May 11, 2007
By Andy Gardiner, USA TODAY
Six years ago Ralph Weekly thought he had his dream job. After building successful softball programs at Pacific Lutheran and Chattanooga, and serving as the hitting coach on two USA Olympic gold medal teams, he had become director of USA Softball.
Weekly spearheaded the building of the national team's state-of-the-art training facility in California. He was involved with the players who would win a third Olympic gold in 2004.
But he jumped when the University of Tennessee asked Weekly to revive a program that had become an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference.
"Tennessee said it would give us the resources to compete for the SEC title and the national championship on a regular basis," Weekly says. "That's what they wanted and that's the challenge Karen (his wife and co-coach) and I wanted."
The Volunteers begin play today in the SEC tournament as the No. 1 team in the country in the USA TODAY/NFCA Top 25 poll. Led by All-American pitcher Monica Abbott, the Volunteers along with second-ranked Alabama and No. 3 LSU make the SEC a national power. The league has never won a national championship but is challenging the Pacific 10 and Big 12 conferences, who have dominated the sport.
"We have three teams capable of playing with anyone in the country," says Karen Weekly. "The Pac-10 still has climate, top coaches and an abundance of athletes. But the balance of power is beginning to shift."
The SEC's ascension has been fueled by increased financial commitments and boosted by an influx of talented coaches and national recruits.
Tennessee and Alabama each earned their first No. 1 national ranking this year and the SEC had three schools ranked in the top five for the first time. UT and LSU rank 1-2 nationally in earned-run average and the Vols are second in stolen bases and fielding percentage. Alabama is the Division I leader in batting average, slugging percentage and stolen bases.
"If the SEC is going to do something, they're going to do it right. It was just a matter of time before they developed and began to contend (for national titles)," says coach Mike Candrea, who has won seven titles at Arizona and an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. national team in 2004. "The days of West Coast dominance may not be gone, but I think you're going to see more first-time winners. This could be the SEC's year."
Putting money where the bats are
UCLA, the benchmark for softball excellence with 11 titles, says it has an annual budget of more than $1 million. Arizona commits $750,000 to its program.
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy remembers when his program rotated its home games around city parks and drew "maybe 50 people and a couple dogs." Now the Tide enjoy a $2.2 million clubhouse and a budget of just less than $1 million.
Tennessee will christen a $7 million stadium next season and school officials say they have a softball budget of $850,000 this year. LSU also budgets around $850,000 and is planning a $6 million-$10 million complex.
"These are athletic departments and institutions that play for real," says LSU coach Yvette Girouard.
Alabama has reached the College World Series four times, LSU and Tennessee twice. The Vols finished third in both 2005 and 2006.
The Weeklys turned a 24-35 team into a 35-25-1 winner their first season and have never won fewer than 45 games since. Seven players on this year's roster are Tennessee natives but eight come from California and two from Hawaii. In addition, Florida high schools, with their huge pool of potential players, began playing fast pitch in 1994 and that talent is beginning to surface in the conference.
"Softball is all about recruiting," Ralph says. "But you have to develop your talent as well."
Senior India Chiles was a right-handed-hitting second baseman from Louisville when she arrived at UT. Now she is a left-handed-hitting outfielder who is hitting .476 and has stolen 40 bases. California native Lindsay Schutzler wasn't heavily recruited but has become UT's career leader in hits, runs and stolen bases.
But it is Abbott who lifts Tennessee to championship contender. She passed former Texas Longhorn Cat Osterman last weekend to become the Division I career strikeouts leader with 2,276 and is also tops in games (239), wins (179) and solo shutouts (104). "The minute Tennessee got Monica Abbott they became a national player overnight," LSU's Girouard said. "She's that good."
Ralph Weekly thought it would take six or seven years to make Tennessee a top-10 program. He cut that estimate in half when Abbott arrived in 2004.
"We offered Monica the chance to put a program on the map," he says. "That's what she wanted and that's what she's done. Tennessee is not the Monica Abbott show, but she is the straw that stirs the drink."
Abbott a strikeout machine
Abbott and Schutzler were high school rivals in Salinas, Calif. Abbott averaged more than 300 strikeouts a season, threw seven perfect games as a senior and was on every top program's wish list.
"I liked the tradition of the school and its teams," she says of Tennessee. "It was a developing program and I wanted to be a part of something like that."
At 6-3, Abbott has the size to generate a 70 mph fastball, comparable to a 96 mph fastball in baseball.
In her four years in Knoxville she has gone 45-10, 50-9, 44-10 and 40-2. She has added a changeup, a riseball and a curve. Her 560 strikeouts this season are 69 more than any team in the SEC. And on Wednesday, she was named SEC player of the year.
"Monica's development has been tremendous," says Candrea, who sees her as a candidate for the 2008 Olympic team. "She always had the talent; now she has more composure and a better idea of knowing how to pitch instead of just being a hard thrower."
Abbott had wins against China, New Zealand and Japan last summer and considers her time with the national team as a huge advantage. "Their approach and attitude toward the game is so professional -- they bring it every day," Abbott says. "The bar is already high and they make you raise it higher."
But before Olympic dreams Abbott is focused on leading Tennessee to its first NCAA title. The stumbling block for the Vols in the CWS has been falling into the losers' bracket after winning openers.
"At the World Series you simply can't afford a bad game," she says. "It's been frustrating and humbling for us the last two years but our karma this year has been so strong. I think we're a special team and we'll show that in Oklahoma City."