Thursday, December 15, 2016

Tennessee Profile: Lady Vols Need Unsung Heroes to Start Singing

General Overview/2016 Recap: Starting the 2016 season at the annual Kajikawa Classic, the Lady Vols won the games they were "supposed" to win, including a victory over Northwestern, but took back-to-back losses to Fresno State and Arizona State on the tournament's second day.

Mgan Geer
Photo: Tennessee Athletics
At Michele Smith's Clearwater, Florida tournament, the Lady Vols took a loss to upstart James Madison but rebounded to record victories over Oklahoma State; Fordham; South Florida; and DePaul.

Losses to Arizona and a non-conference loss to Alabama, as well as two victories each over Marshall and St. John's punctuated the remainder of the early season schedule prior to conference play.

In conference play, the Lady Vols swept Arkansas, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Auburn in a weather-shortened two-game set; took series victories over Georgia and Ole Miss; and on the negative side of things, took a series loss to Missouri and were mishandled amidst a sweep to defending champion Florida.

In the conference tournament, the Lady Vols took a victory over South Carolina but lost an extra-inning battle to eventual runners-up LSU to end their pursuit of the conference tournament title.

In the regional round, the Lady Vols bested Marist and Ohio State, but took two losses to Arizona, including a final, extra-inning loss in the regional's final game, to take a stunning loss and be forced to watch the remainder of the NCAA postseason from their couches.

Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P - (Erin Gabriel); Matty Moss
C - (Lexi Overstreet)
1B - (Gretchen Aucoin)
2B - Aubrey Leach
3B - Scarlet McSwain
SS - Meghan Gregg
LF - Brooke Vines
CF - Megan Geer
RF - Shaliyah Geathers
DP - (Rainey Gaffin)

Carrying the Clipboards: 
Co-head coaches and husband & wife Ralph & Karen Weekly have shepherded the Lady Vols program for fifteen seasons, going into their sixteenth in 2017. Ralph Weekly, who should reach 1,300 career wins in 2017, has spent nearly thirty years in the profession and has led the Lady Vols to seven Women's College World Series appearances, including a runners-up finish in 2013 to eventual champion Oklahoma. Karen, who will undoubtedly reach the 1,000-wins milestone early next year, really takes the reins of the Lady Vols in game situations, but it's the duo's combined softball IQ that has vaulted the Lady Vols to the top as perennial championship contenders.

Marty McDaniel serves as the program's pitching coach and one of the nation's least-heralded and most under-appreciated in the position. He has been responsible for the pitching staff since he arrived in Knoxville and can be credited with assisting the success of several UT pitchers that have gone on to be top-level pitching coaches in their own right. McDaniel's pitching staff set a national record for shutouts in a season with fifty-one in 2005 and finished 2016 with a 2.25 team ERA, the 16th straight season the Lady Vols ended the season with a team ERA under 3.00. 

Former Lady Vol great Madison Shipman serves as the program's Volunteer Assistant Coach, while former Washington assistant coach and fellow Lady Vol alum Ashley Andrews serves as the Director of Operations. Both blossomed from valuable parts of the Lady Vol lineup - including, in Shipman's case, a playing career that does not fall short of the definition 'legendary' - to become valuable pieces of the instruction staff. Shipman gained fame nationally for her Skittle-incentive as the first base coach, but also can be credited with the development of some of the UT hitters and offense since her graduation as a player. Andrews, though in an administrative role on the UT staff, adds an additional experienced, intelligent softball mind to the UT clubhouse, never a bad thing.

Additions: The Lady Vols freshman class includes: infielder Chelsea Seggern; outfielders Jenna Holcomb, 
Tianna Batts, Treasuary Poindexter, Shelby Robinson, and Cailin Hannon; and pitcher/utility player Caylan Arnold. They are joined as newcomers by junior college transfers Alex Brake and Sheridan Allen, as well as former Buffalo Bull Katie Weimer.

Subtractions: The Lady Vols said goodbye to a four-member senior class, including 3/4 of the pitching staff in Rainey Gaffin; Erin Gabriel; and Gretchen Aucoin, as well as starting catcher Lexi Overstreet and three big pieces of their offensive production from a season ago in Gaffin; Overstreet; and Aucoin.

Scheduling: The Lady Vols will only face one Power Five opponent, in Oregon State, prior to the Mary Nutter Classic. 
When they reach Cathedral City, however, Oklahoma; Nebraska; Utah; and Texas each await. 

Conference play will see the Lady Vols host South Carolina; Ole Miss; Alabama; and Florida, while they will travel to Arkansas; Kentucky; LSU; and Texas A&M.

A midseason single-game tilt against North Carolina and a three-game set against North Carolina State will be interspersed admist the weekends of conference games.

Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths - Meghan Gregg has quietly become a solid star for the Vols, while Geer; Leach; Vines; and Geathers all do well in their chosen roles and help leave a balanced lineup. This could help make up for the departure of graduated offensive stalwarts Gaffin and Overstreet. 

Weaknesses - 
Matty Moss sits as the lone holdover in the circle with experience in the orange and white and in SEC competition. That could and likely will equal a bit of learning curve, both for Moss as the staff ace and for the newcomers, having to adjust. Though the fall and early season may provide/have provided some opportunities to work out the kinks in game action, if that doesn't happen, the squad could be in trouble when they reach top-level out-of-conference play and then begin SEC play.

Outlook for 2017: Coming off a surprisingly-early exit in the Regional round a year ago, the Lady Vols must rebound and stage a comeback to contend in 2017. They must do so without the players that have made up the vast majority of their pitching staff for the last several season, as graduation provided an absolute gutting of that position after last year. With the stepping up of the right newcomers and if the offense can exhibit some of their explosive abilities, you can expect to see the Lady Vols in the postseason hunt once again with a hosted Regional and perhaps even into the round of sixteen. However, I expect them to fall just a bit short of Oklahoma City once again.

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