Softball just getting started, senior night beckons for basketball

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The softball team finally found some good weather on the other side of the country and played six games in California that featured a perfect game and a new home run leader at Tennessee.

Tennessee went 4-2 at the 2024 Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Cathedral City, California, with wins over LMU, Oregon State, UCF and Hawaii and losses to Cal State Fullerton and UCLA.

Karlyn Pickens faced 21 batters in the Feb. 23 opener against Loyola Marymount, struck out 12 and didn’t allow a walk in seven innings with the fielders flawless behind her for a perfect game – and her second as a Lady Vol. The sophomore from Weaverville, North Carolina, joins Monica Abbott and Erin Gabriel as the only Lady Vols to throw multiple perfect games in program history.

Kiki Milloy also went to work on the first day in California and became the all-time home run leader at Tennessee with 58 to pass Meghan Gregg. The senior from Woodinville, Washington, led off the fifth inning with a shot over the center field wall to etch her name in the record books. Milloy added to her record against Oregon State the next day with a leadoff homer in the first inning and now has 59.

While Milloy got an extra year due to the pandemic, the softball season ended in March 2020 before it could really get started, and she completed the feat in fewer games and at-bats than the player ahead of her on the list. Milloy needed 203 games and 596 at-bats to reach 58, breaking the record set in 245 games with 726 at-bats by Gregg, one of the greatest hitters in Lady Vols history.

The fact Milloy hit the milestone in 130 fewer at-bats is eye-popping, and she can put the record out of reach at Tennessee. The NCAA career record is held by Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo with 122, a mind-boggling number.

The Lady Vols are now 8-4 overall and after some preseason declarations that this team could be even better than a year ago, a wee bit of consternation has set in among some fans.

One, last year’s teams won the SEC regular season and conference tourney – something Tennessee had never done – and made it to the final four of softball. That’s a heck of a bar to clear.

Two, preseason predictions are conversational, but that’s about it.

Three, the loss of an experienced pitcher like Ashley Rogers, one of the best in program history, is an adjustment. Sophomore Karlyn Pickens has to adapt to a much bigger role in the circle. Transfer Payton Gottshall is no longer a newcomer and is now the veteran presence.

Four, through the first 12 games of 2023, Tennessee was 10-2 and had played two games against ranked teams. Through the first 12 games of 2024, the Lady Vols have played five games against ranked teams. As of now, 10 SEC teams are ranked, and conference play starts in mid-March so challenges and opportunities abound.

The Lady Vols are ranked No. 8 in the country and will make their home debut this week on March 1-3 at the Tennessee Classic with games against Stetson, Brown and Longwood.

The team will get right back on the road for a game at No. 9 Clemson on March 5 and then host the Tennessee Invitational on March 8-10 against Missouri State, South Dakota and Ohio State before traveling to the nation’s capital to play Howard on March 11 in Washington, D.C.

Season tickets sold out fast but general admission and verified resale seats are available HERE for games at Lee Stadium. Fans who have tickets but can’t attend a specific game can use the new donate feature on their Ticketmaster account, and Tennessee will distribute the tickets to the military and/or area nonprofits.

BASKETBALL: Tennessee is clinging to fourth place in the SEC and needs a win this Thursday, Feb. 29, against Texas A&M and a loss by Alabama against either Florida or Texas A&M to hold onto it and earn a double bye in the SEC tourney. The Lady Vols close the regular season on March 2 at South Carolina on the Gamecocks’ senior day.

Senior night for Tennessee comes Feb. 29 in the final game of the year at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center at 7 p.m. (TV: SEC Network). The senior ceremony starts before tipoff and will be the final sendoff for Rickea Jackson and Jasmine Powell, who both are finishing their college eligibility. Seniors Tess Darby, Tamari Key and Jewel Spear also will participate in the ceremony, but all three have a option to play in 2024-25. Destinee Wells, who suffered a season-ending injury last December, also has an extra year.

Sara Puckett, Rickea Jackson, Jewel Spear, Jasmine Powell and Karoline Striplin await the start of a road game. (UT Athletics)

Coach Kellie Harper decided a year ago when Tennessee had several players trying to decide whether to stay another year or pursue professional basketball to let them celebrate senior day without the pressure to decide during the season what to do next. As it turned out, Key, Jackson and Powell all came back this season, while Jordan Horston opted for the WNBA and earned a spot on the All-Rookie Team.

Horston, a beloved former Tennessee player, was courtside last Sunday for the LSU game before flying back Monday to Seattle, where the team has made her the off-season face of the franchise in appearances and marketing events while she also rehabbed from right shoulder surgery last September. The shoulder looked fine during the T-shirt toss.

Jordan Horston tosses a T-shirt to fans during a basketball game Feb. 25. (Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee has played close games with South Carolina and LSU with both slipping away in the fourth quarter. This team also has found ways to bounce back and stay confident.

“Regardless of who you’re playing, you’ve got to have it and right now, I think we do,” Harper said. “I think we have a little bit more confidence than we had earlier in the season. And you don’t just get it by wanting it and hoping you have it. You get it by working and finding some success.

“Our team has done that. Can we still get better? Yes. But I think just having the confidence as a team is really critical going down the stretch.”

Tennessee could use a little help – and needs to win at least one of the last two games in regular season – to grab that No. 4 seed in the SEC. The conference has been tough to predict this season, minus one team.

“We have a very small margin of error throughout the year, but that’s what the SEC is this year,” Harper said. “You have to play well to win and you can see from scores each and every night, there’s going to be something that’s a surprise or a bit of a surprise.

“That’s the SEC this year. You see so much parity, take South Carolina, kind of move them out of that, there’s a lot of parity.”

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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