Kentucky shortstop always wants to be better

Published 6:09 pm Friday, March 31, 2023

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Contributing columnist

Kentucky has two of the nation’s best softball players in junior shortstop Erin Coffel and fifth-year senior catcher Kayla Kowalik. The duo has one thing in common — both never quit pushing to be even better.

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“People like us do not want to settle,” said Coffel. “We always want something greater. That makes us who we are. If you are good where you are at, you will not get any better and might end up worse off. I always want to be better. I put the work in and just let things fall in place.

“But my goals for this season are not individual but to get my team to the College World Series. To me, that will mean I have had a better season.”

Coffel has been even more productive at the plate this season. She’s currently hitting .403 with 31 runs scored, 35 runs driven in, 12 home runs, seven doubles and 27 walks in 28 games. She had 16 home runs in her 2021 freshman season and 20 last season. She also drove in 56 runs in 2021 and 68 last season.

Her 159 RBI’s are already fourth all-time at Kentucky behind Abbey Cheek (202) , Alex Martens (181) and current UK assistant coach Brittany Cervantes (161). Her 48 career homers trail Cheek (61) for No. 1 at UK and tie Cervantes for second all time.

Coffel says she only knows where she ranks if a UK official tells her or she sees it on social media.

“I just don’t worry about that,” Coffel said.

Kentucky, despite a challenging non-conference schedule, is 20-7-1 and 4-2 in Southeastern Conference play. The Cats are ranked 11th nationally going into Wednesday’s home game against Louisville.

Coffel says UK’s play has not been a surprise to her despite the loss of several key players off last year’s team to graduation.

“I felt this team had something special, especially after we came back from winter break,” the junior shortstop said. “There was just something different and we have been clicking on all cylinders.”

She has new players in the infield with her as Indiana transfer Grace Lording starts at third base and sophomore Margaret Tobias at second.

“Grace and I played our whole travel ball careers together. It’s nice to have her next to me. We have a great connection,” Coffel said. “Margaret is is new but we have an awesome friendship. At practice we have a unique dynamic and try to keep it high energy.”

Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson noted before the season started how much better defensively Coffel was. Coffel said he put “a lot of pressure on myself” as a freshman and that’s something she understands great athletes cannot do.

“Defense is all about effort and going out and not caring and doing what works,” the Indiana native said. “Don’t think. Just be super athletic and reactive. Getting a bunch of reps has been a huge deal to where I can just go out there and react without thinking.”

Coffel says having a dominant pitcher like Stephanie Schoonover has also made it way easier on the defense. Schoonover is 12-1 with 146 strikeouts in 96 innings after beating Texas A&M Sunday.

“What she is doing is incredible. I know she won’t strike out 15 every game, but she competes on every pitch. You can tell she cares so much and wants to collect every single out,” Coffel said. “Having the staff we have will take us a long way.”

Coffel and Schoonover worked out a lot together last summer. Coffel could tell she not only had the same speed she had always had but that Schooner’s control and spin were much better.

“She would strike out a lot of batters in our scrimmages and our hitters are good,” Coffel said.

What about Coffel? Did she strike out against Schoonover?

“She has struck me out some but not always,” the junior shortstop admitted.

Coffel actually worried a little about her hitting earlier in the season and felt she was not having as many quality at-bats as she should have.

“I have started making more hard contact every time,” she said.

Coffel admits sometimes she is surprised when teams pitch to her in certain situations.

“I am not going to lie. Sometimes it surprises me when teams do that,” the UK junior said. “At the beginning of the season I was getting walked a lot and I think I let that get to me. I was not as aggressive in some at-bats and was not always swinging at good pitches early in the count. That got me in trouble. Now I am looking to hit the ball when it is in the zone.”

Coffee’s dream growing up was to play in the Olympics. She played on Team USA under-18 team.

“I want to try and play professionally and play in the Olympics in 2028 for Team USA,” she said. “I was going to go into PT (physical therapy) but now I think my calling is coaching. I want to try to play softball and coach at college.

