The keys to establishing a foundation for success in collegiate softball include bringing in the right leadership, scouring the country for the finest players to bring together and adding in the right schedule. Once all those necessary pieces are acquired, they are assembled and interlocked to form the perfect puzzle. In a six-year stint that has seen the meteoric rise of the Tennessee program to unprecedented success, Lady Vol co-head softball coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly have proven that they have certainly discovered the proper method for "Interlocking Success."
The climb has been rapid for UT softball, as the Weeklys inherited a program that went 24-35 in 2001, the year before their arrival at Rocky Top, and have turned it into a player on both the conference and national levels. Along with three straight top-three NCAA finishes, three consecutive Women's College World Series berths and three-straight 60-win seasons has come increased media attention in the form of 37 televised games since the start of the 2005 WCWS. This campaign begins the dawn of a new era in some respects for the Lady Vol program, so for the Weeklys, taking the assembled pieces and interlocking them together into a cohesive unit will be more important than ever in '08. All eyes will be on new players in new roles, as expectations for success at UT have now become an annual standard.
The promising 2008 Tennessee squad returns 12 letterwinners and six starters from last year's 63-8 team while adding six lauded newcomers. As a sign of the program's growing respect on the national level, UT will open its new campaign as the No. 6 team in the country according to the preseason release of the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) rankings. This comes despite the loss of three prominent All-Americans from last season, including one of the most dominant pitchers in NCAA History in Monica Abbott.
"Tennessee is a team in transition," Lady Vol Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said. "We are young but very talented. We have moved some players to different positions and actually will only start one player (Shannon Doepking) in the position she started the 2007 season. With that thought in mind, we still will start six or seven people who had extensive playing time last year. We will attempt to combine the speed game with middle of the batting order power on offense. Our offensive goal will be to put pressure on opposing defenses with every at-bat. Defensively, we will strive to remain one of the top fielding clubs in the country since we've led the NCAA in fielding in three of the past four seasons. Pitching and defense win games. Those are fundamentals we stress to our team each and every day at practice.
"Karen (co-head coach Weekly) and I believe this is the most talented overall team we've had during our time at Tennessee. It's also the youngest team we've had and the most inexperienced. We realize that we may make some mistakes in February and March, but our goal is to develop these young players into a cohesive unit that is a strong threat to compete nationally in April and May."
The infield position for the Lady Vols in 2008 will look quite different at first glance to those familiar with Big Orange softball but will still boast a wealth of experience and leadership on the largest stages in Southeastern Conference and NCAA postseason action. A two-time NFCA All-American will move all the way across the diamond to man the hot corner at third base, while a pair of infield regulars boasting over 100 combined starts will take over the positions at shortstop and second base. A platoon will be utilized at first between an established SEC All-Freshman returnee and a promising newcomer. Having led the nation in fielding percentage in three of the past four seasons, the experience returning for Tennessee around the diamond will be vital in helping keep the Orange & White near the top of the defensive charts.
At the forefront of the list is returning second-team Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-America third baseman Tonya Callahan. A preseason selection to the national watch list for the prestigious USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year trophy, the Holden, Mo., native prepares for her senior campaign fresh off a year in which she hit .385 with 16 doubles and 11 home runs while recording a team-high 60 RBI. She is already the Tennessee career leader in homers with 35 big flies entering her final campaign and has knocked in a staggering 133 runs over her last two seasons. Defensively, Callahan is one of the best ever to wear the Orange & White, as the 5-8 senior has been on the wrong end of a fielding judgment on just eight occasions to rate at a solid .991 overall with the majority of her career having consisted of holding down first base.
After spending the majority of 2007 platooning at second base, senior Kenora Posey will make the move to the other side of the infield in hopes of continuing the tradition of excellence for the Big Orange at shortstop. The Los Angeles, Calif., native will be replacing the departed Liane Horiuchi, who committed just a single miscue in 132 chances but should be up to the task of helping to anchor UT's perennially stout defense. At the dish the slap hitter continues to improve as witnessed by her .272 overall average in 2007 and .348 mark during Super Regional and Women's College World Series action. Her blazing speed tortures opposing defenses. Last season, Posey swiped 29 bases, including a WCWS record-tying four during a six-game stay at the annual event, and scored 33 runs for the Lady Vol offensive attack.
"There has been a total change in our infield from last season, specifically in flipping last year's starting right side of the infield (Posey and Callahan) to shortstop and third base, respectively," Weekly said. "Both of those individuals are accomplished players who have started ever since they arrived at Tennessee. They seem to have made the transition without problems. Callahan was a high school third baseman coming into college, and Posey was a shortstop."
"Nicole Kajitani has cemented herself at second base, but she can also play in the outfield and at shortstop," Weekly said. "She possesses great range and serves as our vocal leader on the infield."
