Feb. 7, 2012
By Brian Davis, Assistant Media Relations Director
With Co-Head Softball Coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly prepping to enter their 11th season in charge of the Tennessee Lady Vol softball program, the duo enters the new campaign knowing that expectations now, with the talent they have assembled in Knoxville, are always of challenging for titles on both the league and national levels.
UT shouldn't skip a beat in its pursuit of both in 2012 as UT returns four experienced players who have reaped All-American accolades in their careers, all three starting pitchers from last season's 49-win squad and numerous talented newcomers and role players that will provide impressive depth throughout the new campaign.
As always, the schedule will be a daunting task full of challenges, but the expectation is that Tennessee will be properly prepared come time to enter postseason play, perhaps well enough to defend its SEC Tournament title and earn the program's fifth all-time trip to the annual Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla.
The Big Orange begins its new journey with 15 returning letter-winners, including seven that started at least 31 games in 2011, while also welcoming back all 49 pitching victories from the circle. UT bolsters that impressive depth with the addition of a sterling class of four high-profile newcomers.
In all, the Lady Vols return 74% of the total hits, 78% of the runs, 67% of the doubles, 75% of the triples, 68% of the home runs, 74% of the RBIs and 83% of the stolen bases from NCAA Division I's top offense by batting average (.348) in 2011.
Included among the returnees are (2011 stat totals in parentheses): 2011 Louisville Slugger/NFCA First Team All-American and current USA Softball Senior Women's National Team member Lauren Gibson (Junior, 2B--2011 SEC batting champion counting SEC games only at .451, .420 avg., 13 doubles, eight HR's, 63 RBIs, 12-12 stolen bases), 2011 USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year Top 10 Finalist and Louisville Slugger/NFCA Second Team All-American Raven Chavanne (Junior, 3B/OF--2011 SEC batting champion counting all games, .455 avg., 90 hits, 66 runs scored, 33-36 stolen bases), 2011 Louisville Slugger/NFCA Third Team All-American Ellen Renfroe (Sophomore, P--45 appearances, 27 games started, 26-7 record, 1.50 ERA, 259 K's in 201.0 IP), 2011 USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year Top 25 Finalist and Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Southeast Region selection Kat Dotson (Junior, OF--.401 avg., 73 hits, 54 runs scored, 10 HR's, 64 RBIs, 26-31 stolen bases), 2011 SEC All-Freshman choice and recent USA Softball Junior Women's National Team member Madison Shipman (Sophomore, IF--.292 avg., eight doubles, five HR's, 27 RBIs), power-hitting utility player Shelby Burchell (Senior, UTL--.325 avg., 15 HR's, 54 RBIs) and 2010 Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Southeast Region selection Ivy Renfroe (Junior, P--37 appearances, 25 games started, 19-4 record, 2.07 ERA, 157 Ks in 152.1 IP).
Highlighting the Lady Vol freshman class that was rated No. 2 in the nation for 2011 by ESPN RISE are Cheyanne Tarango (P/IF, Anaheim Hills, Calif.), Hannah Akamine (C/IF, Escondido, Calif.,), Haley Fagan (P/IF, Cornersville, Tenn.) and recent roster addition Hannah Trainer (IF, Brentwood, Tenn.). ¬ "This should be a very exciting year for Tennessee softball," Lady Vol Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said. "We have a majority of the players back from the team that led the nation in hitting in 2011, and I believe we currently possess the most depth we've ever had at one time during our 11 years at UT, especially on the infield and in the circle. That's a positive because we have several top players coming back from off-season surgery. The injury bug is going to be a critical factor in our success as always, but the prognosis for those returning to action is good. Overall, the schedule will be challenging and should prepare our squad for a long run in the postseason."
INFIELD/CATCHING: The Lady Vol infield has perhaps the most returning experience of any overall position on the field in 2012. At every starting spot, UT can boast, as the expected opening-day starter, a current or former participant with the various USA Softball programs while returning among those individuals a pair of Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Americans, an SEC All-Freshman choice and a recent, two-time ESPN/RISE High School All-American. Having guided NCAA Division I in fielding percentage on three occasions since 2005 and consistently rating among the top five nationally demonstrates that the Tennessee coaching staff knows how to get the most out the outstanding talent it has accrued across the diamond.
