The Lady Vols softball team may have a No. 1 ranking partly due to last season's runner-up finish in the Women's College World series, but this year's team will look a little different whey it takes the field Friday against Northern Coloradio in Statesboro, Ga.
Tennessee has been tasked with replacing its top three hitters from last year's lineup: Raven Chavanne, Kat Dotson and Lauren Gibson, all of whom garnered All-American honors during their time in Knoxville.
However, co-head coach Ralph Weekly said he believes his team has the ability to replace the talented trio with three highly-rated freshmen from California: Megan Geer, Taylor Koenig and Annie Aldrete.
Geer and Koenig were both team captains of their club team, the So Cal Athletics, who won the national championship each of the last three years. Geer was also Tennessee's leading hitter in the fall with five home runs.
Weekly had high praise for both players, referring to Geer as "special," while comparing Koenig to former All-American Tonya Callahan.
Aldrete, the niece of St. Louis Cardinals bench coach Mike Aldrete, is "a catcher and a hitter," according to Weekly and is "a great addition to our team."
All three players are expected to play major roles this season.
The batting lineup, however, is not the only place that was forced to make changes in the offseason.
The pitching staff will be forced to replace Ivy Renfroe, who appeared in 41 games last season.
Sophomore Erin Gabriel, who was third in the rotation last season before getting injured after only nine appearances, will take the responsibility of replacing her.
Senior All-American pitcher Ellen Renfroe is optimistic about what Gabriel can bring to the team.
"I'm really excited to see what she can do for us this year," Ellen Renfroe said during Saturday's softball Meet and Greet. "She has thrown a lot of innings for us in January. She was able to throw a little bit in the fall, but she was still recovering. I think she is going to be able to come out really strong for us."
Weekly also made the decision to add sophomore outfielder Rainey Gaffin to the pitching staff as a reliever in order to provide some cover for the starters.
"I think Rainey is a tremendous athlete," Weekly said. "She went to 5A high school in Colorado and pitched them to five straight state championships, so she's not a novice. It's just, we didn't plan on her pitching here."
Junior Cheyanne Tarango, who has pitched 42 innings in her career, is expected to be third in the starting rotation while occasionally providing relief.
Due to the lack of experience, Ellen Renfroe is expecting an increased workload this season, which she said she's been training for all offseason.
"(I've been) just really trying to prepare – as far as endurance-wise – to really throw a lot of innings," Renfroe said. "If I have to throw every game this year, I'll try to do that as best as I can."
With the start of the season so close, Weekly said he is able to focus on the upcoming opponents now that he is confident in his lineup and his pitching staff.
"Probably the toughest team down there, Georgia Southern, won the Southern Conference last year and is a pretty darn good team," Weekly said. "They split with Georgia during the fall, and they've got everybody back."
Senior left fielder Melissa Davin said Saturday she is excited to get the season underway.
"It's kind of fun to see all of us working together," Davin said. "To see how close we got last year and (we're going to) push and see how much further we can get this year."