Catching up to the rest of the pack

Young Cats hoping for first winning season in difficult SEC since 2000

By Bobby Reagan

Before the first pitch has even been thrown, the UK softball team has already developed an “us against the world” mentality for the 2008 season.

After finishing last year with a 20-31 record, including a 4-26 mark in the Southeastern Conference, the Cats want nothing more than to forget about their struggles in 2007. But losing a majority of its offense — UK lost its two all-time home-run leaders in departed seniors Brooke Marnitz and Katie Campbell — and saying goodbye to three other seniors indicates UK could have an even tougher year.

Several preseason polls echoed that sentiment in their rankings. The majority of the polls picked the Cats to finish last or next to last in the SEC. The Cats don’t like the low marks they are receiving before even recording an out, but they’re embracing the role of the underdog as they head into their season opener this weekend in the Chattanooga Shootout in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“You could say it’s a rebuilding year, but I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” said sophomore second baseman Natalie Smith. “It’s always fun surprising people because I love having the underdog role.”

If the Cats are going to turn their recent fortunes around, they will likely rely on Smith and sophomore utility player Molly Johnson, two of the SEC’s budding stars. While Marnitz powered the Cats’ offense with home runs last year, Smith and Johnson provided UK with solid freshman campaigns. Both were named to the All-SEC Freshman team.

Smith led the Cats in triples (4), stolen bases (8) and at-bats (162) while Johnson paced UK with a .340 batting average and a team-high 11 doubles. Personal accolades aside, Smith would gladly trade her accomplishments for team success.

“I would love to make All-Conference, but it’s not that important to me,” Smith said. “I just want to help the other girls and lead us to a conference tournament appearance, because that’s the big goal at the end of the year.”

The 2008 season will be a new era for UK as Rachel Lawson becomes the program’s third head coach. Lawson replaces Eileen Schmidt, who resigned in June to become the head coach at Virginia.

Lawson spent the last three seasons at Western Kentucky, where she posted a 92-84 record. The first-year UK coach is looking forward to the challenge of playing in arguably the toughest conference in the nation.

“You always strive to be the best.” Lawson said. “In order to be the best, you have to play the best. You can never really have an off-day in the SEC, and if you’ve won top to bottom in the conference, you’ve really earned it.”

Lawson has instituted a new practice schedule that includes more one-on-one workouts with the players, which Johnson and Smith said should benefit the team.

“I think you get a lot more personalized help and focus on the task at hand during the one-on-one workouts,” Johnson said. “You get more time to work on specific drills and fine-tune your skills.”

The loss of four starters will present a difficult task for Lawson, but she is hoping the leadership of Smith and Johnson can fill that void.

“I think it’s going to be important that they don’t lose focus on what they are trying to accomplish at their position,” Lawson said. “They are going to be forced to be leaders, but they are both very good in the classroom, so I think it’s something that will come natural for them.”

Lawson’s squad should get a boost from an experienced pitching staff. The Cats return all four starting pitchers from last season, led by sophomore Jennifer Young, who finished with a 3.97 ERA last year in 95.1 innings pitched.

The Cats also bring in a highly touted recruiting class. Freshman Meagan Aull, last season’s Miss Kentucky Softball, and freshman Samantha DeMartine headline the class.

“Our freshmen are exciting. They’re competitive and have good talent,” Lawson said. “Each of the freshmen has their own niche and aren’t scared or timid. They provide us with a good spark that I think we needed.”

The Cats begin their quest for the program’s first winning season since 2000 on Saturday when they battle Wichita State and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga in the Chattanooga Shootout.

“It’s a great first tournament for us and the freshmen,” Johnson said. “It will allow them to get the jitters out early. It’ll also give us a good chance to see what we’re made of as a team because they’re good teams.”