Softball quest for game’s biggest stage starts now

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

For the first time in program history, the softball team has seized the SEC Tournament trophy in the same season the Lady Vols won the regular season championship. The next step is a quest for a spot in the Women’s College World Series in June.

Tennessee, 44-8, will get started on that goal this Friday, May 19, at Lee Stadium against Northern Kentucky. The Lady Vols earned a national No. 4 seed in the NCAA softball tourney and will host the Knoxville Regional. The other two teams in Knoxville are Louisville and Indiana. The winner of the three-day regional advances to a Super Regional on the last weekend of May, which as a top seed, Tennessee also would host. But that path won’t at all be easy.

On paper, the Lady Vols should be able to subdue the Norse of Northern Kentucky in the first game. But softball is played on dirt and grass. Where the regional really gets dicey is this Saturday and Sunday.

Tennessee’s Kiki Milloy leads the country with 23 home runs. The two players right behind her with 22 homers each are Taylor Roby of Louisville and Taryn Kern of Indiana, who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year. Whoever is in charge of ordering softballs for the Knoxville Regional maybe should add a box or two, because a lot are likely to be launched over the outfield walls.

Indiana and Louisville also play Friday, and the winners of the first two games will meet Saturday. The two teams defeated Friday fall into the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination tournament so the regional winner won’t be sorted out until Sunday.

Go here to keep up with all the regionals, game time and television coverage. Tennessee’s first game at 5:30 p.m. Friday will be livestreamed on ESPN+ while the 3 p.m. game between Indiana and Louisville is on ESPN2. Those are the only set matchups and broadcast information available right now as ESPN will select network coverage depending on outcomes across the country.

Mackenzie Donihoo slides home to score against South Carolina in the SEC tourney. (SEC)

Some Tennessee fans are a tad peeved with the NCAA softball selection committee for sending a bunch of mashers to Knoxville and giving Alabama a national No. 5 seed despite a fifth-place finish in its own conference.

Beth Mowins, a longtime softball broadcaster for ESPN, pointed out that four schools, Alabama, Duke, LSU and UCLA, didn’t have another Power 5 program sent to their regional. Four other schools, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Utah, had two Power 5 programs sent to their regional. That’s a rather unbalanced bracket.

But, in the words of the late Pat Summitt – who saw her share of NCAA brackets that raised eyebrows – it is what it is.

The Tennessee softball team celebrates winning the SEC tourney on May 13. (Tennessee Athletics)

The No. 4 overall seed for Tennessee was the highest for the Lady Vols since being seeded No. 8 in 2016. The team will seek its first WCWS appearance since 2015. The sweep of the SEC titles was a program first.

To get the second SEC trophy, Tennessee had to win three games in two days in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and a full recap can be read here.

Payton Gottshall, a player that coach Karen Weekly got out of the transfer portal a year ago from Bowling Green, pitched 12 innings in a 17-hour period on little rest because of the rain-soaked event. The Lady Vols were supposed to get started Thursday evening but thunderstorms wiped out play, forcing a Friday morning game, followed by another that evening – with Tennessee beating its archrivals Florida and Alabama to make it even sweeter for fans.

That set up the SEC tourney title game against South Carolina – which handed Tennessee a loss in the last regular season game – and Gottshall, who threw seven innings against Alabama last Friday night, took the ball again Saturday afternoon against the Gamecocks. The senior went five innings before yielding to senior Ashley Rogers for the final two innings.

Payton Gottshall pitches in the SEC tourney. (SEC)

“I had all the confidence in the world starting Payton (in the title game), and for her to give us five innings like she did and basically just shut them down after that first inning, that is really, really big,” Weekly said. “She just wants the ball. She was bummed that I took her out, but that’s what I love about her, that’s why her teammates love playing behind her.”

Seizing double trophies in the SEC was even more impressive considering that 12 of the conference’s 13 teams – Vanderbilt doesn’t field a softball team – made the field of 64 for the NCAA tourney.

“This is the best conference in America, and to be able to win the regular season and the tournament championship, that’s just an amazing feat,” said Weekly, who earned SEC Coach of the Year honors in 2023. “I’m just so proud of them and so proud to be their coach.”

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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