Divide And Conquer: One Family, Two Regionals
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Todd and Kaye Leach devised a game plan this season based around the divide-and-conquer strategy.
They sat down with a calendar at their home in The Woodlands, Texas and pulled out the softball schedules from Tennessee and Texas Tech. They were determined to watch their daughters play as many games in person as possible.
Aubrey Leach is a senior infielder at Tennessee, and Kelcy Leach is a sophomore catcher at Texas Tech.
“We knew we had to split up since we both can’t be everywhere at the same time,” Todd said. “Even though it’s in Texas, Lubbock is still an eight-hour drive from where we live. We talked to the girls about it, and figured out how we could make it work in a way that is conducive to our normal life schedule and our jobs.”
Having navigated the regular season with success, the parents are employing the same blueprint in the postseason with Tennessee and Texas Tech both reaching the NCAA tournament.
Todd flew to Knoxville this weekend to watch Aubrey and Tennessee host a regional, while Kaye traveled to Baton Rouge to watch Kelcy and Texas Tech play a regional at LSU.
Their 14-year-old twin daughters, Alannah and Gabby, stayed at home to play in a tournament with their Texas Sudden Impact 14U team.
Wearing an orange Tennessee polo and orange Tennessee Nikes, Todd stood at the top of the bleachers on Saturday afternoon at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium as the 12th-seeded Lady Vols clinched a spot in the regional final with a 12-4 victory over Ohio State.
Tennessee (41-14) will need one victory over North Carolina (37-19) on Sunday to advance to its third straight Super Regional.
“I was not going to miss the start of this regional,” Todd said. “It’s bittersweet for us knowing it’s probably Aubrey’s last games here at Sherri Lee. But it’s been nice to see the great turnout. This fan base never disappoints.”
Although the distance traveled has increased greatly, Todd and Kaye are used to splitting up to watch their daughters play. Aubrey and Kelcy played on different travel ball teams growing up, and Todd usually stayed with Aubrey because he was coaching her at the time.
Both parents have seen games of both daughters throughout the last two seasons, but the only time the entire family was together this season - outside of Kelcy, who was playing - was for Aubrey’s senior weekend in Knoxville.
“It was unfortunate that Tennessee and Texas Tech never crossed paths this season,” said Todd, whose mother played professional baseball for the Rockford Peaches in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. “The year Tennessee doesn’t play Mary Nutter, Texas Tech did. It would have been fun to see them both in one place.”
Aubrey and Kelcy have tried to keep track of each other’s teams while in college.
“It’s been really neat now that they are experiencing the same type of things,” Todd said. “They don’t communicate as much as they would like through time constraints, but they are always sending encouraging words like congratulations on a great hit or great throw. They support each other.”
Aubrey and Kelcy’s relationship has grown closer with age.
“Growing up, it was a lot of competition between the two trying to outdo each other and it was tough for Kelcy because Aubrey had some success early and she felt like she had some big shoes to fill,” Todd said. “But once they got to high school and played together and then Aubrey went to college it got easier. Kelcy will ask Aubrey if she is having a problem or dealing with something. There is a lot of good conversation back and forth.”
Because Tennessee beat Ohio State and avoided a second game on Saturday, Todd was able to get back to his hotel to watch the end of Texas Tech’s 13-inning loss to LSU and Tech’s elimination game later at night.
“I have this thing if I am at one game I can’t keep track of other games. I just wait until it’s over with and then go back and watch or check the box scores,” Todd said. “My wife knows not to call me during a game because I probably am not going to answer. I rarely even answer texts.”
Having two daughters playing at different colleges may be a logistical travel headache at times, but it’s one Todd and Kaye wouldn’t trade.
“I am extremely proud of both of them,” Todd said. “They have worked hard with their teammates to get to where they are and I just hope they are enjoying the moment and soaking it all up because it goes fast.”
Going To Great Lengths
Remaining undefeated allowed Tennessee to escape the heat on Saturday.
The Lady Vols (41-14) and Ohio State played a seven-inning game that lasted 3 hours and 10 minutes in 89-degree heat.
It featured six pitchers who combined to throw 306 pitches. Both teams dug into the box for lengthy at-bats while producing 20 total hits.
Ohio State took a 2-1 lead in the first inning on solo home runs by Lilli Piper and Ashley Prange. But Tennessee junior Cailin Hannon answered with a three-run home run in the third that put the Lady Vols on top for good in the 12-4 win.
Before Hannon stepped to the plate, Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly pulled her aside and told her to make an adjustment. Hannon heeded his advice, and belted a shot to right-center field for the first postseason home run of her career.
“I think it definitely gave us some momentum, which is a big part of the game,” said Hannon, who asked to take her paper name placard as a souvenir after the postgame press conference. “Having momentum during the whole game is just really important to keep the game rolling and passing the bats. I was just really happy I could give that to our team and allow us to get excited. (Co-head coach) Karen (Weekly) got super excited after it, which I think fed off all the girls on the team and just got us rolling.”
Once they put the game out of reach with four runs in the seventh inning, the Lady Vols were able to retreat to their air conditioned clubhouse to eat and scout the remaining two regional games with a spot in the final secured.
“It's a great advantage to be able to be in the winner's bracket and have to be beaten twice,” said Tennessee junior pitcher Caylan Arnold, who allowed two earned runs in 4.2 innings of relief to earn the win. “That was definitely what we wanted going into this game, and I know so many girls commented on that being the longest game we've ever played. It was, and it was really hot, but we were doing what we could in the dugout to stay hydrated and stay cool.”
North Carolina won two elimination games on Saturday to advance to the regional final.
After beating Longwood 3-1, the Tar Heels avenged their regional-opening loss to Ohio State with a 5-3 victory over the Buckeyes in the nightcap.
UNC will need two wins again on Sunday against Tennessee to advance to the first Super Regional in program history.
The Tar Heels lost to Tennessee 2-0 on March 20 in Chapel Hill.