Moving to the "hot corner" full-time in 2012 is two-time Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-American Chavanne. A top 10 finalist last season for the USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year award, the Thousand Oaks, Calif., native won the SEC batting title (counting all games) last season and finished seventh in all of NCAA Division I at .455 to go along with 90 hits, 32 RBIs and 33 steals. The 2011 first team All-SEC and NFCA All-Southeast Region selection reached by hit or walk in 55 of her 61 games and posted a team-high 29 multi-hit efforts last season as UT's everyday lead-off hitter.
An SEC All-Freshman selection last season at shortstop, Shipman is coming off surgery during the off-season to repair her non-throwing shoulder as well as a fractured hamate bone in her left hand/wrist that limited her productivity throughout the majority of her rookie campaign in the Orange & White. Despite her health issues last season, the Valencia, Calif., product still managed to hit .292 overall with five HR's, including a pair of towering grand slams against #21 LSU and Liberty, and 27 RBIs while playing in 58 games (54 starts). Back on the diamond at full speed for 2012, Shipman is expected to anchor the infield at short while providing another powerful bat in the middle of the Lady Vol line-up.
UT's starting second baseman for the majority of the last two seasons and a current member of the USA Softball Senior's Women's National roster, Gibson returns after recording a true breakout 2011 campaign. The Pasadena, Md., native picked up first team Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-American, All-Southeast Region, All-SEC and SEC All-Defensive (2B) accolades last year after hitting .420 overall with a team-best 13 doubles to go along with eight HR's and 63 RBIs. She even won the SEC batting title (counting league contests only) with a sterling .451 average against conference opposition. She got on via hit or walk in 52 of 61 contests, posted 20 multi-hit and 16 multi-RBI efforts and registered a skein of 24 straight games reaching base safely.
A decorated player out Anaheim Hills, Calif., Tarango ventures to Tennessee with an impressive list of accolades in tow. Both a 2011 ESPN/RISE Second Team and 2010 ESPN/RISE Third Team All-American, a 2010 NFCA High School First Team All-West Region selection and one of the 2010 "Top Five Softball Players in Orange County," she was tabbed as All-State, All-CIF, All-Orange County and All-Century League following all four years of her H.S. career (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). As a senior she hit .486 with 20 RBIs while posting a 23-8 record, 214 K's and a 2.44 ERA in 198 innings. Most recently she helped the USA Softball Junior Women's National Team to the ISF IX Junior Women's World Championship crown in Cape Town, South Africa. Tarango hit .400 over six appearances and blasted the game-winning grand slam to top Japan in the title contest, 4-1. Expected to start at first base, the Weeklys also have plans on her contributing in the pitching circle.
"Cheyanne is a gifted athlete who plays first, hits for power and can also pitch," Ralph Weekly said. "I believe she's ready right now to be a starting pitcher, because she possesses a variety of pitches, very good movement and poise in the circle. She's played a lot in high-level travel ball and with the USA Softball program, so she enters UT with a lot of solid experience."
Once again one of the most valuable players on the team because of her versatility will be Melissa Brown. A junior out of Valencia, Calif., she is capable of playing virtually any infield position as witnessed by her 27 career games at second base, 30 career contests at shortstop and 11 nods at third base during the 2011 campaign. Last season Brown hit .292 overall with a pair of doubles, a HR and 11 RBIs, while tallying four multi-RBI and two multi-hit efforts.
Known more for her exploits in the pitching circle (49-22 career record, 2.91 ERA in 467.0 innings) over her initial three seasons at Rocky Top, senior Cat Hosfield is undergoing a move to first base for 2012, providing vital depth behind Tarango. Despite just eight career at-bats at UT, Hosfield has long demonstrated a lot of pop in her bat during practice, equally capable of lacing a line drive or driving the ball out of the park.
