Q&A with Ralph Weekly

Ralph and Karen Weekly have developed a program at Tennessee that mirrors what Pat Summitt did with basketball – anything short of the championship venue is considered a disappointing season. Ralph Weekly recently sat down with Inside Tennessee for a question-and-answer session in a seven-inning format – with an extra inning, too – to address those expectations and the state of the program.

Tennessee finished the 2011 season with a 49-12 record after losing in the Regional to Oklahoma State one year after a major upset of Michigan on the road in a Super Regional and a trip to the Women's College World Series. Although the 2011 team was young – Kelly Grieve was this season's only senior – the Lady Vols anticipated a repeat trip to Oklahoma City to improve on its 2010 tie for a third-place finish nationally. Falling short in the Regional in Knoxville left the program with a powerful sense of unfulfilled expectations.

Top of the first: How disappointing was the end of the season?

Ralph Weekly: It was really disappointing because I really believed we had one of the best eight teams in the country and so did most people who really know softball. I think what happened is we weren't favored to win the SEC Tournament, and we played really well those three games. Everybody threw their best pitchers, and we won it, and it was such a dramatic win with the home run (by Shelby Burchell to win the title game against Georgia in the eighth inning after falling behind 4-0 in the first inning).

Then, we went into the Selection Show, and we expected to be selected higher (the Lady Vols received an eye-popping low seed), and the 14 seed really got the kids down. We tried for those four days (before the NCAA Tournament started) to get the kids up, but I think it was being tremendously high one weekend (and flat the next).

We did come back and play really well against Georgia Tech and Liberty, but we started poorly against Oklahoma State. … It was just one of those kind of games. When we came back the second day against Oklahoma State we just made some uncharacteristic errors. That is not taking anything against Oklahoma State. They are obviously a very good team because they persevered in the Supers.

But it's part of softball. It's part of the game. There is a lot of parity, and we gave it everything we had. But I was surprised (by the ending to the season), yes.

Bottom of the first: Tennessee returns every key player except for outfielder Kelly Grieve, who graduated, and infielder/designated player Jessica Spigner, who transferred to Arizona. The incoming class was rated No. 2 in the country and includes pitcher/infielders Cheyanne Tarango and Haley Fagan and catcher/infielder Hannah Akamine.

Given the team coming back and the players coming in, how excited are you and Co-Head Coach Karen Weekly for the 2012 season?

RW: The main thing is pitching, and pitching is the center for any team, no ifs, ands or buts. And we have Ivy and Ellen (Renfroe sisters) back, and I know they're going to be better, and we have Cat (Hosfield) back and I know Cat is going to be better although we are slating to use Cat more as a DP (designated player). Cat is a really good hitter, and we couldn't hit her the first year because she was the (main) pitcher we had and then last year we had enough depth that we didn't have to hit her. We're thinking of definitely putting Cat in the hitting role. Whether she can win the DP or not, that's up to Cat.

Cheyanne Tarango is coming in, which was another factor in our overall decisions of moving people around at the end of the year. Cheyanne is an accomplished first baseman, played it all her life. She is also a pitcher, a different style of pitcher than Ivy and Ellen. She is more of a curve/changeup style pitcher. She's got a beautiful changeup that just floats in there, so we plan to use Cheyanne as a pitcher also and as a first baseman. The one thing we didn't have this year was any injuries to the pitcher – you hear me knocking on wood – but generally that happens.

They've got to win it, but it would be nice to have Cheyanne on first and Lauren (Gibson) on second and Ship (Madison Shipman) on short and Raven (Chavanne) on third. The key there is they all have to earn it.

In the outfield we're looking for Melissa Davin to play and possibly start out there. Whitney Hammond is looking better and better. She could start. Tory Lewis and Whitney will probably battle for the centerfield slot and Kat Dotson is kind of a mainstay in the rightfield slot.

Shelby Burchell is going to move behind the plate. Hannah Akamine is coming in and is also a very good catcher, rumored to be the best of the Akamine sisters and they were all-stars at the D1 level. I watched her (after Tennessee's season ended) and she hit a couple of home runs at the highest level of summer ball. So, I think we're going to be very good. We've got a lot of depth.

