KNOXVILLE—Pat Summitt’s influence on the University of Tennessee is not limited to basketball.
Co-head coaches for the softball team, Ralph and Karen Weekly, are still taking her advice.
“One of the things Pat Summitt told us is schedule tough — schedule tough out of conference,” Ralph Weekly said. “We’re hoping to get our kids seasoned early and get ready for a very tough conference schedule.”
On Friday, No. 8 Tennessee will kick off its season at the Kickin’ Chicken Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., facing Illinois-Chicago, Coastal Carolina, Boston University and Rider over the weekend. The Lady Vols’ schedule is one of the toughest in the nation, with 18 of their opponents ranked or received votes in preseason polls.
With such a difficult road ahead, Tennessee is not wasting any time getting ready for it.
“We’ve been outside almost every day the last few weeks, and it’s been 36 degrees,” Ralph Weekly said. “We’ve just got to do what we can do and get out there as much as we can.”
Of Tennessee’s 33 opponents, 10 were ranked in the NCAA’s final Top 25 RPI poll and 20 were selected to NCAA Regionals in 2018. Every team in the SEC qualified for regional play last season, with Florida and Georgia both advancing to the Women’s College World Series.
Tennessee is coming off a 48-14 season in which it reached the NCAA Tournament for the 15th year in a row and advanced to the Super Regional for the 10th time. They Lady Vols return six of their top 10 hitters as well as experienced pitchers, Matty Moss and Maryville High School alum Caylan Arnold.
A junior, Arnold led Tennessee in innings pitched (217.0) and ERA (2.19) last spring. She threw a career-high 227 strikeouts and had 26 wins, which ties for 10th best in program history for a single season.
Joining Moss and Arnold on the mound is freshman Ashley Rogers of Athens, who Karen Weekly called “very composed.”
Rogers was the 2017 Gatorade Tennessee Softball Player of the Year and the Extra Inning Softball High School Player of the Year.
“The thing I like most about her is her mental game,” Karen Weekly said. “When you see that in a freshman, I think that bodes well for the things she can do. It will be different for her just like it is any freshman. They come in and it’s a whole different ball game pitching in the best conference in the country, so she’ll have her ups and downs, but I like what I’ve seen out of her so far in terms of how she handles things mentally.”
Karen Weekly said a benefit of expanding the pitching staff is more depth in the event of illness or injury. The Lady Vols were down to two effective pitchers last season when Moss got sick, leaving Arnold as Tennessee’s only option.
“Caylan pretty much had to shoulder the load a couple weekends in SEC play, and that’s almost impossible for anybody,” Karen Weekly said. “I think she really appreciates and values what everybody else on the pitching staff can bring to the table.”
Alternating pitchers also helps keep hitters off balance. Ralph Weekly linked the Lady Vols’ last two losses in the Super Regional finals to their opponents’ familiarity with their pitchers.
“Two years ago, we had Texas A&M, (who) we had just come back from playing in a regular series and they had seen our pitchers,” Ralph Weekly said. “Same thing last year with Georgia — they’d seen our pitchers. I think going to a four-person staff gives us a lot better look on the last few days of the season.”
Tennessee’s biggest loss from last year is shortstop Meghan Gregg, who hit .394 with 18 home runs and 72 RBIs. Karen Weekly said Chelsea Seggern will likely shift from third base to shortstop while freshman Grace Osbron, who was originally expected to fill that hole, continues to recover from a broken leg she suffered last summer.
“She’s cleared, she’s practicing, but it’s going to take her a little more time to get up to SEC speed with her game,” Karen Weekly said of Osborn. “Hopefully she’ll get there eventually, but that’s a position that there’s some movement going on there right now and then, of course, that affects some other spots in the infield. …
“That’s why we’ve been trying to get outside as much as possible to figure out where our best nine players and best nine offensive threats will fit into the defensive lineup.”
The Lady Vols’ first home game will be on Feb. 22 against Kansas as part of the Tennessee Classic at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.