Death, taxes – and Tennessee softball hosting an NCAA regional in Knoxville.
For the 17th consecutive season, the Lady Vols will start postseason on their home field, a mark of consistency and excellence for a program that, until this season, was coached by husband-and-wife duo Ralph and Karen Weekly. Ralph Weekly retired last summer after 35 years in the game overall and 20 seasons at Tennessee. Karen Weekly shed the co-head coach title and took the helm for the 2022 season.
“It’s a credit to all of the players, coaches, support staff and administrators who have poured into this program year in and out,” Karen Weekly told Knox TN Today. “Ralph and I came to Tennessee 21 years ago because of the commitment to excellence and to women in sports. We are grateful for the opportunity and to every current and former Lady Vol who made the streak happen.”
Tennessee, 39-16, will start NCAA tourney play this Friday against Campbell, 37-17, at 6:30 p.m. at Lee Stadium. Ohio State, 35-15, and Oregon State, 33-19, will get the Knoxville Regional started at 4 p.m. Tickets will go on sale Wednesday at AllVols.com. One winner will emerge from the three-day event in a double elimination format and advance to a Super Regional at eight locations across the country. The winners of the super regionals will determine the eight-team field for the Women’s College World Series (WCWS).
This will be Tennessee’s 19th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, where the Lady Vols have been a mainstay since 2004. By earning one of the top 16 seeds in the 64-team NCAA tourney field – Tennessee is No. 11 and had the résumé for a higher seed from this writer’s points of view, especially with the toughest schedule in the country – the Lady Vols also earned the right to host.
Brian Rice, the voice of Lady Vols softball on the radio for the Vol Network, pointed out on social media that with the 17th regional in a row being played in Knoxville, every high school player that Karen Weekly is recruiting wasn’t born yet when the Lady Vols last started the NCAA postseason on the road. It’s both a competitive advantage to not have to travel on the opening weekend and a recruiting one because of the sustained excellence.
Tennessee finished the regular season in third place in the SEC and 12 of the conference’s 13 teams earned bids to the NCAA tourney. (Vanderbilt doesn’t field a team so there are not 14 softball teams in the conference.) The SEC is a deep and talented softball conference, and the teams likely look forward to an opening NCAA weekend where they play someone else. (That won’t last long. If Tennessee and Alabama both clear regional play, they’ll meet in Tuscaloosa in a Super Regional.)
The Lady Vols ultimately seek a WCWS berth in Oklahoma City, but it’s a tough path in a sport loaded with tough teams. The first step of the process starts in Knoxville. What are the keys to success? For Karen Weekly, it’s a narrow focus and being in the moment of each pitch and at-bat.
“Playing it one game at a time and staying in a one-pitch compete mindset throughout each game,” Weekly said. “When we keep our focus small and simple, we play loose and have fun.”
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, 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. She can be reached at [email protected].