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VOL. 132 | NO. 100 | Friday, May 19, 2017

Road to WCWS Once Again Goes Through UT

By Dave Link

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Several of Tennessee’s athletic teams would just be glad to get an NCAA Tournament bid. UT’s softball team expects a lot more. Like getting to the Women’s College World Series.

Shortstop Meghan Gregg is the 2017 SEC Player of the Year after leading the SEC in average, RBIs, doubles, slugging percentage and total bases. (Jerry Denham | The Ledger)

Tennessee is the No. 8 overall seed in the 64-team NCAA softball tournament, which begins with regionals this weekend on campus sites.

The Vols (44-10) will play host to Longwood (Virginia) University on Friday night at 7 (ESPN2) in the team’s NCAA opener at Lee Stadium. Ohio State plays University of South Carolina Upstate in the opener at 4:30 p.m. The double-elimination format concludes Sunday.

If UT advances, it will be host for an NCAA super regional (round-of-16) May 25-28 at Lee Stadium. The WCWS is June 1-7 in Oklahoma City.

UT is making its 14th consecutive NCAA appearance under co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly, who have taken the Vols to the WCWS seven times, most recently in 2015. They were national runners-up in 2007 and ’13.

Despite having a youthful team this year with only one senior in the lineup, the Weeklys have the same postseason goal.

“I never look at it like, ‘Well next year. This is a rebuilding year and we’re planning for next year,’ ” Karen said Monday in a pre-NCAA press conference. “We’re at Tennessee, and the way Ralph and I coach, we want to be in the World Series every year, and kids come here knowing that. To me, you’re a freshman the first day that you play a game, but by the end of the season, you’re no longer a freshman. 

“Now these kids have all played 54 games, so nobody’s a freshman any more. You look back to our 2010 team, a very young team that went to the World Series. It’s all about who you are as an athlete, who you are as a competitor.”

Tennessee is coming off a 6-2 loss to LSU in its quarterfinal opener of the SEC tournament. LSU is the No. 13 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and will host a regional this weekend.

For the first time, all 13 softball teams in the SEC earned NCAA Tournament bids.

Tennessee’s loss in the conference tournament apparently didn’t affect its seeding.

“We’re very excited about our seed,” Ralph Weekly says. “We think we earned it. 

“The key to getting a seed like that is the schedule you play, and even our mid-weeks were tough, North Carolina and those kind of teams, and we were 16-7 against the Top 25, so now we’ve got to get ready to go out and play hard with these young guns, and I call them young guns because it’s the first time we’ve ever entered into a tournament with a sophomore (Matty Moss) and a freshman (Caylan Arnold) on the mound. 

“I think they learned a few things last Thursday night (in the loss to LSU), but I think they’re going to be challenged, and it’s a good field that we’re going to play. All of those teams (in UT’s regional) are good teams and they’re seasoned teams.”

Longwood, located in Farmville, Virginia, won the Big South Conference and is the No. 4 seed this weekend. USC Upstate (44-11) won the Atlantic Sun Championship and is the No. 3 seed. Ohio State (35-16) got an at-large bid and is the No. 2 seed.

Karen Weekly likes the way her players have responded after the early exit from the SEC tournament.

“I think the mood has been very good,” she explains. “I see a real sense of resolve and understanding what we didn’t do well last Thursday in the SEC tournament, but also realizing that we are good, and it’s constantly building the confidence. I don’t think that is something that you can ever take for granted. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the No. 1 seed in the country, or the No. 64 seed in this field. You constantly need to build their confidence but also address the things that we need to improve on in order to make sure we advance.”

Here are some Vols to watch in the NCAA tournament:

No. 55: Meghan Gregg

5-9 junior shortstop, Flint River Academy, Williamson, Georgia (.439, 71 RBIs, 11 homers, .561 on-base percentage)

Gregg is the 2017 SEC player of the year, an All-SEC first-team player and is on the SEC all-defensive team. She leads SEC in batting average, RBIs, doubles (18), slugging percentage (.797) and total bases (118).

Gregg has been UT’s starting shortstop since her freshman season when she took over for Madison Shipman, who’s now on the coaching staff. Gregg was on the All-SEC Freshman team in 2015 and last year was on the All-SEC first team and the NFCA All-Southeast Region third team after leading Tennessee in almost every statistical hitting category.

As a high school senior, Gregg was the 2014 Gatorade Softball Player of the Year in Georgia and led Flint River Academy to its third consecutive state title, hitting .766 with seven homers and 31 RBIs with a .830 on-base percentage. She was a two-time GISA player of the year.

No. 1: Matty Moss

5-9 sophomore pitcher, J.L. Mann Academy, Greenville, South Carolina (23-2, 1.82 ERA, 166 strikeouts, 42 walks).

Moss, chosen to the All-SEC second team, isn’t just animated in the circle at times, she’s effective most of the time. She’s tied for 14th in the nation with 23 wins and her 162 strikeouts (going into the league tournament) was fourth in the SEC. In the loss to LSU, Moss went six innings and gave up five hits and two runs (both earned), struck out four and walked two.

