It’s heating up outside. You can’t walk for more than ten minutes without uncontrollable sweating. Your eyes wilt and close from time to time as you think about the dark months ahead – once both the NBA and NHL playoffs close, all you’ll have is baseball. There’s a decent chance that if you live in East Tennessee, you don’t care about any of those three sports. No Tennessee team remains in either. The Atlanta Braves are playing exceptionally well, but the baseball season is looooooong. Playoff talk won’t get serious until after the July trade deadline. It’s useful for all of us to get outside more, because the Sports Dead Season is upon us.
Of course, it hasn’t started yet. And even better, there’s a Tennessee team out there, waiting for your support. They’re really good, one of the ten best teams in their sport. The games are relatively short, rarely topping 2.5 hours. They’ll play at least three of them this weekend, likely. Oh, and they’re playing these games in Knoxville.
You’ve got a little time left to jump on the Tennessee softball bandwagon. Here’s why I’d do it.
1. The team is very good
The Lady Vols, coached forever in eternity by the Weeklys, enter the NCAA Softball Tournament as the #10 overall seed. They rose as high as #2 in softball’s AP poll this year. Meghan Gregg, one of the greatest players this program will see, hit .392/16/67 this year. Aubrey Leach hit .435 and stole 20 bases in just 56 games. Tennessee was one of the best teams nationally in terms of batting average (22nd overall, 2nd in the SEC), on-base percentage (15th and 3rd), and runs scored (5.79 per game, or 3rd in the SEC). Three of the five best hitters in the SEC in terms of batting average play on this team (Jenna Holcomb, .399). Chelsea Seggern had 62 RBIs.
Because Kelly Barnhill (one of the SEC’s greatest pitchers of all time) at Florida dominated play this year, there wasn’t much coverage of other SEC pitchers. Good news: Tennessee has a great one in Caylan Arnold, former Maryville HS star. She struck out 207 batters this year and held a 2.10 ERA. Matty Moss, a solid pitcher in her own right, tied for the league lead in saves (5; she and Arnold alternate finishing each other’s games) and held a 2.51 ERA.
2. They’re playing the first set of games in Knoxville
Here’s how the format of the NCAA Softball Tournament works, if you’ve forgotten:
- The top 16 seeds host regionals at their respective home stadiums. They play three other “unseeded” teams; if a team loses twice, they’re eliminated. The winners of the first two games (Friday) play on Saturday; the winner of that plays the winner of the losers’ bracket on Sunday. If all goes right, Tennessee will only have to play three games by defeating James Madison (#25 in RPI), Ohio (#55), and Monmouth.
- Then, the winners of each regional play their assigned opponent in a super regional at the higher seed’s home stadium. Tennessee, as the #10 overall seed, matched up with #7 Georgia. If Tennessee advances, they will most likely play Georgia at Athens next weekend. If Georgia loses and another team advances, Tennessee will host the super regional.
- Win the super regional and you go to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. Easy enough!
Here’s Tennessee’s schedule. All games are being played at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.
Friday, May 18: Tennessee vs. Monmouth (5:30 PM ET, ESPN3)
Saturday, May 19: If Tennessee wins, Tennessee vs. the winner of James Madison/Ohio; if Tennessee loses, Tennessee vs. the loser of James Madison/Ohio
Sunday, May 20: If Tennessee wins first two, Tennessee vs. winner of losers’ bracket. A fourth game, if necessary, will be played immediately after.
3. The road may be clearing for Tennessee to make a WCWS run
While Tennessee’s gone WCWS-less the last two seasons, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Tennessee came up one game short in their Super Regional last year against #9 Texas A&M, and the Lady Vols have made the Women’s College World Series thrice in the last seven seasons. So why’s the road clearing? It’s pretty simple: Georgia has an absolutely incredible pitcher in Brittany Gray. She held a 0.48 ERA this year – the lowest in the SEC, obviously – and propelled Georgia to a #5 ranking in early April nationally.
There’s one problem: Gray suffered a season-ending injury and will not be available for the postseason run. Since Gray’s departure, Georgia has made do with a couple of other starters, but they aren’t the same team without their ace. Prior to her departure, Georgia was 11-4 in SEC play and on pace to finish 18-6; they went 5-4 with a first-round SEC Tournament loss the rest of the way. (They also lost a game to Mercer, which isn’t good.) In 25 of their first 39 games and 6 of 15 in the SEC, they’d allowed zero or one runs to opponents. They’ve done that just five times in the last 15 games, and two of those were against Georgia State and USC Upstate. It’s clear they aren’t the same team; it’s uncertain how early in the Tournament it’ll prove to be their undoing.
If Georgia doesn’t make it out of their regional, this more than likely means Tennessee would draw either California or Northwestern, two top-35 teams that are still good but not as good as Georgia. Then again, Tennessee’s got to deal with a pretty good James Madison squad on their end first. Based on conversions from Massey Ratings, I have Tennessee as 66% likely to advance from their regional. I have Georgia at 59% at full strength, but that almost certainly drops without Gray.
Look: you’re not doing much of anything this summer. You talk a big game and fishing’s nice, but it’s no fun without getting to rally behind something you’re not used to rallying behind. Think of it as the rare free pass on the bandwagon: you either went to this school or you grew up loving it, so there’s no problem if these are the first Tennessee softball games you’ve watched all year. I’ve only watched ten or so, but they’ve all had more excitement than most would expect.
If all that’s left is to hold on hope that the NBA and NHL seasons never end, you might as well get behind something with a high potential and a group of fun players. Softball, and the Lady Vols, will be worth your time.