Year after year, Tennessee co-head softball coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly scour the nation in search of the top talent.
They usually get their share.
UT landed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2011 by ESPN/RISE magazine. Four of the six signees from the class are still playing a big part in the Lady Vols’ postseason plans.
Work starts today (TV: ESPNU, 2:30 p.m.) at the SEC tournament. The second-seeded Lady Vols (45-9, 22-6 SEC) play Auburn (33-20, 12-16) in the first round at Rhoades Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Recruiting has been a big reason UT is among the nation’s elite softball programs.
“I think the traditions at Tennessee of being outstanding in sports, the facilities that we’re provided, our stadium is second to none in the country, and playing in the SEC,” Ralph Weekly said this week. “I think those are the three things that really help us in recruiting.”
Sophomore pitcher Ellen Renfroe, of Jackson, was one of the key members of the No. 1-rated class.
Renfroe (13-3, 1.14 ERA) knew the expectations were high when she signed on with the Lady Vols’ top class.
“We were all really talented and competitive,” Renfroe said. “All of us wanted to play.”
Three other scholarship players from the No. 1 class with Renfroe are among the Lady Vols’ top six hitters in batting average this season.
Left fielder Melissa Davin is hitting .321 with seven homers and 26 RBIs; shortstop Madison Shipman is hitting .316 with nine homers and the team-high 58 RBIs; and center fielder Tory Lewis is hitting .311.
The two signees from the No. 1 class no longer with the Lady Vols are catcher Ashley Holmes of Whittier, Calif., and infielder Kourtny Thomas of Warner Robins, Ga. A seventh member of the class, outfielder Chelsea O’Connor of Galeton, Colo., was a walk-on.
Holmes came to UT with a shoulder injury, faced another surgery, and never played before leaving. Weekly said Holmes isn’t playing softball.
Thomas transferred to Georgia Southern for personal reasons, the coach said.
“Her mother, in her freshman year, had a medical situation,” Weekly said. “Her mom was hospitalized, she elected to be closer to home, so we released her.”
Weekly said O’Connor was free to transfer to Boston University without a release because she was a walk-on.
“Our intentions are for them to graduate (from UT),” Ralph Weekly said, “and I think we have a pretty good return rate.”
All three of UT’s No. 2 rated class from 2012 are still with the program: first baseman/designated player Cheyanne Tarango, catcher Hannah Akamine, and pitcher Haley Fagan, who is redshirting.
UT appears to have another outstanding incoming class for 2013, although no rankings have been released. Leading the group is pitcher Erin Gabriel of Poland, Ohio. Others in the class are pitcher Rainey Gaffin of Thornton, Colo., power-hitter Lexi Overstreet of Buford, Ga.; and pitcher Anna Renfroe of Jackson, younger sister of the Lady Vols’ Ellen and Ivy Renfroe.
Weekly knows you can’t compete in the SEC without the best talent.
“I think that the SEC tournament is second only to the (Women’s) College World Series for tournaments because the other major (conferences) don’t have tournaments,” he said. “We’re going head-to-head with very good teams who we’ve already gone head-to-head with three times during the season, so it’s just a huge challenge. I endorse the SEC tournament. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for our league to showcase its softball talent on a national stage with ESPN.”
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.