Wildcats find offensive replacements
After losing a senior class that helped lead the program to its first two NCAA tournament appearances -- a group that included All-American shortstop Molly Johnson -- Kentucky was a logical candidate to take a step back from the softball spotlight this season.
Instead, the Wildcats are stepping on home plate with greater and greater frequency.
On the strength of its 26 runs in three games, Kentucky swept a three-game weekend series from Florida. That accomplishment came with a list of notable firsts attached for the Wildcats, including the first time they swept three games from the Gators, sole possession of first place in the SEC East and the first instance in which they won as many as four conference series in one season.
And the first time a Kentucky player hit two home runs in a single inning, a feat senior Meagan Aull accomplished in the first inning of Sunday's 9-2 win.
For an offense that was a question mark entering the season without departed seniors Johnson and Natalie Smith, the team's leading hitters a season ago, Aull is one part of a collective answer difficult to describe as anything but emphatic. She started every game the Wildcats played the past three seasons, but she's a new player at the plate this season, hitting .390 with a 1.045 OPS and five home runs, including four home runs in the series against the Gators.
As a junior, Aull totaled 12 extra-base hits and four walks in 56 games. Through 32 games this season, she's already matched that extra-base total and has a career-best seven walks.
"She's just done such a better job with her pitch selection, and she's done a better job of staying in the box and really driving through the pitch," coach Rachel Lawson said. "She's made huge strides. She made it a focus starting, really, in the middle of last season and is starting to see the fruit of her labor now. A lot of what she's done is just hard work and discipline."
That Aull, a product of Owensboro, Ky., took the starring role during the weekend in which Lawson picked up win No. 200 at Kentucky is not without significance for a program that had just one winning season prior to its current coach's arrival before the 2008 season.
Two key parts of the current lineup are Californians, senior Megan Yocke and junior Brittany Cervantes. But those two are the only players on the roster from either softball's traditional West Coast roots or the nouveau-riche recruiting territory in and around Florida.
Seven states border Kentucky, and Lawson made it her mission to mine those areas for talent.
"One of my goals is not only to get the best player or players out of Kentucky, but also to really work hard in all the states that touch Kentucky," Lawson said.
Seven players in the starting lineup of the finale against Florida came from Kentucky or a neighboring state, as did ace and Indiana native Chanda Bell, who finished the game in relief.
"We'll certainly recruit from across the country, and it doesn't matter if you're from Kentucky or California -- the best player will play," Lawson said. "But I will tell you that people from this region really understand what it is to be in the SEC, and they understand what the rivalries mean and they really understand the Kentucky name. So anytime you're in a big rivalry game with a team like a Florida or a Tennessee or even an Alabama or whatever, it's not just a team they saw on the TV, it's a team they grew up watching their entire lives. So when you're in a tough game, sometimes that little extra something can help push them over the edge."
That locally sourced talent didn't just come through at the plate. The Wildcats needed a comeback to win the middle game of the series by a 7-6 score, but four pitchers (from Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois and Virginia) combined to allow just 10 runs to the Gators in all. And while Tim Walton's team didn't have Stephanie Brombacher in the circle because of injury, it does still have a lineup with as many good hitters as any team in the league. Lawson went with a different starter in each game, continuing a season-long preference for changing up looks -- all four pitchers have started at least five games. But far from making up for the lack of an ace, the depth may actually be making Kentucky's very legitimate ace better in the present and better rested for the postseason.
Bell struck out 276 batters in 200 innings last season, but she also allowed 31 home runs en route to a 17-13 record and 2.59 ERA. After throwing a gem in the opener against the Gators, striking out 11 and allowing five hits in six innings, and the subsequent relief appearance in the finale, she's allowed just six home runs in 92.1 innings this season.
"When you're the type of power pitcher that she is, when you pitch a lot of innings, I think fatigue sets in," Lawson said. "And for her, when she gets tired the ball lifts high -- when her legs get tired, the ball lifts high and that's usually hit for a home run. So, one, she can stay a little bit fresher, so she continues to stay strong. But two, she's really worked hard to develop a couple of other pitches. so she's not as predictable this season as she has been her previous two seasons."
Kentucky grew from a perennial loser to an NCAA tournament team in short order on Lawson's watch. There's still a long way to go in taking the next step to becoming a legitimate SEC contender. But with a 5-1 record this season against Tennessee and Florida, Kentucky heads into this weekend's series at Georgia looking less like a team taking a step back than one on the verge of a step forward.
And as the coach admits, that requires a very different mindset.
"If you want to be one of the best in the SEC, you have to be top 10 in the country," Lawson said. "So that's a different kind of mentality because you have to be able to win every game of the week all the time -- Friday, Saturday, Sunday, midweeks on Wednesday. So you have to make sure that you plan appropriately, not only in the circle but some of the changes you have to make in your lineup plus developing some of your younger players you might need if there is an injury or for the NCAA tournament or beyond."
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.