The Tennessee Lady Vols softball team will kick off the 2007 season this weekend in the Carolina Classic in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“We are excited to get the upcoming season started,” Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said.
UT enters this season with high expectations after last season’s third place finish in the Women’s College World Series. The Lady Vols are ranked No. 2 in the NFCA preseason poll as well as the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll, which marks the highest preseason ranking in program history.
The Lady Vols will first see action against Coastal Carolina today. Coastal Carolina had a successful 2006 campaign, winning the Big South Conference en route to a 38-win season, the third most in school history. However, the Lady Chanticleers’ season came to an end during the Athens Regional of the NCAA Softball Tournament.
The Lady Vols will take the field twice on Saturday, playing Penn State and then host North Carolina.
Penn State is coming off its best season to date. The 2006 squad recorded a school-best 39 wins along the way to its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in the last seven years. The team returns four of the five All-Big Ten performers from last season, including pitcher Ashley Esparza and shortstop Jen Acunto. Esparza was a first team All-Great Lakes Region selection last season and had a team-best 1.29 ERA, and Acunto was the Lions’ defensive MVP.
The Lady Vols square off against the Tar Heels in the second game. North Carolina is also coming off a school record for wins with 48 last season. The Tar Heels return all infield starters from a year ago, and their defense will be one of the team’s main strengths. They have talented pitching also but do not have much experience as two sophomores and one freshman will carry the load.
The Lady Vols will wrap up the weekend by taking on the College of Charleston Sunday at 10 a.m. Shannon Howard, a first-team all-conference pick in the Southern Conference, is the ace of the pitching staff. The Cougars are also led by outfielder Izmena Cabrera and first baseman Jennifer Golden.
The Lady Vols are led by a foursome of upperclassmen: Monica Abbott, Tonya Callahan, Lindsay Schutzler and India Chiles.
Junior first baseman Callahan led the Southeastern Conference with 73 runs batted last season. The All-American also played near-perfect defense, committing only three errors.
Senior outfielders Chiles and Schutzler will provide sparks from the top of the batting lineup. Chiles is the SEC’s top returning hitter after a .437 batting average last season, and the All-American Schutzler finished in the top five in the league in five major offensive categories.
All-American senior pitcher Monica Abbott finished the 2006 season with a nation-best 44 wins, 0.95 ERA and 531 strikeouts, but she says she is not satisfied with last season’s finish.
“I guess last year was kind of disappointing for me,” Abbott said. “I felt like we had a really strong chance last year (to win it all).”

Chris Morgan
Staff Writer