The sixth-ranked Tennessee softball team has one of the hardest schedules in the entire country, even without factoring in the brutal SEC slate it will face. That being said, the Lady Vols are off to a good start.
They're coming off of a 5-0 start in the season opening tournament, the Kickin' Chicken Classic, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Just five days later though, they're traveling further south to face what might be one of their toughest five game stretches of the entire season.
“It’s huge and this is why we play the schedule we play,” stated head coach Karen Weekly. “Last weekend was a good tune-up for this weekend , but we’re really excited to come to Clearwater and play in what is turning out to be a great tournament. It looks to be one of the best we’re going to see all year.”
The team will travel to Clearwater, Florida to participate in the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational for its second straight tournament appearance on the road. The level of competition Tennessee will face runs high.
Four of the five teams the Lady Vols will face are either ranked, or have received votes in the latest polls. The last team they will face on Sunday is No. 1 Florida State, a team that won its first NCAA Softball World Series National Championship last season.
Other opponents include No. 21 Minnesota, No. 23 James Madison, and Notre Dame, a team that barely missed out on this past week's top 25.
Tennessee will need to maintain the level of production it had in the Kickin' Chicken Classic if it hopes to make it out on the positive side of this weekend's tournament. In South Carolina, the Lady Vols outscored opponents 49-4.
Such dominance allowed them to give younger, more inexperienced players a try, and those players took advantage of the opportunities.
The freshmen made a name for themselves over the weekend, with Ashley Rogers producing 22 strikeouts and Ally Shipman leading the team with nine RBIs. Despite being young, they have the ability to make an impact throughout the season, especially going into Clearwater this upcoming weekend.
“We knew when we recruited this class that they were going to be counted on right away to come in and compete well for us,” explained Weekly. “Granted they’re never going to have the experience our juniors and seniors have, not until they get to that point."
Despite having a tough schedule, the Lady Vols are welcoming the challenge and look forward to tournaments that push them as a team.
“The season is a marathon not a sprint,” senior infielder Aubrey Leach said. “Piling up some games in a couple of days really helps us when it comes to postseason. It's long, we play 54 games not counting postseason, so building up our endurance is really what it’s all about.”
The action begins on Friday, with two opponents on Tennessee's docket in Notre Dame at 10 a.m. and Minnesota at 3 p.m. It will play against James Madison and Utah on Saturday, before wrapping things up on Sunday against Florida State.