By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky lost some big offensive numbers off its 2020 softball team with the graduation of Alex Martens and Bailey Vicky, two of the nation’s best offensive players last season. However, signee Erin Coffel of Indiana will arrive on campus with some big numbers of her own.
She was a career .627 hitter with an on-base percentage of .702. She had 168 hits in only 339 at-bats and had 50 home runs, 36 doubles and nine triples while driving in 164 runs and scoring 191.
Remember, too, that she did not get to play a senior season at Bremen High School — the team won the state title in 2019 — because of COVID-19 but still set the Indiana career home run record. She was an all-American in 2019 when she was also the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, an honor she received again this year even though there was no season.
The talented Coffel had two older brothers who played baseball and her father played baseball in college. She said she started playing baseball and football at age 5 in the yard with her brothers.
“I was also born with some natural athletic ability,” Coffel said. “My brothers were definitely rough on me. They played baseball and football and didn’t hold back.”
Coffel said there was not a particular age where she realized she was a way above average hitter.
“Hitting is just something I do every day. So I guess it might come naturally but I also work at it and there was never that moment when it just hit me that I could hit,” she said.
She’s not quit hitting, either. She has her own batting cage and also has gone almost daily to a local softball field with her father to take ground balls during the COVID-19 shutdown. She prefers to play shortstop but can play second base or third base.
“My dad has been my coach my entire life,” Coffel, who had a state record 22 homers her sophomore season when her team was state runner-up, said. “He motivates and pushes me. If he sees me start to slack off, he pushes me more.”
Whatever her father and other coaches have taught her obviously has worked. She struck out just 12 times in three years and walked 64 times. Yet she wishes the strikeout total was lower.
“I guess I do have a good eye at the plate but when I see a pitch I can hit, I take a hack at it,” she said.
Coffel went to her first UK softball camp as a seventh-grader and later Kentucky was the first school she visited as a freshman during recruiting. She admits then she was in “awe of everything” at UK from the team chemistry to the personality of the coaches to the facilities.
“When we came back from the Kentucky visit I had set a visit to another school and I didn’t even want to go,” Coffel said. “My parents said I had to go and I cried. I did make a few more visits but Kentucky was the one. I had absolutely no desire to go anywhere else.”
She verbally committed as a freshman and jokes she been on the “academic tour like 50 times” during trips to Lexington the last few years to watch the team play.
Coffel has also helped convert some Indiana fans to UK softball fans.
“A lot of my friends and fans here are die-hard Hoosier fans. But I have gotten a lot of people to buy some Kentucky gear. A lot say they are coming down to watch games next year. I think I have done a pretty good job of transforming them to Kentucky fans and that’s not easy for Indiana fans to do,” Coffel said.
If you are not impressed, consider that she also had over a 3.8 grade-point average.
“I have had to work at my grades. It does not come naturally like softball,” she said. “My parents push me. They set high expectations and I try to achieve that. I am glad they put those expectations there for me or I might not have succeeded like I did.”
She’s also a basketball standout who had a school-record 1,273 points along with 513 rebounds, 236 assists, 226 steals, 185 deflections and 27 blocks in 94 career games.
“I started playing basketball in middle school. I really enjoyed it in high school. It’s just different that softball, more up and down. It also helped relax me from the stress of softball and I am really glad I chose to play basketball, too,” she said.
National college basketball and football writer Aaron Torres recently had a chance to spend time with incoming Kentucky freshman point guard Devin Askew of California and came away impressed.
Torres wrote the book “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats” and now covers UK basketball and football for Kentucky Sports Radio.
He said Askew as “very mature and fun to talk to” during his lengthy time with him.
“What I really liked about him is he competitive but his maturity and the other thing I found is that he has no preconceived notions about his time at Kentucky,” Torres said. “You come to Kentucky and know the clock is ticking for the NBA. But not him.”
Askew told Torres he asked Calipari what would happen if he was not a one and done player. Calipari said then he simply would come back and play point guard for UK a second season.
“He has no notions that he will dominate from day one and I think that is a good thing,” Torres said. “He will compete like heck to be the starting point guard and run that team but he has the maturity to know who he is.”
Torres thinks it will help that Askew played on an AAU team with Jalen Green and Nimari Burnett, two McDonald’s All-Americans this year after their play for Prolific Prep. Green signed a $500,000 deal with the G-League.
“He is confident playing with other good players,” Torres said. “He knows his role will be to get the ball to Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston. He understands that very well coming into Kentucky.”
New Kentucky defensive line coach Anwar Stewart was recruited to play at Kentucky by coach Bill Curry, a defensive minded coach, and finished his career playing for Hal Mumme, a coach who always went all-in for offense.
Stewart, a linebacker at UK, played 13 years in the Canadian Football League at defensive end after leaving UK and won four Grey Cup championships. He was the CFL’s outstanding defensive player in 2004, was a two-time all-star and had 70 sacks and 10 interceptions.
UK’s offense was led by quarterback Tim Couch, receiver Craig Yeast and running back Anthony White during Stewart’s career. Stewart enjoyed his time at UK but not the lack of focus Mumme put on defense.
