Transcript: Co-Head Coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly Fall Press Conference

Lee Softball Stadium / Credit: UT Athletics

Full Transcript

Opening statement…

(Karen) “Well thank you, it’s good to be here and good to see all of you, even on a computer screen. We just completed our fall ball segment on Monday – had our last practice. Had a good six weeks of fall ball and now we’re headed back into individual skill sessions before the young ladies head home for the holiday break. Signing Day was yesterday – signed a class of six young women who we think represent one of the most well-rounded classes we’ve ever brought in to Tennessee in terms of covering a lot of positional needs all over the field. So, it’s just been a good fall for us amidst the circumstances that we’re dealing with.”

 

On if the energy from the shortened 2020 season has carried over into the new team this fall…

(Ralph) “We’re excited about the team and we’re excited about the preparation. You remember the 2019 season, we finished second in the league standings and had to go to Florida for the second time during the year and we ended up going 3-3 with Florida that year – winning 2-out-of-3 in the regular season and then losing in Super Regionals in the eighth inning to go to the (Women’s College) World Series. We have seven starters back from that team and a lot of newcomers that we’re really excited about. We think if we stay healthy, we’ll be very, very competitive.”

 

On managing the team since the COVID-19 pandemic began…

(Karen) “Starting with the medical staff here and the leadership, I think they’ve done an absolutely phenomenal job of putting protocols in place and helping us all walk through that and do the best we can. Our young women have done a terrific job of following those protocols. We haven’t been overly impacted by it this fall. We’ve been able to have a pretty full squad out there almost every day and get a lot of work done. I think the biggest impact we’ve seen is just the layoff in the summer and them (the players) not being able to be on campus in the summer and condition and train. So, we saw that when they got back to school in late August, 1st of September, just our conditioning level wasn’t what it usually is at that time of year, so it’s taken a while this fall to kind of build that back up. But, from a medical standpoint, just couldn’t be happier with the way the conference has dealt with this from a leadership perspective, our institution, the medical task force here on campus, our leaders here on campus. I think they’ve just handled it tremendously well.”

 

On if it’s concerning to see football games across the country being postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19…

(Ralph) “Well of course it’s alarming. It seems to be getting worse right about this time, but I’m sure there will be better days ahead and we’ve just gotta keep on keeping on and try to do the best we can and try to be as safe as we can with our kids. I’m just very proud of the way our kids have dealt with this. Of course, the holiday break for all sports teams all over the country will be a challenge.”

 

On bringing back Tennessee softball alum Meagan Rhodes Smith to be the pitching coach…

(Karen) “Megan’s been a great addition to our staff. Megan was a phenomenal player here, but somebody you could see as a player was going to be a tremendous coach. Really a smart young woman. Has an aptitude, not just for the X’s and O’s of the game, but really getting to know the players on a personal level, build those relationships, but also a strong background in sports psychology. After she completed her four-year career here, she got her master’s degree in sports psychology from Tennessee and just has a passion for that aspect of being an athlete and utilizes that everyday in her coaching. Not just with our pitchers and catchers, with our entire team. So, that’s been a really neat thing for her to bring to us. She just is a lifelong learner, always trying to grow in her game. One thing I always appreciated about Megan, even though she was a pitcher and has been primarily a pitching coach throughout her career – even the last 10 years she always been calling me and asking questions about slapping and defense and hitting and every other aspect of the game to become the most well-rounded coach she could be. We couldn’t be more pleased with what Megan has brought to our team so far.”

 

On the pitching group…

(Karen) “So, Ashley Rogers, she would have been cleared to go at Texas A&M the weekend we got shutdown (for COVID-19) and that would’ve been her first appearance last season. So, we played the 2020 shortened season, we played the entire time without her. She’s been back all fall – has had a really good fall. That’s great for us of course. Callie Turner got kind of thrown into the fire really quick, as a freshman, because of Ashley’s injury. She’s improved tremendously this fall. We’ve had several intra-squad scrimmages with umpires and the umpires that saw her last year and came out this fall said, ‘She’s by far the most improved player on your team.’ So that was pretty neat for us.

“Sam Bender returns, she got a share of the load last year with Ashley’s injury and Anna Hazlewood is also back – another one who saw some innings last year in that shortened season. Then we added a freshman, Bailey McCachren, a lefty, who’s really opened some eyes on our team this fall. Has done exceptionally well in our intra-squad scrimmages. So, we’ve got five arms, two of them left-handed, three of them right-handed and I think it’s a well-balanced pitching staff.”

 

On the makeup of the 2021 recruiting class…

(Ralph) “The two ‘Towers of Power’ (McKenna Gibson and Grace Keene) are kids that we have been looking forward to for the last three years. They committed early and a lot of people made a run for them. They’re both over six-foot; they’re both power hitters. One of them (McKenna) played for (Athletics) Mercado (club team) who won the PGF National Championship last year and the other (Grace) played for the (So Cal) Choppers (club team).”