The situation at first base also brings the catching position into play, as returning SEC All-Freshman selection Tiffany Huff and incoming freshman standout Jen Lapicki will share time at the corner while also spending occasional time behind the plate.
Huff recorded one of the finest seasons for a rookie in Tennessee softball history during 2007 by hitting .339 with 11 doubles, six home runs and 58 RBI. That RBI total marked the most runs knocked in by a Tennessee frosh since Carrie Swinford registered 62 RBI in 1996, a year prior to UT joining the rugged SEC. Her efforts have already opened eyes on the national stage, as the Saugus, Calif., product was tabbed to the '08 preseason watch list for the USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year trophy along with fellow infield standout Callahan. Time spent playing this past summer for the gold medal-winning U.S. Junior National Team at the Junior World Championships in Enschede, Netherlands, and the Pan Am Junior Qualifier in Caguas, Puerto Rico, should prove invaluable to her continued improvement.
The first Tennessee Lady Vol softball player to hail from the state of New Jersey, Lapicki arrives at Rocky Top with a slew of accolades in tow. A first-team all-conference selection from 2004-07, the Oldwick, N.J., native hit .528 in 2007 while breaking her own school single-season records with 13 doubles and 18 extra-base hits. In her career, she registered 39 doubles, 11 triples and 12 home runs while never committing an error at the catching position over four seasons. Lapicki was chosen as the Somerset County Player of the Year (2007) after helping Immaculata H.S. to a county championship with a 14-8 record and was tabbed first-team all-county on three occasions (2005-07) and second-team all-county in 2004.
Providing depth at first base will be redshirt sophomore Allison Fulmer. Utilized primarily as a pinch hitter/runner during her brief career, the Maryville, Tenn., product has proven a tireless worker to the coaching staff and has toiled diligently to improve her overall game with sights set on more opportunities in the field and at the plate during 2008.
"Lapicki and Huff will play some at first base," Weekly said. "Huff has more experience at the position, having played there in three games at last year's Women's College World Series, but will see a lot of time behind the plate. Lapicki and Fulmer will continue to develop at this position."
A pair of newcomers also will be added to the infield rotation in 2008 as redshirt frosh Natalee Weissinger and freshman Chandra Mogan are expected to provide a level of versatility for the Weeklys that should prove vital to the defensive effort.
A stellar student with California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) academic honors during her stay at Fontana High School in Fontana, Calif., Mogan helped guide her squad to four consecutive Citrus Belt League titles. Chosen as an EA SPORTS second-team All-American following her senior season (2007), she was also a four-time first-team All-Citrus League, all-county and 2006 first-team CIF selection. She reaped three straight Silver Slugger awards while establishing school career records for most singles, most runs scored, most stolen bases and highest batting average. Her averages were eye-popping during her high school career, as she hit over .450 each season with a high of .522 in '05.
"Chandra Mogan is a very good player who can perform in all four infield positions," Weekly said. "Her strong bat will make her a solid threat to play."
Weissinger was chosen as a 2006 EA SPORTS All-American as well as The Tennessean's Player of the Year. She was a part of three-consecutive Tennessee (Class A) state, region and district title teams and the 2006 state, region and district champs at the higher AA division while registering an incredible overall record of 169-20-1. The Madison, Tenn., native posted a .503 batting average, scored 28 runs, went 21-for-21 on steal attempts and only made four errors in 46 games during her senior campaign. She also reaped all-state, all-mid-state and all-district honors every year in softball and was chosen by the Tennessee Sports Writers Association (TSWA) to its 2005 and 2006 all-state teams. She sat out the 2007 season for Tennessee as a redshirt.
"Natalee Weissinger is a strong defensive player who gives us solid depth at second, short and third base," Weekly said.
Also providing infield support is Knoxville product Caitlin Ryan, who saw action in a career-high 33 games for the Orange & White in 2007. The West High School graduate served mainly as a pinch runner last year by scoring 12 runs for the Lady Vol offense and enters the new season as a back-up infielder and designated hitter.
"A team leader whose strongest asset is her ability to hit, Caitlin also was utilized to pinch run at crucial times last year and always came through for us in the clutch," Ralph Weekly said. "Caitlin has tremendous power and the ability to drive in runs in crucial situations."
