Ralph Weekly was sitting in the bleachers at a travel tournament four summers ago.
Just as the Tennessee co-head softball coach had done so many times before, he was putting in face time to eyeball some of the country’s top talent.
He was certainty watching touted talent that day.
He was there to observe then soon-to-be senior Melissa Davin, a junior currently on the Lady Vols’ roster.
And just as expected, Davin was dominant.
But what he didn’t expect to find was a ninth grader dealing strikeout after strikeout in the opposing team’s circle.
“Davin was on one of the top travel teams in the country,” Lady Vols co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “They were just playing some team from Ohio.”
But that “some team” from Ohio soon had Karen Weekly’s phone buzzing.
“Ralph called me,” Karen Weekly said. “He said you have to come look at this pitcher. She’s striking out all these bat-busters and she’s relatively unknown.”
That unknown label wouldn’t last.
Ralph Weekly stumbled upon Erin Gabriel.
She would become one of the nation’s most highly recruited pitching prospects, going on to win both the 2010 and 2011 Gatorade
Ohio Softball Player of the Year awards.
After countless tours and trips to schools across the country, she made the Weekly’s time worth the while, signing with the Vols.
The Weeklys now watch the freshman from inside the dugout rather than the bleachers.
“Something just kept bringing me back to Tennessee,” Gabriel said.
The freshman pitcher will experience her first game at Lee Stadium today during the home opener against Lipscomb at 5 p.m.
No. 4 Tennessee (13-2) returns home after playing its first 15 games on the road, featuring stops in Utah, Florida and California.
Outside leaving behind the scenery and warm weather, Gabriel says she is eager to finally play in Knoxville.
“I mean, looking out your window and seeing Palm Trees isn’t all that bad,” Gabriel said with a laugh. “But no, really, I’m excited to start playing at Tennessee and in front of that home crowd.”
Gabriel has thrown just more than 13 innings this season, striking out 15.
But earning innings inbetween starts from returning All-American Ellen Renfroe and her battle-tested sister, Ivy, is no small task for a freshman.
Then again, Gabriel isn’t your average newcomer.
Karen Weekly’s worries for the freshman are certainty atypical.
The worry about Gabriel doesn’t regard freshman jitters. In fact, Gabriel can’t even recall the opponent she faced during her first start of the season.
The worry isn’t about her adjusting to everyday college life, handling the rigorous practices, or the thousands of other run-of-the-mill freshman concerns.
Rather, Karen Weekly is worried about Gabriel working too hard.
“At practice, she’ll do the workouts and then go do some extra workouts on her own,” Karen Weekly said. “She’s always wanting to do more. She never stops.
“While that’s admirable for an athlete to have that drive, rest and recovery is equally as important as working out. Often times we have to remind her to slow down. Honestly, that’s the concern.”
Chuckling, Gabriel said her never-rest attitude goes hand-in-hand with her desire to dominate.
“I want to be the best and dominate every time I pitch,” she said. “That’s what I work toward.”
But even Gabriel’s definition might be lofty.
There’s dominance, and then there’s what Gabriel accomplished during her senior year at Poland Seminary High School.
During a 16-inning marathon of a game, she struck out 34 batters.
That’s more than two punch-outs an inning.
But for Gabriel, that stellar performance is merely a thing of the past. She’s concerned with the present.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about that once since I’ve been here,” Gabriel said. “Right now I’m excited about wearing that Tennessee across my chest and being the best I can be here. That’s what it’s all about, anyway.”
Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.