Vols rely on complementary pitching staff

February, 4, 2011

Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.

No. 6 Tennessee
Last season: 49-15, lost in Women's College World Series
Who returns: All five regulars who slugged .500 or better return, including Lauren Gibson (.910 OPS) and Jessica Spigner (1.052). Raven Chavanne (1.080 OPS), Kat Dotson (1.004 OPS) and Kelly Grieve (.926), but that's only part of the story for a top of the order that also combined for 92 stolen bases and a trio that covers serious real estate in the outfield. Ashley Andrews returns after showing good patience at the plate as a freshman, putting together a .353 on-base percentage despite just a .213 batting average.

Who departs: Tiffany Huff was a fixture in the middle of the lineup for four years and left with the RBIs to prove it. Erinn Webb started 58 games and led the team with nine home runs last season, while Nicole Kajitani started 37 games and ranked fifth on the team in walks.

Who arrives: It's a big group in every respect, with an incoming class of seven freshmen that includes four players listed at six feet or taller. One of the tall arrivals with the biggest prep plaudits, Madison Shipman will start at shortstop from the outset, with Andrews shifting to catcher, the position at which she was recruited. Melissa Davin and Kourtny Thomas are in competition for time at first base, and Chelsea O'Connor is impressing in a crowded outfield picture.

Statistically speaking: With Chavanne in the club, Tennessee came within a Kat Dotson walk or two of becoming only the fourth team with two returning hitters who topped .500 in both slugging and on-base percentage last season. Alabama, Arizona and Georgia are the others.

"I think that probably the unsung player on our team, and I'm really serious about this, is Kat Dotson," co-coach Ralph Weekly said. "If you ask anybody on our team who is the best hitter, they're going to say Kat Dotson."

Preseason question: What about the pitching?
The coaches may find it challenging to divide playing time in a manner that keeps everyone happy in the real games, but Tennessee shouldn't have any trouble playing competitive scrimmages.

That depth came to the forefront when the team did, in fact, play a scrimmage recently, a contest in which Ralph Weekly said freshman Ellen Renfroe graded out as the best pitcher, followed by Cat Hosfield and then Ivy Renfroe. That might come as a surprise to anyone who saw Ivy Renfroe take control of the postseason during Tennessee's run to the World Series, while Hosfield played second fiddle and high school Ellen Renfroe watched her older sister.

The younger Renfroe may only be a year behind her older sister, but it's another SEC ace with height on her side that Weekly used as a point of comparison.

"She's mature beyond her age," Weekly said of Ellen. "She reminds me a lot, and she's certainly not there yet, but she reminds me a lot of [Alabama's] Kelsi Dunne. She's the same kind of pitcher, with a lot of movement. And of course, I think Kelsi Dunne is really good."

That Ellen isn't a carbon copy of her sister potentially works to Tennessee's advantage. Add the Renfroe sisters to Hosfield, who went 17-8 with a 3.26 ERA in 48 appearances and 25 starts last season, and the Lady Vols bring three distinct looks to the circle.

"Ivy throws hard with decent movement and she's improved her changeup," Weekly said. "Cat throws with a good bit of movement and a really good changeup. And Ellen throws in the middle speed; she throws good speed with a lot of movement."

With the SEC shifting to a format for conference play that mimics the Pac-10, with each three-game series spread over three days instead of two days with a doubleheader, there isn't necessarily an advantage to be gained from using three starters on a regular basis. But in addition to simply giving the coaching staff options, the trio of pitchers might also afford Tennessee an opportunity to experiment with something close to a dedicated bullpen (as it is, Tennessee pitchers completed just 21 of 64 starts last season).

"I wouldn't say any of them are like the best pitchers in the country, but I think it's a really good staff," Ralph Weekly said. "And I think they've bought into the fact that all three are going to pitch. I think we're stronger as a team with all three starting -- I'm not looking to have a star pitcher this year."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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