On Friday, the 20th year of Tennessee softball will officially get started as the Lady Vols will take the field once again.
This year’s team will have some questions to answer as the season gets started and some they will face for the entire season. One question in particular – who takes over the starting role in the circle? For five consecutive years at least one Renfroe sister has pitched for UT. The Lady Vols will also play the role of underdog in the SEC this season, something they aren’t used to.
The biggest task that Ralph and Karen Weekly’s team will face is finding a replacement for Ellen Renfroe. Last year, Renfroe carried the load for the Lady Vols in the circle. Someone has to step up and fill her shoes.
Most likely, Tennessee will rely on the right handed junior Erin Gabriel. Gabriel has seen some action in her time at UT, appearing in 33 games with 21 starts for the Lady Vols over the last two seasons. Gabriel has recorded 98 strikeouts in just 87 innings pitched. She also has a 10-1 record as a starter and a career ERA of 3.05.
Gabriel is reliable, but the rest of the depth chart is more of a mystery. The Lady Vols picked up Texas Tech transfer Gretchen Aucoin (P/IF) in the offseason. Aucoin will be a welcomed addition to the other relief pitchers on the Tennessee roster – junior Rainey Gaffin and senior Cheyanne Tarango.
In regards to playing the underdog role, Tennessee was picked to finish 8th in the SEC preseason poll. Rivals Florida and Alabama held the top two spots. The Gators and Crimson Tide both have rosters loaded with talent. Kentucky is expected to be improved, while Georgia and LSU have developed consistent SEC contenders. Tennessee, on the other hand, will have to earn respect.
The Lady Vols return several key players from last year’s team. Starters Meagan Geer and Annie Aldrete are back for this season. Aldrete is often regarded as one of the best catchers in the country. Geer provided several big plays, both with the bat in her hands and in the field last season.
Tarango has become a versatile player who can fill in nearly anywhere. She has played multiple positions and will probably be asked to do so again this year. Gaffin’s return will be instrumental. She is a team leader and appeared to be Tennessee’s heart and soul at times last year.
Simply put, only time can tell where Tennessee softball will wind up this season. They have some big hitters at the plate and multiple play makers in the field, but finding their ace in the circle will be the key.
Tennessee begins play with a double-header Friday in the KSU Classic in Kennesaw, Georgia.
Their first game is against Ohio at 11 a.m. – then they will take on Dayton at 3 p.m.
Edited by Cody McClure
Sam Forman is the lead sports staff writer for the Tennessee Journalist and is a senior studying Journalism and Electronic Media with a focus on sports broadcasting and reporting. He has been with TNJN since the fall of 2014. He is also a DJ for WUTK 90.3 fm. and a member of the Rock Solid Sports team. Sam has spent six years marching in the Pride of The Southland Marching Band. When he is not covering or talking sports, you can find him outdoors, playing music or hanging out with friends. You can find him on twitter: @samWforman