Softball shifts its focus to postseason

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Winning a softball conference championship is hard. Defending that title is even harder. The Lady Vols did just that for the first time in program history.

Tennessee finished the regular season with a 40-9 overall record and 19-5 in the SEC, one of the toughest conferences in the country that will send a slew of teams to the NCAA tourney later in May.

The Lady Vols will seek to defend another conference crown at the SEC tourney, which is underway now in Auburn, Alabama. Tennessee won the event in 2023 to claim both the regular season and postseason trophies for the first time in program history.

Tennessee earned a double bye as the No. 1 seed and won’t play until Thursday, May 9, at approximately 11 a.m. Eastern time with the broadcast on the SEC Network against the winner of Alabama vs. LSU. Those two teams play Wednesday, May 8, at 11 a.m. The conference tourney is single elimination so one loss sends a team home, and the full bracket with times and television coverage is available HERE.

A team trying to repeat a championship has to overcome two things – any complacency that settles in and the massive target every opponent sees. Tennessee not only defended its regular season title, it won all eight SEC series in 2024 and swept three of them.

“This is such a tough conference,” Tennessee coach Karen Weekly said. “It’s never going to be easy. It’s never going to be like you expect, and I’m just so proud of them.”

A lot of credit has to go to the seniors, a mature and competitive bunch that includes Payton Gottshall, Giulia Koutsoyanopulos, Kiki Milloy, Zaida Puni, Rylie West and Ryleigh White. Milloy and West also are both Torchbearer award winners, the first time in Tennessee history that two winners were teammates.

Tennessee won the series opener against Kentucky last Thursday with a come-from-behind win and then did it again Friday to clinch the title. Saturday was senior day and a threatening weather forecast never materialized. Before that game, the fathers of the seniors – who hail from California, Washington, Texas, Arizona and Ohio –  threw a pitch to their daughter.

The regular season finale was a slugfest with Tennessee winning, 8-7, in eight innings on a walk-off homer by redshirt freshman Taylor Pannell, an indication that the Lady Vols have plenty in the dugout, including sophomore pitching sensation Karlyn Pickens, when the seniors depart.

Pannell earned freshman of the week honors for her three games against Kentucky with three home runs – one in each game – and nine RBIs with an eye-popping on-base plus slugging (OPS) of 1.769.

Taylor Pannell celebrates a game-winning home run. (UT Athletics)

A lot of the credit for the success also goes to Weekly, who is closing in on a rather remarkable milestone – becoming the winningest head coach in Tennessee history.

The late Pat Summitt holds it with an overall record of 1,098-208. Weekly is now 1,081-337-2, just 17 wins shy of tying Summitt. The two coaches were close friends, and Weekly is the longest-tenured head coach at Tennessee.

The video below shows Weekly with players holding their 2023 rings on Feb. 3, 2024, before the season started. It ends with the 2024 celebration.

“It officially puts a wrap on last year and now we’re ready to turn that page,” Weekly said in the video. “But remember those things that we hold true to every single day – best, most competitive self, discipline, tough, selfless. Those are the things that got us here. Those are the things that are going to get us another ring this year.”

The month of May means postseason and while the SEC tourney is another crown to defend, the ultimate prize is the Women’s College World Series championship. A three-game sweep in Auburn means another ring. But a loss, if it were to come, doesn’t end the season.

“We’re going to go down there to play to win,” Weekly said Tuesday before the team departed for Auburn, the host site of the SEC tourney. “This team ultimately wants to be in a position to win the big one at the end, and we’re not going to look ahead to anything. These are steps to get where we want to go. If we have a game we lose, that doesn’t mean we can’t ultimately achieve a bigger goal at the end of the season.”

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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