Top of the second: There will be a major roster change with the transfer of slugger Jessica Spigner, a rising senior and the leading home run hitter in 2011 with 16. What was the reason for Spigner's departure?

RW: I think Jessica did not want to play where we wanted her to play, and we kind of came to an impasse on that. Jessica was determined that she didn't want to be a DP, and I don't fault her on that. She could not play where we wanted her to play, so we had no choice (and) so we released her. Jessica was a good player for us, but the coach has to be able to make the lineup. That's the bottom line.

Bottom of the second: Raven Chavanne, who has said third base was her most comfortable position – she played a lot of games in 2011 in leftfield – will move from the grass to the dirt. What's the reason for the shift?

RW: Raven is really quick at third. We've had trouble covering that five-six hole, and it had required Maddy Shipman to go deep in the hole to make the plays. I just think Raven will give us a little more quickness than we've had ever since Tonya Callahan, so she's going to go to third. Madison Shipman will be our shortstop, and she's a fantastic young player. We should get a lot more out of her. She had surgery (on her broken wrist) after the season, and she'll be totally healed and you'll see a different Madison out there.

Top of the third: The No. 14 seed in the tourney was a jolt. How heavily did the Selection Committee weigh RPI?

RW: It definitely had an effect this year. When I scheduled (for 2011), I scheduled teams that had a high RPI the year before and for some reason their RPIs dropped. Also, when you go to other tournaments to play, you can't be sure who you're going to play.

Bottom of the third: The SEC provides stiff competition, but do you modify the out-of-conference schedule as a result of seeding decisions?

RW: This coming year we changed our schedule a little bit because RPI hurt us. There is no way we could finish third in the (regular season) polls and win the SEC Tournament and be seeded 14th. But we were. There were no coaches on that committee. I am not faulting the committee, but there weren't any coaches on there.

We're opening at Arizona State so we're going to play against the national champions right away, and they've got some other good schools coming in (for the same tourney). And then we go to Texas and they've got some pretty good teams in their tournament and then we're going to the Leadoff Classic in Florida, which is always good, and then we're hosting our own, and we have Louisville and Boston University. We're trying to upgrade our schedule as best as possible.

The formula is losses against good teams don't hurt you nearly as much as wins against not-so-good teams. We'd like to get (our RPI) in the top 10 (as compared to No. 12 last season). We'd like to be able to host (the NCAA postseason) all the way through (Regional and Super Regional). That's our goal.

Top of the fourth: Tennessee won't lack for depth next season with a roster full of returnees and talented freshmen vying for playing time. You already talked about Chavanne moving to third and some other slots, so can you also address the depth?

RW: Lauren Gibson will play second, but Melissa Brown is a very good player, and Melissa can play short, third or second. She will always be challenging in there. Tarango will play first, and Davin may play a little first, especially when Tarango is pitching. Davin is very capable at first, and we'd like to have both Davin and Tarango in the lineup because they both have the long ball capability. Davin will be in the lineup, probably leftfield. She plays really well out there.

We're going to have four outfielders that play really well. We have Whitney, Tory, Dotson and Davin, and all four of those could be capable of getting in the lineup. Whitney has a lot of speed, is an outstanding base runner and is getting better and better at hitting away. Tory Lewis has got wheels. We've going to have a lot of depth. Melissa Brown gives us depth in the infield, and Akamine can play any position.

Ashley Andrews (a solid defensive catcher at the position in 2011) is going to challenge for any of these positions. Ashley is working on her swing and her average this summer and she is certainly very capable. She can catch. She can play any infield position and any outfield position. So, I think we've got really good depth.

Bottom of the fourth: Who is primed to make a major leap next season?

RW: I think Melissa Davin is a very good player. There is no doubt about that. In the time she played she did really well. But anyone of the first 12 players in the lineup could make a major leap. They are all good. They really are good. Cat Hosfield, as I mentioned earlier, is a really good hitter.

Top of the fifth: Softball remains a pitcher's sport to dominate. What do you do in the circle this coming season with the various options?

We've talked with Fagan and her parents about redshirting, but here's something that is really important. Fagan and Tarango pitch, but they also hit really well and play other positions. Fagan is an athlete. She really is. She can play several positions well. Our thrust next year is going to be more offense. We've got six or seven that can hit (home runs).

