Karen Weekly seems to have the hang of this softball thing, whether as a co-coach or going it alone.
In her 22nd season coaching at Tennessee but just her second without sharing the responsibility with her husband, Weekly has guided the Lady Vols to a history-making spring. Tennessee has been among the sport's most consistent programs over the past two decades, but this year's squad recently swept the Southeastern Conference's regular-season and tournament championships for the first time in school history.
As a result, the 44-8 Lady Vols are the No. 4 overall seed in the 64-team NCAA tournament that starts Friday, which is their highest seed ever.
Weekly is happy to discuss the present state of the program, which has plenty of on-field leadership with the veteran likes of starting pitcher Ashley Rogers and center fielder Kiki Milloy, but she is also incredibly appreciative of the past.
"I love this university," Weekly said in a news conference that followed last Saturday's 3-1 topping of South Carolina for the SEC tournament title in Fayetteville, Arkansas. "When Ralph and I came here 22 years ago, we came here because it was a special place that believed in women and valued women long before it was mandatory or cool.
"It's meant so much to both of us to be the coaches at Tennessee. It's just a real blessing."
Tennessee's unique hiring of Karen and Ralph Weekly as co-coaches occurred after the couple established the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as the dominant program within the Southern Conference. The Weeklys guided UTC to a 223-97 record from 1997-2001, winning the SoCon regular-season championship all five years and the SoCon tourney title four times.
After a 35-25-1 debut season in 2002, the Weeklys quickly elevated Tennessee to a premier program in the sport. The Lady Vols became the first SEC member to reach the Women's College World Series' best-of-three title series in 2007, and they have won at least 40 games each spring since 2003 with the exception of the COVID-halted season of 2020.
Alabama and Tennessee are the only softball programs nationally to earn a top-16 seed in every NCAA tournament since the NCAA switched to its current regional and super regional format in 2005, and when Ralph decided to retire in June 2021, it left Danny White with one of the easiest decisions of his tenure as Tennessee's athletic director.
"Ralph has given his all for Tennessee for more than two decades, and he certainly elevated the stature of our program in every facet during that span," White said during the transition. "With Karen Weekly continuing to lead our program, we are uniquely positioned to maintain the winning tradition that she and Ralph have worked so long to establish."
The Lady Vols are 85-26 the past two seasons, giving Weekly a sensational 1,034-326-2 record at Tennessee as either the coach or co-coach. Next up is a Friday afternoon (5:30 on ESPN+) matchup with Horizon League champion Northern Kentucky in the Knoxville Regional that also includes Indiana and Louisville.
This is the 18th consecutive Knoxville Regional, which is a double-elimination format that will transpire Friday through Sunday, when the NCAA tournament will be left with 16 teams.
Weekly hasn't racked up victories by being complacent, and this year is no exception. Helping steer this year's team has been the book "The Two Thieves," with those thieves being the fear of failure and the fear of judgment.
"Those two things can rob us of all the joys in life," Weekly said on Sunday night's NCAA tournament selection show on ESPN2. "This team has just really embraced the process every day, coming to work together and having fun. They just enjoy competing.
"When we keep our focus on those things, we're a pretty good team, and we know that we're going to give ourselves the best chance to be successful."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.