No. 4 Lady Vols softball sweeps first SEC series

Fourth-ranked Tennessee (24-1) completed its first SEC sweep of the season Sunday against Missouri (16-9) at Sherri Lee Parker Stadium in Knoxville. The Lady Vols beat the Tigers by a combined series score of 25-7 and tallied their 16th straight win. Tennessee notched 35 hits in the sweep and dodged rain delays despite rough weather.

Things started slow for the Lady Vols in their first SEC game Friday. They recorded just three runs after six innings of play. However, former SEC Player of the Year Meghan Gregg broke through with a grand slam in the sixth inning to power Tennessee to a 7-4 win.

“The feeling of the ball coming off the bat was amazing,” Gregg said about the two-out grand slam. “You just know when it comes off the bat, you barely can even feel it.”

Sophomore pitcher Caylan Arnold contributed as well. She struck out eight batters in six innings pitched to get the win. Both Gregg and junior infielder Aubrey Leach batted 2-for-3 at the plate in the win.

The Lady Volunteers looked better Saturday. They shutout Missouri 7-0. Ace pitcher Matty Moss led Tennessee with seven strikeouts and no earned runs in four innings pitched. Freshman phenom Gabby Sprang finished out the contest with four strikeouts in three innings.

All Lady Vols scoring came in innings three through five, six combined runs coming in the third and fourth inning. Leach and senior outfielder CJ McClain both went a perfect 2-of-2 from the batter’s box on the day. Infielder Chelsea Seggern led Tennessee with two RBI.

Tennessee progressively improved over the weekend, finishing the weekend sweep by a score of 11-3 against the Tigers in just six innings. The Vols tallied 15 hits and got four RBI from both senior Scarlet McSwain and freshman Amanda Ayala.

“I think she is going to be an All-American. I don’t think there is a question,” Tennessee co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said about Ayala. “It is going to take a while, but I think she has got all the tools. She can run, throw, hit and think.”

Tennessee played a huge third inning. They registered seven of their 11 runs in that inning. Missouri responded with a pair of runs the next inning, but the Lady Vols put more pressure on by scoring four runs to complete the run rule.

“We worked with those kids early this morning. We just got up and said we are going to hit a little bit and change your stance a little bit and it worked out,” Weekly said. “If we can hit through the lineup then this team will be pretty awesome.”

The Weeklys and Tennessee hit the field again in Honolulu at the Hawaii Rainbow Wahine Classic Wednesday.

Edited by Ben McKee/Lexie Little

Featured image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Vols dominated by Gamecocks in SEC opener

Tennessee’s hot start to 2017 couldn’t distract from the looming question hanging over its head:

Could the young pitching staff hold up in the SEC?

So far, only one game into the young SEC season, the answer is no.

Freshman pitcher Caylan Arnold struggled in her SEC debut for the Vols, as Tennessee (19-3, 0-1 SEC) was dominated by South Carolina (18-5, 1-0 SEC), 9-1, at home on Friday evening.

“This was a pitch selection game,” co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. “They (South Carolina) were very cautious of their pitch selection…we were not cautious. We were not cautious. We were swinging at balls outside of the zone. Really, the whole game boiled down to… that four-run blast in the second inning.”

Between Arnold and Kelsey Morrion, Tennessee walked seven Gamecock batters on Friday night. The most costly set of walks came in the top of the second inning, when Arnold struck Shannon Plese after walking the previous two batters.

This left the bases loaded for South Carolina’s leadoff hitter, Kaylea Snear, who made the Maryville native pay with a booming grand slam, giving the Gamecocks an early 4-0 lead.

The Vols managed to load the bases twice during their comeback bid, but mustered only a single run from both opportunities. Second baseman Aubrey Leach said the team needs to focus on timely hitting, but gave full credit to South Carolina after Tennessee totaled three hits and left 10 on base. Leach drew three walks on Friday, while freshman Chelsea Seggern was the only Vol who managed to score.

“South Carolina is a great team defensively, and they had a great pitcher out there,” Leach said.

The Gamecocks knocked Arnold out of the game in the top of the third after Victoria Williams blasted a two-run shot. In 2.2 innings of work, Arnold (8-3) allowed six earned runs, walked five batters and struck out two. Morrison pitched the final 3.1 innings of the match, allowing three earned runs. South Carolina finished off Tennessee in the sixth inning after Krystan White slapped a two-run single to right center. White was later driven in by Tiara Duffy.

