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Reflections on Tennessee Softball After the 2019 Season

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The College World Series drought extends to four years.

utsports.com

Is this what it feels like to have high expectations?

For all we can say about Tennessee athletics over the past decade, virtually none of the criticisms apply to softball. The Lady Vols have made the tournament 15 years in a row, have made the Super Regional in 11 of those years, and even made the College World Series seven times. They’ve yet to hoist the national championship trophy in two tries, but it’s hard to feel too bad about that when the team has been the model of consistency. In fact, they’ve achieved 40+ wins in 16 straight years. They did it again in 2019.

Unfortunately, 2019 ended the same way that the past four years did: outside the WCWS.

It’s a spoiled statement, I know. Faulting a team for not making the College World Series is a great way to try and jinx the program. To be clear, I’m not saying the 2019 team was a huge disappointment or ultimately should be considered a failure—there is no shame in losing on the last game of a Super Regional. Especially when you’ve already compiled a great season prior to that.

Where the worry starts to set in is the program trajectory. It’s not like the program is even on a downward spiral. They’ve just stayed steady over the past four years, falling in the Super Regional with talented squads three straight times. Their last WCWS was 2015, and despite maintaining an elite level of talent, Tennessee has not been able to break through the barrier. It could be a lot worse, but it couldn’t be much better.

The good news is that Tennessee’s recruiting shows no signs of slowing down. Their 2019 class was ranked No. 1 in the nation by FloSoftball and their 2018 class finished similarly high. The 2019 class will arrive on campus this year (softball recruits sign very early). It will be a much needed infusion of talent that could provide the bedrock for championship contending teams down the road.

But that also begs the question of when those teams might finally appear. I think we saw the beginning stages of it with this year’s squad—some elite pitching performances were backed up by a very adept defense. Great pitching will get you very far in both sports on the diamond, and Tennessee has a veritable arsenal of them. That includes the 4th and 5th ranked pitchers Callie Turner and Kiki Milloy in the most recent signing class. Tennessee also returns ace Ashley Rogers and the experienced Caylan Arnold from this year’s team.

Where Tennessee needs to improve is the production at the plate. For such a talented group of players, the Volunteers don’t rank higher than 26th on any team statistic related to offense. In fact, their slugging percentage is downright disappointing at 52nd. The Volunteers are not getting the most out of their players in this respect, and that’s probably part of the puzzle for breaking through the barrier.

Much like the pitching lineup, Tennessee is bringing in more power for the 2019 class. Though it is concerning how the Volunteers couldn’t produce a bit more this past season, considering the pieces they have on the team.

The next two or three seasons are gearing up to be some of the best Tennessee teams in a long time. They return multiple underclassmen that received conference accolades (Kaitlin Parsons, Kaili Phillips) and still have a core of veterans who can provide the leadership. And now they’re getting the best recruiting class in the nation on campus.

That also means the next few years are going to put pressure on Ralph and Karen Weekly. A national championship is never an easy task, but getting back to the WCWS is a reasonable expectation considering how the team will be assembled.

If they don’t?

It won’t be the end of the world. No one will deserve to get fired, and radical changes aren’t necessarily the best solution. The Weeklys are not the type of coaches that you just get rid of to look for someone better. That’s asking for trouble.

But if it’s not the next couple years, then it probably won’t be happening for quite some time. Tennessee has a window opening up right now that they need to take advantage of. It seems that the 2020, 2021, and 2022 seasons might be some of the most important in program history.