2014 Tennessee softball season preview

By: Stephen K. Lee Email
By: Stephen K. Lee Email

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/Submitted) -- It has been exactly eight months since the Tennessee softball team was at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, playing in the final game of the 2013 NCAA Division I softball season.

After finishing as the 2013 national runner-up, now No. 1-ranked Tennessee is just days away from starting its 2014 quest for a seventh Women's College World Series trip and another chance to shine the brightest on softball's grandest stage. The Lady Vols open the 2014 season on Friday, Feb. 7, at 3 p.m. ET against Northern Colorado at the Eagle Round Robin in Statesboro, Ga.

For the first time in program history, Tennessee will start the season at No. 1 in both the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Preseason Poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 Poll. UT enjoyed one of its finest seasons in program history in 2013, finishing as the national runner-up, making its sixth Women's College World Series appearance in nine years and posting its eighth 50-win season with a final record of 52-12. Several Lady Vols garnered prestigious conference and national honors during the team's record-breaking run to Oklahoma City.

In 2014, Tennessee returns 11 talented veterans from its Championship Series squad, including All-American seniors Ellen Renfroe (2011, 2012) and Madison Shipman (2012, 2013). Both Renfroe and Shipman were named to the "Watch List" for the 2014 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award and the Preseason All-SEC Team. The team also welcomes seven exciting newcomers who will help bolster a roster built for a postseason run. SEC coaches picked Tennessee to finish second in the conference in the league's annual preseason poll.

UT returns five positional starters and three pitchers from last year's staff, including a 2013 ace in Renfroe. The 2014 team's talent and depth across the board point to another successful campaign and several new faces are expected make an immediate impact at the plate, in the batter's box and in the circle.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Tennessee softball team:

INFIELD/CATCHING
Tennessee's infield will have a different look as UT fans had probably grown accustomed to seeing Raven Chavanne at third and Lauren Gibson at second over the last three years (Chavanne was an outfielder in 2010).

This season marks a new era for the Tennessee infield as freshman Taylor Koenig is slated to open the year at third base and freshman Megan Geer will start at second base. Both freshmen enjoyed standout fall seasons with Geer leading the team with a .520 fall batting average (13-for-25) with five homers and 13 RBIs and Koenig hitting .364 with one homer and five runs driven in. Chemistry for throws from third to second should be no problem as Geer and Koenig have been teammates for years. Prior to joining Tennessee, the duo won numerous PGF National Championships for So Cal Athletics, including the 2013 18U Premier Division crown this past summer.

Junior transfer Alley Perkins, who was a 2013 NFCA CalJC All-American South Team selection for Santa Ana College, can play multiple positions and will serve as the primary backup for both third base and shortstop. Sophomore Anna Renfroe has made strides in her second season at UT and will be the backup at second base.

Shipman, who was an NFCA First-Team All-American, First-Team All-SEC pick and SEC All-Defensive Team selection, returns as one of the best all-around shortstops in the nation. Her steady glove and strong arm make hits through the left side nearly impossible for opposing hitters and her 19 career double-plays rank fifth all-time in UT history. Shipman is also the team's most-decorated returning batter and she is coming off a banner junior season, setting or tying several career highs with a .367 batting average, 11 homers, 20 doubles, 77 hits, 52 runs, a .429 on-base percentage and a .619 slugging percentage.

Cheyanne Tarango returns as Tennessee's starter at first base and, like Shipman, she is coming off a career year. The junior from Anaheim Hills, Calif., improved in every statistical category in 2013, ranking third on the team with 10 homers and 51 RBIs. Tarango will also see many innings in the circle once again as she went 6-1 with a 1.44 ERA last season and enjoyed a signature moment in the Knoxville Super Regional when she shut down Alabama with two runners on and no outs in an impressive fifth inning in relief that helped UT secure a trip to the Women's College World Series. Power-hitting sophomore Lexi Overstreet will be the backup at first base.

