Dan Fleser: Karlyn Pickens Has Been Super Good For The Lady Vols

  • Wednesday, May 22, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Since she’s served more as the designated player this softball season, Tennessee’s Zaida Puni has watched teammate Karlyn Pickens pitch from a different vantage point.

Puni’s altered view isn’t solely a matter of her sightline. In fact, the biggest change in what she’s seeing involves Pickens herself.

“She’s grown as a woman and as a player,” Puni said. “You can see that on the field. She’s super different, and she’s confident in herself.”

The sophomore has rebounded from a choppy freshman debut to be super good this season, winning 21 games and earning SEC pitcher of the year honors. She threw two shutouts during the NCAA Regional last weekend, finishing with a two-hit, 74-pitch commanding performance against Virginia on Sunday. No. 3 seed Tennessee (43-10) now will host SEC-rival Alabama in a Super Regional beginning Friday at Lee Stadium with a spot in the Women’s College World Series on the line.

Tennessee won two of three games against the Crimson Tide (36-17) last month in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Pickens started the middle game of the series and was more dominant than last Sunday, allowing just one hit while issuing one walk. Regardless of the familiarity, Coach Karen Weekly considers the rematch to be a first date.

“I really went into this week just trying to take a look at Alabama with fresh eyes, as if I hadn’t seen them,” she said. “Kind of watched our games with them and other games that they’ve played without even looking at my notes. Just making some fresh notes.”

Such thorough, process-oriented thinking typifies Weekly . . . and many coaches for that matter. But a similar approach also has served Pickens’ purpose of harnessing her considerable talents and forging a better version of herself. Weekly recalled talking to Pickens the Tuesday after a series at Mississippi State earlier this season and the pitcher noting “two or three things that she really learned from (that) weekend.” In that case, the conversation played out more like two coaches brainstorming.

“She’s one of the most honest, self-aware and growth-minded athletes I’ve ever coached,” