Softball seeks another super outcome

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The last time Tennessee earned back-to-back Women’s College World Series berths, the Lady Vols had to eliminate Alabama in 2013. Tennessee will have to take out its SEC rival again to duplicate the feat in 2024.

Seven SEC teams are among the final 16 teams left in the NCAA softball tourney, which will hold Super Regionals at eight campus sites this week to determine the eight teams headed to Oklahoma City for the WCWS in a best-of-three format.

Tennessee will host Alabama with game one set for Friday, May 24, at 4 p.m. at Lee Stadium with the broadcast on ESPN2. Game two is scheduled for Saturday, May 25, at 3 p.m. Game three, if necessary, will be held Sunday, May 26, at a time to be determined.

“I feel like when you’re Tennessee, you’re going to be getting an SEC opponent in Super Regionals,” Tennessee coach Karen Weekly said. “It just happens all the time.”

Of the seven SEC teams, Tennessee and Alabama are the only two who will see a conference foe in the Super Regional. Florida will host Baylor, Missouri will host Duke, Georgia will play at UCLA, LSU will play at Stanford, and Texas A&M will play at Texas, the latter of which would be an SEC matchup in 2025.

The last time Tennessee went to back-to-back World Series was in 2012 and 2013 with sister pitchers Ivy and Ellen Renfroe in the circle. Monica Abbott led the Lady Vols to three consecutive appearances in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Tennessee softball players huddle before the start of an inning. (UT Athletics)

Tennessee has two aces in 2024 in Payton Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens. The duo tallied three shutout wins in the Knoxville Regional last weekend – Pickens beat Dayton and both defeated Virginia – with a combined 19 innings, 24 strikeouts and just one walk.

Gottshall, a transfer from Bowling Green, is in her second and final season on Rocky Top. When Weekly saw the righthander in the portal in 2022, she knew immediately she wanted Gottshall in orange because of her toughness with the ball in her hand.

Pickens, a righthander from Weaverville, North Carolina, is a power pitcher – she regularly throws 70 mph-plus with most softball pitchers in the 60s – and has added a wicked changeup that leaves batters flailing at the ball. Batters can watch film, but it doesn’t do the speed justice until they stand in the box. Most importantly, Pickens has made the physical and mental jump from freshman to sophomore and doesn’t get rattled.

Zaidi Puni, who plays third for Tennessee, had a direct vantage point of the maturation process.

“Last year she was more tense,” Puni said. “This year, she has changed. She’s accepted her role, and she’s grown as woman and as a player. You can see that on the field. She’s super different, and she’s confident in herself. She lets things go, and if things aren’t going her way, she knows we have her back. Her confidence and growth from last season was huge.”

Karlyn Pickens and McKenna Gibson are all smiles at the Knoxville Regional. (UT Athletics)

Virginia coach Joanna Hardin, pitcher Madison Harris and catcher Leah Boggs had nothing but praise for the Tennessee players and fans after the final game last Sunday.

“Their team is really classy,” Boggs said. “The entire game they’re smiling, talking to us. It felt like although we were fighting each other we were also fighting for something together. Rylie West came up to me after the game and talked to me a little bit about my performance, and I talked to her a little bit about hers.”

West sent a shot over the scoreboard and to the train tracks beyond the stadium to cap the regional win for Tennessee. The backdrop behind the outfield wall is a panorama of the mountains – the ball sailed well over it, too – and Hardin and Harris maintained their sense of humor.

“She had a pretty good day,” Hardin said.

“Taking me to the Smoky Mountains,” Harris said.

The congeniality is not likely to be as high for the Super Regional as Tennessee and Alabama are SEC rivals, and the stakes are a trip to Oklahoma City.

Tennessee posted a three-minute video on social media of the regional highlights with Weekly once again breaking out the Griddy dance that can be watched below or HERE.

“The first time she did the Griddy I was staring at her in disbelief like, ‘There’s no way you just did this,’ ” Puni said. “She tells us that we need to have fun and compete with joy, so the fact that she’s the one showing us how to have fun, it shows how our team will follow the leader.”

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications 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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