Emotion-packed Lady Vols to open WCWS against Alabama

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior pitcher and former Meigs County standout Ashley Rogers celebrates following Saturday's 9-0 blanking of Texas that clinched a Women's College World Series trip for the Lady Vols.

As impressive as Tennessee has been this month in the NCAA softball tournament, winning five games by the combined score of 42-6, the Lady Vols have been equally as emotional away from the diamond.

Perhaps the unique construction of this 49-8 team bound for the Women's College World Series plays a role in that.

The two top pitchers for the Lady Vols are fifth-year senior Ashley Rogers and senior Payton Gottshall, who have combined for a sparkling 33-2 record, with Rogers having decided last June to use an extra season of eligibility despite having already graduated with honors. The former Meigs County ace is 18-1 with an 0.75 earned run average entering her first trip to Oklahoma City, and she is also the Southeastern Conference's Scholar Athlete of the Year.

"This has meant the absolute world to me," Rogers said in a news conference after Friday's 5-2 win over Texas in the opening game of the super regional inside Sherri Parker Lee Stadium. "They took a chance on me my sophomore year of high school to come represent my home state and the people who I love so much here.

"We're not done yet, and I'm so excited to be able to continue this journey. This journey has been such a blessing, and this season especially."

Rogers, who has a 77-24 career mark with the Lady Vols and is pursuing a master's in kinesiology with a biomechanics concentration, was composed when giving her remarks, but the same couldn't be said about Zaida Puni, who was sitting beside her. Puni, the junior third baseman who won a national championship at Oklahoma in 2021 before transferring, was simply asked what it has been like competing with Rogers.

"It's fun playing behind her," Puni said, her voice beginning to crack. "She is so competitive. Her leadership -- she is always there for us no matter what both on and off the field. She cares about you, but she also really wants to win.

"It's been amazing playing with her these past two years."

After Saturday's 9-0 shellacking of the Longhorns that clinched the program's first WCWS appearance since 2015, it was senior center fielder Kiki Milloy keeping things together and Gottshall shedding the tears. Lady Vols coach Karen Weekly is present for every NCAA tournament news conference, and even she admitted to almost losing it as her team warmed up Friday.

The veteran nature of Tennessee's team took its toll on the younger Longhorns, and while Thursday's WCWS opener against Alabama (noon Eastern on ESPN) represents the start of something really big, it also signifies this impressive lesson in team chemistry is nearing its final stages.

"This team is amazing," Rogers said. "I love every single one of them. They've been more than I could ever ask for, and I'm so blessed to have this coaching staff and every single one of these girls."

Tennessee announced after sweeping Texas that its ticket office does not have any tickets for sale to the Women's College World Series, so they must be obtained through NCAA.com/tickets.

Vols to travel

Tennessee was not among the 16 baseball teams announced Sunday night by the NCAA as a host for next weekend's regionals.

There are eight SEC teams that will be hosting regionals -- Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt -- and they will be joined by Clemson, Coastal Carolina, Indiana State, Miami, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Virginia and Wake Forest.

How those 16 teams will be seeded as well as the entire 64-team field will be revealed at noon Monday on ESPN2.

Joyce promoted

Hard-throwing relief pitcher Ben Joyce was called up Sunday to the Los Angeles Angels, becoming the first member of last season's 57-9 Vols to receive the coveted big-league promotion.

Joyce played in 27 games for the Class AA Southern League's Rocket City Trash Pandas, collecting five saves while striking out 44 batters in 28 innings. He is the 45th player in program history to ascend to the majors and joins Garrett Crochet, Yan Gomes and Nick Senzel as current big-league players who competed for the Vols.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.