Two pairs of white, spray-painted numbers encompassed both halves of the lower outfield at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.
The numbers 17 and 19 resided on the left side; the numbers 22 and 42 on the right. Placed for the momentous occasion of senior weekend, each number symbolized the uniquely carved path of a Tennessee softball senior.
Lexi Overstreet wears No. 19. The catcher from Suwanee, Georgia, excelled this season, setting career bests in nearly every offensive category despite facing the pressure of replacing Annie Aldrete. Karen Weekly also believes that Overstreet is the team’s most improved player.
Erin Gabriel wears No. 22. After suffering a horrific hip injury during her freshman year – forcing a transformation from power pitching to more movement-based pitching – Gabriel finally experienced a full pain-free season on the mound and is without question a key emotional leader.
Rainey Gaffin wears No. 42. She’s a chameleon. A player that can thrive in any role, whether its hitting, pitching, fielding or all at once. Gaffin is arguably the team’s most recognizable player, earning a bevy of preseason and regular season accolades.
But perhaps the most fascinating story behind the number belongs to No. 17 – Gretchen Aucoin.
While the other three seniors grinded and battled through the rigors of SEC softball and the pressure of representing the orange and white together for three seasons, Aucoin’s senior year is only her second with the Vols.
As a late bloomer of sorts, Aucoin didn’t begin receiving attention from scouts until her junior year of high school. Normally, softball players enter the recruiting process during their freshman year; some as early as eighth grade.
For Aucoin, the criteria for selecting a school was simple.
“Going into my freshman year (of college) and being a part of something potentially bigger than it ever had been in the years before was very intriguing to me,” Aucoin said. “I wanted to help build a program and be the one that leaves a legacy.”
Texas Tech wounded up being Aucoin’s selection. She spent two seasons hitting and pitching for the Red Raiders, batting .287 along with 14 wins on the mound with a 2.43 ERA during her sophomore season in 2014.
However, the program wasn’t heading in the ideal direction from Aucoin’s perspective. Thus, at the conclusion of her sophomore campaign, Aucoin entered the transfer process in search of a program amply prepared to win immediately.
“I didn’t want to recreate that and redo that (building a program up) into a transfer process,” Aucoin said. “It was something I didn’t mind as a freshman, but as a junior I wanted to be a part of something that was already established so I wasn’t feeling like I was wasting my last two years.”
Aucoin eventually found her way to Rocky Top. According to her criteria, it was the perfect situation. The Vols were only one year removed from reaching the College World Series Final and retained a talented roster.
But the transfer process is a transition in a multitude of phases. The physical, mental and emotional transition initially left Aucoin feeling uncomfortable and at odds with her pursuit of being a leader and leaving the legacy she desired.
“It was definitely uncomfortable,” Aucoin said. “I was getting pushed to be the best by the best. I knew I was coming in to make a difference and make an impact. When I didn’t do it all at once, it was frustrating. It took a while to adjust from the Big 12 to the SEC, especially the coaching changes, from how I had been coached to the new techniques here.
It was definitely frustrating and hard as a junior because I wanted to be a leader… but the sophomore and juniors at that time were already looked at as leaders. I was looking to freshmen and I’m basically a freshman as a junior and that’s a lot to mentally overcome.”
Luckily for Aucoin, she had the appropriate mindset for overcoming the discomfort.
There’s of course her parents back at home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, whom she told “give me a year anywhere and I will learn and adapt and be happy.”
On an even more profound level, Aucoin revealed that her faith ultimately became vital in the transition process.
“I focus on Christ and God and I want to share his love and just use who I am as a person to show who he is as a Father,” Aucoin said.
Aucoin was introduced to Christ during her freshman season at Texas Tech. It was necessity at that point in her life. Being 16 hours away from a small town along the Gulf Coast, Aucoin had to fend for herself and figure things out on her own.
The community back in Lubbock, Texas, helped her grow spiritually, eventually baptizing her. When Aucoin decided to move forward with the next chapter of her life, she didn’t close the book on her faith. Instead, the opportunity to utilize it as an effective and uplifting tool in Knoxville assisted in her assimilation with the team.
“I knew that was something I could immediately make an impact with here,” Aucoin said. “I know I could spiritually lead some girls on the team. Kind of get them introduced to some programs on campus.”
Aucoin is currently a member of Athletes in Action, a group whose mission is to create one spiritual leader on each team of every sport around the world to further share the gospel.
During the VFL Films feature on the four softball seniors, Gabriel described Aucoin as a “spiritual and positive” individual, an assessment Aucoin takes great pride in.
“(My faith) definitely creates a more welcoming person for people to approach,” Aucoin said. “I like to use it to approach other people… I get along with everybody on the team. It’s huge because you always want someone you can turn to regardless of the situation.
We can get comfortable enough with one another enough to where we can bark at each other, but it has definitely helped my transition because having someone that’s as consistent as Christ to always turn to is wonderful.”
The Vols are a chemistry-laden group certainly unafraid of being honest with one another. During Aucoin’s pair of seasons with the squad, a few outbursts and heated discussions have transpired in the postgame locker room – most notably after the team’s 9-0 loss to Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago.
As a leader on the team now – and comfortable with the uncomfortable – Aucoin only views these situations as positives.
“We’ve only benefited from them,” Aucoin said. “We get along pretty well as a team… it’s just, you know, like men in a locker room. If something happens, they fist it out, and then it’s over with. We have to talk about it and then it’s done. We clear the air and we go from there.”
Tennessee certainly moved on from its poor showing against the Sooners with a senior weekend to remember. In spite of the weather delays that eventually forced a Sunday double-header and a cancellation of the series’ final match, Aucoin’s senior weekend – and senior season for that matter – has been memorable.
“As far as any year, it’s always been a roller coaster,” Aucoin said. “That’s the beauty of sport. You can come out and have one of your worst games and then the next day, come out and play some of your best. Senior year has just been another opportunity to grow, it’s just made me a stronger person in general. I want to look back and know I did my best, had fun, enjoyed it and soaked in every moment with the girls.”
Despite soaking in the rain during senior weekend, the Vols poured it on the Auburn Tigers offensively, outscoring the then-No. 3 ranked team in the country 22-3 in back-to-back run-rule victories.
Uncomfortable just a season ago and part of a team doubted by many at certain points of the season, Aucoin is now witness to a transformation akin to her own. A team coming into its own at the right time. A team she has left an imprint on.
But Aucoin understands that after only two seasons, leaving a full-blown legacy is difficult. However, there still remain a plethora of lessons any aspiring student-athlete can learn from Aucoin’s own experience.
“I know a lot of fans don’t get to interact with us a whole lot,” Aucoin said. “But the little bit they do, I hope they see that we’re just like them. Yes, we play a sport at a high level, but we’re no different. That’s the biggest thing, telling people to keep working toward their dreams and seeing that anything is possible.
Aucoin paused for a moment and then remembered her home town.
“I mean, I come from Ocean Spring, Mississippi, a small town along the gulf coast, so if I can make it here, there’s a good chance anyone can.”
Those two words will ultimately be Aucoin’s lasting legacy on Rocky Top. She is proof that at any time, a player can alter their life’s course, enter an uncomfortable situation, deal with the pressures of performance, juggling personal expectations with reality and somehow find a way to check the box next to the goal that triggered the whole process.
Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Edited by Jordan Dajani