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VOL. 8 | NO. 23 | Saturday, May 30, 2015

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Dave Link

Clarksville Star Can’t Wait to Be Part of Lady Vols

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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Haley Bearden will watch every pitch this weekend as the University of Tennessee softball team pursues its ultimate goal in the NCAA Women’s College World Series.

The 2015 Clarksville High School graduate and UT softball recruit has been a fan since she was young, hardly ever missing a televised game, and dreamed of playing for the Lady Vols one day.

Bearden’s dream turned to reality when she signed with UT last November. The first baseman/catcher is one of 12 signees in UT’s 2015 recruiting class that was ranked No. 3 nationally by FullCountSoftball.com.

Haley Bearden, a two-sport athlete with Clarksville High School, will play softball for the Lady Vols next year.

(Clarksvillesportsnetwork.com)

“Tennessee is where I’ve always wanted to play,” says Bearden. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always watched them on TV, and it’s just where I wanted to go. When they offered, I was like, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere else,’ so there was no point in waiting, really.”

Bearden committed to UT co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly during the summer of 2013 before her junior year at Clarksville High School.

There was no hesitation for Bearden, a power-hitting left-hander who played summer ball for the Tennessee Illusion, a team based in Nashville.

The Weeklys were a major reason she committed so early.

“They’re both so smart about the game, and I’m just excited to learn from them and the other girls on the team,” explains Bearden. “The Weeklys are both so sweet and so nice. I just love them.”

Bearden’s pursuit of a college softball career didn’t stop her from being a basketball standout at Clarksville High, where the 5-foot-11 forward was chosen the District 10-AAA player of the year this past season.

As a freshman, Bearden played varsity basketball alongside Bashaara Graves, a 2012 Clarksville High graduate and a rising senior for the Lady Vols’ basketball team. Graves was the SEC freshman of the year in 2012-13 and is a three-year starter at UT.

“Haley learned from Bashaara,” says Brian Rush, Clarksville High’s head girls basketball and softball coach. “There’s a friendship there that she can’t wait to rekindle when she gets to UT. Bashaara really taught her how to be an athlete and a competitor when Haley was a freshman.”

Rush has seen Bearden’s talents in basketball and softball flourish during his four years of coaching her at Clarksville High. She averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds in basketball last season.

“She’s incredibly graceful,” Rush adds. “On the basketball court, I saw her make some plays that you just kind of shook your head and said, ‘I can’t believe she was able to do that.’ At first base, she gets down into the split. She’s just very flexible and very agile for an athlete her size, and she runs like a deer.”

Bearden put up staggering numbers her junior season of softball at Clarksville by setting school records for hits (64), homers (19), and RBIs (73) while hitting .464.

Her numbers dropped this year as teams walked her or pitched around her. She hit .426, but had a .690 on-base percentage with 19 walks. She hit seven homers, 14 doubles, three triples and had 29 RBIs.

Rush figured out early he should move Bearden from the No. 3 spot in the lineup of her junior year to leadoff this past season.

“She was our best hitter, and what happens, the teams all year pitched around her,” Rush recalls. “I mean, if you’re going to pitch around her, I’m going to put her up in the leadoff spot, and you’re going to have to pitch around her more times a game.

“Wilson Central did that in the region (semifinal) game. They wouldn’t let her bat (in Clarksville’s loss).”

Bearden spent most of her first three seasons catching for the Lady Wildcats before moving to first base as a senior.

“For the first three years, she was always our starting catcher,” says Rush. “We would give her some time at first base to give her a break, but when Heather Norris graduated last year, she was our stud pitcher for four years (and now plays for Austin Peay), and this year I had to break in two new pitchers, and I had to break in a new catcher with them.

“We allowed Haley to go play first base and focus on the hitting aspect of it.”

Bearden already knows several of her future teammates at Tennessee. She played against UT freshman infielder Scarlet McSwain of Henry County High School in Paris, which competes in the same district as Clarksville High, and also knows 2015 signee Brittany Edmondson, a graduate of Ezell-Harding Christian Academy in Antioch.

“I know Brittany Edmondson personally,” says Bearden. “We played against each other for a couple of years because she lives in Tennessee, too, but everyone else (in UT’s 2015 class) is from out of town, but I’ve met a lot of them, and we follow each other on social media, so I know them, but not personally yet.”

Edmondson became a high-level Division I recruit as a sophomore at Ezell-Harding when she hit .610 with four homers, 31 RBIs, and 27 stolen bases while leading her team to the TSSAA Division II-A state championship.

She also helped Ezell-Harding reach the state tournament during her junior and senior seasons. Edmondson is a slap hitter with great speed – she’s been clocked at 2.6 seconds from home to first base – and she has great range in center field. Her bat control allows Edmondson to put the ball anywhere in the field.

UT makes its seventh WCWS appearance in 11 years under the Weeklys, who are in their 14th season as the Lady Vols’ coaching duo.

The coaches say this is the youngest team they’ve taken to the WCWS. The Lady Vols have only two seniors, outfielder Tory Lewis of Chattanooga’s Girls Preparatory School and pitcher/infielder Cheyanne Tarango of Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills, Calif.

Bearden knows competition for playing time is at a premium in a program like Tennessee’s, and she’s up for the challenge.

“I’m really excited,” adds Bearden. “I know that I have some big shoes to step into. They’re only losing like two (players). I know I have to step up and do my best, but I’m really excited, and I think I’m going to really enjoy it up there.”

Tennessee was ranked behind only Oklahoma and Florida among the FullCountSoftball.com’s Top 10 recruiting classes when its first poll was announced.

UT is the only team with six players in the top 75 of FullCountSoftball.com’s Hot 100 list. They are Brooke Vines (No. 7), Aubrey Leach (No. 22), Taylor Rowland (No. 59), Abby Lockman (No. 60), Edmondson (No. 62), and Bria Bush (No. 72).

Dave Link is a freelance writer living in Knoxville.

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