Tennessee's only softball shortcoming Sunday afternoon was seating.
The Lady Vols had more than enough hitting, defense and pitching to sweep a doubleheader from Virginia Tech in winning the NCAA Regional. But they could have used a few more seats to accommodate their fans at a sold-out Lee Stadium.
You don't have to be a softball fan to appreciate this team. You just have to be a Tennessee fan.
The team's appeal extends beyond its record (50-11) or ranking (fifth nationally). It provides a connection to better days at a school now struggling in a multitude of sports.
"It's all about the players," UT co-head coach Ralph Weekly said after 2-1 and 10-2 victories, which advanced his team to this week's Super Regional.
Boy, is it about the players — just as it was about the players when UT was a football powerhouse in the 1990s, when the Lady Vols basketball team went 39-0 in winning one of their eight national championships in 1998 and when baseball popped up in the College World Series in 2005. If you want to see that caliber of athlete at UT now, you need a seat at Lee Stadium.
While UT is rebuilding in more sports than not, this team is built. Four of its players have been honored as All-Americans in the last two years. Third baseman Raven Chavanne leads the SEC in batting average and hits and is third in steals, shortstop Madison Shipman is second in the conference in RBIs, and pitcher Ellen Renfroe is second in earned-run average and strikeouts. The Lady Vols started five .300-plus hitters against Virginia Tech and lead the nation in defense.
All that might not be enough to certify them as the best team in the country. But Tennessee has enough of the nation's premier players to establish softball as its marquee program.
Co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly have led the Lady Vols to nine consecutive NCAA tournaments and four Women's College World Series by recruiting the best players in the country. Their last three recruiting classes have been ranked either at or near the top.
Geography hasn't been a factor, just as it didn't seem to be a factor for UT football during much of the 1990s. Six Lady Vols, including Chavanne, are from California.
"She's the best third baseman I've had," said Ralph Weekly. "And that includes two Olympic teams."
Chavanne, one of seven juniors on a team that has only four seniors, repeatedly frustrated the Hokies with diving catches in fair or foul territory, had four hits in seven at-bats and flashed the speed that turned recruiters' heads as a high school sprinter in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Her athletic background is intriguing. While she seems blessed with athletic genes, she said she's the first member of her family, which includes four siblings, to play sports. But she's quick to acknowledge that her father, Kevin, has speed and her mother, Jamie, has good hands.
Her affinity for sports was as evident as her athleticism at an early age. She became a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan when she was playing childhood soccer.
"My dad took me to a Lakers game when I was 6," she said. "I fell in love with the NBA."
She fell in love with the Lady Vols about the same time, but that had nothing to do with softball. She was enamored with UT's 1998 team, which featured "the Meeks" — Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall.
"I would watch them with my dad every time they were on TV," she said. "I wanted to play basketball for (coach) Pat Summitt."
She had forgotten about that childhood fantasy until she made her official recruiting visit to UT and saw a photo of Holdsclaw. Like Holdsclaw, Chavanne has now become one of the best players in her sport while developing her skills at UT.
And like Holdsclaw, she reminds UT fans of the natural ability that it takes to compete for championships,