Oklahoma press conference after winning the 2013 WCWS
Tennessee press conference following losing the WCWS
One national championship opportunity often leaves fans thinking about the next one.
Tennessee came close to a national championship this week, playing its way into the finals of the Women’s College World Series before losing back-to-back games to Oklahoma.
Despite the loss, the softball program is the place to start if you’re wondering about Tennessee’s next national championship. Co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly are succeeding where so many other UT coaches are failing. They’re consistently recruiting the best players in the country.
They have yet to win a national championship. But they’ve made the WCWS six times in the last nine years.
And no one should be surprised if the Lady Vols are playing for the national championship next year in Oklahoma City.
There’s nothing mysterious about the national titles UT has won in the last 15 years. They have won with great athletes.
UT’s 1998 national championship football team was chock-full of future NFL players.
When the Lady Vols won three consecutive national championships in women’s basketball from 1996 through 1998, they had Chamique Holdsclaw, a four-time All-American.
They won two more national championships in 2007 and 2008, thanks mainly to Candace Parker, a three-time All-American.
UT’s last national championship in outdoor track and field was in 2001 when it had sprinters Justin Gatlin and Leonard Scott, who both at some point in their career would run a sub-10-second 100 meters.
Something else about UT’s greatest sports teams of recent years: They weren’t built on in-state talent.
That’s not to minimize the importance of UT recruiting the best players from the state in any sport. But that alone isn’t nearly enough.
Tennessee native Al Wilson was the best player on the 1998 national championship football team. However, most of the best players on that team were from other states in the Southeast.
Holdsclaw is from New York. Parker grew up in Naperville, Ill.
Gatlin was born in Brooklyn and was recruited to UT from Pensacola, Fla. Scott is from Zachary, La.
First-year Lady Vols basketball coach Holly Warlick has been around UT long enough as a player and then an assistant coach to know the value of national recruiting. She watched former head coach Pat Summitt build and maintain a national championship program by recruiting the best players, regardless of their location.
Warlick’s first recruiting class exemplifies that. Her most celebrated signee was national player of the year Mercedes Russell from Springfield, Ore.
The Weeklys haven’t been deterred by distance, either. The best high school players are in California, so they recruit California.
The Lady Vols will lose a handful of outstanding players from this team, including All-Americans Raven Chavanne and Lauren Gibson. They will also lose pitcher Ivy Renfroe.
But they return All-American shortstop Madison Shipman and pitcher Ellen Renfroe, who was outstanding in the WCWS. Moreover, Ralph Weekly calls his incoming freshman group his best recruiting class that doesn’t include a pitcher.
That’s more reason to believe the softball program still is better equipped than any other to give UT its next national title.