The catching position is expected to be one of the major strengths of the 2008 Tennessee squad, as a familiar face returns behind the plate for her senior campaign. As one of the finest backstops in the nation, three-year starter Shannon Doepking took the proverbial "next step" in her development last season on her way to first-team All-SEC and second-team NFCA All-South Region honors. Widely lauded last year for her clutch production down the stretch after posting five game-winning RBIs after March 14th, the Acton, Calif., native hit .278 with eight doubles, two triples and six home runs while knocking in 28 runs. Behind the plate, Doepking has thrown out almost 40 percent of baserunners attempting to steal during her career and, in her role of leader behind the dish, helped guide the 2007 UT pitching staff to an NCAA-best 0.88 ERA, 63 wins and 910 strikeouts. Thankfully, depth in the form of Huff and Lapicki will grant Doepking the occasional break and the opportunity to remain fresh throughout the lengthy campaign.
"Catcher is undoubtedly our strongest position entering the 2007 season," Weekly said. "We have three players who were all very good prep and club team catchers. All three possess extensive experience, are good field generals and have strong throwing arms. Huff and Lapicki will be called upon to play other positions, but they will see time behind the plate. Shannon will get the starting nod, but she won't be expected to catch 50+ games this year."
Easily the youngest group that will appear on the field for Tennessee in '08 will be in the outfield after the Lady Vols lost the services of a pair of senior All-Americans in India Chiles and Lindsay Schutzler. Valuable game experience returns, however, at all three positions, helping to make the transition more manageable as UT's outfield begins a new chapter in the program's 13-year history.
Expected to back up Hammond in left is Kelsey Stander, a product of Paradise Valley, Ariz. The 5-5 freshman, who boasts a 2.6 time from home to first base, helped guide her Chaparral High School squad to four consecutive region titles while picking up three all-region selections (2005, 2006, 2007) and two second-team all-state 4A nods (2006, 2007) in her prep career. Stander also reaped honorable mention selections to the all-state (2005) and all-region (2004) teams and was named to the 4A-1A East Valley Tribune First Team in 2007 after hitting .440 with 53 stolen bases.
A battle is shaping up to replace Schutzler's production in center field, as sophomore Anita Manuma and freshman newcomer Kelly Grieve are locked in heated competition for playing time.
Manuma, a native of Ewa Beach, Hawai'i, spent her 2007 season as a utility player for Tennessee, seeing time in both the infield and outfield. Playing in 47 games with 27 starts, she hit just .234 overall, but she demonstrated promise at the plate by contributing four doubles, two home runs and seven RBI while showing a keen eye at the dish in drawing 13 walks. In possession of a strong arm and a lot of power, Manuma will be looked to, along with Hammond, for leadership in the youthful outfield while also knocking in runs for the Lady Vol offense.
A three-sport athlete in cross country, basketball and softball at Enka High School in Asheville, N.C., promising newcomer Grieve was chosen the North Carolina 3A All-State Player of the Year-West in 2006 after hitting .494 with 36 runs scored, 22 stolen bases, an on-base percentage of .637, a .742 slugging percentage, seven doubles, three triples and three home runs during her junior campaign while helping guide Enka to a 22-1 record and a Mountain Athletic Conference (MAC) title. She was also a three-time All-Western North Carolina and a three-time All-MAC selection during her playing career.
Entering the new campaign, sophomore Erinn Webb is the expected leader to start the year in right field with junior Danielle Pieroni pushing her hard for everyday playing time.
A high-profile recruit entering Tennessee a year ago, Webb has worked diligently on improving all aspects of her game prior to the 2008 season. The Hemet, Calif., native hit only .208 last year but showed pop at the plate that resulted in four doubles and 14 RBI. None of those RBI was bigger than the two Webb drove in to break a 1-1 tie against No. 12 Hawai'i in the finale of the best-of-three NCAA Super Regionals in Knoxville. That clutch double helped send UT to its third consecutive WCWS.
Having seen time mainly in the outfield during her stay at Rocky Top, former prep pitching star Pieroni also is expected to venture back into the circle during the new campaign. Her versatility should prove invaluable as the Madison, Tenn., native has proven throughout her stay in the Orange & White to be an effective defensive player while providing a clutch hit off the bench when needed.
"We will be very young in the outfield this year, but we have six players who can run and throw and are getting stronger with each practice," Weekly said. "Hammond has established herself in left field, where she is very quick and an accurate thrower. Stander is a work in progress in left field and has demonstrated a lot of improvement since arriving at Tennessee.
"The biggest battle for starting rights is in center field, where Manuma and Grieve are locked in competition. Manuma brings more power to the table, has a strong arm and good range. Grieve is the faster player, possessing power to go with speed, but she lacks experience in the outfield.
"Webb is the leader to start the season in right field but is in a close competition with Pieroni. Both are experienced players from strong club backgrounds who know how to play the position and have strong left-handed bats."
It's the dawning of a new day at pitcher for Tennessee entering the 2008 season after the departure of four-time NFCA All-American Abbott. At first glance the situation looks impossible…how to replace arguably the greatest pitcher in the history of the college game? Thankfully, for the Big Orange, a familiar face returns looking for a chance to make her mark on the collegiate softball world.
