Raven Chavanne on the season, the WCWS and 2013
The Tennessee softball team's chartered flight back from Oklahoma City had just lifted off on Sunday when Ralph Weekly began divulging next season's plans.
"I promise, we'll be better,'' said Weekly, who intends on returning for a 12th season as the Lady Vols co-head coach along with his wife, Karen. "There's going to be a different attitude toward offense.
"We led the nation in defense (fielding percentage) this season, but pitching and hitting is what wins in the SEC.''
Tennessee's 2012 season ended with the Lady Vols (52-14) finishing seventh at the Women's College World Series after falling in consecutive games to Alabama (5-3, Thursday) and Oregon (3-1, Saturday).
"I'm not disappointed with the season, but I am disappointed with the last two games,'' said Weekly, whose team hit the 50-win plateau for the first time since 2009, recording a No. 4 RPI and a No. 5 national ranking en route to drawing the NCAA tournament's No. 7 seed.
"We had the capability to be better,'' he said. "We'll be much stronger next season, and I say that with conviction. We're returning eight of 10 starters, plus our entire pitching staff returns.
"We have six freshmen coming in, all of whom are very good and will compete.''
Erin Gabriel, Gatorade's two-time Ohio softball player of the year, is among the newcomers. Gabriel, from Poland (Ohio) Seminary, drew national acclaim this season when she struck out 34 batters in 16 innings at a national high school tournament in April.
Offensively, UT returns 85 percent of its hits, 91 percent of its home runs and 93 percent of its stolen bases to a team that finished second in hitting (.302 average) in the SEC to Alabama. The Crimson Tide, which features six seniors, will play Oklahoma in a best-of-three series starting tonight to determine the national champion.
Lady Vols' All-American lead-off hitter Raven Chavanne is among the rising seniors who figure to take a leadership role next season.
"I know our coaches have plans to make our offense stronger,'' said Chavanne, who led the SEC in hitting and keyed a 19-game winning streak. "We'll be back to the World Series.''
Ivy Renfroe, who pitched all six of the Lady Vols' NCAA tournament victories, said there's still disappointment over the WCWS showing, but also excitement about the future.
"I think we had a great season, and we worked very hard to get a good seeding and go to the world series,'' Renfroe said. "It didn't end the way we wanted it to end, but I think we'll be ready for the fall.
"There will be new leadership roles, and our (rising) senior class has a lot of experience, and that
will help us a lot.''
Five of the returning eight starters will be playing their senior seasons: Renfroe, Chavanne, Kat Dotson, Lauren Gibson and Melissa Brown.
Chavanne Surgery: Chavanne revealed that she will undergo shoulder surgery next week to repair an injury that plagued her throughout the season.
Chavanne batted .423, but she failed to hit a home run after hitting six her freshmen and sophomore campaigns.
"It will make a difference,'' she said. "I hope people don't think I just forgot how to hit for power this season.''
USA Invitees: Chavanne's surgery forced her to decline an invitation to try out for Team USA in Cleveland, Ohio, next week, but other Lady Vols will be among the 33 players vying for 17 spots on the team that will compete in the World University Softball Championship and Canada Cup.
Second baseman Lauren Gibson, pitcher Ellen Renfroe and shortstop Madison Shipman all have invitations.
Farewell Bid: UT will say goodbye to senior starters Shelby Burchell (designated player) and Ashley Andrews (catcher), along with pitcher/utility player Cat Hosfield and outfielder Holly Baker.
The seniors took part in 190 wins and two WCWS.
Burchell was UT's second-leading hitter in the NCAA tournament, with a .367 average and seven RBIs to share team honors with Chavanne. Andrews made her final game memorable by singling, stealing second, scoring the team's only run and gunning down the two base runners who attempted to steal on her at the WCWS.
Hosfield's senior campaign was cut short by a knee injury, while Baker finished her UT career reaching base safely in her final six at-bats.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee sports. Follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32