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Kentucky’s detailed-oriented coaching staff has their practices scheduled down to the minute. The Wildcats have calculated every swing, drill and pitch with meaning and intention behind them.
But the coaches had to rip up the plans and start from scratch this fall to create a new Covid-19 script to follow.
“We have been working so hard the last three years making sure we get our structure and segment and time periods straight and that all went out the window,” Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson said. “It was really just about trying to get everyone acclimated, especially since we have a very young team this year.”
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Kentucky has 21 players on the roster this season, including six true freshmen. The Wildcats were 20-4, including 2-1 in SEC play, when the 2020 season was cut short.
Many of the seniors from last season’s team didn’t return because they had graduate school or job opportunities already lined up.
The Wildcats will be fielding nearly an entirely new infield and many new faces in the outfield.
It would have been an ideal time to have the freshmen learning from the upperclassmen about the program and the culture, but COVID-19 protocols restricted some of the interactions.
Players had to work out with teammates within the same living arrangements, and couldn’t mix as freely to grow and bond.
“That time period completely went away, and it took longer to get in a rhythm. But once they did, I was absolutely impressed with my team,” Lawson said. “They did a good job of staying in shape during COVID. They were very self motivated.”
The Wildcats had to skip a lot of individual development work this year since the players went home before Thanksgiving and are not scheduled to return to campus until Jan. 24.
“I am sure every softball program in the country is going through this,” Lawson said. “It’s just one of those things that we all have to deal with, but it’s definitely different.”
Kentucky often plays Division I programs during the fall for more of a challenge. But COVID-19 forced the Wildcats to stray from their game plan and make do with intrasquad scrimmages.
Lawson hopes it gave her young players a taste of what to expect in 2021 when they will be thrown into the competitive fire.
“Their attitude has been great. I love it. I am very curious to see what will happen, not that you ever know watching 18-year-olds going against 23-year-old seniors in the SEC,” Lawson said. “Part of me thinks it’s really exciting, the other part of me wants to give them a big hug and say, ‘good luck kid.’”
Erin Coffel highlight’s Kentucky’s freshman class. The 2018 Indiana Gatorade State Player of the Year hit .593 and .621 in her sophomore and junior seasons, respectively, at Bremen High.
“She is really, really strong and she is very good. Right now she is an infielder, so she has been splitting time between shortstop and third,” Lawson said. “But she is also an incredible hitter. She makes adjustments very quick and she is a great teammate with a great RBI mindset. I can’t say enough about her.”
Pitcher/utility Stephanie Schoonover was the 2019 5A Pitcher of the Year in Alabama, and hit .370 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs in her final high school season.
“She is very competitive on the mound,” Lawson said. “She is one of the fastest people on our team if not the fastest, so she is also competing heavily for an outfield spot.”
Lawson was pleased by outfielder Vanessa Nesby’s performance during the fall.
“She is not your prototypical physical outfielder by body size. She is really small, but she has the heart of a lion and makes unbelievable catch after catch,” Lawson said. “She is somebody that really caught our eye this fall.”
Given all the hurdles this fall, Lawson couldn’t have asked for a more resilient group of freshmen.
“I am so impressed with the whole class. They can’t assimilate like they normally would. That just didn’t occur because of the protocols,” she said. “There are no team functions. They are just hanging out by themselves at the dorms. I am very impressed with their maturity and how they have handled things.”
Lawson believes Kentucky’s greatest strength in 2021 should be in the circle. The Wildcats return redshirt senior Autumn Humes, senior Grace Baalman, junior Meghan Schorman, sophomore Miranda Stoddard and sophomore Sloan Gayan.
“I really feel our entire pitching staff can get the ball this year depending on how many games we play and the structure,” Lawson said. “I am not sure how that is going to look, but I think our staff can continually give different looks.”
Schorman was 7-1 with a 1.67 ERA, 45 strikeouts and eight walks in 43.0 innings pitched in 2020. Humes was 5-0 with a 4.10 ERA, 21 strikeouts and 11 walks in 37.1 IP.
Baalman was 3-2 with a 4.55 ERA, 31 strikeouts and 23 walks in 29.2 IP.
“Grace had an outstanding fall. Her swing and miss rate was off the charts,” Lawson said. “She worked really hard on her ability to change speeds and has done a great job with that.”
Stoddard was 2-0 with a 5.29 ERA, 11 strikeouts and three walks in 17.0 IP.
“She is throwing between 66-68 mph and has unbelievable command,” Lawson said. “She is an outstanding athlete. When she’s not on the mound, she will be playing infield and is a great hitter. She is somebody I really think could make a big difference.”
Gayan made four appearances last season, and “is probably our most improved coming back from over the summer,” Lawson said.
Junior catcher Kayla Kowalik and senior infielder Mallory Peyton will help set the tone at the plate for the Wildcats.
Peyton hit .379 with 11 home runs, four doubles and 35 RBIs in 2020. Kowalik hit .373 with eight triples, four doubles and 13 RBIs while swiping 11 steals in 11 attempts.
“Kayla and Mallory seemed to have taken their game to the next level,” Lawson said. “Those two have looked great and they are the two returners with the bulk of playing time.”
Sophomore utility Rylea Smith hit .420 with six doubles and 30 RBIs in 2020, and senior infielder Lauren Johnson hit .323 with three home runs and 17 RBIs. Humes hit .300 with four home runs and 15 RBIs
“Our team is really fast, so we are looking to generate a lot of offense that way,” Lawson said.
Kentucky devotes a lot of energy into growing players beyond just the physical side.
“We work really hard on the leadership side. We do our weekly or bi-weekly courses or classes on leadership and set aside a specific hour for training,” Lawson said. “It is really important to develop people that have the largest voice and are great role models and have great character.”
Peyton has become an “outstanding leader and somebody people trust,” Lawson said. “They go to her for answers. She is a great teammate, but also has a very strong personality and is a great communicator.”
Humes is “very charismatic and a natural leader,” according to Lawson. “She has a great head on her shoulders.”
During the offseason, the Kentucky players created a competition on their own to stay motivated. They divided into four sub-teams to conduct workouts provided by the strength staff, and tracked points to determine a winner.
“I think it really kept the team together over the months when they were all apart. To me, that is the key story for the team all year — the way they have been able to stay together,” Lawson said. “I can’t say enough about the work they did and just how committed and very inclusive they have been. It’s been outstanding.”