(Karen) “You’re going to want to get that name ‘Beautae” down because I think you’re going to be saying it a lot. Lair Beautae is an exceptional athlete and really explosive softball player. She’s a speedster – she can do it all. She’s a lefty. She can play middle infield. She can play the outfield equally well. She’s just one of those players with that ‘it factor’ that can change a game with her wheels, with her glove, with her bat. Loves being in pressure situations. Nicola Simpson is a pitcher out of Seattle, Washington – won many state championships up there and is considered the best pitcher in that state. What I like about Nicola is her intelligence, her attention to detail at such an early age. She’s very mature and she understands greatness is in the small things. She’s already searching for those tiny, tiny difference makers in her game. Just a really neat young woman to have a conversation with. Katie Taylor, an outfielder from Newnan, Georgia – again a young lady with good speed, a great glove and somebody who has power. She has hit a lot of home runs. She just won a state championship with her team down in Georgia. They play fall high school softball and so she’s still on a high from that state championship about 10 days ago. She’s just always played in winning programs, whether it’s travel softball or high school softball – really knows how to win. And the last one, that just came in this morning, Olivia Underwood, from right down the road here (Madisonville, Tenn.), they call her ‘Big O’. Not because she’s necessarily big, but she’s got a big arm. She’s a catcher. Just a really well-polished defensive catcher. Really quick, really athletic, terrific arm. Versatile enough to come out from behind the plate and play other positions and also hits the ball well.

“So, like I said in my opening statements, we feel like it’s a well-rounded class because we’ve got a pitcher, we’ve got a catcher, we’ve got outfield, we’ve got corners, we’ve got middle infield. We covered a little bit of everything. But most importantly, in our recruiting of all the women who come to play for Tennessee, we talk to them about academics first. Not just doing well in the classroom, but we’re committed to them pursuing any degree they want and making sure we accommodate that so it can happen. And all of these ladies buy into that philosophy and are really, really motivated academically and have high dreams for their professional futures beyond Tennessee. So, when their priorities align with ours, that’s the best of all worlds.”

 

On Chancellor Donde Plowman…

(Ralph) “I am tremendously impressed by her leadership. It’s amazing how she gets out and talks to everybody. When I first met her, I already knew about her from the coaches at Nebraska, who told us what a great person she was, what great leader she was and a great administrator. It was at that meeting that she got introduced to Karen and I’ll let Karen take it from here, because I believe they have some things in common.”

(Karen) “She came out and spoke to our team about a week-and-a-half ago now. One of our captains at the end told her, ‘We are so grateful to have a leader like you here on our campus because we’ve never had a chancellor show so much of a presence with our softball team.’ She’s been out to visit our softball team twice since she’s been on campus and that’s probably two more times than they’ve seen any chancellor in the last several years. Exactly what you said, she gives that personal touch. People around here know that she cares. She’s leading in the right way. We all know it’s about doing the right thing, leading with integrity, the transparency. I just feel very blessed that she was here when COVID-19 hit. The way she’s led this campus through that is just phenomenal and I think it’s the reason that we are where we are as a campus right now and doing as well as we are. She’s tough when she needs to be. She’s compassionate at the same time. People just know that she cares and she’s doing everything for the right reasons. So, we’re extremely proud to have Donde Plowman at the helm here at Tennessee and to be working for her.”

 

On updates about the Spring 2021 schedule…

(Karen) “So I sit on the SEC baseball/softball subgroup that meets about every two weeks to discuss contingency plans due to COVID-19. We talk about testing protocols and scheduling and roster sizes and all kinds of things. In fact, I just left one of those meetings to come to the press conference. Nothing has changed and there’s definitely a sentiment that we don’t want to make any changes until something forces us to. There’s a real feeling that the spring sports got the worst end of this deal last year in losing the bulk of their seasons, so we want to try to do everything we possibly can to preserve the schedules. Whether we get to play 56 games or not remains to be seen. I think that goes along with Commissioner (Greg) Sankey’s philosophy from day one, is let’s be patient, let’s not jump the gun and make a decision too early before we know as much information as possible. This is something that is changing week by week and we’ll know a whole lot more January 1 than we do now. So, let’s ride this thing out as long as we can. There are two athletics directors on that subgroup as well, who feel just as strongly. They want to try and let baseball and softball play their full schedules if at all possible. That’s our goal. Whether we eventually do that, that remains to be seen, but that’s what we’re going to keep trying to do.”

 

On standouts from the newcomers for the 2020-21 season…

(Ralph) “We’re really pleased with Ivy Davis. It’s interesting, she’s a transfer from Arizona and last year she played against us. We had Arizona State and Arizona on the same day in the Arizona State tournament. So, we threw our top pitcher against Arizona State and won the game and then had to go against Arizona. Ivy went 2-for-3 (at the plate) against us in that game. She’s an outstanding shortstop in prep ball. She was playing first base for Arizona because their shortstop is leading the nation in hitting by an infielder and got that year back. So anyhow, we went against several teams to get Ivy when she got in the portal and she’s everything everybody says about her. In fact, fantastic defensive shortstop who can hit the long ball.”

-UT Athletics

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