The expectation of competing for a trip to Oklahoma City in May is nothing new for co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly and the Tennessee softball team.
The Lady Vols will once again enter a new season with a plethora of expectations to make a run through the ever-competitive SEC and reach the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2015. The key to getting there will be the players Tennessee returns on the roster.
In 2018, the Lady Vols are set to return with experience. 12 letter winners from the 2017 season, including junior pitcher Matty Moss, top offensive producer and senior Meghan Gregg and SEC Freshman of the Year and pitcher Caylan Arnold. Tennessee may have the tools for a championship-caliber team.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of who will take the diamond for Tennessee this spring.
Pitching is the most instrumental piece in determining a team’s success, especially in the weekly grind that is the SEC, so it’s no surprise that we start the breakdown here. The Lady Vols will bring back one of the most potent staffs that will take the circle in the conference this season, led by junior Matty Moss.
In her sophomore campaign in 2017, Moss tied for first in the SEC with 26 victories, placed fourth in the league with 193 strikeouts and led the team with a 1.76 ERA (currently ranked third in program history). With a career mark of 38-8 overall, her success will be crucial to the team’s performance going forward.
“I think we’re ready,” Moss said of Tennessee handling the pressure and expectation that comes with the No. 2 billing in the SEC. “I think we’ve earned that second preseason (ranking), and we’ll continue to earn that and eventually get to number one.”
And it certainly helps to have the 2017 SEC Freshman of the Year in sophomore Caylan Arnold second in the rotation with a season of experience under her belt.
“Pitching is what drives the engine in fast-pitch softball,” Karen Weekly said. “Caylan (Arnold) and Matty (Moss) have both improved a lot in the offseason. I think you’ll see Caylan just going from a freshman to a sophomore, there’s always improvement there.”
In addition to returning two experienced players to the pitching staff, both coaches are confident in the abilities of freshman pitcher Gabby Sprang, a native of Rosemount, Minnesota.
“(Sprang) is actually very different from anybody on our roster,” Weekly said. “She’s left-handed, which is really nice for us to have. We haven’t had a lefty here in probably 10 years. She throws really, really great pitches down the zone. It’s going to be really nice to add that kind of versatility to our staff.”
The headliner of the Lady Vols' returning infield in 2018 is senior sensation Meghan Gregg, who will contribute heavily to Tennessee as both an infielder at shortstop and at the plate as a hitter. The USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year finalist has a career batting average of .374 to complement 39 home runs and 191 RBIs.
“What Meghan (Gregg) has really improved on and what she has worked really hard at is becoming a better leader for our team,” Karen Weekly said. “And I think that’s something that takes a really special person to do, because every athlete can become pretty good at taking care of themselves, but when you can take care of your teammates while not letting your game diminish at all, that takes a lot of maturity.”
In addition to Gregg, Tennessee will rely on freshman play in the infield in the absence of one of its top offensive producers, junior All-SEC second-teamer Brooke Vines, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery and has no timetable on her return.
“Brooke (Vines) had a shoulder procedure done in the fall,” Karen Weekly said. “So we’re still waiting that out. I don’t think you ever replace somebody with Brooke’s kind of skill set. But, like on any team, that’s an opportunity for somebody to step up.”
Incoming freshman Ashley Morgan, from Douglasville, Georgia, is expected to contribute at first base as well as in the circle for the pitching staff, according to Ralph Weekly.
Freshman Amanda Ayala and junior infielders Haley Bearden and Katie Weimer will all share catching duties with junior catcher Abby Lockman.
Weimer comes to Knoxville by way of Buffalo, New York, where she made the Mid-American Conference all-freshman team in 2017 as well as Buffalo Softball Rookie of the Year.
“The pitchers have been working really hard at bringing me pitches,” Weimer said. “The windups, the catchers have been working a lot with them with some new pitches. Every single group has brought something different to the team. They’ve done a really good job of stepping up and playing their role.”
In the outfield, Jenna Holcomb will look to build upon a solid freshman showing in 2017. The California native started last season with a 10-game hitting streak, the longest by any freshman in school history.
Holcomb finished third on the team with a batting average of .365 and had an impressive showing in last season’s Knoxville Regional, part of the NCAA Tournament, with nine hits and a .450 batting average to cap off an impressive individual performance in the postseason.
Joining Holcomb in the outfield will be returning players sophomore Tianna Batts, senior Sheridan Allen, sophomore Cailin Hannon and sophomore Treasury Poindexter.
Freshmen Ashley Morgan and Amanda Ayala will also split time among infield positions (first base, pitcher and catcher, respectively).
The No. 12 Lady Vols will open the season on Thursday, Feb. 8, as they travel to Tempe, Arizona, to compete in the Kajikawa Classic at Arizona State.