Mark Story

Mark Story: The most second-guessed coaching decision of UK's 2013-14 sports year explained

UK head coach Rachel Lawson was widely criticized for not replacing tiring starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley during a Baylor onslaught that ultimately ended the Cats' World Series run.
UK head coach Rachel Lawson was widely criticized for not replacing tiring starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley during a Baylor onslaught that ultimately ended the Cats' World Series run. Herald-Leader

John Calipari, his team trailing Connecticut by four in the final minute of the 2014 NCAA men's national title game, made the debatable strategic decision not to have the Wildcats foul intentionally.

Yet I did not get one email from a UK fan complaining after Kentucky's loss.

When Kentucky's first trip to the women's softball College World Series ended this spring with Baylor scoring eight runs to erase a 7-0, sixth-inning Kentucky lead, however, my email box blew up. Second-guessing fans roasted UK Coach Rachel Lawson for not removing her starting pitcher, Kelsey Nunley, during the Baylor onslaught.

All summer, I had wondered how Lawson — who in seven impressive seasons of coaching, has taken UK from softball non-entity to rising national power — had handled the hullabaloo.

"You're always aware of (criticism). I think it would be silly if you weren't with social media and things like that," Lawson said Thursday. "The question is, do you listen to it? I think people who have a hard time being head coaches at major programs are ones who let (second guessing) affect them on a personal level."

In one sense, a fan uproar over a softball coaching decision is a testament to the job Lawson has done since Mitch Barnhart hired her away from Western Kentucky seven seasons ago.

If Kentucky hadn't been playing on a stage large enough to command general fan-base attention, and if Cats backers had not felt emotionally invested in the team, they would not have complained.

"When you are being criticized, at least you know people are watching," Lawson said. "Even if they hate me, don't think I'm the right person (for the job) and am making all these mistakes, at least they were watching."

With a summer to think about it, Lawson has a message for fans who thought she needed to insert a relief pitcher after Nunley, who pitched every inning for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament and ran out of gas in the Baylor game.

"I agree with them," Lawson said. "But what people who haven't watched a lot of softball didn't understand, we would have been putting in a pitcher who Number One, was a freshman; Number Two, had never pitched in the postseason; and Number Three, hadn't pitched in three weeks.

"That could have been a really good moment, but it could (also) have been a big risk, not just for Kentucky, but for that kid's career."

Because throwing a softball underhanded is not as stressful on the arm and shoulder as throwing a baseball overhanded, it has long been traditional in college softball for teams to rely heavily on one pitcher. Unlike baseball clubs, softball teams have not needed an array of relief pitchers.

Lawson says that has only recently started to change. The two SEC teams that played each other in the national championship game, Florida and Alabama, each had multiple pitchers ready to work in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, she noted.

"Softball is getting to a place where it has never been in the history of the sport," Lawson said. "Now, with video (scouting) and how big and strong the girls are (on) offense, it's important you have a complete pitching staff."

It would be a shame if the dustup over decision making late in that Baylor game obscured the overall work Lawson has done at Kentucky. An athletics department doesn't finish 11th in the Directors' Cup standings, as UK did for 2013-14, without a lot of coaches doing high-level work.

In terms of taking a program with no history of meaningful success and turning it into a nationally relevant one, no coach on the UK campus has a better story to tell than Lawson.

Before her arrival, Kentucky had never played in an NCAA Tournament. Under Lawson, UK has played in six. Her goal when she came to Lexington, Lawson says, was simply to get better each year.

"I feel like we've done that, but it's harder to be able to win a national championship, certainly, than it is to go from the bottom to the middle," Lawson said. "So what we want to do, it is hard. But the day-to-day drive to win the national championship, that is what keeps our kids going."

Yes, if any critical emailers are wondering, Lawson has a revamped plan for how Kentucky will try to win the College World Series.

"In order for us to win the whole thing," the UK coach said, "we are going to have to make sure we have a complete (pitching) staff that we can take the whole way."