Behind the plate, Tennessee brings back one of the toughest and most reliable backstops in the country in junior Hannah Akamine. Akamine, who switched jersey numbers from No. 6 to No. 12, was outstanding in her first full season as the team's starting catcher in 2013. She consistently was able to reach base, ranking fourth on the team with a .423 on-base percentage. Akamine improved offensively as the season progressed, finishing with a .285 batting average, three homers, three doubles and 19 RBIs and coming up with key hits in the Super Regionals and the WCWS. Defensively, she possesses a cannon for an arm, throwing out 13 base runners - the third-highest single-season total in UT history. She proved herself as one of the toughest catchers in the nation last April when she withstood being run over by Ole Miss first baseman London Ladner at home plate and held onto the ball for the tag. Freshman Annie Aldrete is the backup catcher.

OUTFIELD/DP
Senior Melissa Davin will start in left field, returning her power swing to the Tennessee lineup. Davin caught fire in SEC season, going 5-for-9 with a homer, a double, five RBIs and four runs in UT's series sweep against Texas A&M. She also had strong showings against Auburn and Ole Miss. Davin battled back from a late-season injury and had a single in UT's 11-inning thriller against Oklahoma in Game 1 the WCWS Championship Series. Perkins will also back up Davin in left field.

Sophomore Rainey Gaffin takes over in center field and showed great promise as a rookie last year. Gaffin hit .290 with 11 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs and displayed great athleticism, stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples. She saw most of her time as the DP in 2013, but will get her crack at her best defensive position in center. Sophomore Haley Tobler, who saw a lot of action in 2013 as a defensive substitution in right and left will be the primary backup in center.

Sophomore Lexi Overstreet takes over in right field, a position held by the legendary Kat Dotson the previous four years. Overstreet played catcher, left field, right field and DP as a freshman and stepped up whenever her number was called. The Suwanee, Ga., native brings a big bat to the lineup and could be in for a breakout year as a regular in the lineup.

Aldrete will start the season as the team's designated player in addition to serving as the No. 2 catcher. She showed fans a glimpse of her power swing, totaling six extra-base hits and nine RBIs in the fall exhibition games. Aldrete comes from a family with a strong baseball background. Her father, Richard Aldrete was an All-American for Cal and played minor league baseball and her uncle, Mike Aldrete, is the bench coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Overstreet and Tarango could also see time at DP.

PITCHING
Tennessee will feature a pitching staff that has both experience and promise. Ace Ellen Renfroe has shined on the biggest softball stages and is coming off an amazing showing in the 2013 WCWS, relying on her speed and elite ball control to shut down Florida, Washington and Texas before engaging in one of the game's most-watched pitching duels against Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts in the title series. She has amassed a 72-17 record, 760 strikeouts and a 1.52 career ERA and either ranks second or stands within range of second place of several of UT's pitching records (Monica Abbott has nearly untouchable numbers in all categories).

Both sophomore Erin Gabriel and Tarango look to play major roles in the circle this season. Gabriel enjoyed early success, going 5-1 with 38 strikeouts over 29.0 frames before an injury shut her down for the rest of the year. As previously mentioned, Tarango went 6-1 with a 1.44 ERA and 33 strikeouts over 39.0 innings and shined in the Knoxville Super Regionals. Both Gabriel and Tarango were standout pitchers for the USA Softball Junior National Team a few years back, winning gold at the ISF World Championships.

Entering this fall, sophomore Rainey Gaffin had not pitched since high school, going 21-2 with a 1.71 ERA and 127 strikeouts as a senior at Legacy High School. She joins the staff as a relief pitcher and displayed tremendous talent during fall play. The Thornton, Colo., native could prove to be a late inning X-factor with the ball in her hand.

BASE RUNNING
Tennessee graduated a very talented base runner in Whitney Hammond, but returns a seasoned sophomore in Jennifer Burroughs, who had 12 pinch runs last season. New additions Hannah McDonald and Hannah Devotie look to make their impact as pinch runners.


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