Another freshman who could see time on the infield, but will likely be one of the first summoned in as a pinch runner because of her impressive speed, Hannah Trainer arrives at UT from out of Brentwood, Tenn. As a senior shortstop on the diamond at Ravenwood H.S. in 2010, she was tabbed to The Tennessean's All-Mid State Team as well as the District 11-AAA Most Valuable Player after hitting .435, to go along with a .500 on-base percentage, 48 runs scored, 49 singles, three doubles and a triple, while setting her school's single-season (40-for-40 on steals) and career records for thefts.
"Hannah is a real pleasant surprise for us," Ralph Weekly said. "She wasn't recruited heavily, but has proven to be a very fast, smart player who possesses solid defensive ability and a good bat. She should receive playing time as she progresses within our program."
With last season's everyday catcher making the move to center field in 2012, the starting job behind the plate looks to be in the hands of Escondido, Calif., native and rookie Akamine. She is the third of a trio of sisters to play Division I collegiate softball, joining her siblings former Arizona pitcher Sarah Akamine and current Penn State senior pitcher/utility player Lisa Akamine. Having played at catcher, shortstop and in the outfield during her interscholastic career, she recorded stat totals of .306 with seven RBIs as a freshman (2008), .389 with five HR's and 20 RBIs as a sophomore (2009) and .353 with five HR's and 29 RBIs during her senior campaign (2011) at Escondido H.S.
"Hannah is a very good catcher who possesses a very strong arm and a lot of pop in her bat," Ralph Weekly said. "During the fall season she cut down numerous runners attempting to steal and even hit a grand slam that proved the big blow in a comeback victory. She will benefit from the experience of our returning catchers: seniors Ashley Andrews and Shelby Burchell."
Both Andrews and Burchell are expected to help carry the load behind the plate this season, while also contributing elsewhere around the diamond. The former could be called upon for duty on the infield as well as her expected time in the outfield, while the latter could see action in right field, at first base or in the designated player position.
An in-state product out of Columbia, Tenn., senior Burchell demonstrated impressive power during the 2011 campaign by blasting 15 HR's while hitting .325 overall with 54 RBIs. She recorded 17 multi-RBI and 12 multi-hit efforts and provided perhaps the moment of the season with her eighth-inning, walk-off HR to top #8 Georgia in the SEC Tournament Championship Game, 6-5 (8 inn.).
Having played in all 61 games as a junior with 53 starts behind the plate and two at shortstop, senior Ashley Andrews hit .232 with 30 runs scored, two doubles, a triple, nine thefts and 19 RBIs. The Tumwater, Wash., native has long been looked to for her leadership and experience as witnessed by having drawn playing time in 182 of 184 possible games during her time at Rocky Top.
A native of Camden, Tenn., junior Morgan Fowler is again listed as a utility player on the roster because of her defensive versatility and provides even more depth at the catching position. She drew playing time in six games for the Orange & White in 2011 while receiving four at-bats as a pinch hitter. She even contributed her initial home run as a Lady Vol, a two-run shot, in an 18-0 (5 inn.) rout of ETSU.
OUTFIELD/DESIGNATED PLAYER: Plenty of options abound in the outfield for the 2011 campaign, despite the loss of an All-American and All-SEC-caliber player in longtime center fielder Kelly Grieve from last year's squad. Returning to anchor the group in right is Dotson, a 2010 Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-American and a top 25 finalist for the 2011 USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year trophy. After spending her initial campaign receiving the majority of her playing time at either first base or DP, sophomore Melissa Davin is expected to take over from Chavanne as the everyday starter in left, while Andrews should begin the season in center. Promising sophomores Whitney Hammond and Tory Lewis and defensive standout senior Holly Baker will be expected to provide support in the battle for playing time at the position.
