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Three stars through three tournaments: Players who stood out for Kentucky softball in February

Sydney Yonker
Kentucky shortstop Erin Coffel high-fives associate head coach Kristine Himes during the Kentucky vs.Parkland softball game on Sunday, Sept. 23, 2023, at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 9-0. Photo by Sydney Yonker | Staff

No. 14 Kentucky softball has had a solid start to its 2024 contest thus far, posting an 11-2 record through its first three weekends of the season.

The Wildcats have played in three tournaments in February, including the SDSU Season Kickoff where they picked up two consecutive top-5 wins and the Wings ETC Classic where they finished the weekend undefeated.

Many different players on the team, both freshmen and upperclassmen, have been performing well and have stepped up in big moments.

However, there are three players in particular that have performed exceptionally thus far and have played a massive role in helping the team come out on top.

Erin Coffel (Shortstop)

Erin Coffel is not a name that is unfamiliar to anyone who has been a fan of Kentucky softball, or even SEC softball as a whole, for the past few seasons.

She is currently in her fourth season with the team and has been a consistently dominant player in the lineup, earning First Team All-SEC honors following both the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

With star catcher Kayla Kowalik having graduated following the 2023 season, Coffel is now possibly the most integral piece of Kentucky’s hitting lineup.

Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson talked about Coffel during the team’s media day in early February, discussing how much she has improved on the field since last season.

“She’s probably hit five home runs in four scrimmages or something crazy like that off of the pitches that used to get her out,” Lawson said. “So I think she’s going to be very good. Her shortstop play is not even recognizable compared to where she was before. She’s playing at an elite level.”

Through the first 15 games of this season, Coffel currently leads the Wildcats in batting average, runs, hits, home runs and on-base percentage, and is tied for the team lead in RBIs.

She also is tied for second on the team with three stolen bases.

Her first home run of the season came during the first inning against Minnesota in the SDSU Kickoff Weekend tournament, helping the Cats to a 3-2 victory.

She has hit in the leadoff position in the lineup for 10 of 13 games so far, including during all five games of the most recent tournament, the Wings ETC Classic.

“That’s something that she is very good at, and we can move her from the RBI spot to that position because I think she is an elite leadoff hitter as well,” Lawson said during media day.

Coffel was one of the MVPs of the Cats’ undefeated weekend at the Wings ETC Classic, making important plays on offense in every game.

In fact, she has hit a home run in each of the last four games.

On Feb. 23, against USC Upstate, she drove in three of Kentucky’s nine runs scored in the mercy rule victory.

She also logged two hits in each of the last two games of the tournament, and on Sunday against USC Upstate, she crossed the plate three times.

Although Lawson may continue to experiment with the lineup some going into conference play, it is clear that Coffel is an excellent player to have in the leadoff spot.

Whether it’s at the plate, in the field or on the base paths, she can always make plays when Kentucky needs it the most.

Stephanie Schoonover (Pitcher)

Schoonover has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the SEC for quite some time now, and she has not disappointed at all to start the season.

Last year, she was elite for the first portion of the schedule before being sidelined for 15 games due to a forearm injury.

During media day, she talked about coming back from the injury and focusing on recovering well.

Kentucky Wildcats pitcher Stephanie Schoonover (23) pitches the ball during the No. 16 Kentucky vs. Dayton softball home opener game on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 5-4. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff (Samuel Colmar)

“I focused a lot more on recovery,” Schoonover said. “I’m making sure that all my muscles feel right. Even the little tweaks are important because you want to last a long time, and our bodies are special, so you’ve got to take care of them.”

This has seemed to work for her so far, as her pitching performances in this year’s first three tournaments have been incredible.

In eight appearances, she has a 6-1 record, pitched two complete games, struck out 46 batters in 33 innings pitched and has only a 1.49 ERA.

Schoonover pitched in two games during the team’s opening weekend in the SDSU Season Kickoff tournament, notably the second victory over No. 3 Stanford.

She pitched all eight innings of the game and allowed only three hits while striking out seven.

In the same tournament, she was also credited with wins over UC Santa Barbara and Minnesota.

Following the weekend in San Diego, Schoonover was named the SEC’s pitcher of the week for the second time in her career.

The Wings ETC Classic in South Carolina this past weekend saw Schoonover pitch in three of the five games and pick up two of the wins.

She started in Kentucky’s game against USC Upstate and pitched all five innings of the 9-0 mercy rule victory.

During that game, she struck out eight of the seventeen batters she faced and allowed only one hit and one walk.

With conference play coming up, having a pitcher that can get outs in crucial situations is key, and Schoonover has proven she can do just that.

She is undoubtedly a key reason for Kentucky’s success early on and if she continues to excel,  the Wildcats will be in good shape for the games she pitches in.

Ally Hutchins (Utility)

This season, Lawson and the Wildcats welcomed seven freshmen to the team.

All of them have seen action this season and while many have had solid outings, none have been more impactful than Paducah’s own Ally Hutchins.

Lawson talked during media day about how well Hutchins has been performing offensively during winter practices.

“Ally Hutchins right now is probably neck and neck with Erin [Coffel] with offensive stats,” Lawson said. “I mean, Erin obviously has the knob, but to even be that close as a freshman really speaks a lot.”

Hutchins has started all 13 games, mostly at the designated player position.

She currently leads the team in walks and ranks third in hits and fourth in RBIs – all of which are impressive for a freshman.

In the first game of the ESPN Shriners Children’s Classic against North Carolina, Hutchins hit an RBI single and later scored on a wild pitch during Kentucky’s six-run effort in the first inning.

The next weekend, she blasted a two-run home run in the fifth inning of the Wildcats’ first game of the Wings ETC Classic against Akron, securing a comfortable lead that the team would hold onto.

In the same tournament, she hit an RBI single to help kickstart a three-run inning for the Cats against Monmouth.

Many of the runs Hutchins has driven in have been on sacrifice plays. 

For example, during a game against Wisconsin in the ESPN Shriners Children’s Classic, a sacrifice bunt she hit in the fifth inning gave the Wildcats the lead that they would keep for the remainder of the game.

Perhaps her biggest RBI of the season came during Kentucky’s second game against No. 3 Stanford during the SDSU Kickoff Weekend tournament, as her reaching on a fielder’s choice allowed Rylea Smith to score the winning run in the eighth inning.

Hutchins’ ability to get on base and drive in runs in crucial situations has been very impactful for the Cats so far this season.

This should leave fans very excited for how she will continue to perform this season and for the rest of her collegiate career.

Next up for the Wildcats, the team will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, as they prepare to take on Fordham, Charlotte and Minnesota in a 3-day tournament beginning on March 1.

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Samuel Colmar, Assistant Photo Editor

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