Despite suffering their first home loss of the season, Weekly remains optimistic.

“It’s one game and I know every game is important, but it’s one game,” Weekly emphasized. “…we knew what was wrong. We also knew we were young coming in and our leaders didn’t have great games themselves…we just gotta come out tomorrow, flush it and get right back at it.”

The Vols face the Gamecocks in the second game of the three-game series on Saturday. First pitch is slated for 1 p.m. ET.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee softball powers past Bradley

Photo by Brad Blackwelder.

No. 15 Tennessee run-ruled Bradley (9-8) 10-2 on Friday night to improve to 16-2 on the season. It’s the ninth time the Volunteers have run-ruled an opponent this season.

“We knew it was going to be tough and it was tough,” Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said after the game. “We started five freshmen tonight and I was really proud of that.”

Maryville native Caylan Arnold received the start in the circle for the Vols. Over 4.2 innings, the freshman didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning and surrendered zero earned runs while allowing only two hits and striking out four.

“It’s so much fun, I love it,” Arnold said of pitching in front of the home crowd. “I always love coming out and playing with this team and having these fans who are so supportive, loud, and excited when we do something good.”

Arnold’s production as a true freshman to begin the season has been remarkable and somewhat surprising.

“I think she’s well ahead of where we’d like her to be,” Weekly said. “She’s a great young player.”

The bats didn’t come alive for the Vols until the third inning when Chelsea Seggern hit a single through the left side of the infield to score Meghan Gregg. Scarlett McSwain followed up with an RBI single, scoring Abby Lockman from third. With runners on second and third, Cailin Hannon singled to center field, scoring Taylor Rowland and Seggern.

Seggern had a career night against the Braves, going 3-for-3 at the dish with 3 RBIs, a double, walk and a run scored. Her three hits and three RBIs are career highs.

“I just came up there with an open-minded approach and just really tried to be aggressive,” Seggern said after the game.

Tennessee struck again in the bottom of the fourth, scoring two runs to extend its lead to 6-0. Brooke Vines doubled in Leach, who led off the inning with a walk to make it 5-0. Bradley pitcher Jaelen Hull then walked Seggern with the bases loaded.

Bradley got on the board in the top of the fifth, scoring two runs on a single from Caitlyn McCarron. Tennessee sophomore RHP Matty Moss relieved Arnold, shutting down the Braves’ threat in the inning.

Tennessee responded in the bottom of the fifth with four runs of its own. Gregg singled through the right side to score Jenna Holcomb and Leach. In the very next at-bat, Rowland drilled a pitched to the center field wall to drive in the winning run.

The bats continue to remain hot for the Vols, as they’ve now scored double-digit runs this season six times.

The Tennessee Invitational continues tomorrow as the Vols host Jacksonville State (10-4) at 4:30 p.m. ET.

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image by Brad Blackwelder

2017 Tennessee softball season preview

It’s officially softball time in Tennessee.

Coming off of a strong 2016 campaign in which Tennessee went 43-16 and 16-7 in SEC play, the Vols look to build off last year’s success and take the next step in order to reach the College World Series once again.

The Vols enter the 2017 season ranked No. 15 in both the USA Today/NFCA Division I Preseason Coaches’ Poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Preseason Top 25. In the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, Tennessee has been selected to finish fifth in the conference for the second consecutive season.

“This team has the ability to be really good,” Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said on Wednesday afternoon. “I think this is going to be a good year.”

Tennessee brings back four players who earned SEC postseason honors a year ago, while seven of their top ten hitters from 2016 return as well. The Vols are led by preseason All-SEC selections Meghan Gregg and Megan Geer. Gregg, a junior shortstop for the Volunteers, hit .383 and 11 home runs last season while driving in 61 runs and swiping 14 bags, all career highs. Geer, a senior utility player for the Vols, also set career highs in 2016, batting .368, driving in 55 runs and stealing 25 bases.

Heading into her senior season, Geer has been named to the 2017 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List.