“We were good. We went to back to back bowls. It was a great time for Kentucky football and we really enjoyed it despite not really getting to show the talent we did have on defense. We had a top 20 defense with coach Curry and (assistant) coach (Mike Archer). We were tough, played hard,” Stewart said.
“I get you have to score points to win games but there’s nothing wrong with having a great offense and great defense and we could have had that.”
Now he thinks Kentucky could have both this year after winning a combined 18 games the previous two years.
“I get you have got to score points to win games,” Stewart said. “But it is great to have a combination of offense and defense. Look at us. (offensive coordinator) Eddie Gran is amazing. Look at what they have been doing here defensively. That recipe for winning is awesome.
“We are excited about Kentucky football right now. Our goal is to get to the SEC championship. Buy tickets. I know it is tough times, but come out and support us. This is going to be a special season.”
Stewart believes he inherited a “great group” of players from former defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc along with terrific players recruited by Mark Stoops and his staff.
“The future is really bright here,” Stewart said. “The young men here know they will get pushed. Everybody has got to elevate their game. Guys have got to earn it to play.
“We are going to compete. One thing coach Stoops talks about is always competing. The players that elevate and compete at the highest level, that’s the ones we will roll with.”
Who was the most competitive, toughest player that former Kentucky All-American Kevin Grevey played with or against in college?
If you are a long-time Kentucky basketball fan, the answer won’t surprise you.
Grevey said it was Anderson County’s Jimmy Dan Conner, Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1971. For three seasons from 1972-75, he played in 85 games at UK and scored 1,009 points, grabbed 344 rebounds and had 264 assists. He shot 50 percent from the field.
“No one from Anderson County would be surprised by this (Conner’s toughness). What you saw at UK was what we saw for four years prior (in high school),” John Herndon, former sports editor of the Anderson County News.
Grevey and Conner were seniors on the 1975 team that lost 92-85 in the national title game to UCLA in coach John Wooden’s last game. Grevey had 34 points and five rebounds in the game (he was 13 of 30 from the field) while Conner had nine points on 4-for-12 shooting, six assists, five rebounds and two steals.
Of course, that 1975 team upset No. 1 and unbeaten Indiana to get to the Final Four in one of Joe Hall’s biggest wins at UK.
Fan Paul Corio of Lexington believes Conner’s toughness was a big reason UK got to the Final Four.
“Conner set the tone for that game when he came out playing furious, physical defense against the Indiana guards,” Corio said. “Actually, down the stretch that season, the entire team was playing tenacious defense, with Conner and Bob Guyette being the leaders in toughness and physicality.”
Conner went on to play one season in the ABA for the Kentucky Colonels after turning down a chance to play in the NBA for Phoenix (he was the 18th overall pick in the 1975 NBA draft).
“He was tough in practice and games,” Grevey said. “He was our enforcer. In college nobody wanted to tangle with Jimmy Dany Conner. He would have won a fistfight with anybody.”
Herndon remembers one other historical note connected with Conner during his recruitment by legendary UK coach Adolph Rupp.
It was Conner’s senior season when Anderson was hosting Woodford County — which was coached then by Don Lane, the long-time coach at Transylvania.
“The place was jam-packed. Of course, every game, home or away was packed,” Herndon said. “Adolph Rupp had decided to come watch him play and he got there late. They stopped the game so coach Rupp could be seated.
“Several years ago I was in Conner’s office and he was laughing about that incident but, if I remember correctly, coach Rupp told him that was the last high school game he ever saw.”
Kentucky has developed quite a pipeline with North Hardin High School.
Talented defensive lineman Octavius Oxendine signed with UK in December and enrolled at UK in January. Recently running back La’Vell Wright and safety Jordan Lovett both verbally committed to UK for the 2021 recruiting class.
But two other North Hardin players — defensive lineman Isaiah Beasley and linebacker Darren Green — off last season’s 13-1 team will be preferred walk-ons for UK this season.
Coach Brent Thompson said Green had offers from some smaller Division I schools but with his academic scholarship money can attend UK to play football and not have to pay.
Same with Beasley, who has a 4.0 grade-point average and few financial worries for joining the team as a walk-on.
“He went up there for a camp and they offered him a chance to walk on then,” Thompson said. “Our defense had a lot of success last year. A lot was due to Octavius but Darren and Isaiah also had a lot to do with it.”
Quote of the Week: “We aspire to choose peace over panic, faith over fear.The truth will offend us at times, and it should. But the truth, plus grace, equals love. And we have to live out a message of love to our neighbors to live in peace,” UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart in a video message about the political unrest in our country.
Quote of the Week 2: “It probably was social studies. I liked learning about different people, different cultures. I was mostly outside playing but when I had to stay inside and had to do homework, social studies seemed to be the homework I enjoyed the most,” Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson on her favorite subject in school.
Quote of the Week 3: “We go over to the (Wildcat) Lodge every day and eat. We run into most of them. They are always nice and we talk to each other. We share the basketball facility and training room. I know a lot of them and it was pretty nice just to get to know some of the biggest names in college basketball,” UK basketball player Emma King on being around the UK men’s basketball team during her freshman year.