It's been less than two weeks since Oklahoma defeated Tennessee in the NCAA Women's College World Series championship series. Rather than brooding about what could've been, the UT coaches are back to work with their eyes on the future.
Lady Vols co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly are among the more than 100 college coaches who have come to the Chattanooga area this weekend to observe the talent pool in the Tennessee Fury's Scenic City Showcase. The tournament will conclude today with championship games in 14-, 16- and 18-under age groups at Warner Park. The game times are expected to be around 4:30 p.m.
Karen was looking for potential future Lady Vols at Warner Park on Friday while her husband was doing the same at The Summit of Softball Complex. Ralph said one never gets over being that close to winning a national championship, but they consider the 2013 season a great success nonetheless.
"We beat everybody we had to, to get there," he said. "I can say the girls gave it everything they had. Oklahoma was probably the best softball team I've seen in my 25 years of coaching."
Most of the teams in the Showcase are in the 16-under age group, which is the one college coaches target the most.
"It's a well-run event, to start with," Ralph Weekly said. "There are at least 100 athletes in this who could go to most any college in the country. Like any coach, we're looking to improve in all aspects. We want to get bigger, faster, stronger. Players in the SEC are either big and can crush it or they're small kids with track speed. It's a tough league to play in."
Also this weekend the Weeklys are able to keep tabs on some of the players who already have committed to them. One is Lauren Irwin, who plays for Pat Moyer's Fury team and will be a senior at Seymour this coming school year.
Irwin was recruited by several other NCAA Division I programs but said being from the Knoxville area she's had a longtime dream to play for the Lady Vols. That also happened to be the nickname of the recreation-league team she played on when she was 9 years old.
"I'm really just going in as a utility player," said Irwin, who plays shortstop on her high school team and with the Fury. "I'm totally willing to play anywhere, as long as I can get on the field. My goal is to contribute any way I can, whether that be running the bases or whatever.
"My ultimate dream would be to earn a starting spot. It's a tough road the whole way, I know, but I'm happy to have the opportunity. It's where I wanted to go all along. I'm very blessed to be part of the program."
UT is losing six seniors off its 52-12 team. Three of them played regularly.
Ralph noted the Lady Vols will return Ellen Renfroe in the pitching circle for her senior season next year. Renfroe, who starred at Trinity Christian School in Jackson, Tenn., was 19-5 in 2013 with a 1.85 ERA.
Joining her will be Cheyanne Tarango, a junior from Anaheim Hills, Calif., who mostly played first base or was the designated player this past season. She made 13 appearances in the circle, six of them starts, and was 6-1 with a 1.44 ERA.
Erin Gabriel, a two-time Gatorade player of the year in Ohio and like the others a former high school All-American, last pitched in 2013 on April 2. A torn labrum in her hip that required surgery put an end to her freshman season, which included nine appearances with eight starts, a 5-1 pitching record and 2.66 ERA. Ralph Weekly said that because she missed most of the season, UT plans to appeal to the NCAA for a medical-redshirt season for her.
With their pitching rotation set, the rest of the Lady Vols will try to provide enough offense and defense to navigate through another tough SEC season. And as always, they'll be seeking one of the eight spots in the WCWS in Oklahoma City in late May.
"The last eight years we've been there six times and we have three threes and two twos," Ralph said of the Lady Vols' finishes. "You have to think we're going to get one one of these days."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.