Bottom of the fifth: Do you platoon in the circle or identify one ace? With two experienced pitchers in Ellen and Ivy Renfroe do you take advantage of both?

RW: I don't need to worry about the competition (in the circle) because it's there. Those kids are all very competitive, and I think they'll provide their own competition. What I like is a team that gets along really well, and I think this team really has the potential to get along really well.

Top of the sixth: Good health is also a key factor in a team's success. All-American outfielder Kat Dotson played with an aching knee last season. What is her prognosis?

RW: She is seeing a couple of specialists this summer, and we are really hoping for a clean bill of health. Kat is the kind of person that is going to play regardless – she will play through the pain – and I think she's going to be better off because she's taking the summer off. We'll just see what happens.

Bottom of the sixth: What about the rest of the team. What is the overall health after a long season when players get nicked up?

RW: We're in really good shape. Raven has an overuse of the arm. What Raven told me when she didn't make the U.S. team (Grieve and Gibson did and won World Cup gold with the defeat of Japan on July 25) was that she was going to take the summer off and rest, and I think it will be good. Raven will make future U.S. teams. The U.S. team thinks the world of her. She had a quad issue in camp and I think that hurt her. Raven is a player. No question.

She is a terrific leadoff hitter. I am looking at a first five of Raven, Dotson, Gibson, Shipman and Burchell.

Top of the seventh: You and Karen signed the No. 1 class in 2010 followed by the No. 2 class in 2011. Do the coaches and players feel the pressure to produce?

RW: I think a 49-12 record and an SEC Tournament championship, we did produce.

Inside Tennessee: But it's not a trip to the College World Series and a shot at a national title. You've created expectations that are Pat Summitt-like now. You don't go to a Final Four – or in softball's case the CWS – and the season is a major disappointment.

RW: I know coaches say this, but it's true. We welcome the expectations. We hope to put the best team we've ever put on the field next year. We've got a lot of talent. We still remain young. We have four seniors, and only two have played a lot, being Burchell and Andrews. But the future is bright. The challenge is (so do other SEC teams). We had the No. 2 class, but Florida had the No. 1. I think the top five teams in the SEC are going to remain the top five teams.

But we welcome the expectations, and we're going to work the hardest we've ever worked in the off-season to be even better.

Bottom of the seventh: What would a national title mean to the program and to you and Karen personally? You have gotten so tantalizingly close.

RW: For Karen and me that has always been our goal to win a national championship. It would just mean the world to me as a coach and I think it would be very important to the players. But I really think what is important is winning the SEC and advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament. Get in that World Series and play it one game at a time.

I thought this year that we might be competitive, but we just didn't have the right chemistry. I know coaches use that word all the time, but it's so true.

Top of the eighth: The softball team excelled in extra innings this past season so let's toss out two extra questions. Lee Softball Stadium was sold out in the postseason, along with some regular season games. Fans were peering through or over the outfield walls to see the action, and a few crossed the parking lot to the soccer stadium and watched the softball games from the top rows. Any chatter about some outfield seating, even perhaps temporary bleachers if needed?

RW: We had seven straight sellouts, and there is talk about that (additional seating). I think the kind of team we're going to have next year will be very exciting. We're going to have tremendous speed. I think we're going to be exciting to watch, and I can't wait for the season to start.

Bottom of the eighth: It seemed that 2011 might be the year an SEC team finally broke through to win a national title. Florida and Alabama played for a berth in the final championship series – with the Gators crushing the Crimson Tide – but Arizona State stomped Florida in two games to continue the West Coast's dominance in the sport's signature event.

That means Tennessee is still in the running to be the first SEC team to claim a national championship. What would a breakthrough like that mean for the conference?

RW: It would be tremendous. We need to do it. The SEC is a strong league but as long as it continues the way it is continuing right now, we can't have any bragging rights. We've got to beat them on the field. I thought Florida or Alabama might win it this year. I thought we might win it a few years ago (when Monica Abbott was in orange and white).

We've still gone farther than anyone. We went to the championship game. And I would love to be the first one to win it.

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