Updated: March 26, 2013, 12:49 PM ET

Tennessee's lineup formidable early on

By Graham Hays | espnW

Tennessee SoftballGraham Hays/ESPNIn their third season together, junior Madison Shipman, far left, and seniors Lauren Gibson (next to Shipman) and Raven Chavanne (No. 88) have melded, giving Tennessee a tough top of the lineup.

Tennessee's three-game sweep against Texas A&M this past weekend was a series it quite literally couldn't have won a season ago. That, of course, is because Texas A&M wasn't in the SEC back then.

More to the point, though, it was a series the Lady Vols wouldn't have won last year given the opportunity.

Consider the math. Tennessee scored 21 runs in three wins against Texas A&M, including at least five runs in each game. In 2012, the Lady Vols never scored as many as four runs in each game of a three-game series against the SEC elite. In fact, there weren't many occasions all season when Tennessee scored as many as five runs in three consecutive games. Most involved teams like Murray State and Middle Tennessee State.

It's worth mentioning Tennessee's aforementioned 2012 season extended all the way to the Women's College World Series and included a 22-6 record in the SEC. None of the above numbers are meant to suggest the Lady Vols weren't a very good team with championship aspirations back then. They just weren't a team with much margin for error in that pursuit.

If that's no longer the case, and late March is too early to say for sure, it's because in their third season together, Raven Chavanne, Kat Dotson, Lauren Gibson and Madison Shipman make the top of the lineup as tough to tame as any this side of Norman, Okla.

Going through his possible lineup permutations in the preseason, Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly paused amidst his own optimism.

"I am not talking cocky, you know me," Weekly cautioned. "I'm just going to say we'll have a pretty good lineup."

So it seems.

Dotson & Gibson & Chavanne
Graham Hays/ESPNLauren Gibson, center, with Kat Dotson, left, and Raven Chavanne, has developed into a big-name star thanks to her offseason stint with Team USA.

The star of stars against the Aggies was senior third baseman Chavanne, who deservedly earned SEC player of the week honors after she hit a three-run home run in the sixth inning of the opener to secure an 8-6 win and finished the week with nine hits, three walks, six runs and three stolen bases. Chavanne hit .442 and stole 32 bases a season ago but required offseason shoulder surgery for a problem that affected her throughout her junior campaign. She had just six extra-base hits in 57 games in 2012, a figure she matched before April this season to push her slugging percentage back into the territory it occupied in her first two seasons.

In that same conversation, Weekly said Chavanne was playing some of the best softball of her life. Well, with a .524 on-base percentage and 25 stolen bases in 25 attempts, it's difficult to argue.

The lone junior in the quartet, shortstop and cleanup hitter Shipman added six hits against the Aggies and is well ahead of career-high paces in both slugging and on-base percentages. Hitting second or fifth, Dotson added four hits and three walks. An outfielder who has battled a knee injury much of her career, she is slugging .545 this season, a dramatic increase over last season but consistent with her first two seasons.

The anchor is second baseman Gibson. The senior is one of just three players in the SEC currently slugging at least .700 with double-digit stolen bases and is Tennessee's runaway OPS leader at 1.296. And no player better demonstrates how experience can change a player. Already an All-American, Gibson's time with the United States national team transformed her into the kind of big-game star ready for Oklahoma City.

Her three-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning of the Canadian Open championship game against Japan leveled the score and eventually sent the game to extra innings (although Team USA eventually lost).

In the playoff round of the subsequent world championship in Canada, she hit a solo home run off Japanese Olympic hero Yukiko Ueno for the game's first run and then doubled home the final run in a 3-1 extra-innings win. The result earned the United States a place in the championship game and an eventual rematch against Japan. That time, with Team USA down to its final strike in the bottom of the ninth inning, Gibson fouled off three two-strike pitches and hit a game-tying single off Ueno.

When you've traveled to the end of the earth, or at least deep into Canada's Yukon territory, and stared down the pitcher who denied more seasoned American stars a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, even the best the SEC has to offer must be distinctly more manageable. Where once she looked like a hitter pressing to hit a five-run home run, she is now the complete package of bat speed, confidence and composure.

"When we were playing versus Ueno, and in my at-bats against her, I was just like 'OK, if it's my time to get it done, I'll get it done. If not, somebody else will.' I didn't really try to put too much pressure on myself," Gibson said. "I just kind of went in there and tried to get a hit. And if it happened, it happened. And if it didn't, I was hoping for my next at-bat and that it would happen."

Together the four players were the cornerstones of Tennessee's offense a season ago. Together, they are the cornerstones of a better offense this season.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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