No. 5-seeded tournament host Florida eliminated No. 4-seeded Kentucky in a disappointing SEC tournament appearance for the Wildcats (SEC Network photo).
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – The University of Florida, aided by an enthusiastic home crowd and a healthy dose of lightning quick speed, cruised to an easy 9 – 3 victory over Kentucky, eliminating the Wildcats in the quarterfinal round of the SEC softball tournament. The Gators jumped out early on Kentucky pitchers Tatum Spangler and Miranda Stoddard with three runs apiece in each of the first two innings.
Homeruns by Lauren Johnson and Emmy Blane pulled the Cats to within three, but Florida’s Elizabeth Hightower and Rylee Trlicek kept Kentucky’s offense at bay for the rest of the evening. Florida’s baserunners, on the other hand, were more than plentiful as Spangler, Stoddard, and Stephanie Schoonover issued a combined season-high seven walks.
“We knew they had a lot of team speed,” Coach Rachel Lawson said in the postgame press conference. “They showed that starting from the first batter on. They were able to get her on. Speed definitely forces the defense to make mistakes. And then we gave up too many free passes. When you do something like that to a team that good, it’s really really hard to come back from. So, I think that’s pretty much the story of the game.”
The thing I like most about Rachel Lawson is her honesty. In the six years I’ve been covering the team, she’s always shot straight with the media. There’s no sugar coating, lame excuses, or blowing sunshine in your face when things aren’t going smoothly.
“And then our pitchers, I’m not really sure why we couldn’t find the zone,” she said. “It has been something we’ve struggled with a little bit. But tonight seemed to be a little bit more than usual. We’re going to go back, look at some game film, try to figure out what we can do differently so we can cut down on our free bases.”
The loss sends the Wildcats (35 – 17, 13 – 12 SEC) home early and most likely quashes any hopes of the team hosting a postseason regional round.
“I think hosting would be a stretch at this point,” Lawson acknowledged even before the loss this evening. “I think when we didn’t take any of the games versus Mizzou, that really dropped our RPI down there. I would love to host, but I’m certainly preparing to also travel. We just want to go out there, have it run, and play our best softball right now.”
Unfortunately for Cat fans, Kentucky is not playing their best softball right now. What went wrong this year? It’s no secret that the team has been radically inconsistent throughout the season. That shouldn’t be a big surprise given its youth and inexperience—especially among the pitching staff. Perhaps they were a victim of high expectations more than anything else.
They’ve had a decent year. Even with their pitching foibles, Spangler finished the regular season with the lowest ERA in the league (1.42). Erin Coffel has put up Player of the Year numbers as a sophomore. Kayla Kawolik and Renee Abernathy have proven to be selfless leaders on and off the field. Survive the first week of the NCAA regionals and an argument can be made that the team actually overachieved.
“We have such a young, inexperienced team,” Lawson explained. “And we’re going against people who are significantly older, who are significantly bigger [and] stronger. When you are older, you have clarity of what you are trying to accomplish. When you’re younger, especially now because of the youth systems where all you do is hit in a cage and everyone has their own batting coach and everyone has their own pitching coach, but they really don’t play softball together.”
All year long, Lawson has challenged her team to guard against selfish tendencies, to play as a team, and to stay in the moment. When they’re clicking on all cylinders, they’ve played some outstanding games. She’ll spend the next week continuing to teach and encourage.
“I thought Lauren [Johnson] was outstanding today. She was competitive. The first inning didn’t rattle her. She was tough. She stayed in the box, and she did what she needed to do. And that’s the kind of leadership, and that’s the kind of effort, and the attitude, and the mindset we need moving forward. So we’re going to double down on that.”
It’ll be an uphill battle from here on in. But given her past track record, I wouldn’t count Rachel Lawson out just yet.
Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you’re in search of some practical life lessons, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669