With Geer and Gregg headlining the group, Tennessee’s starting lineup has the potential to be a constant headache from top to bottom for opposing teams. Sophomore outfielder Brooke Vines returns after hitting .360 and scoring 46 runs as a true freshman. Infielder Aubrey Leach enters her sophomore season after hitting .348 as a true freshman. Sophomore Abby Lockman has made the switch to catcher, while junior Scarlett McSwain will also be playing some catcher as well. Lockman hit two homers as a true freshman in 2016, while McSwain is a career .276 hitter.

McSwain will be the starting catcher when the Vols kick their season off on Friday afternoon, but Lockman will receive plenty of playing time behind the plate as well.

“It’s been Abby and Scarlett and they’re gonna rotate,” Weekly said, while adding, “both of them have pretty strong arms.”

Lockman is enthusiastic about her new role with the team, saying “I think it’s going to be a great year and I’m very excited to step into this role and help the team.”

Three other names to look out for in 2017: Freshman infielder Chelsea Seggern, redshirt freshman Taylor Rowland and sophomore catcher/infielder Haley Bearden. All three are expected to make big contributions to the Tennessee lineup according to Weekly.

While the Vols offense is locked and loaded for 2017, uncertainties surround an inexperienced, but talented pitching staff.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge in what we’re facing,” Weekly said of the pitching situation. “My only concern is the pitching and not that the pitchers are not good, but that they’re young.”

In the circle, sophomore Matty Moss returns as the only pitcher on Tennessee’s roster who has pitched against Division I competition. Moss, an All-SEC freshman in 2016, led the Vols’ pitching staff with a 1.68 ERA and 7-2 record in conference play. Overall, Moss went 12-5 on the season, striking out 87 hitters compared to only 22 walks.

Junior college transfer Alex Brake looks to help out Moss in the circle. Brake is the two-time NJCAA Division ll National Pitcher of the Year (2015-2016). While at Labette Community College, Brake recorded 47 wins, a 1.64 ERA and 597 strikeouts in 430.1 innings pitched.

Freshman Caylan Arnold and sophomore Mary Beth Brumit will also look to help out the Vols in the circle throughout the course of the 2017 season. While the group may be inexperienced, Weekly is excited about the potential the group brings as a whole, as all four bring different elements to the table.

Tennessee kicks off its season at the Eagle Round Robin in Statesboro, Georgia on Feb. 10, where they’ll participate in a double-header against Tennessee Tech at 12 p.m. ET and Middle Tennessee State at 2 p.m. ET.

The Vols’first home game will be March 2 against Southeastern Louisiana at 3 p.m. ET in the Tennessee invitational.

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

How Gretchen Aucoin became comfortable with the uncomfortable

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.”

“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

Overstreet powers Vols softball past Furman

Led by the powerful bat of senior catcher Lexi Overstreet, No. 12 Tennessee knocked off Furman, 9-0, to remain perfect at home.

The Vols (34-11, 12-6 SEC) hit three home runs, tying their season high and advancing their home record to 18-0, the best in the NCAA. Of the 18 games played at home, Tennessee has won 10 of them in five innings.

Both teams were scoreless after two innings. Senior pitcher Erin Gabriel retired the first five batters she faced before giving up a single to Emma Ogburn. Gabriel halted the Paladins’ momentum with a strikeout to end the second inning.

In the bottom of the second inning, the Vols loaded the bases with one out, but Aubrey Leach lines out to second and Brook Vines grounded out to first, leaving three runners stranded and no runs on the board.

However, Tennessee’s bats came to life in the bottom of the third inning. Overtsreet knocked a two-run blast to right field. The Vols added five more runs in the inning thanks to Rainey Gaffin’s sac fly, Aubrey Leach’s two-run double and Brooke Vines’ two-run home run.

Gabriel (16-4) struck out seven batters over four scoreless innings before being replaced by Gaffin in the top of the fifth.

 

While Gabriel’s day on the mound early, Overstreet continues to give Furman’s pitchers fits, knocking her second home run of the game in the bottom of the fourth to put Tennessee up 8-0. As a result of her first-career multi-home run performance, Overstreet now has a team-leading 11 home runs on the season, her first double-digit home run season of her career.

The Vols put their unblemished home record on the line this weekend when they host No. 9 Oklahoma during the Tennessee Classic. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET this Saturday.

 

Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Edited by David Bradford