“When I made the USA junior national team I felt that was the first step toward making the Olympics.”

Cervantes and UK teammate Alexia Lacatena both played in the 2021 Olympics.

“I hear a lot of stories from them about it and can only imagine what it must be like. That’s something I really hope to get to experience just like I also want to play in the College World Series for Kentucky,” Coffel said.

UK receiver room is full

ESPN/SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic considers himself a fan of Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen and is anxious to see how he is going to use the receivers he has at UK this season.

“Kentucky is loaded at wide receiver,” Cubelic said on his weekly podcast ( “This is as deep as Kentucky has ever been at wide receiver and it’s not even close. It has never been like this. They probably have four guys that could be your No. 1 receiver. They are that good.”

He thinks sophomores Dane Key and Barion Brown will be “fantastic” based on what both did as freshmen and thinks Tayvion Robinson could have a big year under offensive coordinator Liam Coen. Cubelic also expects a big jump from sophomore speedster Dekel Crowdus.

The wild card could be true freshman Anthony Brown. Cubelic has been told he’s handling college football like a “professional and not messing around” on or off the field.

“He’s putting forth the work,” Cubelic said. “They have four or five very capable receivers but (Anthony) Brown really seems to be impressing a lot of people.”

When Cubelic heard that (Anthony) Brown was being compared to Wan’Dale Robinson from a body control aspect, bouncing off tacklers and being shifty, Cubelic said it made “my eyes open and ears perk up” immediately.

“I know how great Wan’Dale is,” Cubelic. “If you design an offense around three or four guys that is much more difficult to defend.”

Cornerback Jantzen Dunn transferred to UK from Ohio State this season. He practiced and played with some of the nation’s premier receivers last year. Dunn confirmed Cubelic’s evaluation of UK’s receivers.

“I honestly believe that Barion and Dane are at the level that I was competing at at Ohio State,” said Dunn. “Those guys are really good and so are a lot of the other guys.”

Edwards can do it all

McDonald’s All-American Baye Fall of Accelerated Prep Academy will be playing at Arkansas next season and is already “excited” about competing in the Southeastern Conference.

Two players he will be facing are Kentucky signees Aaron Bradshaw and Justin Edwards. He’s played against both future Cats and was at the McDonald’s All-American game in Houston this week with both of them.

“He’s my guy,” the 6-10 Fall said about Bradshaw. “Good friend and really cool. He is really good. I respect him. He is one of the best players in our class. He is a good center and do-it-all kind of player.

“Him and Justin Edwards, I played with them and they are great and also great guys. They should be really good together.”

What does he like best about Edwards?

“Justin is also a do-it-all guy. He can pass, score and really shoot,” Fall said. “I like his shot. Both him and Aaron are great players. Kentucky should be really glad to have them both and it will be great playing against them next year.”

Kentucky signee Reed Sheppard played against Edwards last season and knows how special he is. Sheppard’s coach, Nate Valentine, said Edwards was one of the best high school players he’s ever seen play.

“He is crazy good. He is big. He can shoot. He is long and athletic,” Sheppard said.  “He plays how he wants to play. He is just super, super good and I am really glad he is going to be on my team.”

Edwards had 19 points and seven rebounds in a state title win that gave his team its second straight Pennsylvania championship. With the game being played in Hershey, he got a giant Hershey candy bar to go with the championship trophy.

Cats focused on special teams

Barion Brown not only had a special freshman season catching the football for Kentucky, but he also established himself as one of the best kickoff return specialists in the Southeastern Conference.

New UK running backs/special teams coach Jay Boulware certainly would like for Brown’s success to continue or even increase. The new coach has a contagious enthusiasm that has already made a big impression on Brown.

“I can just feel it, how he’s come in,” Brown said. “The energy in meetings as well. Knowing we have somebody that’s really big on special teams, it’s good.

“We have offense, defense ready, but special teams win games. Just having a coach that’s got the energy is making us do this, do that, it’s wonderful.”