Stick sports send dagger through team’s heart

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The stick sports are brutal. As a former college softball player and lifelong baseball fan, it’s always the stick sports that are utterly unpredictable and soul-crushing for a team.

The Tennessee softball team won every series in SEC play this season – a likely unmatched feat in Power 5 conferences – except for the last one.

The postgame press conferences were, as expected, filled with tears. For the players and head coach, it means there is no next practice for the 2024 team, no more bus or plane rides, the end of their college career for the seniors and, the most immediately crushing of all, no repeat trip to the Women’s College World Series.

“I’ll be shocked if the three of us can get through this without continuing to shed some tears,” coach Weekly said.

That didn’t happen for Weekly or two of her seniors, Kiki Milloy and Rylie West, as evident in the videos below.


Milloy and West were youngsters on the team when Tennessee twice lost in the Knoxville Regional and didn’t even reach a Super Regional in NCAA play. The seniors also included Payton Gottshall, Giulia Koutsoyanopulos, Zaida Puni and Ryleigh White.

The veterans vowed to change course and did so in 2023 when the Lady Vols won the SEC regular season and conference tourney for the first in program history and went to the eight-team Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2015. Tennessee was among the last four teams standing in Oklahoma City.

Giulia Koutsoyanopulos reacts after an out at first against Alabama. (UT Athletics)

In 2024, the Lady Vols repeated as SEC regular season champions for the first time in program history and were not even scored upon in the Knoxville Regional. The Super Regional against Alabama did what the stick sports do so well – unpredictable and soul-crushing.

Tennessee came from behind to win the first game. The second game went 14 innings with both teams struggling to string together hits – and some outstanding defense in the field – until the Crimson Tide finally broke through to tie the series.

Game three started amid tornado watches across East Tennessee last Sunday but not before Alabama hit a grand slam in the first inning – it started with a two-out bloop single and then two hit batters – with West inches away from snaring the home run ball at the top of the fence. After a three-hour rain delay, the Lady Vols mounted a seventh-inning rally but ended up watching Alabama celebrate on Tennessee’s home field.

It was a tough presser for Weekly, too.

Will the returning players remember the agony the way West, Milloy and the other seniors did?

“The ones that are returning, this stings, this really stings,” Weekly said with West and Milloy still seated beside her. “I remember two years ago when we lost here in regionals, I remember how much that stung for these two here.

“There was a real sense of resolve last year that we’re not going to let that happen again. You just saw them and their classmates take this program to another level last year and this year. That hurt is going to stay with them, and I think that fuels people to do even more.”

Milloy and West won Torchbearer awards in consecutive years in 2023 and 2024 and became the first teammates ever at Tennessee to play together with the university’s highest academic honor.

“I will forever wear orange and bleed orange,” West said. “I love this place. This place is special, not because we have great facilities and the beautiful river. It’s special because of the people here, and you can’t take that away.”

Rylie West celebrates after hitting a home run that reached the railroad tracks in the Knoxville Regional. (UT Athletics)

It was a team that captured the heart of Tennessee fans not just for its performance on the field, but for how the players gave back to the community.

Danny White, an athletics director keenly focused on outcomes, posted on social media after the loss: Incredibly proud of this team. Regular season champions of the toughest league in the country. Historic season on many levels. Hold your heads up high ladies.

Milloy isn’t done providing opportunities to local kids and teens. She will host another “Kamp Kiki” on Sunday, June 23, at Lee Stadium for girls ages 6-15 with multiple Lady Vols teammates in an event organized by the Lady Vol Boost HER Club. Tickets are available HERE.

Milloy also had heart surgery last fall. She had been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which causes the heart to beat abnormally fast, in high school and had a procedure done to ablate the pathway. The condition was aggravated in college, and she underwent a seven-hour procedure to have multiple pathways ablated.

Milloy partnered with the Boost HER Club and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt to produce a “Heart of a Champion” T-shirt with all proceeds being donated to the hospital that can be bought HERE.

“I think that even though this is my last game I’m always going to have a community here, and I’m always going to have people that love and care for me,” Milloy said. “You see the signs everywhere that say ‘I will give my all for Tennessee today,’ that’s what I did and that’s what we do.”

Maria M. Cornelius, a one-time walk-on softball player at Winthrop College and 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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