After being named the No. 1 team in the nation by preseason polls, the Lady Vols softball team has lived up to that honor through the first two weekends of the season.
After tournaments in Statesboro, Ga., and Tampa, Fla., the Lady Vols have posted a 9-0 record. A question mark going into this season was the depth of the Tennessee pitching staff; so far, that question has been answered positively by the Lady Vols as they have shut out five of their nine opponents.
"I like the depth we have shown in our pitching staff," co-head coach Karen Weekly said. "Last weekend Ellen Renfroe only started two games, and we didn't feel like we needed to start her every single day."
Senior Ellen Renfore came into this season as the clear ace, but after her sister, Ivy, graduated there was a gap that needed to be filled. Sophomores Erin Gabriel and Rainey Gaffin stepped up to give the Vols some much-needed relief in the circle this past weekend.
Gabriel struck out a career-high 11 batters over five innings in a 10-0 win over Binghamton on Friday night and picked up her second win of the weekend against Wright State on Sunday to close out the USF Tournament. Gaffin came out of the bullpen Friday, striking out eight over four innings of relief in a 3-2 win over host South Florida.
"I love our depth," senior shortstop Madison Shipman said. "I love how we can throw one pitcher one inning and come in with a different pitcher the next inning, and they are completely different. I think they really complement each other well."
A good defense is something that can make a young pitching staff look their best, and that is exactly what Tennessee has shown thus far.
"I definitely think our defense has helped out our pitching a lot," Shipman said. "We have some new pitchers out there, and I think it has given them confidence that even if they do give up a hit, we're there to back them up."
In recent years, Tennessee has gotten the reputation as a slap-hitting, small-ball team. This year, however, the Lady Vols are relying more on their power than their speed. Through their first nine games, UT has hit 11 homeruns and scored 69 runs.
This offensive explosion has led to several blowouts, including three games ending after only five innings due to the NCAA mercy rule. The hot bats have been appreciated by the young Tennessee pitching staff.
"I think we have hit the ball extremely well," Gaffin said. "There are solid hits all around and it's just a different kind of success for us, but it's definitely a good turn out."
Despite a dominant performance so far, the Lady Vols have slipped in the polls the past two weeks to No. 3 in the nation.
"It's never how you start, it's how you finish," Gaffin said. "So they can change us now, but games from now, that's where it's gonna count. So I'm not worried about where we are now."