Softball Preview: No. RV/23/24 Lady Vols at Kickin’ Chicken Classic

UT Softball / Credit: UT Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – After nearly 330 days, Tennessee softball returns to action on Friday to open the 2021 season. The No. RV/23/24 Lady Vols head to Conway, S.C., for the Kickin’ Chicken Classic – a five-game slate hosted by Coastal Carolina.

In its 2021 lid-lifter, UT is pitted against Ohio at 9:30 a.m. ET, before finishing a double-header opening day against the host team at 2:30 p.m.

Saturday presents another doubleheader with the Bobcats again at 9:30 a.m., before the Lady Vols faceoff against the Zips of Akron for the first time in 25 years at 11:45 a.m.

The Orange and White conclude opening weekend with a first-ever meeting with UConn on Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

Broadcast Info
Due to pandemic-related health and safety standards no radio broadcast will be available for the weekend. The Lady Vols matchup with the Chants will be live streamed on ESPN+.

Quick Hits
The Shipman is Sailing
Junior catcher Ally Shipman has garnered significant recognition during the preseason, collecting a pair of preseason All-America honors (D1Softball and Softball America – both second team) and also ranking 13th among juniors in the nation by Softball America. The outlet also pegged Shipman the No. 37 overall player in the country.  Shipman was off to a momentous start in 2020, after coming off of a season-ending injury suffered midway through her 2019 campaign. The Valencia, Calif., native co-led the Lady Vols with a .403 batting average, seven doubles and a pair of triples alongside redshirt-senior Chelsea Seggern. Shipman also added 16 RBIs and a pair of home runs after starting all 23 games last season.

Rogers Return
After missing the shortened 2020 season due to a short-term injury, Ashley Rogers returns to the circle as the Lady Vols ace. The junior was scheduled to make her first appearance during UT’s SEC opener at Texas A&M last season, but moments before the team got on the plane on March 12 the season was postponed and then ultimately cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Rogers’ play in the circle during her freshman year (2019), which earned her first-team NFCA All-Region and All-SEC honors, made a lasting impression and the Athens, Tenn., native found herself among the members of this season’s Preseason All-SEC Team along with Chelsea Seggern. She recorded a 1.94 ERA in her first collegiate season, finishing with a 21-7 win-los record that included seven shutouts.

A Score of Success
The 2021 season marks the 20th season that co-head coaches Ralph Weekly and Karen Weekly have managed the Lady Vol ball club. The NFCA Hall of Famers (Ralph was inducted in 2011, Karen was inducted in 2018) boast an overall record of 1,408-466-2 at Tennessee. In their time on Rocky Top, the program transformed into a national powerhouse, with 18 consecutive seasons in the top 25 polls. Since 2001, the Weekly’s have guided players to 36 All-America selections, 64 NFCA All-Region nods, five SEC Player of the Year honors, three SEC Pitcher of the Year titles, 60 All-SEC selections and a deluge of distinguished recognitions. Some of the sports’ most respected names once sported the Orange and White, including Olympian Monica Abbott, considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time, India Chiles, Ivy Renfroe, Rainey Gaffin, Madison Shipman, Sarah Fekete, Raven Chavanne and Aubrey Leach, to name a few. The Weekly’s, who also were co-heads at Chattanooga, have led the Lady Vols to seven WCWS appearances and were SEC Co-Coaches of the Year in 2004 and 2007.

Rhodes Back in Rocky Top
Tennessee fans will see a familiar face around the dugout this season with the return of former Lady Vol pitcher Megan Rhodes Smith as an assistant. Rhodes-Smith will manage the bullpen. A standout pitcher for UT from 2005-08, she spent her previous year as the head coach at Belmont in her hometown of Nashville. Prior to her time with the Bruins, Smith spent six seasons focusing on the development of pitchers and catchers at Lipscomb University, and served as the program’s associate head coach from 2018-19. With the Lady Vols, Smith, now a mom of two young girls, leads a talented group with a diverse skillset including Ashley Rogers (1.94 ERA, 21-7 win-loss record in 2019), Callie Turner (2.67 ERA, 8-7 W/L in 2020), Samantha Bender (2.68 ERA, 5-1 W/L in 2020), Anna Hazlewood and newcomer Bailey McCachren.

Tightening the Tennessee Borders
UT’s roster has gotten a boost from in-state talent once again. The 2021 members include nine Lady Vols from the state of Tennessee: Kaylan Cole (Newport), Anna Fox (Columbia), Cailin Hannon (Franklin), Anna Hazlewood (Martin), KK McCrary (Murfreesboro), Treasuary Poindexter (Covington), Ashley Rogers (Athens), Madison Webber (Sevierville), Josie Willingham (Medon).

Scouting Report
2020 record: 11-15, 0-0 MAC
Series record: Tennessee leads 5-0
Last outing: A 15th-ranked Tennessee downed Ohio 2-1 in Knoxville on March 2, 2017.
Key player/stat: Last season the Bobcats recorded 204 hits and 38 doubles and eight triples, but only hit .287 collectively, but allowed opponents a .317 hitting average.

Coastal Carolina
2020 record: 13-8, 1-2 Sun Belt
Series record: Tennessee leads 8-0
Last outing: The No. 8 Lady Vols outlasted the Chants 3-1 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Feb. 8, 2019
Key player/stat: Coastal Carolina returns its top offensive threats in infielder Makiya Thomas who batted a .463 in 2020 and outfielder Stavi Augur who batted a .328 clip. Thomas led the team with 25 hits, while Augur added 20 hits and topped the team’s ledger with 21 RBI.

2020 record: 6-9, 0-0 MAC
Series record: UT leads 1-0
Last outing: The Lady Vols edged the Zips 7-6 in the program’s inaugural season on March 3, 1996 in Knoxville.
Key player/stat: The Zips were outhit 187-162 last season and gave up 151 RBIs compared to recording 90 RBIs as a team. Their top hitter Bailey Drapola appears to be returning for her sophomore campaign after leading the team with a .347 batting average and 26 hits.

2020 record: 16-5, 0-0 Big East
Series record: This will be the first-ever meeting
Key player/stat: The Huskies finished the 2020 season on a three-game win streak, that included two run-rules over notable programs James Madison (12-2, five innings) and Cal (8-0, five innings). Redshirt senior infielder Olivia Sappington posted a team-best .350 batting average through 60 at-bats and led UConn with five homers.

-UT Athletics