Super month of May for softball

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The softball scorebook in May is loaded: SEC Coach of the Year and contract extension for coach Karen Weekly, SEC regular season champions, conference tournament trophy, Knoxville Regional winner in NCAA tourney – and the Lady Vols aren’t done yet.

Beginning Friday, May 26, No. 4 seed Tennessee, 47-8, will host No. 13 seed Texas, 45-13-1, in a Super Regional in a best-of-three series with the winner earning a spot in the Women’s College World Series (WCWS). The game is set for a 4 p.m. start and will be broadcast on ESPN2. Game two will be Saturday, May 26, with a 3 p.m. start on ABC. Game three, if necessary, will be Sunday, May 27, with the time to be determined.

After Tennessee’s first three NCAA tourney games last weekend were shown on ESPN+ –  a livestream that works for the youngsters but frustrates some older fans who want linear television – the Lady Vols get national coverage this weekend and ESPN’s top softball crew of Beth Mowins, Michele Smith, Jessica Mendoza and Holly Rowe.

Since the graphic was made, the May 27 game is no longer to be determined and is now ABC.

The winner of the Super Regional in Knoxville will be one of eight college softball team across the country to start the month of June in Oklahoma City for the WCWS. Two other SEC teams, Alabama and Georgia, also are vying for spots on the sport’s biggest stage.

The month of May started with Tennessee’s first regular season title since 2007. That was followed by the program’s first-ever sweep of the regular season and SEC tourney crowns. The day before the NCAA tourney started, Tennessee Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Danny White announced that Weekly’s contract had been extended through June 30, 2028.

“I’ve been impressed from day one with Karen with her ultra-competitive mindset to be the best and how professional she goes about her business in leading our softball program,” White said.

Weekly said, “It’s a privilege to be the softball coach at Tennessee and to work for Danny White. I appreciate his faith and trust in me to lead Lady Vol softball into the future.”

Coach Karen Weekly celebrates a grand slam with Rylie West in the Knoxville Regional. (Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee wants to close out May by winning on the month’s final weekend. Two victories against Texas will send Tennessee to the WCWS, a destination the program hasn’t reached since 2015. Two losses doesn’t undo what the team accomplished in May, but it’s certainly not the ending the Lady Vols want to write in 2023.

While the Lady Vols went 3-0 last weekend with one win over Northern Kentucky and two against Indiana, the clincher last Sunday didn’t come easy.

Payton Gottshall had to get out of back-to-back innings with the bases loaded in the first two innings– and did so without allowing a run – leading to a funny social media exchange with Lady Vol pitching legend Monica Abbott, who was watching at home in California.

Abbott posted to Gottshall on Twitter: Niiice so clutch stepping up with the bases loaded twice… but let’s try a 1-2-3 inning next, yea??

The senior pitcher answered back after the game: just had to get the adrenaline flowing

For the record, Gottshall went 1-2-3 with three quick outs in the third inning, and the Lady Vols turned a 2-0 lead into 7-0 in the fifth inning and ended up winning 7-3.

The last time Tennessee hosted a Super Regional was in 2019. In 2020, the pandemic wiped out college sports in the spring. In 2021 and 2022, the Lady Vols hosted the opening regionals in the NCAA tourney but lost both with the added sting of doing so at home and were denied a Super Regional.

“That was a bitter pill to swallow, and nobody hurts more than the players who go through that,” Weekly said. “I think they all have such a great appreciation for how hard it is and the ones who suffered through those regional losses these last two years, there was extra motivation. Nothing is easy. Nothing is given to you. You’re going to have to fight and scratch and claw for everything you get.

“I think that’s what is so gratifying to me because I know that’s what they did.”

Jamison Brockenbrough, Kiki Milloy and McKenna Gibson greet Zaida Puni at home plate after a homer in the Knoxville Regional. (Tennessee Athletics)

The stakes will be even higher this Super Regional weekend when the Big Orange of Tennessee and Burnt Orange of Texas take the field at Lee Stadium.

“Every Super Regional I’ve been a part of, going way back to the very first one in ’05 with Abbott on the mound, they are not easy,” Weekly said. “I think a lot of people will have a lot of fun with the two oranges going at each other.”

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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