Transcript: Tennessee Softball Co-Head Coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly Media Availability

UT Softball Co-HC Karen Weekly / Credit: 99.1 The Sports Animal

Opening Statement …

Karen: “We are certainly off to an unusual start for a softball season. I don’t think that we have played at home ever before. We didn’t plan to play at home but we’re certainly happy that we got to play those games on Sunday. Really appreciate our administration and Eastern Kentucky’s administration making that happen on short notice. Like Ralph (Weekly) told our team, we just drove 14 hours to play a doubleheader at home. That’s just the way it worked out, but our kids were super excited to play. I thought we did some things really well on Sunday and also have a lot of things that we can take from the film and work on. You can’t complain about being 2-0.”

On the process to play a doubleheader this past weekend …

Karen: “It was a whirlwind actually. The first phone call I got about a possible Sunday doubleheader was from Louisville. We were headed to Coastal Carolina on Thursday and everybody could see the anticipated weather issues throughout the southeast this past weekend. We talked to Louisville, we talked to Ohio University, and then late Friday night we saw on Twitter that Eastern Kentucky was looking for a game and they were the ones that we were finally able to match up with. I’ve never spent so much time on the road trying to play, negotiating, also getting a game and the thing that adds another layer to this that’s probably the biggest and most important part is, ‘Can we all get Covid tested in time to make this happen?’ You’re testing cadence is based on your regular schedule. So then when you throw something in there last minute it throws your testing cadence completely out of whack. Both sides have to make sure that they can get into their universities, get tested, get results to make a game happen. It was pretty crazy.”

On what it was like to get back on the field and play the first game of the season …

Ralph: “It was really great. Ashely Rogers coming back like she did and striking out the first six batters was really good because Eastern Kentucky was picked to finish second in the OVC and was 22-2 last year. They were a formidable opponent and for Ashley to start out like that – that’s what we needed last year. We needed a strong upperclassman on the mound. It was just a lot of fun. A lot of kids did really well. We hit five home runs on the day. I said before the game started, ‘I don’t think Babe Ruth can hit one out of here’ but we did hit five. It was a good day for everybody.”

On advice to the Lady Vol basketball team that is stuck in Houston, Texas …

Karen: “There’s certainly nothing you can do about ice. Just stay put and study. We told our kids going down to Coastal, ‘Make sure you bring a ton of books and homework with you,’ because we anticipated a lot of delays, a lot of sitting around, a lot of hotel time. With COVID, it’s not like they can all gather in a meeting room and have a good time together. We pretty much must stay in our hotel room. Staying in their little rooming pods. The time can be used wisely if you plan ahead. Hopefully, we will all come out of this with a 4.0 (grade point average).”

On what they have learned about their team so far this season …

Ralph: “One thing we learned is that they really like being together. They’re a really good team. They had a great GPA last semester and started off this year. They work well together. There’s a lot of experience. There are seven players out there that were on that team in 2019 that finished second in the SEC and went to Florida and lost in the last inning to get to the World Series. It’s a close-knit team.

Karen: “One thing I learned is that Ashley Rodgers is ready to go. I’ve never seen her throw as well as she threw the other day. Not just the results, but the way her ball was moving. She’s looking as good as she’s ever looked in an orange uniform. That was great to see.”

On Ashley Rogers return …

Karen: “We were heading out the clubhouse door to get on the bus this Thursday. I asked how long it had been, she said, ‘627 days.’ I mean she knew, she probably knew down to the minute. Then when we got ready to play, she said 630 til she would have thrown her last game. She was so ready. She was bouncing around the clubhouse Sunday morning like a kid on Christmas morning. I mean there was just that much excitement. Last year we took our lumps, and a lot was made out of falling out of the top 25. We entered this season hovering close to are we in the rankings, are we out of the rankings, which are all based on how you ended last year. We know in our program, we know if we have a healthy Ashley Rogers last year, it’s a completely different story. Every coach knows that in softball. You need to have that ace pitcher. It was just really fun to watch her have so much joy out there playing.”

Ralph: “My favorite line is they don’t call this game fast hit or fast throw. It’s fast pitch, and whoever has a really good pitcher has got a great shot at winning.”

On how they explain Rogers having an injury and being out so long, but pitching as well as she has …

Karen: “Well, I think the rest did her a lot of good. Not just the rest when she was out last spring, but then with COVID, it hurt us immensely with everybody. Then there’s a couple players it probably helped, and she’s one of them. Ally Shipman is another one, and Ally came back last year following a torn ACL, but that extra unexpected season of rest really got her back to 100 percent. Last year she was playing, but she still had the aching knees after the game, and now she’s feeling strong every practice. So, I think those two really benefited from that extra rest. Her injury was one that really just required a lot of rest, and then the ability to come in the fall and have a really good offseason of work and development and fine tuning her pitches.”

On how they would define their pitching depth …

Karen: “I think we are still searching. We don’t know, because we have only played two games, but I will tell you we were really impressed with Bailey McCachren, our freshman, in game two. Like Ralph said, EKU is a very good hitting team, and they are a team that is built on getting up there and trying to mash. Bailey made one mistake in the first inning, giving up a two-run homerun, walked a batter, and then gave up a long ball. What was so impressive was how she bounced back. Right away she got the next hitter, then held them to two runs and gave our offense a chance to get us back to a tie, then an eventual victory. So, I was really pleased with her composure, her poise, and her grit on the mound. Then of course we still have the other three with us last year, and got a lot of innings when Ashley was hurt.”

