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Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2012 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 8 Tennessee
Last year: 49-12 overall, 20-5 SEC (lost in Knoxville Regional)
Who returns: Hits, hits and more hits return. Tennessee led the NCAA with a .348 batting average last season, and four of the five players who contributed the most hits to that average return. Raven Chavanne ranked seventh in the nation with a .455 batting average and led the Lady Vols with 33 stolen bases. She'll settle in at third base after splitting time between the outfield and third last season, although she won't settle in there until at least the third weekend of the regular season after sustaining a broken hand in the preseason. Second baseman Lauren Gibson's 1.188 OPS led the team last season and she's perhaps poised for even better things after earning playing time with the senior United States national team that won gold in the Pan-Am Games last fall. Kat Dotson made it three players who hit better than .400 last season and was a double-double threat in home runs (10) and stolen bases (26), while Shelby Burchell is the leading returning slugger after a breakout junior season in which she hit 15 home runs.
|Ellen Renfroe combines with her sister, Ivy, to form a powerful pitching tandem for Tennessee.|
And that's just the top of the order at the plate. In the circle, sisters Ellen and Ivy Renfroe return after combining to go 45-11 with 416 strikeouts in 353⅓ innings last season. Ellen, a sophomore, is the younger of the two (Ivy is a junior), but the numbers reveal she was harder to hit and had a better strikeout rate than her sibling.
Who departs: Outfielder Kelly Grieve was a defensive wizard and team leader who also happened to hit .376 with 21 stolen bases last season as a senior and departed Knoxville with 214 career starts and a .414 on-base percentage. The other key loss was more of a surprise. Primarily a third baseman, Jessica Spigner transferred and will play her final season at Arizona. Spigner slugged a team-best .714 last season and drove in 53 runs while walking more than she struck out.
Who arrives: Two Californians are expected to start from the outset. Hannah Akamine, younger sister of former Arizona pitcher Sarah and current Penn State player Lisa, adds the SEC to the family's territorial footprint and will start at catcher. Cheyanne Tarango takes over at first base after playing the role of hero for Team USA in the ISF Junior World Championship in South Africa in December. Tarango's grand slam gave the Americans a 4-1 win in the gold-medal game against Japan.
"She's one of the top freshmen I've ever had," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said. "She's a really good hitter."
Preseason question: Is the sum at least equal to the parts?
The Lady Vols aren't yet in Texas territory, but it does seem they're paying the price for a recent history of postseason disappointment. Three times in the past four seasons, the sum total of the program's softball life post-Monica Abbott, Tennessee has been eliminated in an NCAA tournament regional it hosted. The Lady Vols lost twice against Virginia Tech in 2008, twice against Jacksonville State in 2009 and twice against Oklahoma State last season.
There are some mitigating factors here that work in Tennessee's favor, namely that two of those opponents (Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State) went on to reach the Women's College World Series, and the Lady Vols themselves went all the way to Oklahoma City in 2010. But when you see a team that won 20 games in the SEC last season, won the SEC tournament and entered the postseason No. 3 in the polls open this season as low as No. 14 in one of the major polls, it's clear the benefit of the doubt has skipped out on Rocky Top.
Yet when you look at a team that ranked seventh in the nation in runs per game and has two proven workhorse pitchers in the circle, it's tough not to be, well, optimistic.
"I've been here 11 years, and this is the strongest team we've had coming into this season," Weekly said. "All four of our infielders have played, one way or another, on the [junior or senior] U.S. national team. We've got a lot of experience, we've got eight kids back, we've got speed, we've got some pop and we've got some good pitching. But I think you could almost say that about a bunch of other clubs."
Amidst all the proven talent and two talented freshmen, Madison Shipman is an X factor who could push Tennessee over the top. Shipman started 54 games for the Lady Vols as a freshman, but the 6-foot-1 shortstop broke her wrist during the season's opening weekend and dealt with that added complication while adjusting to the college game. A healthy Shipman has the potential to hit double-digit home runs for a program looking to improve that portion of its offensive portfolio.
"I think it affected her a lot," Weekly said of the injury. "I don't want to come off like we're really, really, really good. I've never been a guy that is that way, but I think Shipman is the most exciting young hitter I've had. The difference between her last year and now that she's had surgery on both her shoulder and her hand and recovered -- I don't know what she's going to do when the season starts, but [in practice] we're hitting on the field, and she hit 14 of 15 over the scoreboard. She just kills the ball."