KNOXVILLE — For Tennessee to stand a chance of competing well despite having one of the toughest softball schedules in the country and playing in what is probably the best conference in the country, the Lady Volunteers needed to make headway in the arms race.
To do so, they added some depth — with a Chattanooga angle to it.
The eighth-ranked Lady Vols start their season Friday, at the Kickin' Chicken Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They are coming off a 48-win season in which they lost to Georgia in a super regional, their second straight season falling in that round of the NCAA tournament to a fellow Southeastern Conference program. In 2017, Texas A&M ended Tennessee's season.
In both cases, Caylan Arnold and Matty Moss did all of the heavy lifting for Tennessee in terms of pitching. By the end, co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly believed that was problematic, mainly because opponents had already seen both pitchers in conference play and had a good idea of what they were going to do in the circle.
So the husband-and-wife coaching duo, who came to Knoxville after previously leading the UT-Chattanooga softball program, went and added some depth with freshman Ashley Rogers. Her standout career for Meigs County High School including winning the state's Gatorade player of the year award in 2017. In her senior season, she had a 29-2 record with an ERA of 0.20 while batting .437 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs as she helped the Lady Tigers win their third straight state title.
"I like our pitching staff," Karen said recently. "There's a lot of experience. Ashley Rogers is very composed; the thing I like most about her is her mental game. When you see that in a freshman, it bodes well for the things she can do. It'll be different for her, like any freshman. She's going to come in, and it's a whole different ballgame. She's pitching in the best conference in the country, so she'll have her ups and downs, but I like what I've seen from her so far mentally."
Rogers will fill the third slot on the staff, backing up Arnold and Moss. Ashley Morgan, primarily an infielder, is the fourth option.
"The ideal staff is probably four pitchers, with the fourth one being somebody that can play other positions for you," Karen said. "You definitely need three you feel real confident can go at any point in time in order to be successful.
"Hitting has improved so much the past 10 years or so, and there's been an emphasis on hitting. A lot of people are teaching a lot of really good things in hitting at young ages, so kids come to college as much more experienced hitters and they understand their approach to the pitcher a lot better. Pitching is working hard to get caught up."
Rogers is one of two Chattanooga-area athletes on the roster, joined by Kaili Phillips, who was a top-100 player in the country at Silverdale Baptist Academy and will fill a utility role for the Lady Vols. The two were part of a signing class that was ranked No. 2 in the country.
The Lady Vols are set to have five games behind them when the weekend ends. They'll face Illinois-Chicago and host Coastal Carolina and Friday, Illinois-Chicago and Boston University on Saturday and Rider on Sunday.
Tennessee's schedule includes 12 games against teams currently either nationally ranked or receiving votes, including a game against 2018 national champion Florida State on Feb. 17 in Clearwater, Florida. There are also games against North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas and Utah plus a doubleheader against BYU.
The Lady Vols start SEC play March 8 with a three-game series at fifth-ranked Florida, but they aren't looking for sympathy regarding what's ahead. A lesson from Tennessee's late legendary women's basketball coach helped shape the challenges the program has accepted.
"When we first came here, one of the things Pat Summitt told us was to schedule tough out-of-conference games," Ralph said. "We found in the past that the RPI is the main thing to decide if you go to the (Women's College) World Series, so we hope to get our kids seasoned early and be ready for a very tough conference schedule."
They have worked to make sure they'll have the pitching to handle it.