Tennessee primed for grand-slam season in softball
As Tennessee softball kicks off the 2016 season, we preview some of the major storylines this year.
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It’s softball time in Tennessee! With the Vols softball season underway, we take a look at some of the biggest stories heading into the season and some major storylines to follow if UT wants to return to Oklahoma City in 2016.
Right off the bat, there will be several visual changes to the softball team’s appearance this year.
The swoosh officially debuted for the Vols when they started their season in the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. This means new uniforms and a new color scheme. Gone is the Lady Vols logo, now replaced with the ‘Power T’. As is the familiar Lady Vols blue, with Smoky Grey taking its place.
While the team may look different on the field due to its uniforms, it will also look different because of a surplus of new faces. Tennessee brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, featuring name like Matty Moss, Brooke Vines, Taylor Rowland and Aubrey Leach, to name a few.
This highly-talented class will help to fill a void left by the departed senior class from a year ago. The Vols have to replace Tory Lewis (.300 career batting average) and Cheyanne Tarango (.239 career batting average). Several other players transferred, most notably catcher Annie Aldrete and infielder Taylor Koenig (both transferred to Cal).
Last year’s team is going to be a hard one to follow. It set a program record with 100 home runs and went to the Women’s College World Series for the seventh time. Tennessee finished with a record of 47-17, 15-9 in the SEC. Senior Rainey Gaffin became Tennessee’s 14th NFCA All-American and senior Erin Gabriel became the Vols’ 13th Academic All-American. Tennessee also had a program-best five players hit double-figure home runs.
Despite the fact Tennessee lost a fair amount of talent from a year ago, co-head coaches Karen and Ralph Weekly have plenty to be happy about.
They only have to replace three major players for a year ago (Lewis, Koenig and Aldrete), and they bring back the majority of pieces from last year’s team. Although replacing Aldrete will be hard, it wont be as bad replacing Lewis. Tennessee has plenty of options to replace Lewis in the outfield.
CJ McClain played some in the outfield last season as a freshman and showed plenty of potential. Tennessee also brings in several freshmen that can fill the void, such as Aubrey Leach, Brooke Vines and Kelsey Morrison. The Vols bring back juniors Megan Geer and Shaliyah Geathers from last year’s team as well.
Replacing the starting catcher will be a bit harder, but Tennessee does have some options. Senior Lexi Overstreet is the choice. She has had time behind the plate in the past. The other likely option is freshman Abby Lockman from Corona, Calif.
The Weekly’s will not have to worry about replacing anyone in the circle from last season. Tennessee brings back all three pitchers form a year ago. The senior trio of Gaffin, Gabriel and Gretchen Aucoin will once again handle the majority of the work in the circle for the Vols.
Gaffin and Gabriel handled most of the innings last season and should this year as well. Gaffin made 40 appearances last season, starting 12 and going 17-4 with a 2.17 ERA. She recorded 176 strike-outs.
Gabriel appeared in 37 games and started 27, with a record of 17-8 and a 3.00 ERA. She had 158 strike-outs in 140 innings and also had six shutout performances.
In her first season on Rocky Top, Aucoin pitched in 28 games, making 19 starts and recording two complete games. She went 9-2 and recorded 75 strike-outs.
The Vols add freshman Matty Moss and Bria Bush to the pitching staff in 2016.
Tennessee brings back three of the players that recorded double-figure home runs in 2015. Sophomore Scarlet McSwain played in 58 games, making 53 starts. She had a .294 batting average, 33 RBI’s and 10 home runs.
Geer has been a major part of what Tennessee has done the last two years and should be once again this season. She made the 2015 SEC All-Tournament Team. Geer has started 122 games in her two years on Rocky Top and has a career batting average of .302. She has also put up 20 career homeruns and 84 career RBI’s.
Sophomore Meghan Gregg is the other Vols power hitter that returns in 2016. She recorded a .314 batting average, 51 RBI’s, and 13 home runs as a true freshman. She started 64 games at shortstop and made the 2015 Freshman All-SEC and SEC All-Tournament teams, as well as being an NFCA All-American Scholar Athlete. She led Tennessee with 16 multi-hit and 16 multi-RBI games.
Tennessee will really only have to worry about replacing Koenig in the infield, but she will be a big person to have to replace. She also made the Freshman All-SEC team in 2014 and hit 17 of her career homeruns as a sophomore last season.
The Vols must replace Aldrete’s offense. Besides being one of the nations best catchers, she was a major offensive weapon in her two years at Tennessee with a .331 batting average.
Overall, there is a lot to be excited about this year for Tennessee softball fans and if the Vols first 11 games are any indicator, things should be fun to watch.
The Vols entered the season ranked in both national polls for the sixth time. Tennessee started at No. 8 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches’ poll and No. 9 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Preseason Top 25. Tennessee will enter its third tournament of the season ranked No. 19 in the ESPN.com/USA poll.
Tennessee returns a total of nine players from the 2015 team. Those nine players join the 10 freshmen that ranked as the No. 2 singing class. The Vols have been picked to finish fifth in the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, but they have the ability to finish higher than that.
The team started the season by going 4-2 in the Kajikawa Classic. The Vols’ most impressive win came in a 15-3 win over BYU.
Last weekend, Tennessee went to Clearwater, Fla. to play in the Michele Smith Pediatric Cancer Invitational where it went 4-1. Tennessee run-ruled three of its five opponents and outscoured its final four opponents 46-14.
Geathers, Geer, Gaffin and Gabriel have all played well in the team’s first 11 games and for Tennessee to find keep finding success, it will need those four to play good softball day in and day out. The Vols have also had several solid performances by members of the freshmen class.
Due to weather concerns, Tennessee has moved its home opener against Dayton from Thursday, Feb. 25 to Monday, Feb. 29 at 2:30 p.m.
The Vols will next play in the Easton Bama Bash in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Tennessee will have to face No. 15 Arizona and No. 4 Alabama in the tournament. We will know more about where the Vols stack up after this weekend, but it looks like it could be a good year.
Featured image by Kevan Elkins
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