May 13, 2013
By Brian Rice
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- They are annual rites of passage of late spring in Knoxville. The dogwood trees bloom, graduates of UT toss their caps into the air and, for the last eight years, the Lady Vols open up the NCAA Softball Tournament at home.
Make it nine years with the Sunday night announcement of the 2013 bracket, continuing what has now become an annual tradition. One that is even more impressive when one considers that the program had made just two appearances in the tournament before the streak began, never one at home.
"It means a lot," Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said after learning the draw Sunday night. "It's something I'm proud of. This team has averaged 50 wins a year since Karen and I have been here. That's a tribute to the kids. We bring in great athletes and hopefully teach them about playing college softball. Our school supports us well and gives us what we need to be successful and it's great to represent this University."
For senior Raven Chavanne, who has played just two NCAA tournament games outside of Knoxville and Oklahoma City, the site of the Women's College World Series, the team's selection as the tournament's No. 7 seed meant everything.
"It's really special," Chavanne said of the fan support in Knoxville that the Lady Vols will enjoy for the regional and, should they advance, the super regional. "I'll never play in an environment like this again, and we don't take it for granted. We're really, really excited to get the seventh seed and that I have the opportunity to potentially play two more weekends of my career here in Knoxville."
But as Weekly was quick to point out, the high seed and the home games that accompany it do not mean the team as a free pass to Oklahoma City.
"I know from experience that we've played in eight of these at home and five of them we've advanced and three times we've lost," Weekly said. "Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing."
Chavanne was a member of one of those three Lady Vol squads that failed to advance in a home regional, falling to Oklahoma State in 2011. She also remembers a season ago, when Tennessee had to rally from the loser's bracket in Knoxville after dropping the NCAA opener to Miami University. Echoing the words of her coach, Chavanne said the team, particularily her fellow seniors, is ready for the challenge and the road ahead. A journey that starts with Longwood on Friday night.
"These three teams are capable of beating us," Chavanne said. "James Madison is known for their pitching, Longwood led their conference in home runs, we played North Carolina State twice this season. We're really focusing on the next game, the next pitch.
"This is do or die. I want to be playing on that last day in the World Series in June. The seniors, this whole team is going out every day and giving it all we have."