It’s officially softball time in Tennessee.
Coming off of a strong 2016 campaign in which Tennessee went 43-16 and 16-7 in SEC play, the Vols look to build off last year’s success and take the next step in order to reach the College World Series once again.
The Vols enter the 2017 season ranked No. 15 in both the USA Today/NFCA Division I Preseason Coaches’ Poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Preseason Top 25. In the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, Tennessee has been selected to finish fifth in the conference for the second consecutive season.
“This team has the ability to be really good,” Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said on Wednesday afternoon. “I think this is going to be a good year.”
Tennessee brings back four players who earned SEC postseason honors a year ago, while seven of their top ten hitters from 2016 return as well. The Vols are led by preseason All-SEC selections Meghan Gregg and Megan Geer. Gregg, a junior shortstop for the Volunteers, hit .383 and 11 home runs last season while driving in 61 runs and swiping 14 bags, all career highs. Geer, a senior utility player for the Vols, also set career highs in 2016, batting .368, driving in 55 runs and stealing 25 bases.
Heading into her senior season, Geer has been named to the 2017 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List.
With Geer and Gregg headlining the group, Tennessee’s starting lineup has the potential to be a constant headache from top to bottom for opposing teams. Sophomore outfielder Brooke Vines returns after hitting .360 and scoring 46 runs as a true freshman. Infielder Aubrey Leach enters her sophomore season after hitting .348 as a true freshman. Sophomore Abby Lockman has made the switch to catcher, while junior Scarlett McSwain will also be playing some catcher as well. Lockman hit two homers as a true freshman in 2016, while McSwain is a career .276 hitter.
McSwain will be the starting catcher when the Vols kick their season off on Friday afternoon, but Lockman will receive plenty of playing time behind the plate as well.
“It’s been Abby and Scarlett and they’re gonna rotate,” Weekly said, while adding, “both of them have pretty strong arms.”
Lockman is enthusiastic about her new role with the team, saying “I think it’s going to be a great year and I’m very excited to step into this role and help the team.”
Three other names to look out for in 2017: Freshman infielder Chelsea Seggern, redshirt freshman Taylor Rowland and sophomore catcher/infielder Haley Bearden. All three are expected to make big contributions to the Tennessee lineup according to Weekly.
While the Vols offense is locked and loaded for 2017, uncertainties surround an inexperienced, but talented pitching staff.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge in what we’re facing,” Weekly said of the pitching situation. “My only concern is the pitching and not that the pitchers are not good, but that they’re young.”
In the circle, sophomore Matty Moss returns as the only pitcher on Tennessee’s roster who has pitched against Division I competition. Moss, an All-SEC freshman in 2016, led the Vols’ pitching staff with a 1.68 ERA and 7-2 record in conference play. Overall, Moss went 12-5 on the season, striking out 87 hitters compared to only 22 walks.
Junior college transfer Alex Brake looks to help out Moss in the circle. Brake is the two-time NJCAA Division ll National Pitcher of the Year (2015-2016). While at Labette Community College, Brake recorded 47 wins, a 1.64 ERA and 597 strikeouts in 430.1 innings pitched.
Freshman Caylan Arnold and sophomore Mary Beth Brumit will also look to help out the Vols in the circle throughout the course of the 2017 season. While the group may be inexperienced, Weekly is excited about the potential the group brings as a whole, as all four bring different elements to the table.
Tennessee kicks off its season at the Eagle Round Robin in Statesboro, Georgia on Feb. 10, where they’ll participate in a double-header against Tennessee Tech at 12 p.m. ET and Middle Tennessee State at 2 p.m. ET.
The Vols’first home game will be March 2 against Southeastern Louisiana at 3 p.m. ET in the Tennessee invitational.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics