By Brian Rice
The end of any season is difficult, particularly in college sports.
In the pros, you have free agency and trades, so teams that you cheer for rarely return fully intact, but the core of a team can stay together for a decade. The reality of college sports is that every player’s career comes with a clock, one that ticks shorter as the player grows to be more a part of the “normal” for a program.
The clock ran out for a special group of seniors last Sunday in Gainesville, Fla. A group of Lady Vol seniors that left a mark that will endure.
Aubrey Leach set the Tennessee career records in runs scored and walks, leading the SEC and the country in the former in two of her four years. Remarkably consistent, Aubrey missed one game in four years and that one game is probably the best memory of her I can offer. It was a Monday night game at Alabama in 2018, and she had been sick on the rainy Sunday that separated a doubleheader on Saturday and that national TV game on Monday.
The illness could have been a migraine, allergies or a concussion, the accompanying systems hinted at the latter. So there she sat at the pregame meal, ruled out for the game for the first time in her career, in shorts and a t-shirt with the rest of her team in full uniform. She offered only one comment over the plate of chicken and pasta:
“I’m never telling anyone that anything ever hurts again.”
Every coach wants a player that has that mentality. That would kill to be in the lineup because it killed them not to be. Ralph and Karen Weekly had that in Aubrey.
Matty Moss wasn’t the highest-rated player in her recruiting class. According to the experts, she wasn’t even the best pitcher Tennessee signed in that year. But she worked and left no doubt over the course of that freshman season, doing battle with some of the best competition that the nation’s toughest conference had to offer.
Her passion and fight helped her find a role as a senior that suited her better than anything else. With two other legit options in the pitching rotation, she moved to the bullpen. When the game was on fire, her own fire doused it. She got the final three outs to win the Regional for UT and held Florida to one run in five innings in Gainesville in her final appearance in Orange and White.
Abby Lockman blasted a 3-run home run in her first game at UT, making a BYU outfielder look ridiculous crashing through a temporary fence trying to chase it down. She hit for power while having a steadying influence behind the plate, no matter which pitcher was her responsibility in the circle. She hit a couple of home runs in Hawaii last year, one of which I tagged with the “Aloha means goodbye!” home run call that was like the dad joke of home run call clichés, but how do you not pull it out on the islands?
The same shoulder that defined her as a player for fighting through the pain ultimately cost her a final year on Rocky Top. But her next-to-last hit for UT was another towering home run, this one against James Madison in the Regional. She spent the 2019 season keeping a chart in the dugout, but showed what senior leadership looked like. She couldn’t play, but she still made an impact.
Katie Weimer was the rare transfer into the UT program. She had dreamed of being a Lady Vol all her life and attended UT camps as a young player. When college decision time came, her hometown University of Buffalo had a scholarship for her and Tennessee did not. She dominated the MAC as a freshman, leading the Bison in home runs (12), RBIs (49), triples (four), total bases (109) and slugging percentage (.641). The 49 RBIs were a program record. But she wanted more than to just be the best player in Buffalo.
Katie filled a role at Tennessee, which was all she was promised. But every time she was called upon, she delivered a consistent effort that embodied the core values that the Weeklys built the program around. She didn’t set program records for the Lady Vols, but no one involved in the program will ever forget the impact she had.
Savannah Huffstetler tore her ACL in fall practice before the 2018 season. Many players that had appeared in 38 games with one start in two years would simply walk away after that type of injury and rehab just enough to still enjoy casual jogs as a soccer mom. Not Savannah. Knowing that the prospects for a starting role still weren’t high, she still rehabbed the knee like an Olympian preparing for the race of her life. You can’t put a value on heart and desire, and that’s what defined her. Just being able to take a swing in the batting cages was a victory.
And there in her final year, she started 13 games at second base while helping develop a freshman that would take over that starting spot. It was selfless, just as was her constant leadership in the dugout. Savannah set the mood for her teammates and did it with the attitude and dedication that lets you know she’ll be a success in her chosen field of special education.
Haley Bearden was a career .164 hitter coming into her senior year. She had one home run, a walk-off blast that swept away LSU in 2018 and 17 career RBIs. Her senior year unfolded like an ESPN 30 for 30 “What if I Told You?” promo.
She hit .313 as a senior with 47 RBIs and a 15 home runs. Haley surpassed her career numbers in virtually every offensive category before the first third of her final season was complete. We’ll remember her final two games for their clutch moments: a walk-off bases loaded walk to defeat Florida in game 2 of the Super Regional and a solo home run to lead off the seventh inning in game 3 that tied things up on the final swing she would take in her career.
With the game done on Sunday afternoon and these careers concluded, I thought back to some of the firsts and lasts for this class. You never know when the final moment of something will happen, but these six made the most of their moments.
As the bus prepared to depart the field, Matty Moss’ dad, Josh, stepped onto the top step and let out a chant that has rung through stadiums around the league for the last four years:
“Maaaaaaatttttttty Moss, Matty Moss, Maaaaaaaaaatttttttt Moss!”
He then looked back though the bus and summed up the thoughts of everyone seated there.
“Sorry,” he said. “I needed to do that one last time.”
Brian Rice has served as the play-by-play broadcaster for Tennessee Softball since 2013 and is heard every day on the Erik Ainge show. You can follow him on Twitter at @briancrice