Last year, Moss was chosen to the All-SEC freshman team after posting a 12-5 record with a 1.68 ERA, 87 strikeouts and 22 walks. Her ERA led the team. With the loss of 2016 senior pitchers Rainey Gaffin and Erin Gabriel, Moss and freshman Caylan Arnold have assumed the bulk of the pitching duties.

Moss played club ball for So Cal Athletics-Richardson, the Carolina Elite, and the Carolina Crush, and was consistently clocked in the 66- to 68-mph range during high school and club softball.

No. 12: Caylan Arnold

5-7 freshman pitcher, Maryville High, Maryville (19-8, 2.03 ERA, 141 strikeouts, 56 walks)

Arnold, who didn’t start full-time pitching until her sophomore year at Maryville High, is the SEC Freshman of the Year and a finalist for the NFCA Freshman of the Year. Her 19 wins ranked fifth in the league going into the SEC tournament; she has the most strikeouts for a UT freshman pitcher since Ellen Renfroe (259) in 2011. She has eight victories over ranked teams this year.

After moving from Dyersburg to Maryville a week after fall break her freshman year, Arnold decided to play softball along with basketball, her sport of choice. Arnold got a chance to pitch as a freshman due to another pitcher’s injury, loved it, and stopped playing basketball as a sophomore.

In the tournament loss to LSU, Arnold gave up four runs (three earned) on four hits, struck out one and didn’t walk a batter.

Arnold became a high level recruit as a junior and committed to Tennessee over Washington and Florida State. She went 29.2 innings to start her freshman year at UT without giving up an earned run.

No. 4: Brooke Vines

5-8 sophomore outfielder/utility player, Palos Verdes Peninsula High, Rancho Palos Verdes, California (.389, 55 RBIs, three homers, 45 runs, .423 on-base percentage)

Vines, on the 2017 All-SEC second team, was third in the SEC with 22 RBIs in conference play and her 53 RBIs was 21st in the nation going into the SEC tournament. Last year, Vines was on the All-SEC freshman team when she started all 58 games and was among the top five on UT’s team in batting average (.360, fourth), runs (46, fifth), hits (63, second), triples (four, tied first), steals (19 of 20, second) and total bases (69, fifth).

Vines was ranked the No. 7 recruit in the nation in Full Count Softball’s Hot 100 as a high school senior and led her club team, the So Cal Athletics, to national championships in 2012 and 2013 and a third-place finish in 2014. She was a teammate for three years with UT’s Megan Geer while playing for the So Cal Athletics.

No. 10: Aubrey Leach

5-4 sophomore second baseman, The Woodlands High, The Woodlands, Texas. (.333, 11 RBIs, 56 runs, .472 on-base percentage)

Leach has started every game this season and entering the SEC tournament led the SEC in runs (55) and was tied nationally at 1.04 runs per game. Her 41 walks is a team-high.

Leach started 59 games as a freshman and was on the All-SEC Freshman team. Her .348 batting average was fifth on the team and fourth among returning players.

As a high school senior, Leach was ranked the No. 22 player in the nation in Full Count Softball’s Class of 2015 after earning FloSoftball and USA Today first-team All-America honors. She was team captain for the Texas Sudden Impact club program for four years.

No. 2: Jenna Holcomb

5-7 freshman outfielder, Los Alamitos High, Los Alamitos, California (.349, 12 RBIs, 33 runs, .402 on-base percentage

Holcomb has been the starter in left field for the majority of the season and has the team’s fourth-best batting average. She started the season with a 10-game hitting streak, the longest for a freshman to start a season in program history.

As a high school senior, Holcomb was a top-20 player on FloSoftball’s Hot 100 list and played travel ball for the So Cal Athletics.

No 6: C.J. McClain

5-6 junior outfielder, Stratford High, Nashville, (.357, seven RBIs, 25 runs, .303 on-base percentage)

McClain is third on the team in batting average. Going into the SEC tournament, her .358 average in SEC play was sixth-best in the league; her 25 stolen bases (in 27 attempts) ranked third in the league and is tops for the Vols. She’s made one error this year.

McClain has started 92 games and played in 159 games for UT and had a .322 career average going into the SEC tournament. As a freshman in 2015, McClain scored the game-winning run in the NCAA super regional against No. 9 Florida State to help UT reach the WCWS.

During her prep career, McClain helped Hendersonville’s Beech High win the 2011 state title, was an all-state player at Beech the next year and then went on to become an all-state player as a senior at Stratford High in Nashville. She’s the cousin of former Tennessee and NFL player “Big” John Henderson.

No. 17: Chelsea Seggern

5-8 freshman third baseman, Thrall High, Thrall, Texas (.269, 30 RBIs, three homers, 13 doubles, .448 slugging percentage)

Seggern, chosen to the All-SEC freshman team, is fourth on the team in RBIs, third in doubles and second in extra base hits. She’s started all but one game this season.

During her career at Thrall High, Seggern hit .677 or better in all four of her seasons and finished with 124 RBIs and 20 homers. She doubled as a pitcher in high school and struck out 749 batters during her career.

Seggern also played volleyball, basketball, and ran track for Thrall High.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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