Kentucky, Tennessee look to move up
With the season's opening games less than two weeks away, it's time to take a quick tour -- two by two this year -- through some of the best teams out there.
No. 19 Kentucky
It's easy to look at breakthrough seasons and imagine a future with only more of the same newfound success. Nobody likes a downer, after all. Less warm and cuddly is the notion of regression to the mean -- that what goes up is more likely to come down than ascend forever.
But skeptics might want to give Lexington, Ky., a wide berth this spring. There is ample reason to believe that Kentucky's giant leap forward last season may yet prove to be one small step in a program's emergence as a national contender as long as coach Rachel Lawson is around.
Last season, Lawson's second at the formerly moribund SEC afterthought, Kentucky posted a 34-23 record and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time. With every regular starter back, including All-America shortstop Molly Johnson, optimism abounds.
"Just like every other team in the SEC, we want to win the SEC championship, and in order to do that, you have to go through some pretty good teams," Lawson said. "I mean, obviously we made a huge jump last year; our team made the biggest jump in terms of RPI of any team in the country. So we made huge leaps last season, and that was really exciting. This year brings a whole newness to it because you're not going to see some of the same jumps, just because we're a lot better. So that brings on a whole different dynamic. So if anything, I would say our team has amped it up quite a bit, and we've really raised our expectations for this season."
Some of that rests with improving offensive production beyond the top half of the order, one of Lawson's priorities. But you don't compete for an SEC title without pitching, and amid the team's otherwise incremental improvements, one big leap could come from pitcher Chanda Bell. As a freshman last season, Bell struck out 216 batters in 180 innings, a strikeout rate that held steady through conference play despite battling a stress fracture in her shin from the first week of April onward.
You can teach a lot of things in pitching, but the ability to post a rate of 8.4 strikeouts per seven innings (trailing only Baylor's Whitney Canion and Harvard's Rachel Brown among last season's freshmen) is something that comes pre-installed.
"She loves to strike people out, and I know every pitcher says that, but she actually loves it -- there's a little light in her eyes," Lawson said. "That makes her pretty special in terms of her attitude. But the things that she's done better this season is she's worked really hard to develop some other pitches to really help complement her strengths. And that's a work in progress, but she's such a hard worker, and she's determined and she's focused."
"If she can stay healthy, I think the sky's the limit for Chanda."
The same holds true for Kentucky.
No. 20 Tennessee
The Lady Vols should score enough runs to contend for better than this ranking. Despite losing Tonya Callahan to graduation, Tennessee still posted a better slugging percentage last season (.455) than it did in Callahan's final season (.447). And all three players who individually slugged better than .500 -- Tiffany Huff, Jessica Spigner and Erin Webb -- return this season. Co-coach Karen Weekley will also keep the team's trademark small-ball assets moving at a rapid pace.
As has been the case since Monica Abbott departed, the question is pitching. A highly touted recruiting class includes two options in the circle in Andi Williamson and Ivy Renfroe, who join sophomore Cat Hosfield (28-13, 2.67 ERA last season). As goes the team ERA, so go the hopes of getting back into the top 10 or beyond by season's end.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.