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VOL. 43 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 8, 2019

2018’s shortcomings fuel Lady Vols’ desire

By Rhiannon Potkey

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The thought is always there in the back of their minds. Every time they step on the field for practice, every time they take cuts in the batting cage, Tennessee softball players remember. They haven’t forgotten how close they came to reaching the Women’s College World Series the last two seasons. The Lady Vols advanced to the Super Regionals twice, only to fall short to fellow Southeastern Conference opponents both times.

It’s down to the final chance for the Tennessee seniors.

Since co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly took over the program in 2002, every four-year senior has reached Oklahoma City at least once.

The quest to return begins Friday when the No. 8 Lady Vols open the season at the Kickin’ Chicken Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, against the University of Chicago-Illinois and Coastal Carolina. Tennessee’s home opener is scheduled for Feb. 22 when the Lady Vols host the Tennessee Classic.

“We definitely don’t forget what happened the past couple of seasons. We can put it behind us and play every game each day at a time, but we know what has happened,” redshirt junior infielder Savannah Huffstetler says. “Our senior class has never been to Oklahoma City, and that is not easy to forget, and we are going to do everything we can to get there.”

The Lady Vols return 14 players from a team that finished 48-14 and fourth in the SEC last season.

The pitching staff is led by the experienced duo of senior Matty Moss and junior Caylan Arnold. All-America senior Aubrey Leach, arguably the top leadoff hitter in the nation, and junior Chelsea Seggern anchor the infield.

Replacing All-America shortstop Meghan Gregg has required some experimentation. Seggern might shift from third base to shortstop early in the season.

The Weeklys were hoping freshman Gracie Osborn would fill the void at shortstop, but the Paris, Tennessee, native is still healing from a knee injury suffered in high school.

“I am comfortable playing any of the infield positions,” Seggern explains. “For now, we are just trying to get on the same page with who is playing where and finding a comfortable level with each other just playing with each other and knowing our ins and outs position-wise.

“Once we figure that out, I think we will be really good.”

As hitting has progressed and more detailed scouting reports have emerged, pitching staffs have expanded in college softball. No longer can a team rely on one or two aces to get through an entire season.

The Lady Vols learned that lesson in their last two Super Regional losses when they weren’t able to throw a different look at opposing batters from Texas A&M and Georgia.

Tennessee hopes to have a deeper staff this season with freshman Ashley Rogers (Athens) joining Moss, Arnold and first baseman/pitcher Ashley Morgan.

“The ideal staff now is probably about four pitchers with maybe that fourth one somebody who can play another position for you and pitching is a part-time role,” Karen Weekly says. “But you definitely need three that you feel really confident in going to at any point in time if you are going to be successful. Hitting has just improved so much in the last 10 years or so.”

Moss returns to the circle much stronger this season. The right-hander struggled with sickness last year, which put more mental and physical stress on Arnold to shoulder the load.

Moss had her tonsils removed during the summer, and she feels more energized and equipped to throw as much as needed.

“I was on antibiotics for five months last season and in and out of the ER. It was hard to maintain weight or muscle or anything like that,” Moss recalls. “But now that I have got those out, I can really work out and feel strong again and just go out with a bang for my senior year.”

Freshman Ally Shipman, the sister of former Tennessee All-American shortstop Madison Shipman, is expected to make an immediate impact at catcher for the Lady Vols.

“Ally Shipman is almost a twin of Maddi Shipman. They look alike and both come from a great background,” Ralph Weekly says. “Ally was a top five recruit in the country. She has a gun for an arm, which is something that we really are looking forward to.”

As has been the case since the Weeklys arrived, the Lady Vols are playing a challenging nonconference schedule to prepare for SEC and postseason play.

Tennessee plays 18 teams that are ranked or receiving votes in the preseason polls, including four teams that reached last season’s WCWS.

The Lady Vols embrace the early tests, knowing they will pay dividends down the stretch as the program seeks its return to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2015.

“Our class is super hungry. We have never been to the World Series before and that is our goal,” Moss acknowledges.

“We want to go and we want to win a national championship. Being that close twice, we know what is at the end and we just have to make it past that last game. I think we can do it this year.”

The Lady Vols know they can’t skip steps in the process. Although they can still taste the disappointment in how the last two years ended, they know they can’t dwell on it daily.

They can, however, use the past to help them dig deeper when they are tired during drills or facing adversity during games.

“We think of it almost as a revenge tour too, really motivational,” Seggern says. “Every day we come out here thinking of something to look forward to and focus on other than ourselves.”

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