Fans welcome back softball team

Some 200 fans gathered on the field and in the dugouts – trying to escape Thursday's scorching heat – to welcome back the Lady Vols softball team to Knoxville after Tennessee finished No. 2 in the country at the Women's College World Series.

The players and coaches gathered on a stage placed in short centerfield at Tyson Park while bleachers on the infield held enthusiastic fans who endured the hottest day of the year – 92 degrees at the time of the celebration – to cheer one last time for the 2007 softball team, which made it to the championship series of the WCWS before losing two of three games to Arizona for the national title.

Mickey Dearstone, the Voice of the Lady Vols for "The Sports Animal" and the Lady Vols Radio Network, served as the emcee and introduced each player one by one. He also enumerated the team's accomplishments, including those of the three seniors, Monica Abbott, India Chiles and Lindsay Schutzler, who finished their careers with an overall record of 246-51, three consecutive appearances at the WCWS, the 2006 SEC tourney title and the 2007 SEC regular season title. The Lady Vols also were ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks this season, which set a national record.

Joan Cronan, the women's Athletics Director, said the team would not only get SEC Champion rings but additional ones commemorating the back-to-back-to-back trips to Oklahoma City for the WCWS.

A representative from Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's office and Bill Haslam, the city of Knoxville's mayor, presented proclamations declaring June 7 to be Lady Vol Softball Day.

Haslam got in one of the best lines of the day when he turned to address catcher Shannon Doepking and said, "There's a lot better chance you tagged her than she tagged the plate."

That was in reference to the lone Arizona run scored in game two – which the Lady Vols lost 1-0 to set up Wednesday's deciding third game – and brought cheers from the crowd. The Wildcat runner appeared to have been tagged out by Doepking before she grazed the plate, but Tennessee also rued its missed chances during that game.

The disappointment of Wednesday's game had eased somewhat by Thursday, but the seniors and Coach Ralph Weekly said they would replay the game in their heads for quite awhile.

"We all died a little bit last night," UT Chancellor Loren Crabtree told those assembled Thursday, but he also thanked the players "for all they've done for the University of Tennessee and the state of Tennessee."

Dearstone told the players that they had done something only the Tennessee-Florida football game had done in the past – completely dominate the airwaves of the "Sports Animal."

"For the last three days all anyone has wanted to talk about was Lady Vol softball," said Dearstone, who added it was the hot topic for the call-in segments in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Co-head Coach Karen Weekly said the softball team was a topic of conversation in Seattle and Tokyo. In the case of Washington state, Weekly's sister was shopping in Costco while wearing a Tennessee sweatshirt. Two people approached to ask if she were a Lady Vol fan and if she had been watching the games. The sister explained that her sister and brother-in-law were the coaches of the team and the group talked Tennessee softball.

In Tokyo, where Weekly's young niece lives, some girls were playing a game in which someone says a letter and the others have to pick a name that starts with that letter. When the niece got the letter "I," she immediately said, "India." Her friends told her that India was not a name, but the niece informed them it was indeed the name of India Chiles, who was coached by "Aunt Karen."

Co-head Coach Ralph Weekly called himself a "grizzled old guy" who served two tours in Vietnam in the Air Force and who should not get emotional. He said it was hard to say good-bye to his seniors and especially to see them leave without a national title.

"For some reason the ball didn't fall in," Weekly said. "I don't know why the softball gods are the way they are."

He took the time to thank the fans – many of whom he noted he had seen in the stands all season long – and said of his players, "I couldn't ask for anybody better."

Weekly also had some physical pain to endure during the series that ended up being spotlighted on ESPN on Tuesday, when the announcers wrongly believed he couldn't watch the action, because at one point he had his head down in the dugout. Weekly had an abscessed tooth and had to have some quick dental surgery before the game.

"I had a partial root canal done, and the filling fell out in batting practice," Weekly said. "It was just killing me so I sent Karen out there, and I was leaning on the (dugout) and I guess that's when they (ESPN's cameras) picked me up. The kids knew I was pulling for them. It kind of bothered me that they kind of inferred something else was going on."

Weekly was able to smile about it Thursday – he said he had heard from several coaching colleagues who asked if he was OK – and he laughed about the cameras picking him up placing his finger on a "T" on a dugout sign.

"I put my finger on the T for good luck," he said. "That was a superstition thing."

The Weeklys also have switched places from the dugout to the coaching box during games throughout the season.

"It's not unusual for Karen and I to change from the coaching box," Ralph Weekly said. "She was out there, and the game was in control. Even though I kind of had my head down I was watching everything that went on. I didn't even know about it until I started getting texts (messages) the next day. When we watch film we're watching hitters and fielding. We breeze right through that (other) stuff. I saw myself in the dugout, but I didn't pay any attention. And then the LSU coach emailed me and said, ‘What's the matter, Ralph? Are you sick? That's not like you.'

"I still have to have this (tooth) finished," he said. "I had a partial nerve exposed and when you yell or something, it just kills you. And I'm tough. I was just trying to keep my mouth shut as much as I could until I could get that temporary put back in."

Weekly laughed as he relayed the story but losing the game, and ultimately the national title, ended up hurting a lot worse than an infected tooth.

"I think it will be a long time," Weekly said, when asked how long it would take to put the series behind him. "You don't get there that often no matter how good you are. We were seeded fifth. We beat the one seed, Arizona, twice. We beat the two seed, Northwestern. The three seed didn't make it, and we beat the four seed, Texas A&M. We won our way there and then to have it just to go cold at the last minute … . In the end their tradition got to us. I'm hoping we can get it done."

Cronan told the crowd about talking to Abbott's father in Oklahoma City and apologizing for the new softball stadium not getting completed before her career ended. The Lady Vols will begin play next season in the stadium off Neyland Drive beside the soccer complex.

Cronan said that Bruce Abbott told her: "She helped you build it. Now take care of it."

"We have built a dynasty, and we are going to continue," Cronan said.

When Cronan hired the Weeklys – their first season was in 2002 – they promised her that she would see a "sea of orange" at the WCWS.

Karen Weekly said when they got the job they set out to fulfill that promise – at a speed that Cronan, who called herself "pretty Pollyanna," was even surprised with – by seeking out a top pitcher and two key position players. Those players were Abbott, Chiles and Schutzler, who they convinced to come to Tennessee the year after the Lady Vols finished ninth in the SEC.

"I will forever be indebted to those three for believing in our vision," Karen Weekly said.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories