Just three weeks ago, Ralph Weekly stood in front of a lineup board.
Eyeballing the names of starters freshly penned next to their positions, Tennessee’s co-head softball coach boasted a humble grin.
Without uttering a word, he systematically ran his finger across the illustrated infield and consequently across the names of three All-Americans.
Lifting his finger, he let out a soft whistle and walked away.
Whether in the form of a whistle or a drawn-out chat, UT’s group of heralded returnees was the hot topic of conversation heading into the 2013 season.
And for good reason.
Tennessee returned all its brass from last year’s squad. A total of five past All-Americans and 91 percent of the team’s home runs were safely penciled back into the Lady Vols’ lineup.
Surprises seemed few and far between entering opening day.
But through the first two weeks of the season, two of Tennessee’s biggest bats combined to hit just .170 last spring.
“It’s an absolutely pleasant surprise,” Weekly said.
Sophomore’s Cheyanne Tarango and Hannah Akamine have provided the surprise in the early goings for the Lady Vols. The youthful duo has accounted for four home runs, 21 RBIs and a combined .478 average.
Fresh off a 5-0 run to claim the crown at the USF 4 Team Tournament in Tampa, Fla., Tarango and Akamine look to further UT’s best start since the 2007 season. Tennessee departed for Cathedral City, Calif., on Wednesday for the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic.
The No. 4 Lady Vols (10-0) will face Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton today, followed by Northwestern, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara on Friday and Saturday.
Sensational Slappers: Weekly said his past Lady Vols teams have always been known for a “run-and-gun” style of play. In other words, relying on speed and defense, rather than producing power numbers.
That won’t be the case for this year’s group, at least not entirely.
Weekly said he is pleased with the Lady Vols‘ ability to blend speed with power — especially at the top of the order.
Tennessee’s leadoff and No. 2 hitters in Raven Chavanne and Kat Dotson have combined for three home runs and 21 RBIs to compliment 10 stolen bases. Neither hit a home run last season.
Chavanne blasted a three-run homer in Tampa and Dotson had three triples. Dotson has never hit more than four triples in a season.
The Lady Vols are 22-of-24 on steal attempts.
Transitioning Tarango: One way or another, Weekly said he’s going to get Tarango into the starting lineup.
While Tarango may be transitioning into a more limited pitching role, the sophomore started two games last weekend at first base and delivered offensively.
Weekly said Tarango will alternate at first base with Melissa Davin this weekend and will see time in the designated player role. Tarango is hitting .500 with a team-best three home runs and 14 RBIs in just 26 at-bats.
Gaffin at DP: Freshman outfielder Rainey Gaffin started four of five games in Tampa and Weekly said he will continue to play the newcomer in California, just not in the outfield for the time being.
Gaffin, who is hitting .462 with five RBIs, will facilitate the team’s DP role. Weekly said Gaffin needs to hone in on her defensive skills before she can fill a regular role in the outfield.
Potent Pitching: While returning All-American Ellen Renfroe will continue to be UT’s workhorse in the circle, Weekly said freshman Erin Gabriel also will receive plenty of starts this weekend.
Gabriel struck out eight in a one-hit shutout of Costal Carolina last Friday and Weekly said he is impressed with her continual ability to pound the strike zone.
Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.