As her players round third base after hitting home runs, Karen Weekly is there to greet them with a high-five and some encouraging words.
The University of Tennessee softball coach watches as they return to the dugout to don a “Mommy” hat while their teammates shower them with fake money.
A few years ago, Weekly may have cringed at the sight of such celebrations. But as long as they aren’t directed at the opposing team, she’s come to appreciate the fun her players are having while doing what they love.
“I have evolved in a lot of ways. I used to hate cheering,” says Weekly, in her 27th season as a head coach. “Then I realized that is what kept them in the game and engaged.”
There have been a lot of celebratory moments already this season for the Lady Vols, with the chance for even more in the future. No. 4 Tennessee swept through NCAA Regional play last weekend to reach the Super Regionals for the first time since 2019.
The Lady Vols (47-8) are hosting No. 13 Texas (45-13-1) this weekend at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium with a spot in the Women’s College World Series on the line. Tennessee is trying to return to the WCWS in Oklahoma City for the first time since 2015 in pursuit of the program’s first national title.
The opening game against the Longhorns in the best-of-three series is Friday at 4 p.m. (ESPN2). Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m. If necessary, a winner-take-all game will be played Sunday.
Tennessee is hosting a Super Regional for the first time since 2017. Before beating Northern Kentucky and Indiana twice last weekend to advance, the previous two seasons had ended in disappointment for the Lady Vols at home in the regional stage.
But Tennessee dominated its regional competition this season, outscoring opponents 28-4 and winning two games via run rule.
Before the Lady Vols took the field, Tennessee announced Weekly had agreed in principle to a five-year contract extension, which would run through June 30, 2028.
Weekly is in her 22nd season at Tennessee, and her second as the solo head coach after sharing the duties with her husband, Ralph, before he retired. Weekly has a 1,037-326-2 record during her more than two decades on Rocky Top.
“I’ve been impressed from Day One with Karen with her ultracompetitive mindset to be the best and how professional she goes about her business in leading our softball program,” says UT athletic director Danny White. “She is a great representative of our athletics department and the competitive excellence we strive to have.”
Although Weekly still runs a tight ship and expects her players to strive for success on the field and in the classroom, she’s given them more grace over the years. She understands that all generations are different and teams can’t all be treated the same.
It’s helped to have great leaders like senior outfielder Kiki Milloy and graduate senior pitcher Ashley Rogers in the program. They are both the epitome of a true student-athlete and just happen to be two of the best players in the nation as well.
Rogers improved to 17-1 with a 0.73 ERA, 165 strikeouts and 39 walks with a win over the weekend against Indiana. In that same game, Milloy extended her nation-leading home run total to 25 with two deep shots. The center fielder is batting .427 and slugging 1.007 with 55 RBI and 38 stolen bases in 39 attempts.
“Kiki is a special, special, special player. She’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime type of player, and it’s just so much fun to watch her go about her business every day,” Weekly says. “You know, sometimes her teammates marvel at things, and what I point out to them is that so many of the things Kiki does are controllables. I mean, the talent is there, but she doesn’t rest on that.”
There will be a lot of orange at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium this weekend in the battle of UTs and future SEC opponents. The Longhorns and No. 1 Oklahoma will be joining the conference in July 2024.
Texas, which reached the WCWS last season as an unseeded team, won its regional by knocking off Seton Hall before beating Texas A&M twice.
Tennessee has hosted Texas before over the years during the regular season, but the postseason always increases the intensity.
Pitcher Payton Gottshall, who transferred to Tennessee this year from Bowling Green, got her first taste in the regional.
“It’s just really special because our fans mean so much, so just being able to host and win for them is amazing,” Gottshall says. “For me, I haven’t played in a regional yet, so this is pretty cool just to have them out there cheering for every single pitch. It’s just great that we’re able to come back another weekend and do this all again.”
Weekly hopes to see a lot more celebrations in the dugout this weekend. She may even break out in a dance if the Lady Vols advance to the WCWS. It’s just another sign of how much she’s trying to live in the moment.
“I enjoy what I am doing a whole lot more than I used to,” Weekly says. “If you don’t evolve as a human being, life isn’t very fun. When you’re green you’re growing, when you’re ripe you’re rotting and I don’t plan on getting ripe any time soon.”