Despite battling a right knee injury as a sophomore, Dotson managed to put up impressive numbers on her way to Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-Southeast Region honors. The Savannah, Ga., native led UT and ranked fifth in the SEC in RBIs with 64, while hitting .401 with eight doubles, four triples and 10 HR's. She started 59 of 61 games for the Big Orange in 2011, reaching safely by hit or walk in 49 of those 59 match-ups. Dotson posted 21 multi-hit and 17 multi-RBI efforts and even broke a 15-year-old single-game school mark with nine RBIs in a 16-2 (6 inn.) rout of Tennessee State. In addition to her usual starting position in right, Dotson is also expected to serve as the DP on occasion.
Davin contributed a .306 mark as a rookie, playing in 43 games with 31 starts at either third base, first base or in the DP role. The Fresno, Calif., product added 17 runs scored, two doubles, a triple, three HR's and 17 RBIs, while posting seven multi-hit and five multi-RBI contests. She often responded big in pressure situations as witnessed by her SEC Freshman of the Week effort (.500 on 7-for-14, two doubles, a triple, a HR and six RBIs) in consecutive road sweeps at #2 Georgia and Ole Miss and with her two-out, pinch-hit, RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning to help Tennessee complete a rally from a 4-0 deficit into a 4-4 tie against South Carolina (UT eventually won 5-4).
As a sophomore Hammond managed a solid .367 batting average (11-for-30) with 16 runs scored over 38 games. Her finest effort of the campaign came during a rare start in left against #1 Alabama, as she went 2-for-3 at the dish with her first career double.
A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., much as her teammate Hammond, Lewis drew time in 43 contests in 2011 with 10 starts, hitting .219 overall with 18 runs scored, nine thefts and an RBI. A 2.7 player to first base, she will often be called on to utilize her speed on the basepaths.
Often the player summoned into the outfield as a defensive replacement late in a game, Baker saw action in 47 match-ups for the Big Orange last year, scoring eight runs and stealing four bases, and has now participated in 135 total contests at Tennessee.
PITCHING: Tennessee can look to pitching as an expected area of strength, starting out 2012 with all three pitchers that secured each of UT's 49 victories last season returning. Add to that mix a pair of promising freshmen (Tarango and Fagan), and both the Weeklys and pitching coach Marty McDaniel appear to have the make-up of a solid staff for years to come at Rocky Top.
Ellen Renfroe made quite a statement during her first season in the Orange & White in 2011. The Jackson, Tenn., native secured Louisville Slugger/NFCA All-American and All-Southeast Region honors and was chosen as both All-SEC and the SEC Freshman of the Year after posting a 26-7 overall record with a 1.50 ERA and 259 K's in 201.0 innings of work. The 6-0 right hander managed three victories over teams rated either #1 or #2 in the national polls (#1 Alabama, #2 UCLA, #2 Georgia), led the SEC in ERA (counting SEC games only) at 1.42 and was chosen as the SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player after going 3-0 with a 0.76 ERA during Tennessee's run to its second all-time league tourney title. She even joined former Lady Vol Monica Abbott as the only UT pitchers ever to strikeout 20 batters in a single game with her 20-K performance in a 2-1 (10 inn.) victory over #22 Auburn.
A year after erupting on the scene with a 31-win campaign while leading the Big Orange to its fourth WCWS, Ivy Renfroe continued her solid work in the circle by going 19-4 overall with 157 strikeouts in 152.1 innings and lowered her ERA from 2.41 as a rookie to 2.07 as a sophomore. The Jackson, Tenn., product even fired her second and third career no-hitters, blanking Mississippi State during league play (6.0 IP, 2 BB, 5 K's) and Liberty at the NCAA Knoxville Regional (5.0 IP, 1 BB, 6 K's). The 6-0 right hander posted high-profile triumphs during 2011 on the road at #2 Georgia, at #21 LSU and in NCAA action with a 7-0 blanking of #19 Georgia Tech.