Providing support to Rhodes in the circle during the upcoming campaign will be both Pieroni and lauded freshman Ashton Ward. Ward was named to the 2006 & 2007 EA SPORTS All-American Softball Teams and a 2007 Louisville Slugger/NFCAHigh School All-American and All-South Region selection. She was chosen as the Gatorade Player of the Year for North Carolina for 2006-07 as well as a three-time Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Weekly Player of the Year and the 2006 Western North Carolina Player of the Year. Ward boasts an overall prep record of 58-1 in the circle with ERA's of 0.00 in both 2004 and 2005, a 0.02 ERA in 2006 and a 0.28 ERA in 2007. During the '07 campaign, she led her team to its second consecutive Class 4A North Carolina state title by winning tourney Most Valuable Player honors after striking out 44 batters over three games and 13 in the finale. In 2007 she posted a 26-0 record from the circle with 360 strikeouts in 170 innings for a K-per-7 inn. mark of 14.8. Her efforts helped the Bulldogs finish at No. 6 in the Student Sports FAB 50 final rankings. A four-time first-team all-state, all-conference and All-Mecklenburg County choice in North Carolina, she was also solid at the dish by posting batting averages for four consecutive seasons over .412 with a high in 2006 of .508 while guiding her team to four conference regular-season and tournament championships.
Pieroni has worked just 3.1 innings from the circle during her career at Tennessee, but she initially entered the program off an all-star high school career at Goodpasture Christian School in the Nashville, Tenn., area. In high school, she struck out over 1,000 batters while twice being tabbed as the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Tennessee. She also led her prep squad to three consecutive state championships.
"Coaches Marty McDaniel and Stephanie Sayne have worked really hard with our three-player staff during the fall and into early spring," Weekly said. "We will have limited actual game experience, but we feel that all three pitchers have made a lot of progress and all will be competitive.
"Rhodes will be the ace of the staff. In the past three seasons, she has pitched in several very important games for our team and has established herself as a very good pitcher in both conference and tournament play.
"Pieroni was a high school phenom who has played primarily offense and defense in her first two seasons at Tennessee. She is a good pitcher who will be called upon to throw important innings this spring.
"Ward was very effective in high school and club ball. She is a hard-thrower with good movement and excellent off-speed. She will also be counted upon to throw some tough innings for us early on in the upcoming season and develop as the year progresses."
As always Tennessee Co-Head Coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly have constructed a difficult schedule that will test their team's mettle before entering the rugged SEC. The early season tournament slate will take the Lady Vols from coast to coast and include, for the first time in many years, a home-hosted event, the Tennessee Classic from Feb. 21-24 at the new Lee Softball Stadium.
After hosting BYU, Virginia, Wagner and Louisiana-Monroe at the Tennessee Classic, UT will head off to the prestigious NFCA Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga. This year's visit will mark the Lady Vols' second trip to the NFCA in the last three seasons. During their stay in Columbus, the Orange & White will battle Charlotte, Hofstra, Florida State, Illinois State and Nebraska.
Following a single contest against '07 NCAA Regional participant Tennessee Tech in Knoxville, the Lady Vols will venture down the road for the first league series of the year in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the Big Orange will face off against the archrival Alabama Crimson Tide in a difficult three-game set over March 8-9. Other road trips in league play will send Tennessee to South Carolina (March 19-DH), Arkansas (March 21-22, three games), Auburn (March 29-30, three games) and Mississippi State (April 26-27, three games).
After the visit to Alabama, UT returns home for a doubleheader against Tennessee State (March 12) before playing host to Kentucky for a three-game league set over March 15-16. Also on the Big Orange's home schedule are doubleheaders versus Lipscomb (March 25), East Tennessee State (April 1), Western Carolina (April 9) and Austin Peay (April 22). In conference action, the Lady Vols will welcome Georgia (April 5-6, three games), Mississippi (April 16-DH), LSU (April 19-20, three games) and Florida (May 3-4, three games) to the home confines in Knoxville.
Tennessee will look to make its sixth consecutive appearance in the league's annual event, as the 2008 SEC Tournament will be contested in Baton Rouge, La., over May 8-10. The NCAA Tournament schedule will commence over May 16-18 with NCAA Regionals to be held at campus sites. The best-of-three NCAA Super Regional round is slated for May 23-24 at campus sites with the annual Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla., to be contested from May 29-June 4 at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
The pieces needed for success are thought to be in place at Tennessee venturing into the 2008 campaign, but only time will tell how well those pieces will fit together during a season of transition. If recent history is any judge, the Weeklys' method for "Interlocking Success" at Tennessee should help keep the Lady Vol softball program among the elite of collegiate softball for some time to come.