For softball, it’s pick a pitcher

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Tamari Key is returning to the basketball court next season. Softball has won 11 games in a row with three pitchers putting up video game numbers. Tennis has started SEC play with two wins and is moving up the polls. As the calendar flips to March, it’s a good time to be a Lady Vols fan.

The news about Key, though, is hard to beat by any sport because she faced a life-or-death situation just three months ago that forced her off the basketball court after being diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs. On Monday night, Key announced her plans for the 2023-24 season.

“When my senior season was cut short, my goal was always to get back on the floor with my teammates,” Key posted on her social media accounts. “That goal hasn’t changed. My journey is not yet finished. I’ll be back on Rocky Top next season.”

In November, the 6-6 center had developed severe breathing issues that became magnified and led to specialized testing. The turning point was a tournament in Nassau, Bahamas, right before Thanksgiving when Key clearly struggled to run on the court and played in short stints. Still, respiratory illness were ramping up at the time, so the level of concern wasn’t heightened at that point. She played Dec. 4 against Virginia Tech and once again dominated the matchup in the paint against the ACC’s now two-time player of the year.

The test results came back before a Lady Vols game was about to tip on Dec. 6, and Key was whisked to a hospital emergency room for immediate medical care.

Tamari Key jumps in excitement during Tennessee’s win over LSU in the SEC tourney. (Tennessee Athletics)

The question of what if Key had kept playing was rather haunting, as a pulmonary embolism can lead to organ damage and death if not caught and treated quickly. Key literally was a ticking time bomb at that point but has since recovered sufficiently to return to cardio workouts.

“I’ve had players get injured, miss the remainder of their season but nothing to this effect,” Coach Kellie Harper said afterwards. “It’s so scary. So very scary, and that’s why we are so grateful that we know what’s going on.”

Key’s return is big, no pun intended, for the Lady Vols, as she will anchor a post position that now includes 6-5 sophomore Jillian Hollingshead and 6-3 sophomore Karoline Striplin, who have played a lot of minutes since Key was sidelined.

Key also swats shots – a lot of them. After three seasons at Tennessee, Key passed Candace Parker for the No. 1 spot on the Lady Vols’ career list for blocks at 277 and did so in fewer games. She played in nine games this season with 18 blocks, so her career total is 295, a record no one was likely to reach and now she will have a full season to add to it.

Tamari Key blocks a shot in the 2021-22 season. (Tennessee Athletics)

The current team returned this week to the AP Top 25 poll at No. 23 and beat No. 4 LSU in the semifinal of the SEC Tournament to reach the championship game Sunday. As expected, South Carolina prevailed in that game – the Gamecocks are 32-0 and No. 1 in the country – but the Lady Vols established an identity in postseason.

The brackets for the NCAA Tournament will be revealed Sunday, March 12, at 8 p.m. on ESPN, and Tennessee still has a shot to host the early rounds at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Switching to softball, the Lady Vols are 16-1 overall and ranked No. 4 in the country. A trio of pitchers threw nine consecutive shutouts before Belmont managed to put one runner across the plate last Sunday.

Seniors Payton Gottshall and Ashley Rogers and freshman Karlyn Pickens – who is SEC Freshman of the Week again – have a combined earned run average (ERA) of 0.61 with two wins against Top 10 teams and went 59 straight innings without even allowing an earned run. In 17 games, only seven hitters managed an extra base hit against them.

Payton Gottshall fires to the plate. (Tennessee Athletics)

National success in college softball doesn’t come without an ace pitcher, and, so far, the Lady Vols have three. The hitting is on point, too, as center fielder Kiki Milloy now has 10 home runs just one month into the season and is hitting .500. Last season, Milloy hit 15 home runs. She could pass that mark in March, and the regular season doesn’t even end until May 7.

Tennessee plays tonight (3/8/23) against Tennessee Tech at 6 p.m. The SEC opening series is March 11-12 against Ole Miss. The games this week are at Lee Stadium, and it’s well worth a trip to watch this team.

Coach Alison Ojeda as a Lady Vol tennis player. (Tennessee Athletics)

Switching back to a sport with nets, the tennis team is 9-2, ranked No. 16 in the country and opened conference play with a 4-0 win over Missouri and a 6-1 win over Arkansas to start 2-0 in the SEC. The win over the Razorback was No. 750 in program history for the Lady Vols.

Alison Ojeda, who played at Tennessee, has more than 100 of those wins as a head coach. She also is one of only four Lady Vols to earn more than 100 victories in both singles and doubles.

The Lady Vols will now get on the road for matches at Vanderbilt on March 10 and at Kentucky on March 12 before hosting Auburn on March 17 and Alabama on March 19.

Three singles players are ranked nationally by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association in Rebeka Mertena, No. 31; Daria Kuczer, No. 37;  and Elza Tomase, No. 57 . Mertena and Esther Adeshina are ranked No. 55 in doubles.

The team plays on campus at the Goodfriend Tennis Center. It’s worth a trip to see this squad, too.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. 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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