 games of her collegiate career — including 239 behind the plate — is the first catcher in league history to be named SEC All-Defensive catcher three straight seasons.
Joiner leads UK with a 1.000 fielding percentage, which takes her career fielding percentage to a school-record tying .992. The senior has locked down some of the fastest teams in the nation, limiting opponents to just five stolen bases this season with eight runners caught stealing.
The school's all-time leader in putouts has 341 this season and 1,516 for her career. During her four years in Lexington, Joiner has caught more than 26,000 pitches with only 11 passed balls.