Ralph: “One of the things that is really going to help us this year is Megan Rhodes-Smith. Megan Rhodes-Smith is an outstanding coach, has been in our program, has played in our program, and she has done a really good job with those kids, and they are ready to go. Callie Turner, with that shortened season last year, still beat Northwestern and Stanford and a couple of other ranked teams. So, she’s got something to prove too and I think she’s going to be really good this year.”

On if there has been any advice they have gotten from other coaches on campus with the ever-changing schedule they are trying to navigate this season …

Karen: “We have talked to each other more about what have you learned about how to manage COVID with your teams, and the best practices with traveling and how to manage that to keep your teams as safe and healthy as you can. With schedule changes, I think your team just has to be ready to be adaptable and flexible. With the beauty of softball and baseball having lost the season last year, I don’t think you’ll get any complaints from our kids about a last-minute schedule change if it means they can play a game. They just want to play.”

On what they thought of their fan support Sunday despite the weather, and the importance of having Ally Shipman back on the field …

Karen: “After the game, Tara Brooks, our sport administrator, and Jordan Bearden, our event manager, said it’s the first time they can recall playing a game that a train didn’t come through, and we played a doubleheader. So we had fans on the train tracks, but I’m really glad a train didn’t come through on Sunday and the stars we aligned right for us. But yes, we have some really passionate parents, families, and fans. That was really cool to see because it was cold; it was really cold. The funny thing is it was warm on the field, and again there was so much excitement for playing, that we really didn’t feel it, but to sit and watch the game it was cold. I was shocked to hear that anyone was out there. So, we really appreciate our fans, and I had so many text messages saying people couldn’t come, and just trying to explain with this last-minute opener that it’s not going to be that way in any other game and we’ll have fans in the stands. We’re just blessed that so many people are passionate about Tennessee softball and support our girls the way they do.”

Ralph: “When we went out there in that weather, and those of you who follow baseball and softball know, it doesn’t carry as far in that kind of temperature in wind and stuff like that. The wind was blowing in half the time. The fact that we had five home runs, which I didn’t think we’d get any in that, but Ally Shipman had two of them. The other thing that we’re excited about, but also know it’s a long season, and the SEC is extremely tough, but with (Ashley) Morgan, KP (Kaitlin Parsons), and (Chelsea) Seggern in the infield, along with Ivy Davis, which is a tremendous pickup at short stop. We have Shipman behind the plate, (Cailin) Hannon and (Amanda) Ayala in left and right, and only one newcomer and she’s a second year in Kiki (Milloy). So, it’s a pretty experienced team. But the other thing is, for the first time ever, we’ve got at least four players that aren’t in that starting lineup, that are beating down the door to get in there.”

Karen: “To your question about Ally – I think Ally could be one of the best hitters in the country. We saw some glimpses of what she can do on Sunday. If you ask Ally, all she’ll talk about is how disappointed she is in her three at bats in game two, where she grounded out. That’s why I think she can be one of the best hitters in the country, because she has super high expectations for herself, and she’s really driven.”

Ralph: “One other quick story about Ally, but it’s important. During the recruiting process, everybody told us, all the California coaches, that, ‘You won’t get Ally because of Maddy. Maddy was a National Player of the Year finalist, so why would Ally come and be compared. When Ally committed, we asked her that question, and she said, ‘Well I’m going to be better than she was.’ So, we’ll see what happens, but she has plenty of confidence.”

On how the freshman are adapting and fitting in …

Karen: “We really like our freshman class and we’ve already talked about Bailey Mccachren; she’s going to figure very big into our pitching plans. We lost one of our freshmen, she’s already had a season-ending surgery, CT – Caliyah Thompson, and she was battling hard for starting time in the fall. She showed really well, and she’s a really good hitter and she’s a very versatile player. She was playing infield and outfield for us. Rylie West is one who is beating down the door to get into the lineup. She’s competing hard for our DP spot, she can spell Shipman behind the plate, she could play in the outfield for us, but she just continues to have good at-bats in practice. So, there’s a lot of competition.”

Ralph: “And, you know, we have a second-year player that will come off the bench and do some hitting and actually came in and got a big RBI for us in one of the games, Amanda Curran. She’s a tall utility player out of Texas.”

On how adjusting the roster with the different eligibility rules has been …

Ralph: “I think it’s always a challenge when you’ve got some extra people that are really pushing hard. But Karen has managed that mostly. She’s coaching third this year, and she’s doing some things in that area, but she’s also good on team building; great. Megan Rhodes-Smith, the pitching coach, she’s got a master’s degree in psychology, and she works with all of that stuff, too. So, we just do a lot of team-building things. But, you know, it’s a long season, and nobody likes to be on the bench of any team, any place, anywhere, so there’s always challenges in keeping everybody happy.”

On if preseason polls not ranking the Lady Vols is used as a motivational factor…

Karen: “You know, it really doesn’t matter where you are in the beginning, we could come out ranked number one. It’s just a preseason prognostication, it just doesn’t matter. But I think it probably does fire them up to want to prove people wrong. As a coach, I think we recognize that a lot of that is based on how you finished last year, and we all know where we were last year and what was happening at the time, and Rogers was about to start throwing and that was going to make a difference and would’ve made a difference before that. If people want to rank us 23,24,25, or not rank us, I just think that is more fuel for our kids to get fired up to prove people wrong.”

Ralph: “This is how Karen and I are a little bit different, she’ll give you the good answer, and it was a good answer that she gave you, but it motivated me because by golly we had been in the top 25 every week since 2005, and what happened to us, quite frankly is that we lost two games late even though we beat Stanford and Northwestern and some other good teams, to teams that had low RPIs, because of pitching, and so now we’ve got to fight our way up. But I’m positive this is the lowest we’ve been rated since the Monica Abbot time.”

-UT Athletics

Blogs