The softball team has shown itself all season to be a team that must be watched until the final out. From offensive explosions to clutch pitching to come-from-behind wins, the Lady Vols have delivered on the diamond – and now are SEC regular season champs for the first time in 16 years.
“Our preseason from the start, it was just attack and dominate our process,” senior infielder Zaida Puni said during an interview with the SEC Network. “I think the simpler it is, the more we feel calmer and we play more freely.”
The players follow Ubuntu, an African philosophy that means “I am because we are,” and wear bracelets with the letters F.A.M.I.L.Y. that stand for: Forget about me. I love you.
With the regular season in the record book, Tennessee will now turn to the SEC tourney, which got underway Tuesday. As the No. 1 seed, the Lady Vols have a double bye and will start in the quarterfinals on Thursday, May 11, at 7 p.m. at Bogle Park in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network. (UPDATE: Inclement weather has moved Tennessee’s first game to 11 a.m. Friday, May 12, against the winner of Kentucky vs. Florida, which has shifted from Wednesday to Thursday.)
Last Saturday, Tennessee secured the program’s second SEC regular season crown and the first since 2007 – when All-American Monica Abbott was in the circle – behind freshman pitcher Karlyn Pickens and Puni, whose missile shot off the scoreboard was the game winner.
Senior pitcher Ashley Rogers went the distance Friday night with a 3-0 shutout win against South Carolina to put Tennessee in position to clinch the championship on Saturday.
“Zaida alluded to it in her TV interview,” Rogers said. “We’re a team. We go out there and fight. It’s not one of us out there, it’s all 24 of us who are on the field together, out there fighting together against the other team.”
Saturday’s game started well when leadoff hitter Kiki Milloy blasted a ball nearly to the railroad tracks behind Lee Stadium and set the single season record for homers at Tennessee with 20, but the Gamecocks tied the game in the third inning and then took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning as the Lady Vols’ defense uncharacteristically faltered.
A throwing error by the surehanded Puni, who handles the hot corner of third base nearly flawlessly, had allowed the runner to score.
Puni’s chance at Ubuntu redemption would come in the fifth inning, which started inauspiciously with two quick outs. But sophomore Katie Taylor, who hits ninth in the lineup, worked a two-out walk to keep the inning going.
We’re not here without Katie Taylor,” coach Karen Weekly said. “It may not fill a stat sheet, but that kid just plays with guts every day. She’s going to get in there and she’s going to battle and that’s an inspiration to everybody on the team.”
South Carolina then intentionally walked Milloy. While Milloy can leave the yard, so can Puni, who hits second in the lineup, and it was a calculated risk that backfired.
In the dugout before Milloy got the free pass, Weekly said Puni asked her: “Do you need me to do anything different in the two hole? And I said, ‘No, I don’t think they’re going to feel too comfortable walking Kiki if you’re there.’ ”
When South Carolina did just that, Puni had two runners on base and two out. She worked the count to three balls and two strikes and then blasted a pitch into the scoreboard for a 4-2 lead for Tennessee. Milloy, who had been shouting encouragement to Puni from first base during the at-bat, was in full celebration mode as she rounded second base.
“Zaida made them pay for that,” Weekly said. “You know she’s going to give us a good at-bat. She gave us a game changer.”
On Sunday, Milloy hit another homer in the final game of the regular season for a total of 21, and she still has the SEC and NCAA tourneys to add to her tally in 2023. Milloy has 52 career home runs and is five away from tying former Lady Vol Meghan Gregg, the all-time leader at Tennessee with 57.
Tennessee has won the SEC tourney twice, in 2006 and 2011. It’s single elimination – the NCAA tourney is double elimination, and a team has to lose twice to exit – so it’s one loss and done. Tennessee will try to win three in a row and double the 2023 SEC trophies. A quick glance at a wrist serves as a reminder of the mission.
“I am because of us,” Puni said. “There’s no I in team and we’re playing for each other and playing behind each other, and we have each other’s back. I love the word Ubuntu.”
Maria M. Cornelius has been writing about the Lady Vols since 1998 for various publications. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.