Lady Vol softball team draws No. 5 seed

The Lady Vol basketball team lost in the semifinal of its conference tourney and went on to win a national championship. The softball team wants to take a page out of that playbook and duplicate the feat. The players gathered Sunday at the lakeside home of their co-head coaches, Karen and Ralph Weekly, and sat quietly when the brackets for the NCAA Tournament were announced live on ESPNEWS.

Tennessee (54-5), the SEC regular season champion, was expected to be among the top three seeds, at the very least, but fell to the No. 5 seed.

Arizona (39-12-1) drew the top spot, followed by Northwestern (45-11), Oklahoma (52-6) and Texas A&M (40-10). LSU (52-10), the winner of the SEC Tournament, landed at the No. 10 spot. Alabama (51-7), the No. 1 team in the country a week ago, fell to the No. 11 seed. Florida (46-20), which beat Tennessee at the SEC tourney, got the No. 13 spot.

The three other SEC teams in the field of 64 – the conference had seven teams selected, just behind the eight from the Pac-10 – were Georgia (43-26), Mississippi State (34-25) and South Carolina (34-23).

"The seed was very surprising," Karen Weekly said. "I think we fought all year and played very well all year to get a higher seed than that. I think the entire SEC was disrespected with the seeding. To get seven teams in from the SEC shows you how tough our conference is, but then to have our top three teams seeded five, 10 and 11 just doesn't make sense with the number of teams that qualified for the tournament.

"I think it is one of those things where it is what it is. You've got to win your games one at a time so whether we're seeded number one or number 64 we still know we have to win it on the field. But in the last two years I think our kids have been a little bit surprised by our seeding (eighth last year), and they've just taken that as a challenge and hopefully they will do that again this year."

The three seniors, pitcher Monica Abbott and outfielders India Chiles and Lindsay Schutzler, certainly seemed ready for that approach. After the players got over the initial surprise of the seeding they talked about not what had happened but about what lies ahead.

"There's nothing that we can do about our seed, so we're going to have to take it," said Abbott, the all-time leader in strikeouts in NCAA Division I softball history. "We know what our challenges are up ahead so we need to grasp it and take it by the horns."

"We've really got to focus on who we have to play in our regional and go one game at a time and not look ahead to super regionals or who we're going to play in regional championship," Chiles said. "We've really got to focus on the game at hand, go into it with a game plan and focus on that team."

Chiles said she was "a little bit" surprised that Tennessee drew the fifth seed, "but we'll go with it. It doesn't really matter. You're going to have to play a tough team anyway."

If the Lady Vols survive their double-elimination regional in Knoxville they would face the team that prevails in the Los Angeles regional – No. 12 seed UCLA (36-16), Hawaii (46-11), UC-Santa Barbara (30-21) or Loyola Marymount (45-16) – in the Super Regional best-of-three series at a campus site to be determined. The winners of the eight Super Regionals move on to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City from May 31 to June 6.

Tennessee opens play Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern against Furman (21-34-1). North Carolina (45-19) takes on Winthrop (48-16) at 2:30 p.m. in the other game in Knoxville regional play. The Lady Vols will host the event at Tyson Park.

The Lady Vols were happy to be playing at home. Other seeded teams – the top 16 are seeded by the selection committee – found themselves either playing or potentially playing unseeded teams on their home fields in regional play. Oklahoma, a three seed, was sent all the way to Massachusetts; No. 6 seed Washington will play at Nebraska; No. 7 seed Arizona State travels to Utah; Baylor, the eighth seed, begins play in New York; No. 10 seed LSU must play at Stanford; No. 15 seed N.C. State is at South Carolina; and Virginia Tech, the 16th seed, opens play at Ohio State.

"I am very happy we're hosting, and I was surprised by how many of the top seeds are sent away for their regional tournament so we're very happy to have it here at home," Weekly said.

Schutzler seconded the words of her coach.

"Watching the selection show it was surprising how many top seeded team weren't hosting so we were definitely glad to see that we were hosting," Schutzler said. "We want to play in front of our home crowd that has been awesome lately. I think we're really excited about that. That was one thing that was really crucial to us."

"It's really nice to be able to host because we have a great community here, and we have tons of fans," Abbott said. "We just love being able to represent the orange here in Tennessee. Right now we just need to stay focused and not get ahead of ourselves and take it one game at a time. We have a lot of work cut out for us in the next couple of weeks, and we need to stay focused."

Part of that focus means digesting the 1-0 loss to Florida in the semifinal of the SEC Tournament on Friday and understanding what went wrong offensively. The basketball team, coached by Pat Summitt, recovered from an SEC tourney loss and ended the season No. 1.

