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Tennessee's Freshmen Don't Shy Away From A Challenge

(Graphic By Don Olea)

Welcome to the SEC, rookie.

How about starting off by traveling to one of the toughest road venues in the country to face the four-time defending conference champions with a former National Player of the Year in the circle?

Tennessee’s freshmen were thrown right into the fire last weekend in their introduction to SEC play against Florida. Not only did they survive, they thrived.

Tennessee freshmen combined to hit four home runs, drive in six runs, commit no errors and pitch a complete game three-hitter to help the Lady Vols win the series.

Tennessee started five freshmen in the Game 2 clincher on Saturday, with an all-freshmen battery and an all-freshmen left side of the infield.

“It was really fun and just an overall great learning experience,” said Tennessee freshman catcher Ally Shipman. “It’s your first big SEC series and you are just taking every at-bat and play as a means for growth and learning. I just really enjoyed every second of it.”

Tennessee’s six-player freshman class was ranked No. 2 in the nation when Shipman, Ashley Rogers, Kaili Phillips, Gracie Osbron, Kaitlin Parsons and Madison Pacini signed their national letters of intent.

Split evenly with three Tennesseans and three Southern Californians, the class has exceeded the expectations of Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly through the early part of the season.

"Yes they have, and they've been really good the last couple of weeks. They have come on really strong, hit some good home runs,” Weekly said. “The upperclassmen are good too. The thing about this team is we do not have a player on this entire team that I would honestly be afraid to put in this game."

Phillips admitted to having a few nerves before stepping onto the field against the Gators. The Ooltewah, Tenn., native was starting at third base in place of junior Chelsea Seggern, who was sidelined by a knee injury.

But Phillips put any fears to rest with an impressive power display in the series opener. She kickstarted a spree of three Tennessee home runs in the fourth inning to chase Florida ace Kelly Barnhill. Phillips added a two-run shot in the fifth as the Lady Vols beat the Gators 9-1 in five innings.

Phillips became the first Lady Vol to hit home runs in four straight games since Madison Shipman, a former Tennessee All-American and Ally’s older sister, did the same in 2014. Eight of Phillips’ 12 hits through her first 38 career at-bats were home runs.

Did she expect to have such a robust slugging percentage so early?

“Oh definitely not,” Phillips said with a laugh. “I thought for sure I was going to be struggling because we all have our struggles. But I have more confidence because I am wearing the Tennessee logo and playing for Tennessee.”

Rogers has shown maturity beyond her years in the circle. The right-hander was pulled in the first inning of the opener against Florida, but bounced right back in Game 2. Rogers threw a complete-game, three-hitter with seven strikeouts to secure Tennessee’s first series win in Gainesville since 2007.

Rogers has provided the extra arm the Lady Vols have long coveted to complement senior Matty Moss and junior Caylan Arnold.

“Ashley Rogers is very composed. The thing I like most about her is her mental game,” Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “When you see that in a freshman, it bodes well for the things she can do.”

Although she was raised in Valencia, Calif., Ally Shipman basically grew up around the Tennessee program. She watched her older sister develop into an all-time great shortstop and got to know the Weeklys and their coaching style.

Being a starting catcher as a freshman can be intimidating, but Shipman was ready to embrace the responsibility.

“There was a little bit of nervousness in the first tournament, but I just said to myself it’s the same game of softball I’ve been playing since I was eight years old. Nothing has changed,” Shipman said. “That calmed me down and I am feeling pretty comfortable back there now.”

Tennessee’s upperclassmen have helped the rookies in their transition to college. They’ve been available for advice and provided reassurance. Before Tennessee departed for Florida, the team captains encouraged the freshmen to visualize the experience and play with no fear.

“They have been a huge help for all of us with their guidance. I really look to them,” Shipman said. “They have been telling us they’ve been there before and it’s not as crazy as it seems. They tell us it will get better.”

The freshmen have developed their own special camaraderie within the team dynamic. They sit together in the front of the bus on road trips, and lug the equipment to and from the field.

“This freshmen class is super duper close,” Shipman said. “It’s been great to get to know each other better because it’s helpful to look to each other since we are all going through this together. It’s kind of a ‘if you can do it, I can do it’ mentality.”

Osbron, Rogers and Phillips are all Tennessee natives and played summer ball together before arriving on Rocky Top. They were raised with dreams of representing Tennessee just like the childhood idols they watched from the stands as kids.

“Every one of the freshmen brings something special to the table, but I do love the fact that there are a lot of Tennessee girls here and that we are playing for our state,” Phillips said. “It just shows the underlying love we have for the state of Tennessee.”

For all the advice they’ve received, the freshmen realize the only way to truly prepare for the grind of SEC play is to actually experience it for themselves. They want to take advantage of every opportunity they are given to contribute.

“We know what we need to do for our team and I think that is really what motivates us the most,” Shipman said. “Nobody really cares about what class we are. We just know what our roles are and are confident in ourselves and I think that has helped a lot.”

After Tennessee won the first two games in the series, Florida’s All-Americans shined to prevent the sweep. Barnhill returned to dominant form with 13 strikeouts and Amanda Lorenz belted two home runs in the six-inning 8-0 win.

The ups and downs provided a good indoctrination of life in the SEC for Tennessee’s freshmen.

“Despite Sunday’s game, I think we gained a lot of confidence and I think it showed us what is possible,” Shipman said. “We have a taste of what we can do, and now we just want to get better and improve every day and see where we can go with it.”

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