Preseason practices are finished, and it's time for Tennessee's highly touted softball team to prove itself on the field.
The No. 4-ranked Lady Vols start the 2011 season today at 11 a.m. against Michigan State in the Stetson Lead-Off Classic in DeLand, Fla.
UT has the same high goals this year - reaching the Women's College World Series and claiming the title - after finishing the 2010 season with a 49-15 record and tied for third in the WCWS.
"We had high expectations of ourselves last year, too," senior center fielder Kelly Grieve said. "Being a top-10 program like this, any year and every year you're going to have high expectations. We're used to it."
That was the bar set by Lady Vols co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly, now in their 10th season at UT.
The Lady Vols return seven players who started at least 31 games last season, and the roster is bolstered by seven freshmen who were rated the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation last year.
"I know this team's going to be really good," Ralph Weekly said. "I just don't know when. We need to get out and play some games and just see how they respond to another team."
After this morning's game, the Lady Vols play host Stetson today at 4 p.m. On Sunday, UT plays Boston College at 10 a.m. and Michigan State at 12:30 p.m. and begins its home schedule at 5 p.m. Tuesday against East Tennessee State University.
Three of UT's freshmen are expected to start this weekend. Madison Shipman, from Valencia, Calif., will start at shortstop and Chelsea O'Connor of Galeton, Colo., will start at designated player. Pitcher Ellen Renfroe of Jackson will start at least one game this weekend, while her sister, sophomore Ivy Renfroe, will be the Lady Vols' other starting pitcher.
Freshman catcher Ashley Holmes is out with an injury and doubtful for this weekend, but Weekly said the other three freshmen probably will see action.
"I think probably the biggest challenge we face is we're going to start at least three freshmen," Weekly said. "They've been up and down like freshmen are. I think they're going to be fantastic players, but you never know early in the season. A lot of things can happen."
UT features one of the nation's top outfields with Grieve (.373, 59 runs, 26 steals) and two sophomores who earned National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-American honors last year, left fielder Raven Chavanne (.455, 64 runs, 37 steals) and right fielder Kat Dotson (.391, 37 RBIs, 29 steals).
Chavanne will bat in the leadoff spot with Grieve second and Dotson third.
Other starters for the Lady Vols will be junior Shelby Burchell at first base, sophomore Lauren Gibson at second, junior Jessica Spigner at third, and junior Ashley Andrews at catcher.
Weekly has been pleased with the Lady Vols in preseason practices.
"Sometimes that's something that scares coaches, but (preseason has) gone real well," he said. "The kids are playing well, they're hitting well, they're showing up on time with a great work ethic and they've got a lot of spirit. Things look really good, but like I've said before, spring training always looks good to every manager in the world, so we'll see what happens."
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.