Despite being expected to redshirt in 2012 because of injury, Fagan brings a lot of promise to Rocky Top out of Cornersville H.S. in Cornersville, Tenn. The 6-0 right handed pitcher/first baseman helped lead her high school program to three third-place finishes at the 2008, 2009 and 2011 TSSAA Class A State Girls' Softball Tournaments as well as to a trio of TSSAA Sectional (2008, 2009, 2011), two Region 6-A titles (2008 & 2009) and four straight District 11-A championships (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). Fagan picked up numerous honors following both her junior and senior campaigns (2010, 2011), including consecutive nods to the Middle Tennessee Softball Coaches Association (MTSCA) All-Mid State First Team, two selections as TSSAA All-District 11-A and back-to-back District 11-A Most Valuable Player accolades.
"Haley is a very good pitcher, a good hitter and first baseman who had some injuries after her final high school season and is recovering," Ralph Weekly said. "She spent the fall season in rehab, and I expect she will take a medical redshirt this year."
SCHEDULE: The schedule created at Tennessee by Ralph and Karen Weekly is always a daunting task and 2012 will be no different as a number of highly-rated teams are on the slate prior to entering the always rugged SEC schedule.
Always believing in challenging their squad to better prepare them for postseason action, the Weeklys have their Lady Vol squad slated to face four of the eight participants in last year's Women's College World Series (defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Arizona State, Alabama, Florida and California), six `11 NCAA Super Regional squads and 16 teams that received berths into last year's NCAA Field of 64. The Lady Vols will play at least one game against each of the preseason top four squads and have at least 16 contests currently scheduled versus preseason top 25 programs during the 2012 regular season.
As always the early season tournament slate will see Tennessee travel from coast-to-coast during February, before again hosting an early-March event at Sherri Parker Lee Softball Stadium.
The Big Orange's campaign kicks-off at the high profile Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. During its stay over Feb. 9-12, UT is scheduled to face a daunting slate of six opponents, including the defending national champions and host school, Arizona State, 2011 WCWS participant California, 2011 NCAA Tournament teams Texas Tech, San Diego State and Western Michigan and a tough UCSB squad that played the Lady Vols close during a 2-0 defeat last February 24 at the Cathedral City Classic.
From there it's off to Austin, Texas, for the Time Warner Invitational (Feb. 17-19) where Tennessee will play Illinois, Pittsburgh and home-standing Texas before starting seeded bracket play.
UT wraps up its early season travels with a return to the annual NFCA Leadoff Classic for the first time since 2008 at a new location in Clearwater, Fla. During its stay in "The Sunshine State," the Big Orange will battle NCAA squads Georgia Tech and Illinois State as well as Winthrop, Hofstra and Massachusetts.
With the road trips out of the way it's finally back to Knoxville to christen the home schedule on Feb. 29, with a doubleheader against Georgia Southern before hosting the annual Tennessee Classic for the fifth straight season.
During the home tournament at Lee Softball Stadium, UT will bring in NCAA Tournament teams Memphis and Louisville in addition to facing ETSU, Middle Tennessee, Murray State and for the second straight year, the Dutch National Team.
The rugged SEC slate finally gets underway over March 9-11 in Knoxville as 2011 WCWS national finalist Florida comes to town for a three-game series.
Other league series to be contested at Lee Stadium in 2012 include Kentucky (March 30-April 1, three games), Georgia (April 4, doubleheader), LSU (April 13-15, three games) and Ole Miss (April 27-29, three games).
The Orange & White road schedule in conference action includes visits to Arkansas (March 16-18, three games), 2011 WCWS participant Alabama (March 21, doubleheader), Mississippi State (March 23-25, three games), Auburn (April 6-8, three games) and South Carolina (April 20-22, three games).
Two non-conference mid-week match-ups are on the docket during SEC play with Radford and Memphis visiting Knoxville on April 10 and April 17, respectively.
Once the regular-season concludes, the annual SEC Tournament will be contested over May 10-12 In Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The NCAA Tournament schedule opens at campus sites over May 17-20 with NCAA Regionals and follows with the best-of-three NCAA Super Regionals from May 24-27. The annual Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla., will be played from May 31-June 6 at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.