Farmers flourish in Tennessee infield and at the plate
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- They had attended several combines to scout potential players. But riding in a combine? That was a completely new recruiting experience for Ralph and Karen Weekly.
In an era when even home visits are exceedingly rare, the Tennessee softball co-head coaches made a farm visit three years ago to see their newest commitment.
The Weeklys traveled to Thrall, Texas, to learn more about Chelsea Seggern and her small-town roots. They received a tour of Seggern's 3,000-acre farm, where the family raises cattle and grows cotton, corn and wheat. They saw how the land shaped Seggern and instilled a resiliency that translated to the softball field.
The Weeklys knew they'd found the right player to complete a unique Tennessee tandem: Seggern and Meghan Gregg have combined to form a farm-bred left side of the infield and heart of the batting order for the Lady Vols. They seamlessly transition from baling hay, picking peaches and riding tractors in the summer to hitting home runs, fielding grounders and throwing out runners in the spring.
"I will always recruit farm kids, always," Karen Weekly said. "You get a steadiness from them. There is not a lot of drama and not a lot of emotion. They just go about their business the same way every day, and you can count on them to be consistent and dependable."
Gregg, a senior shortstop, and Seggern, a sophomore third baseman, have bonded through their love of softball and farming backgrounds. The team captains and top run producers share a work ethic honed from the hours spent on family farms that date back generations. They both have older brothers who worked right alongside them and have now become their biggest fans.
Gregg grew up on a peach farm in Georgia. Her hometown of Williamson has a population of about 400. Seggern's Thrall, which coincidentally is located in Williamson County, Texas, has a population of about 900.
"Meghan and I have some of the same values and same roots, and that has made it really easy for us to get along," Seggern said. "The connection and trust we started building last year has only gotten stronger. I think we make each other better."
Gregg first visited her family's peach stand a few days after she was born. During high school, she would rush back home after travel ball tournaments to help work. Nothing changed in college. The All-American still spent nearly every summer picking peaches, checking trees and dishing out peach ice cream to familiar customers.
"That is what made me who I am," said Gregg, Tennessee's career leader in home runs and RBIs. "I learned so much from the farm. I know what it's like to have to work for everything you get and about the value of teamwork. On the farm, you have to work together and be there for each other to get things done. You can't do it by yourself, and the same thing happens on the field."
Seggern grew up running through cornfields and cotton patches and learning how to drive a tractor long before receiving her driver's license. A few hours before leaving to report to Tennessee as a freshman, Seggern was baling hay with her dad.
"Chelsea enjoys working the land. She has never complained about it," said Seggern's mom, Renea. "During harvest time, everyone pitched in. One kid would drive the grain cart, and another would operate the field plow. I can't say there are a whole lot of kids out there that know how to drive a big, old John Deere tractor, but my kids do."
If Gregg and Seggern aren't talking about softball, there's a good chance they're discussing a vital element of their upbringing.
"There is a lot of weather-related things we talk about," Gregg said. "Everyone else wonders why does that even matter, but we know how important weather is for a farm. Weather is everything."
Gregg is set to attend pharmacy school at the University of Georgia in the fall. She chose the profession partly because she wants to tailor her schedule around the peach farm.
"She can't get enough. I know she is going to want to keep this business going," said Gregg's mom, Kathy McGinn Gregg. "I just really feel like the love of the farm and the farm life is always going to be with her no matter where she ends up."
Seggern regularly calls her dad for updates on any new farm equipment or to check on the status of any new baby calves.
She still smiles at the memory of the Weeklys visiting her hometown -- and watching them climb aboard a John Deere combine harvester.
"Ralph always jokes with me about having a John Deere just like my dad's," Seggern said. "I have to let him know his John Deere is about 50 percent smaller. But it's all fun, and it was really special to have them come see where I was raised."
Gregg and Seggern have only a few more games remaining as teammates at Tennessee. Starting Friday with a home regional, they are hoping to make a trip to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series before returning home to work on their farms.
Each time they've stepped on the field together, they've been proud to represent the Lady Vols and proud to represent the small towns that molded them.
"Being raised on a farm has meant everything to me," Seggern said. "I would not want my life to have gone any other way. I have absolutely loved it."