The Tennessee women’s softball team is set to begin its 2018 campaign in Tempe, Arizona, on Thursday in the Kajikawa Classic, hosted by Arizona State University.
Tennessee suffered an untimely exit in its 14th-straight NCAA Tournament appearance last season at the hands of conference foe Texas A&M in the Knoxville Regional to cap off a 48-12 season and a 16-7 mark in league play.
While the 2017 season is certainly touted as a success, the No. 12-ranked Lady Vols hope to use their season-ending loss as motivation for a run to Oklahoma City this season.
“It was tough to get over it,” co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “When you get that close in a super regional and you win the first game and you have one more game to win, it’s just within your grasp. It’s not easy to get to the (Women’s College) World Series. I hope it fuels the fire for them this year.”
While co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly hope that last season’s abrupt ending will motivate their team going forward, the schedule will not get any easier.
In addition to playing in the SEC — a conference that sent all 13 teams to the postseason in 2017 — the Lady Vols will face 33 teams on their 56-game schedule that made the NCAA tournament last season.
They’ll face some top, out-of-conference softball programs right out of the gates, competing in the heart of Pac-12 country for the first several weeks of the season.
“I think I made the schedule really tough this year,” co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. “We’re opening with ASU (Arizona State) and Utah this week, two very strong teams … and a lot of really good teams out of conference. It’s going to be very challenging for the early part of the season.”
Although expectations of making deep runs into the postseason are nothing new for the Lady Vols program, there is an expectation, even beyond Knoxville, for the team to make a legitimate run at not only an SEC crown but a Women’s College World Series title as well.
Tennessee is returning one of the most experienced rosters in the SEC and co-head coach Ralph Weekly says that is what excites him about his team ahead of the season.
“We’re really excited about the upcoming season,” Ralph Weekly said. “Looking at our team, on paper, we’ve got a lot of experience back. We’ve got 12 letter winners, eight players who have started a lot of games.
“We’ve got the SEC Freshman of the Year coming back with Caylan Arnold, and we’ve got Matty Moss, who has been a very successful pitcher for us.”
From an offensive standpoint, Tennessee returns senior shortstop Meghan Gregg, who led the team in offensive production in 2017 with 15 homeruns, 79 RBIs (a program record) and a batting average of .437.
Gregg’s batting average and RBIs both ranked nationally at 10th and second, respectively.
On the injury front, they will have to look to replace the production of the team’s second most productive offensive player in junior Brooke Vines, who underwent shoulder surgery in the fall and has an unclear timetable for return.
In Vines, both coaches are faced with the task of replacing a player who batted .385, hit six home runs and brought in runners with 59 RBIs.
“She (Vines) has been one of our top offensive producers,” Karen Weekly said. “But it’s an opportunity for somebody to step up (who) has been ‘waiting in the wings’ (and) maybe just hasn’t seen an opportunity... to shine.”
“We talk all of the time about people preparing every day like they are going to start. It’s up to somebody on our team to take that role. It’s wide open for them to do it.”
Sophomore outfielder Jenna Holcomb is also expected to contribute heavily to Tennessee’s offensive production. In her freshman season in Knoxville, the Los Alamitos, California product finished with a .365 batting average, an impressive nine-game hitting streak down the stretch and a total of 18 RBIs.
Outside of the offense, the biggest key to being successful in the SEC is often a team’s pitching staff, and in 2018, Tennessee returns one of the most potent in junior Matty Moss and sophomore Caylan Arnold.
Moss recorded 26 wins to just three losses in 2017, striking out 193 batters for a .176 ERA on the year.
“We always have pretty great chemistry because we have great leaders,” Moss said. “We’ve all committed to a certain standard that we’re supposed to uphold, whether it be how we’re running our drills to how we perform on the field.”
Behind Moss is sophomore Caylan Arnold, who is coming off of an impressive season where she was named SEC Freshman of the Year. The Maryville alum went 20-9 in the circle and finished with an ERA of 2.01.
“I learned so much about myself freshman year,” Arnold said. “Just about the strike zone and the hitters and what I have to do to be a better player. I’m really happy with how far I’ve come as a pitcher.”
Tennessee will play its first 17 games on the road, mostly in tournaments on the west coast. The team’s home opener will take place on March 2, as the Lady Vols play host to Charleston Southern, Toledo and South Alabama in the Tennessee Invitational.
From there, they’ll jump into the SEC slate. Co-head coach Ralph Weekly expects the conference to have an even better season in 2018.
“This league is just growing leaps and bounds,” Weekly said. “The coaches in this league are all good and they are tough to compete against. We want to make a serious run for this conference title this year. We want to make a serious run for the World Series.
“We may start a little slow, we may start a little fast. We won’t know until we get out there. It’s what happens in May that’s important.”