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Blanton starts UK career with memorable catch but is happy just to be back playing | Sports

Jenna Blanton had not played in a game in two years when she returned to the field in a big way in Kentucky softball’s season-opening 14-4 win over St. John’s.

She had an elbow injury her senior year in high school that limited her to hitting but no fielding. She spent her freshman season at Kentucky in 2022 as a redshirt after undergoing Tommy John surgery after her final high school season to repair ligament damage in her elbow.

So what did she do in the first game back as a full-time player in a regular-season game? She went 3-for-3 at the plate and drove in two runs. In center field, she had a sensational home run-robbing catch that saved three runs.

“It was an amazing feeling (to make that catch). The whole game I just focused on playing my game and doing what I have done my whole life,” Blanton said. “It was kind of cool that (catch) was the play that got me out there and I hope I can build on that.”

She said only hitting as a high school senior and not playing at all as a true college freshman were both difficult in their own way.

“I think last year was more mentally tough on me. Just having to watch was hard,” she said. “But I do think it helped me learn the ropes of college softball. Renee (Abernathy) helped me a lot last year. I practiced with her the majority of the time. She helped me stay focused and I still talk to her today to get her support because she’s done all this.”

Only hitting her senior year also benefited her in a subtle way.

She hit .500 as an eighth-grader and stole 15 bases for her state runner-up Forest School in Chapel Hill (Tennessee). As a freshman, she hit .543 with 52 runs scored and 11 steals. She moved from center field to shortstop for her sophomore season when she hit .418 for her state championship team and scored 52 and stole 36 bases. Her junior season was stopped after three games due to COVID.

Blanton also had a successful AAU career with Platinum Fury that won a national championship in 2015 and a Junior Olympic Cup title among other top finishes.

Yet Blanton, a left-handed hitter, says she was never confident in her hitting ability no matter what her numbers showed.

“I was always pretty confident in my defensive ability and range,” Blanton said. “I struggled with my hitting and focused on that my senior year. I just kind of doubt myself sometimes in the (batter’s) box. I have grown as a hitter and learned how to make myself more confident. I struggled with it but I have gradually built my confidence.”

Moving back to the outfield this season is not a problem for Blanton. She played outfield in travel ball and says she always preferred that over shortstop.

“Going to the outfield can be a hard transition because the ball comes off the bat differently but I am confident in my defense,” she said.

Blanton is from a small town, small school and was the first female Southeastern Conference signee from her school in any sport. She does not view that as pressure because she knows hometown fans and friends want her to succeed.

“They are watching me and rooting for me,” she said. “I do see how that could be intimidating but I just don’t look at it that way.”

Growing up in Tennessee she always wanted to play SEC softball, one reason she gave up basketball her freshman year to concentrate on softball. When she visited UK, she fell in love with the campus, coaching staff and players.

“The coaches were very personable and I could tell they wanted the best for me in the classroom and real world as well as softball,” Blanton said.

Her family members were Vanderbilt fans, but Vandy does not have a softball team so that “made” her go to Tennessee games.

“But I was not a big die-hard Vol fan,” Blanton said.

Once softball ends, she plans to be a high school math teacher — “math has always been easy for me.” Her mother and other family members are teachers and she “always knew” she wanted to be a teacher, too.

Her faith is also another important part of her life.

“I have gone through a lot. I have learned through my trials to depend on God to get me through rough times in life,” Blanton said. “Softball-wise, I remember no matter what I do on the field that I am valuable as a person. Even if I do not do well in a game, I know at the end of the day there is more to life.

“I go 100% on the field but I have more to fall back on than just stats and how I do on the field. It kind of takes a lot to get me upset and mad. I just generally enjoy life and what I am doing.”

She has started seven of UK’s eight games this season and is hitting .389 with six runs scored and three RBIs.

Rowe’s attitude impresses Elzy

Freshman guard Cassidy Rowe of Shelby Valley mainly has had to sit and watch the Kentucky women’s basketball team struggle through a disappointing season but it didn’t impact her attitude.

She had played just seven minutes total in Southeastern Conference play before getting in for seven minutes in a recent loss to Georgia. She played four more minutes against Vanderbilt Sunday and hit a shot.

“Cassidy Rowe is the epitome of what I want every Wildcat to be. She’s a coach’s kid. She has a high basketball IQ, and she works and works and works,” UK coach Kyra Elzy said after the Georgia game. “She was in the gym last night at 10 o’clock. And when her number’s called, I know she’s going to give me everything she has.

