By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s not easy to surprise Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson but freshman Rylea Smith of Missouri did exactly that during UK’s exhibition play.
“She was excellent,” Lawson said. “I knew she was good but she was really outstanding. If not getting RBI’s, she was leading off with a triple or something like that. She is strong and fast and has the potential to be the best leadoff hitter we’ve had at Kentucky. What she did on the field at Michigan was just outstanding.”
Kara Dill is the best leadoff hitter Lawson has had at Kentucky. However, Smith — who hit above .500 all four years in high school in St. Louis — is the fastest player in UK’s freshman class and Lawson says she can bunt, hit for power and play multiple positions.
Dill, now a Texas A&M assistant coach, started her UK career in 2009 with a 15-game hitting streak and ended her career with 201 hits, 57 stolen bases, .330 career average and 119 runs score. She was a two-time all-SEC pick.
“Kara was fast and incredibly good but Rylea has a wide skill set,” Lawson said.
Lawson lost her top three players — third baseman Abbey Cheek, shortstop Katie Reed and catcher Jenny Schaper — off last year’s team. All were four-year starters and hit in the top three spots in the batting order last season. Yet Lawson says this team will have more diversity to create more matchup issues for opponents.
Lawson also expects to have a deeper pitching staff. Kentucky swept a three-game exhibition series from Michigan — an annual top 25 team — even though junior pitcher Grace Baalman didn’t throw at all and senior Autumn Humes pitched only a few innings. They were UK’s top two pitchers last year.
“We have two freshmen pitchers (Sloan Gayan and Miranda Stoddard) who had no fear at Michigan,” Lawson said. “They are going to help make us stronger in the circle, which is more characteristic of Kentucky softball. Grace is great but we have to keep her healthy. At the end of her first two year she was not 100 percent. At the SEC Tournament last year she couldn’t throw. We had a chance to win the SEC tourney last year if we had had depth in our pitching staff.
“The pitcher I was most impressed with was sophomore Meghan Schlarman. Her work over the summer was outstanding. If we had to play right now, I would say she is the best pitcher on our staff. She is throwing hard and understands the mental part of the game. She’s our hardest thrower.”
Sophomore Tatum Spangler could play every position and Lawson says she is the team’s best overall defensive player. Freshman infielder Emmy Blane of Christian County has a strong throwing arm and did a “great job at shortstop” that impressed Lawson.
“I think this freshman class overall will turn some heads because it is one of the best recruiting classes we have ever had,” Lawson said. “We also are going to have a ton more left-handed hitters. We look a lot faster overall.