No. 20 Kentucky softball kicks off 2022 season in tournament

Cole Parke

No. 20 Kentucky softball is set to kick-off its 2022 season on Thursday, Feb. 10, in the Northern Lights Southern Lights Tournament in Leesburg, Florida.

The Wildcats first square off with Wisconsin on Thursday before playing two games apiece on Friday and Saturday against Michigan State, Liberty, Iowa and No. 13 Virginia Tech.

“We are so excited to get going,” Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson said on Tuesday. “We’re playing a ton of Big 10 teams, and the teams that aren’t in the Big 10 were all in the postseason last year. It’s going to be an awesome weekend to really show where we’re at and show what kind of team we have.”

After wrapping up the Northern Lights Southern Lights Tournament, the road stint continues for Kentucky the following Friday, in the Hillenbrand Invitational in Tucson, Arizona.

In Tucson, Kentucky will face the likes of UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State, Loyola

Marymount and Arizona.

Following the Invitational, Kentucky has one more road tournament in the FAU Strikeout Cancer Classic, starting on Feb. 24, featuring Jaksonville, Michigan State, FAU, Long Island and Columbia, before returning to Kentucky for its home opener.

“When you’re on a road trip, you’re on the bus, you’re on a plane, and you’re leaving the airport at six in the morning which means you’ve got to be up by three,” Lawson said. “When you’re together that much, it is either going to really bring a team together or it’s going to make them fall apart, and fortunately I have good personalities on my team that understand that value and respect each other.”

Finally returning to Lexington on March 3, inside John Cropp Stadium, Kentucky hosts the John Cropp Classic, first dueling Michigan before subsequently taking on Drake, Kent State and Michigan again over the next two days.

In their fifth and final tournament of the year, Kentucky hosts the Bluegrass Classic on March 11-13 which will feature Buffalo, Central Michigan and Valparaiso.

The Cats’ first non-tournament game will take place on the road against Miami Ohio on March 16 before Kentucky will play one of its most compelling series of the year, at Alabama.

The series is a personal one for Kentucky, having been knocked out of the SEC tournament and swept in the NCAA Super Regionals by the Tide last year, which ended the Cats’ season.

“There are a lot of us [on the team] who are returners, and there’s a lot of returners on [Alabama] as well,” Fifth year infielder and outfielder Lauren Johnson said. “They’re always really exciting to play. They’re a great team to play, and with them having gone to the World Series last year, it’s exciting, there’s no other feeling to describe playing teams like that.”

While the Cats are looking to continue where they left off in 2021, finishing the season 43-16 before the Super Regional loss, the team has several question marks heading into the season, most notably surrounding the pitching.

Kentucky only has two seniors listed as pitchers on the current roster, one being a transfer, and their junior pitcher Miranda Stoddard will be splitting reps between the mound and third base.

Coach Lawson marked the pitching as a point of emphasis heading into the Northern Lights Southern Lights tournament.

“I like our pitchers and I think we’re very good,” Lawson said. “But our biggest question mark is our lack of experience on the mound. [Our pitching] was a little slow at the beginning [of training], because they were trying so hard to be perfect that nothing was moving and they weren’t getting batters out. In the last couple of weeks we’ve been working on getting it together and developing their ‘out’ pitch.”

While Kentucky lost some veterans on their pitching staff, one star it didn’t lose was Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year nominee, senior catcher Kayla Kowalik.

Kowalik set the world of college softball on fire in 2021, with a batting average of just under .500 in 202 at-bats. She accumulated 100 hits with 12 home runs, 37 RBIs and finished with a slugging percentage of .787.

While it would be near impossible to repeat those numbers two years in a row, coach Lawson is optimistic that Kowalik will be a pivotal leader for this Kentucky team.

“I want everyone to perform like Kayla,” Lawson said. “I think to expect somebody to bat .500 through the year with the schedule we have is unrealistic. The thing I like the most about Kayla is watching her. I like watching her at-bats, I like watching how her mind works, so my expectation for her is never that she hits .500, but that she just stays the person she is, and my hope is the other people around her will take her qualities and characteristics. She certainly leads us.”

Kentucky’s matchup against Wisconsin in the season opener is set for this Thursday, Feb. 10, and will begin at 6 p.m. E.S.T.