“It’s tough as a freshman when you’re sitting behind vets, but the thing about Cassidy, she embraces it. She understands she is not ready, where those other guards are. So, she’s taking this opportunity to learn but when I call her number, I know exactly what I’m going to get.”

Elzy also likes what she is seeing from Kennedy Cambridge and Amiya Jenkins, two freshmen playing more than Rowe.

“When you think about the future of this program, our rookies are really talented. They just don’t have any experience, so it was good they got baptized by fire,” Elzy said after the Georgia game. “Cassidy Rowe, seven minutes, no turnovers with that team — that’s progression.

“Kennedy Cambridge is in the rotation and what she does doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but she knows how to make winning plays. I thought Mimi (Amiya) Jenkins came in did some good things. The future’s bright with that group.”  

Jenkins, the former Anderson County star who was Kentucky’s 2022 Miss Basketball, liked having all three freshmen on the court against Georgia.

“It was pretty great because we all want the same end goals, and for all of us to fight together for the same end goal felt good,” Jenkins, who had seven points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes in the 79-57 loss at Vanderbilt, said.

Kentucky is 10-17 overall and 2-13 in SEC play going into Sunday’s home game against Tennessee, the final game of the regular season.

No favorite in SEC men’s basketball

Kentucky coach John Calipari always touts the strength of SEC basketball and has been proclaiming that no one will want to play his team in the NCAA Tournament despite UK’s problems in SEC play.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said the SEC’s strength will make for a wide open SEC Tournament in Nashville.

“I think more than any time, certainly Alabama, we have the No. 1 team in the country in Alabama. I said before that game (Tennessee won) that they probably should have been No. 1 prior, back a couple weeks ago they should have been. We’ve got that,” Barnes said.

Of course, Tennessee beat Alabama in Knoxville Feb. 15 to give the Crimson Tide its first SEC loss this season. Three days later the Vols lost to Kentucky for the second time this season.

“It is probably more wide open than it has been in the eight years I have been in the SEC. I mean that sincerely. As you know, when you get into the tournament play, so much depends on matchups and how it plays out,” Barnes said.

“I look around the league this year and the coaches, there’s so many coaches who have done just great jobs with their teams. I don’t know if anybody has been more unlucky than Kermit (Davis) at Ole Miss. But otherwise, you look, there have been some great games within our league and I would expect the tournament to be maybe the best it has been since I have been here.”

The SEC Tournament will start March 8 and Calipari says Vanderbilt — which now has buzzer-beating wins over Tennessee and Auburn — is going to be dangerous.

“Vandy is playing as well as anybody in our league,” Calipari said.

Running back Ray Davis had a big impact on Vanderbilt’s win over Kentucky in November when he ran for 129 yards and was one of the SEC’s best running backs. But now he’s at Kentucky even though he says the decision to transfer was not as easy as some may have thought.

“The decision was very, very hard. I cried. Talked to a lot of family members because again, I enjoyed my two years at Vandy,” Davis said. “I enjoyed building those relationships and it was hard to say goodbye to friends. Going back was a possibility,” Davis said.

However, he knew he had to “put myself in the best position” he could to make the NFL and felt playing at Kentucky in 2023 would be much better for him.

“Kentucky is the place to be as you can see, Benny Snell, C-Rod (Chris Rodriguez), Wan’Dale (Robinson), (Josh) Paschal, like there’s countless guys who came from Kentucky and are in the league today,” Davis, a Vanderbilt graduate, said.

“So I knew if that’s my goal, and that’s my dream, then this is where I got to be to achieve that.”

He has already warned teammates if they want to “talk crap during practice” to him that he will bring up Vandy’s win over the Cats last season.

“We laugh and we talk and some of the guys talk about the game, but I don’t really talk much about it,” Davis said. “I’m a Kentucky Wildcat. ‘Im not a Vanderbilt Commodore anymore, so that’s in the past.”

No. 1: “He’s gonna be a guy who has a major impact on college basketball. He will, you watch. And he’s still growing — he’s grown an inch since he’s been here,” UK coach John Calipari on freshman Adou Thiero after the win over Tennessee.

No. 2: “I do not know who will win national player of the year but I do know who is going to win best smile in college basketball and that is without a doubt Oscar Tshiebwe,” SEC Network analyst Daymeon Fishback after UK’s win at Mississippi State.

No. 3: “I think he should come back. Time heals all wounds. He did a lot of great things for the school and brought the program back and helped it out a lot,” former UK player Jared Prickett on whether former coach Rick Pitino should be at UK’s next 1996 championship celebration. 

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