No. 5 Tennessee
Last season's record: 52-14
Key returnees: Raven Chavanne, Melissa Davin, Kat Dotson, Lauren Gibson, Tory Lewis, Ellen Renfroe, Ivy Renfroe, Madison Shipman, Cheyanne Tarango.
Key departures: Ashley Andrews, Shelby Burchell.
Tournament finish: Lost in WCWS (0-2)
1. Expanding the pitching family
Tennessee wasn't the only elite team to divide its innings in the circle last season, but few teams managed to split them right down the middle to quite the same degree as the Lady Vols. By the time Tennessee's stay in Oklahoma City ended, Ellen Renfroe had started 36 games and pitched 231 innings, and older sister Ivy Renfroe had started 30 games and pitched 214 innings. When Ellen was most effective early in the season, she got the bulk of the innings. When Ivy got the hot hand late in the season, she saw the majority of innings in the NCAA tournament. In two seasons together, the sisters pitched 798 2/3 of a possible 840 innings.
But will the innings be further divided this season? Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly included sophomore Cheyanne Tarango (three innings pitched last season) in the pitching discussion this preseason. And freshman Erin Gabriel arrives with a prep résumé that included a place on the national team that won the 2011 ISF Junior World Championship in South Africa.
"We're going to need to pitch her to keep her," Weekly said of Gabriel. "So we see ourselves pitching all four of them, we really do."
2. Lauren Gibson's player of the year credentials
It's not as if senior second baseman Lauren Gibson was overlooked before last summer. She's been a regular on all-conference and All-America teams throughout most of her time in Knoxville. But Gibson's summer with Team USA took her to new heights. Gibson delivered big hit after big hit for the American side, including a two-out, two-strike hit in the bottom of the ninth inning against Japan's Yukiko Ueno that drove in a run and extended the final game of the ISF World Championship (Japan ultimately prevailed). If you can hold your own against an Olympic gold medalist, you can hold your own in the SEC. She hit .522 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in the tournament.
3. Powering championship dreams
After watching Alabama, Florida and Georgia set new standards of slugging in the SEC, Weekly had high hopes for his own team's power output when last season started. But even with Gibson's bat, Tennessee posted some of its lowest power numbers (45 home runs, .433 slugging percentage) in several seasons. The coach again thinks there is potential -- particularly with Madison Shipman and Raven Chavanne at full strength out of the gates, and sophomore Hannah Akamine likely to enter the starting lineup at catcher -- but it may be a challenge to get back to .500 slugging territory.
"We continue to strive for that," Weekly said of increased power. "But we're also going to have Tory Lewis, [Kat] Dotson and Chavanne in the lineup. We're a speed team, too. We need more power, no question, like to have more power. We've been working on it, working on every drill you can do for that."
4. Schedule woes
Adding Missouri and Texas A&M forced the SEC to tweak its scheduling, the end result being not every team plays every other team. Some years, that might work to a team's advantage, and other years, well, not so much. And with road series at Florida, Georgia and Missouri, in addition to home series against Alabama and Texas A&M, Weekly makes it clear which camp he thinks his team is in for the first season with the Aggies and Tigers. All five of the aforementioned opponents finished last season in the top 14 of the RPI (the Lady Vols at least avoid LSU, Kentucky and a rapidly improving Mississippi State program).
5. Following Kat Dotson's lead
With Gibson and Chavanne, the Lady Vols have two players who may challenge for top national individual honors. The Renfroes will always receive and earn a lot of attention as a sister act. Shipman could be on the verge of something truly special herself after hitting 11 home runs and stealing 20 bases as a sophomore. But if you want a player who sets the tone for what this team aspires to be, try Dotson, a senior. Despite a chronic knee injury, she started 60 games last season and hit .350 with 14 stolen bases, just as she played through pain to hit .401 in 59 starts as a sophomore and .391 in 62 starts as a freshman.
"She is just a tremendous kid," Weekly said. "She has played through pain, and it's not really correctable. And yet she gets the deep fly ball [in the super regional] that sends us to the World Series last year. She's a pretty amazing kid all the way. I can't say enough about her, and I can't say enough about what she does for us. I've tried to limit what she does in practice as much as possible, but when it comes to game time, she's all play."