Conference play proves tough for softball



By Chandler Howard

The Southeastern Conference is primarily known for its brutal football schedule, but softball programs across the region would argue it brings challenging competition to their sport, as well.

Recent years have seen the SEC evolve into one of the most dominant conferences in collegiate softball. It currently boasts five teams in the top 25 of the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll, second only to the Pac-10, which has six.

Additionally, the conference now has a representative at the top of four Division I statistical rankings: combined ERA (Louisiana State), home runs per game (Florida), stolen bases per game (Georgia) and slugging percentage (Florida). Ten of the 11 SEC softball programs are presently above a .500 winning percentage on the season, a feat surpassed by only one other conference.

UK (20-14, 5-8 SEC) has witnessed the difficulty of their conference opponents firsthand.

While boasting a non-conference record of 15-6, the Cats have already suffered eight losses in the SEC. UK head coach Rachel Lawson focuses her team on the idea that the majority of their toughest games are behind them.

“The SEC is just that difficult of a conference,” Lawson said. “Based on opponent rankings, there is no team that has played a more difficult conference schedule than we have so far. When it is all said and done, I believe the conference will even itself out and we will land where we deserve to be.”

The opponents Lawson speaks of are No. 8 Alabama, No. 11 Georgia and No. 16 Tennessee. UK finished 2-5 against those teams. Though the Cats can mark three ranked opponents off their schedule, they still must face No. 6 Florida and No. 12 Louisiana State in April. ­­For now, the team is looking ahead to its immediate opponent in Mississippi State. The Cats will travel to Starkville, Miss., this weekend to face the Bulldogs (20-16, 3-7 SEC) for a three-game series.

Statistically, UK and Mississippi State appear to be evenly matched. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Cats held an edge over the Bulldogs in team ERA, 2.51 to 4.58. However, Mississippi State holds the advantage in batting average with .318, besting UK’s .254. The teams also feature similar fielding percentages, with the Cats ahead by .007. A focal point for UK falls on Mississippi State’s senior All-American catcher Chelsea Bramlett, who leads the team in hits, runs scored and total bases.

“(Bramlett) is such a fast player,” senior second baseman Natalie Smith said. “We have been preparing for not only her, but also their pitchers, like we do for our opponent every week. Sharpening our defense, particularly our bunt and short-game defenses, is our main focus.”