"There are certainly some parallels, and we actually talked with Pat after we lost two out of three at LSU (in the regular season) and talked about the very thing – how you can learn more from your losses than anything," Weekly said. "And losses do get the kids' attention a whole lot more than the wins, even the ugly wins. So there are some parallels, and I'm sure we'll be talking to them even more this week."

The softball team spent a record 11 weeks at number one, won the regular season outright, were number one in both polls last week, had the No. 2 RPI in the country and were 20-4 against the field of 64, all of which makes the No. 5 seed even more inexplicable. But the numbers – and the loss to Florida – also let the team know how big the orange target has gotten.

"I think it definitely reminds you that you have to have your best every game because everybody is coming out to beat you, and that's definitely something you see with the Lady Vol basketball team," Schutzler said. "They're always a powerhouse. Everyone is trying to beat them every game, and we're starting to feel that now as well.

"It's a reminder that everybody is out to get us, and we have to be playing at the top of our game to win every game from here on out. If we come out flat that's going to give the other team even more motivation to come out and beat us so we definitely have to be at the top of our game, and that loss to Florida really proved that to us."

The team met in Auburn – the site of the SEC tourney – before leaving and also used the bus ride back to Knoxville on Saturday to talk.

"We did find some things, and I think a lot of it has to do with how you approach tournaments, which is very important because that's what we're heading into now – a tournament each weekend – and I don't think we were quite ready to play Florida," Weekly said. "It wasn't that we didn't respect Florida, we knew they were a very good opponent, but I think we got caught up in some of the other things going on at the tournament and maybe thinking a little bit ahead, and the kids just didn't have the energy level when we went out there against Florida. We had a long talk about that afterward, and I think we will learn some lessons from that just like we did from the loss to LSU two weeks prior.

"I think we had some really good meetings after that loss and came home yesterday (Saturday) on the bus and had a lot of time to talk about it. I think we're already seeing them grow and realize some of the mistakes they made there."

The seniors also know that this is their final shot. Postseason losses mean the season is done and for the trio of Abbott, Chiles and Schutzler it means their storied time at Tennessee is over.

"We had a lot of regrets in the SEC Tournament and now we can't afford to have any regrets in a game," Chiles said. "We've all got to pull through and focus on the game at hand. You can't afford to make mistakes; you can't afford to come out flat for games. You've got to come out with energy like every game is the championship game, like you're the underdog every game, and just come out and compete hard."

Chiles got hit hard to start the game against Florida when a pitch struck her in the head in her first at-bat with such force that it cracked her batting helmet. Chiles had to briefly leave the game. Did that, so to speak, get in her head a little bit and affect her play for the rest of the game?

"I was a bit rattled," Chiles said. "Pretty much for the rest of the game I was a little bit out of it. I went back in that game, and I knew you see the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. It rattled me a bit, but people get hit every day so it's just part of the game."

The motivation for Chiles and her fellow seniors is that Friday is the start of the final postseason in their Lady Vol careers.

"This is our last shot at it so obviously we're going to try as hard as ever to get it done," Chiles said. "We just want to make the most of the season, as do the underclassmen. They want to give us all they've got to win it for this team."

The Lady Vols have finished third at the College World Series for two consecutive years. A goal since the beginning of the season was to the win the national title.

"That's definitely been our goal from the start of the season," Schutzler said. "Finishing the last two years at number three has given us confidence to win it. We've been so close, and we know that we've improved. If we're improving from number three we might as well go for number one. We're going to play every game like it's our last because from here on out that's what it is."

"We've been here for four years, and we've helped moved this program along, but we definitely want to go out and put it all out on the field and not hold anything back," Abbott said. "We don't want to go and come in third place again. Right now we need to focus on this coming Friday's game and then Saturday and then Sunday. We need to take it one game at a time. We can't get ahead of ourselves."

Tennessee also wants to represent the SEC, and Chiles said the seven teams' showing in the postseason could send notice that the SEC was a league to be reckoned with and didn't deserve the lower seedings that were handed out Sunday.

"We do have to prove that we're a tough, competitive conference and hopefully all the SEC schools will represent well and give it a good fight," Chiles said.

The seniors' advice to their own team was that their play against Florida was unacceptable.

"We just told everyone that if we have another game like that our season is going to be over," Schutzler said. "We can't afford to have another game like that. We got it out of the way, and we've got to improve from here and just work that much harder. That's where it's beneficial to us because everybody has it in their heads this week that we've got to work that much harder to be prepared for the regional this weekend."

The Weeklys want to send their seniors out the door with a championship. The coaches spoke at the beginning of the season about how much the three had meant to Tennessee. They repeated the sentiment as the season heads into its final weeks.

Karen Weekly said, "That would be the ultimate going-away present for them, and that's what this team has talked about all year is winning an SEC regular season championship, which they accomplished, and winning a national championship so we start that journey now."

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