by Tony Basilo
Refreshing. That's the way a UT beat writer friend of mine described being around the Lady Vols softball team. Usually charged with covering the â“big moneyâ” sports at UT, he was taken aback by how much fun it was to be around the Lady Vols softball team. Sure, it's fun to win 59 games, but this is so much more than a hot team in fashion. This is a story of a team, a town and a time that are in perfect synchronicity.
For six seasons, Ralph and Karen Weekly have shared the title of co-head coach at UT, so it shouldn't be a surprise they were equally blown away by the turnout on Sunday, May 6, when the No. 1 ranked Lady Vols were hosting No. 2 Alabama. Fans began gathering at 6:15 in the morning for a chance to get into diminutive Tyson Park in time for the noon game. Hundreds were turned away by the time the first pitch was recorded. â“That's pretty amazing. I don't think I've ever seen that happen anywhere (in women's softball) or heard of that happening anywhere,â” Karen said.
Ralph was equally touched: â“We did hope that and dream that that kind of thing would happen. Tennessee promised us when they hired us that they would give us the resources to be successful, and they've kept their word. We're just proud to be Tennessee Volunteers.â”
The Ladies have exploded attendance-wise, never complaining about their diminutive facility. Perhaps that's due to the fact that a new, plush state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar stadium is set to open next year that will double UT's capacity for women's softball. Karen Weekly is chomping at the bit to get in the new park.
â“The Alabama series really showed us the potential that exists, because we had 1,800 people there in a stadium that doesn't come anywhere close to seating that. Our staff at the parks told us they had to turn an additional 400 people away. So I believe we could fill up a pretty good sized facility. That's why I can't wait to get into out new stadium. I'm looking forward to being able to offer more seats and chair-back seating so we can offer reserved season tickets and make the experience of Lady Vol softball more comfortable for our fans,â” Weekly said.
â“We have driven up to the park, and Ralph and I look at each other and say â‘Wow, this is amazing.' What the fans have done here is incredible, and the support they've given our players, it just really makes us feel great,â” Karen said.
Monica Abbott, arguably the most dominant athlete in UT sports history, was the one who got it started. Hailing from Salinas, Cal., Abbott was the most highly coveted pitcher to enter women's softball in years when she chose Tennessee over the rest of the free world. To hear Ralph Weekly tell the story makes me believe Lady Vol softball was meant to be.
â“It's a great story. Monica wanted to go somewhere that she could make a difference. The night before we visited her, UCLA was in her home. Now UCLA has won 12 national championships, and they offered her a full scholarship. So we knew we had our work to do. She visited Knoxville during Florida weekend back in '03. It was the weekend we were ranked third in the country (in football) and it rained all day and we had fumbles and misfortune and Florida beat us. It was just pouring down rain when we left the stadium and I told Karen, â‘She's not gonna come here.'
â“On Wednesday of the following week, she committed, and the San Francisco papers asked her why Tennessee and she said, â‘Because I could just not believe the atmosphere there.' She said, â‘I went there on a football Saturday and there were 108,000 people in orange and it was absolutely tremendous.' And even though Tennessee lost, she said the fans stayed and cheered and that made a difference with her.â”
Abbott meant credibility, which has translated to national exposure. In the past two seasons, Tennessee has had an incredible 13 softball games televised on either ESPN, ESPN 2 or ESPN U. Those numbers will surely increase as Tennessee advances in this year's World Series.
Though Abbott departs, the Lady Vols are expected to bring back a great team with the addition of Murfreesboro Riverdale's Cathleen â“Catâ” Hosfield, a top prep pitcher in America who, like Abbott, could've gone anywhere.
So now that we've established that Lady Vol softball is here to stay, onto the important stuff like this question I posed to Ralph recently on the radio: â“Come on, Ralph. They call you co-head coaches, but you know Karen runs the show on the softball field. Come clean with us.â”
He responded, â“That is correct. Like our AD (Joan Cronin) says, Karen's the substance and Ralph's the fluff. We'll just keep it that way.â” That's called winning and not taking yourself too seriously while you're doing it. Refreshing indeed!
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.
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