Softball team opens tourney play today

After the Lady Vols clinched the program's first-ever SEC regular season championship last Sunday, co-head coach Ralph Weekly told his players to "act like you've been there." They quickly reminded him that they hadn't. But they have won the SEC tourney trophy, and the Lady Vols open defense of that 2006 title on Thursday against Ole Miss.

Ralph Weekly, who coaches the team with his wife Karen Weekly – they were named Wednesday as the SEC Coach of the Year – was thinking about the fact that the team his players had just swept in a doubleheader, Alabama, could be lurking in Auburn, where the SEC Tournament gets underway.

"After the game because we (could) play Alabama again in three or four days I told the kids, ‘Act like you've been here,' " Weekly said. "And they told me, ‘We haven't.' I forgot. Even though they had finished third in the nation (twice at the College World Series) they hadn't won an SEC championship so it's extremely significant. To me it's a milepost in what we're trying to build here."

Weekly can be forgiven for forgetting that factoid in what was a day of accomplishment for the Lady Vols. Pitcher Monica Abbott broke the all-time NCAA career strikeout record held by former Texas pitcher Cat Osterman with her first strikeout of the game against the Crimson Tide and notched career number 2,266. The Weeklys also said farewell at home to two other seniors, leftfielder India Chiles and centerfielder Lindsay Schutzler.

The Lady Vols captured their first regular season title in dramatic fashion thanks to some help from Georgia. The Lady Bulldogs defeated LSU on Sunday and thus opened the door for Alabama or Tennessee to win the conference outright with a two-game sweep. If they split the series, the Crimson Tide and Lady Vols would have finished tied atop the standings. LSU could have joined them with a win.

Tennessee started out on track by taking out Alabama, 9-2, in the first game. It wasn't long before Weekly heard about the outcome of the LSU-Georgia game. Some coaches might have kept it to themselves – scoreboard watching can sometimes backfire in terms of focus – but Weekly made sure his team knew.

"You're darn right I did," Weekly said. "I told them, ‘You don't want to back in to anything. You have a chance right now to win a conference championship outright, but you've got to go in there and fight. Never be satisfied. You've got to give it everything you've got.' We gave them a real hard talk."

Did he feel the team responded?

"Absolutely," Weekly said after Tennessee's 4-0 win in the second game to complete the sweep. "I didn't think we started as strong as I would have liked us to start, but we got it done, and we did get some clutch hits. That home run from Callahan I think was the backbreaker because they're the home run team."

Corner infielder Tonya Callahan hit a no-doubt-about-it homer to left-center to boost UT's lead to 3-0 and give junior pitcher Megan Rhodes a little more breathing room. She got the win with Abbott picking up the save.

"We've never won an SEC regular season championship," Chiles said. "It feels awesome. It was a great senior day for me and Lindsay, and we're really excited about it and thankful for it."

Abbott described the title as "bittersweet" because it took until her senior year to claim the regular season one.

"Finally in my senior year we came out with an SEC championship," Abbott said. "We knew we had to take care of business so I think we all came out focused and ready to go. We all came out ready to play, and we executed it. That was key."

It also speaks to the difficulty of winning in the SEC. Alabama entered the series ranked number one in the country, and Tennessee defeated the Crimson Tide by an unexpected combined score of 13 to 2.

"My thoughts are a ton of respect for Alabama, a true top three team, a team that was deserving of being ranked number one at the time, great offense," Weekly said. "My hat's off to our pitching, who was able to hold them down, and our defense. … It wasn't a cakewalk at all. I think we made some big plays at big times. I think Monica and Megan got some key strikeouts. I think our kids wanted it. It always seems to come down to us and Alabama. Last year we had a three-run lead going into the ninth inning in an extra inning game, and they came back and beat us. They are just a very good team. I think our kids are fired up.

"What a great series, what a great atmosphere for college, people standing all the way around the fence. I think it just goes to show where our game has gotten."

The Lady Vols drew a record 1,836 to Tyson Park with at least 200 other fans watching through the outfield fence. They were there to say good-bye to the seniors and watch history get made as Abbott broke the record. When she secured the strikeout record in the first inning of the first game – it was also the third out – a celebration commenced with her teammates along the third base line.

"My teammates have been awesome," Abbott said. "They've really supported me throughout the season, and they all wanted the strikeout record for me. I think that's one thing that's really cool. They all really just loved it."

Weekly naturally was asked a lot of questions about Abbott after the game, but he also wanted to point out the accomplishments of all three seniors.

"Let's take a look at that," Weekly said. "Monica holds the all-time record for victories, for shutouts and for strikeouts. Schutzler is a 300-200-100 member (300 hits, 200 runs, 100 stolen bases, one of 12 players in NCAA history). And Chiles is leading the SEC in hitting (at .544).

"So what more could you want out of three seniors? I just think they're fantastic. I think we've got a lot of good kids coming up, and that's what a good program is. We just reload."

Athletics Director Joan Cronan spoke to the coaches and team as they gathered in the outfield for a post-game meeting afterwards.

"I told the team that this is an awesome accomplishment, to win it outright, to beat the number one team in the country," Cronan said. "I want us to enjoy the journey."

The next step is the SEC Tournament, where Tennessee (53-4, 23-4) will be the top seed. The first matchup is against eight-seeded Ole Miss (24-33, 11-17) at 8 p.m. Eastern (99.1, 99.3 FM, 990 AM, and via Yahoo Sports).

"Every new game is a battle," Weekly said. "Whenever you're number one that puts a bigger target on your back. I kind of enjoyed this week being number two. (Bama coach) Pat Murphy said to me, ‘That was a lot of pressure being number one.' I said, ‘I know. We were there 11 weeks.'

"Being number one in our tournament doesn't really mean a lot because there are four or five teams that can win it. You've got to get down there and you're not going to win it by where you're seeded, you're going to win it by what happens at the tournament."

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