Tennessee athletics
Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly and her husband, Ralph, are entering their 17th year leading the Lady Vols softball program.

Tennessee Question of the Day: World Series a realistic expectation for Lady Vols

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee’s banner sports program opens the season Thursday at Arizona State with soaring expectations after falling four innings short of the College World Series last season.

Tennessee coughed up 3-run leads in back-to-back games with a WCWS berth on the line at Lee Stadium against Texas A&M, something the Lady Vols’ coaches say has “fueled the fire” this offseason.

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Lady Vols softball co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly begin their 17th season leading the program with eight returning starters including preseason Player of the Year candidate Meghan Gregg.

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Tennessee-softball-Vols-Lady Vols
Tennessee softball shortstop Meghan Gregg was honored as Co-Female Athlete of the Year for the Lady Vols last spring.

“We want to make a serious run for the conference title this year and a serious run for the world series,” Ralph Weekly said Monday at the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Media Studio. “On paper we have a lot of experience coming back with 12 letter winners and eight players who have started a lot of games.

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“I looked at our schedule and we’re playing 33 of our 56 games against teams that went to the NCAA Tournament and opening with Arizona State and Utah this weekend — two very strong teams.

The No. 11-ranked Lady Vols play Boise State at 5 p.m. (ET) and No. 19 Arizona State at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., and finish the preseason tourney with No. 15 Utah at 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Tennessee was picked to finish second in the SEC behind defending regular season champ and national runners-up Florida and is coming off a 48-12 season.

Tennessee Question of the Day

Question: What’s the realistic expectation for Tennessee softball this season?

In short, the Lady Vols are good enough to win the SEC regular season or the SEC Tournament, and a trip to the Women’s College World Series seems likely.

The most important variable is pitching, specifically if incoming freshman pitcher Gabby Sprang lives up to her recruiting hype. The 6-foot-1 Sprang was rated the No. 2 pitcher in the nation, and she’s the first left-handed pitcher Tennessee has featured since NCAA all-time great Monica Abbott.

Sprang has an impressive arsenal of pitches, but typical of most freshmen is still working to get pinpoint control.

Pitchers Matty Moss and Caylan Arnold return, both expected to be more dialed in than last season when they faded in back-to-back losses to Texas A&M in the NCAA Super Regional in Knoxville.

Both times, Moss and Arnold had plenty of run support and 3-run leads, but neither proved strong enough to finish or handle the pressure the Super Regional final presented.

The Weeklys said they plan to use all three pitchers in the rotation, and incoming freshman Ashley Morgan will throw some innings in addition to competing for playing time and at-bats as a first baseman.

Another factor will be how quickly All-SEC selection Brooke Vines can return from shoulder surgery. Vines, who was fourth in the SEC with 59 RBIs in 2017 and won NFCA National Player of the Week honors last March, could return by the end of this March in a best-case scenario.

Finally, the tone will be set by Gregg, who will likely be pitched around all season.

The senior from Williamson, Ga., ranks first all-time at Tennessee in slugging percentage (.695), fourth on the all-time home runs list 12 behind leader Tonya Callahan and seventh in RBI (191), just 50 behind all-time leader Callahan.

Gregg’s defense play at shortstop will also key an infield that’s expected to be one of the nation’s best.