After more than a month of practice, the Lady Vols softball team is ready to kick off the 2014 season and hopefully earn a trip back to the Women's College World Series.
For the first time in program history, UT will open the season ranked No. 1 in the nation; an honor UT senior shortshop said is nice to have, but not necessarily meaningful to the team.
"Really the only number that matters is at the end of the season," Shipman said. "So we try not to think about that too much, and just go out and play our game."
Co-head coach Karen Weekly was quick to credit her former players for getting Tennessee to the ranking.
"We have talked a lot about how this is more of statement about our finish last year," Weekly said. "We just need to put that behind us and move forward."
Tennessee is replacing four key starters on offense, including 2013 SEC Player of the Year Lauren Gibson and four-time All-American Raven Chavanne, and will have a few question marks on offense going into the season.
This Tennessee team is very young, and if they want to duplicate last year's success, a few highly-touted freshmen will have to step up on the field, Weekly said.
"We're excited about our freshmen," Weekly said. "We've got some great talent in that class, but they're still freshmen, and they're gonna be nervous. It's their first time in a Tennessee uniform."
Freshman Taylor Koenig will open the season at third base, while fellow freshman and former high school teammate Megan Geer will start at second base, following a fall practice that saw Geer hit .520 with five home runs.
The veteran leader of this Tennessee offense will be preseason All-American Madison Shipman, who hit .367 and finished second on the team in both home runs (11) and RBIs (63) last season.
The senior shortstop from California is coming off her best season as a Lady Vol and is ready to get her final season at UT underway.
"January is always the longest month for us," Shipman said. "We're just sitting around waiting to play, and so I'm just excited to finally be traveling and getting things rolling."
One area the Lady Vols coaching staff feels very comfortable with is their pitching.
Senior Ellen Renfroe is coming off her best year at Tennessee, where she earned several postseason honors, including being named to the Women's College World Series All-Tournament team. Renfroe posted a 19-5 record in 2013 with an 1.85 ERA in 38 games.
Sophomore Erin Gabriel and junior Cheyenne Tarango are both looking to split time in the circle, backing up Renfroe this year.
"I think our pitching is a proven commodity," Weekly said. "Gabriel will be new to the mix, but Ellen has been around this rodeo more than once. Cheyenne Tarango has also had some good innings for us, but hopefully we will get innings out of everybody this weekend."
The Lady Vols will open their season Friday afternoon against Northern Colorado at the Eagle Round Robin Tournament in Statesboro, Ga.
"We are really just gonna focus on our play," Shipman said. "How we're gonna approach the game and things like that, and try not to focus too much on who the opponent is."
On Saturday afternoon the Lady Vols will face Northern Colorado again, followed by a game with Georgia Southern. They will then cap off the weekend with a Sunday morning game versus Oakland.
"I think they're excited just to be playing somebody not wearing orange," Weekly said. "January is always a long month for us, and it seems like it has been especially long this year."