Ashley Rogers lived her dream at Tennessee

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The tears flowed from Ashley Rogers and Kiki Milloy in the media interview room late Monday night after the 2023 softball season ended in Oklahoma City. But it wasn’t over the 5-1 defeat by Florida State.

“They’re not crying because we lost,” said coach Karen Weekly, who also had tears welling in her eyes and emotion in her voice during the 17-minute press conference that can be watched in its entirety here. “Wins and losses come and go. They’re crying because we don’t get to be here planning for the next day.  When we go home, we know that we’ll go our separate ways. We just want to be together longer.”

Rogers’ college career came to an end at the Women’s College World Series. The All-American pitcher thanked Weekly for taking a chance on “a sophomore kind of nobody in high school” from Athens, Tennessee. Rogers went on to much success at Meigs County High School and became a high school All-American. She dealt with multiple injuries at Tennessee, had to sit for long stretches and played through pain at times. Rogers could have left the sport a year ago but opted to take the extra year granted by the NCAA because of the pandemic and became the team’s ace again with a 20-1 record and 0.92 ERA.

Her father died when she was 16 years old, and he was buried in a Tennessee shirt with a Power T on his headstone. She shared that during the press conference to underscore her love for Tennessee.

“What wearing the orange has meant to me and my family is unspeakable,” Rogers said through flowing tears. “That chance to come out here and just wear ‘Tennessee’ across my chest, I hope I did it with a lot of integrity. It’s been an absolute dream come true.”

Kiki Milloy and Ashley Rogers walk onto the Women’s College World Series field for the first practice. (Tennessee Athletics)

On Tuesday, College Sports Communicators named Rogers the Division I Academic All-American of the Year. Senior Kiki Milloy made the Academic All-America First Team, while sophomore McKenna Gibson earned third team honors.

Rogers graduated a year ago with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a 4.0 GPA and is working to complete a master’s degree in kinesiology with a biomechanics concentration that focuses on pitching injuries to study mechanics with force plates, body sensors and cameras in a quest to help prevent issues for athletes coming into the game. Her graduate school GPA is 3.96.

Weekly was a two-sport star in softball and basketball in the 1980s at  Pacific Lutheran University and the NAIA Female Athlete of the Year. She earned a law degree and practiced law for five years before becoming a full-time coach. Her approach at Tennessee is to encourage players to pursue academics, no matter how rigorous. That isn’t always the course athletes in college will take because of the time demands that sports consume.

“Ashley is brilliant.  Ashley is going to be a doctor,” Weekly said. “At Tennessee we let them study whatever they want. There’s no major that’s off limits. I’m a big believer this isn’t about four years, this is about 40 years. Go do everything, try everything, and we’re going to make that happen at Tennessee.”

Milloy, also an All-American athlete in college and winner of the prestigious Torchbearer award at Tennessee, has a 3.65 GPA in neuroscience. She needed tissues handed to her Monday night from Weekly to get through her answer about what Rogers meant to her.

“I know all you guys have seen her on the field,” Milloy said. “Getting to know her as a person, how much she cares and loves life, loves the people around her, she carries herself with so much poise and so much confidence that it just rubs off on all of us. It’s going to be a big hole when she leaves this team. Covid sucked, but it gave us another year together. I’m so grateful to have that.”

Rylie West, No. 5, celebrates a home run against Alabama during the Women’s College World Series.

Rogers cried again Tuesday when she stepped off the team bus in the parking lot at Lee Stadium on Tuesday afternoon and into a crowd of Tennessee fans awaiting the Lady Vols’ arrival and singing Rocky Top.

The Lady Vol Booster Her Club has arranged a celebration with the team before players scatter for the summer on Sunday, June 11, from 6-8:30 p.m. at Bearden Banquet Hall on Kingston Pike. A $35 ticket includes a barbecue buffet, team poster, autographs and photo booth and is available here.

Tennessee produced a memorable 2023 season with SEC regular season and tourney titles – a program first – the first Women’s College World Series in eight years, the first WCWS semifinal in 10 years and 51 wins to 10 losses.

Coach Karen Weekly is doused in water after Tennessee clinched its spot in the Women’s College World Series.

Barring any transfers, Rogers is the only scholarship senior who won’t return, along with Knoxville native Shakara Goodloe, who played in 46 games in two seasons at Tennessee as a pinch runner after transferring from Chipola College and running track and playing softball at Bearden High School.

Thus, the anticipation and enthusiasm for next season already are high. The experience of having played on the sport’s biggest stage certainly would help the returning players if Tennessee were to reach the WCWS in 2024, but what happened this season doesn’t just transfer to the next. Sports don’t work that way.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that I want this team to remember as we go into next year is no two teams are ever alike,” Weekly said. “You can look at our roster and say you lose Ashley and Shak. You’re going to be great.

“I’ve coached too long to know that’s no guarantee. Next year’s team is going to have its own personality, but there will be a lot of people that will have learned a lot of these valuable lessons. I think you play on this stage differently once you’ve been there, and you know exactly what to expect.”

The expectations will be in place. But for now fans have flooded social media to share how much they loved this team.

“Every day it was lifting each other up,” Weekly said. “I just love ’em. That’s the thing I’ll remember is how much love we have for one another and how much we love being together.”

Maria M. Cornelius has been writing about the Lady Vols since 1998 for various publications. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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