The University of Tennessee softball team is getting ready to host the NCAA regionals Friday against Longwood University of Virginia after a 44-10 record and a second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference.
Finishing near the top is a familiar place for the Lady Vols in recent years.
Just as familiar to softball fans from Chattanooga are some of the faces on the team, including two this year. And no, we are not talking about UT co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly, who either jointly or individually headed up the UTC softball program from the 1995 season through 2001.
This season Tennessee has had junior Tory Lewis of Chattanooga as a starting center-fielder for much of the year and fellow Girls Preparatory School graduate Whitney Hammond as a key reserve.
After being slowed early in the year by a concussion-related injury, Lewis is batting .277 as a starter in most of the games and has been a key contributor in the field with her athleticism. In the April 1 game against Western Carolina, for example, she made a great shoestring catch and then threw out the runner who had been on first base for a double play.
As Karen Weekly said after that game, “You don’t see too many center-fielders who can make that kind of play or cover that kind of ground and track the ball like that and have the arm to make that kind of play.”
Hammond, meanwhile, has seen action in 31 games and started 11 of them. She is batting .233 this year for a career average of .271, but has contributed as well in intangible ways, often with her speed.
She drew a walk and scored a run in a big win over traditional SEC power Alabama on March 8, and had two stolen bases against Murray State on March 19.
Karen Weekly has praises for the two players’ speed, which was also a talent of Lillian Hammond, the older sister of Whitney and a Lady Vol from 2006-09. The coach also hinted that she and her husband like to show a little speed as well heading back down to Chattanooga whenever they learn of a good recruit.
“She (Tory) and Whitney have brought a lot of speed to the program, and that’s what they do best,” she said. “(GPS) is a great program and we know they are well coached. It is kind of a coincidence they have all three been speed players.
“We like Chattanooga and we like it as an area to recruit.”
Lewis and Whitney Hammond, in turn, have enjoyed coming up to Knoxville and getting to play for one of the country’s best college softball programs.
“Everybody dreams of coming out and playing for a big school, and to come out here and do what everybody’s been wanting to do all their lives, it’s really fun,” said Lewis, the daughter of Tara Short and stepdaughter of former Tennessee football standout Eric Westmoreland.
For Hammond, the fact that the school is close to home has added to the enjoyment, even though she could have likely been an even bigger contributor at a smaller or less successful school with not as much talent.
“This is like the dream right here – one of the best schools in the country is an hour and a half away from where I come from,” said the daughter of Dr. John and Dr. Sabrina Hammond. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Both Hammond and Lewis feel as though they were prepared well for the competitive atmosphere at UT in softball and academics from their experiences at GPS. Both played multiple high school sports, including volleyball, and both made academic honor lists at the girls’ college preparatory school.
“It definitely helped me learn how to balance athletics and school work,” said Hammond. “I played two sports at GPS, so year-round I was in and out of the weight room and practice and school and games.
“It helped me get used to what life is like here at UT where you are a student athlete all year long.”
Both also appreciate the training under GPS coach Susan Crownover.
“She was my softball coach and my basketball coach and like my other mother,” said Lewis. “I still call her mom.”
- Photo2 by University of Tennessee