The Lady Vols entered this year’s NCAA tournament with high hopes. After all, the head coaching tandem of Ralph and Karen Weekly have seen their fair share of success - including a 17-year streak of competing in the postseason. Pair this with a talented roster coming off a 42-15 season against a tough SEC slate, and it’s easy to see why many surrounding the team felt a deep run was imminent.
Not everything was as it seemed, however. After a statement victory on day one against Eastern Kentucky, the Lady Vols dropped two in a row to James Madison and Liberty. Just like that, their season was over.
This isn’t a fate the roster is used to. Tennessee has not missed the Super Regional round of the tournament since 2016. In other words, no current member of Tennessee softball has missed the second weekend in their career while wearing the orange and white – until now.
Two themes were persistent all year for the Lady Vols. Here's what went wrong for Tennessee in an underwhelming season.
An overreliance on Ashley Rogers may have sealed their fate.
Tennessee’s first SEC series victory came almost 35 games into the season. To say it wasn’t an easy battle would be an understatement, especially considering it came against one of the better batting teams in the nation in Kentucky. Tennessee’s bats did what was asked of them all series, but the circle is where the battle was won for the Lady Vols.
Ashley Rogers was practically untouchable. Her combined stats for two games are something out of a video game: 54 batters faced, 23 strikeouts, just three earned runs off six hits and, most importantly, two W’s. Following game three, co-head coach Ralph Weekly made sure her importance was recognized.
"I was fortunate to be with the U.S team for nine years. I’ll tell you, she's one of the top pitchers I've ever seen. She's strong, the ball has movement, and she's able to locate it well,” Weekly said.
The low point of the series was in game two with Rogers resting. A 6-1 Tennessee victory on Friday was followed with an embarrassing 13-2 bludgeoning on Saturday. Three separate pitchers saw action for the Lady Vols in this one, allowing 13 hits and seven earned runs in a combined effort. To be fair, the Lady Vols outfield also posted three errors – there was plenty of blame to go around.
The series against Kentucky served as a microcosm for the pitching situation throughout the entirety of the season; Tennessee was at its best with Rogers, but often struggled in her absence against big name schools - not exactly a rare predicament for teams to have in NCAA softball.
Still, the overreliance on Rogers in big games caught up with the Lady Vols in May, and eventually aided in their quick exit from the field of 64. Rogers pitched 19 innings in two days, and it was obvious exhaustion had set in by game three against Liberty. The usually automatic Tennessee ace allowed five early runs off four hits and was eventually pulled in a move that proved too little too late.
It seemed coaching decisions regarding Rogers kickstarted Tennessee’s eventual downfall. For example, Callie Turner, a sophomore out of Florida, went 3-3 in SEC play and finished the season with an impressive 10-3 record. Turner allowed just one hit in three innings of play against Liberty in relief of Rogers, yet it’s impossible to know if the outcome would have been different had she faced more batters. A lot of the time, she was never given a chance.
Rogers finished with a final W-L record of 26-10.
Tennessee struggled against the rest of the SEC, especially down the stretch.
Tennessee’s victory over Kentucky was a big one. In many ways, it was the highlight of the season; It extended Tennessee’s win streak over Kentucky in Knoxville, evened up its SEC record at 5-5, and provided some much needed momentum heading into the back half of the SEC slate.
Following their success against the Wildcats, the Lady Vols faced a pair of in-state, non-conference rivals in Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State. Both, as expected, resulted in Tennessee victories. After the second win, Karen Weekly challenged her players to be ready for the intensity of an upcoming series against South Carolina.
“You have got be ready to play every day (in the SEC). It gets the adrenaline going. Everybody is a little more locked in, a little more fired up,” Weekly said.
Her team -- one that had struggled against the top SEC schools in LSU and Alabama to start the season – responded well to her challenge. The Lady Vols went on to win their next three series against South Carolina, Georgia, and Auburn.
They didn’t know it at the time, but a sweep of Auburn would be their peak in SEC play. Tennessee went on to lose four of its final five regular season games in the conference, including two inexplicable losses to a struggling Mississippi State club.
This meltdown dropped the Lady Vols from fourth in the SEC to seventh, which eventually resulted in a loss to Alabama in the SEC semifinal. Tennessee finished 12-11 in conference play, its worst record in a decade.
All Tennessee can do now is learn from this unprecedented season, one that the Lady Vols had to traverse at the tail end of a global pandemic. Tennessee has work to do in the offseason to truly reestablish itself as a team that is feared among the SEC elite.