Summitt Blue sends softball to World Series

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

There’s just something about those Summitt Blue softball uniforms. The softball team clinched its Knoxville Regional and Super Regional wins while donning the blue uniforms to send Tennessee to its first Women’ s College World Series since 2015.

“Tennessee’s history as a worldwide leader in women’s athletics, along with the Lady Vols’ unique legacy of excellence, are traditions we are proud to celebrate,” Tennessee Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Danny White said in a previous column that can be read here after the uniforms were announced last year.

The blue uniforms, along with the orange, white and Smokey grey ones, made the trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series (WCWS), which starts Thursday, June 1.

The team arrived in Oklahoma on Tuesday, two days before. No. 4 seed Tennessee, 49-8, and No. 5 seed Alabama, 45-20, will square off in the WCWS opening game at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium at noon Eastern with the broadcast on ESPN.

The Lady Vols land in Oklahoma City on May 30, 2023. (Tennessee Athletics)

If the Lady Vols win, the next game will be Saturday afternoon. A loss means the second game is Friday evening in the double-elimination event. The bracket with all game times and television coverage is available here.

The namesake, of course, for the blue uniforms is the late Pat Summitt, who was a close friend of Karen and Ralph Weekly after they became co-head coaches of the softball team in 2002. After her husband retired in the summer of 2021, Karen Weekly took over all duties with her first season in 2022.

In her second season at the helm, Weekly led the Lady Vols to the sport’s biggest stage in Oklahoma. As impressive as that is, it was the sustained excellence of the team all season in a sport that spans the coldest days of winter starting in February to the warmest temperatures of spring in May with all sorts of weather in between that propelled Tennessee to the one place it wanted to be when the calendar flipped to June.

Zaida Puni celebrates a no-doubt home run in the first game against Texas. (Tennessee Athletics)

Picked to finish second in the SEC, the Lady Vols did it one better and won the regular season title. The favorite going into the SEC tourney – and then becoming the only team to have to play twice in one day because of rain disruptions – the team won its second trophy of the year. The Lady Vols then didn’t lose a game at home in the NCAA tourney – going 3-0 in the Knoxville Regional and 2-0 in the Super Regional.

The clincher against Texas last weekend was a 1-0 game through five innings, and the Lady Vols unloaded in the seventh inning for a 9-0 win to send Tennessee back to the World Series for the first time in eight years and the eighth appearance in program history.

With each milestone this season, the players reiterated that they weren’t done yet. The preseason goal was to get to Oklahoma in June – and Tennessee is now one of the last eight teams still playing college softball.

“It’s kind of surreal,” senior center fielder Kiki Milloy said. “I just knew going into Regionals, then coming into Super Regionals, that we were doing it. We were making it. It doesn’t matter what needs to happen to do it, but I knew this team was going to get after it and win these games.”

Senior pitcher Payton Gottshall went the distance in the circle against Texas and improved to 16-1 on the season. The transfer from Bowling Green has played a key role in the Lady Vols’ success in 2023 – and she is returning for a fifth year as is Milloy.

The softball players and staff celebrate after the win that clinched a berth in the WCWS. (Tennessee Athletics)

A record crowd of 2,472 fans – the previous mark was 2,459 – filled every corner of Lee Stadium and erupted with the final out – fittingly a punch-out by Gottshall, who had five strikeouts in the clinching game to get to the WCWS and 126 this season.

“One of the things that Pat always said is, ‘You’re going to win championships when the players are the ones doing the leading,’ and that’s what we have on this team,” Weekly said, “They played loose, and they played that way the whole game no matter the score.

“That’s what is so gratifying to me as a coach is to watch them evolve into a team that really, really can focus on just playing softball and playing their hearts out.”

The eight-team field for the College World Series appears to be Oklahoma – the defending national champs with a 48-game win streak – and everyone else. But Tennessee and the power of Summitt Blue hope to still have some winning to do.

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.

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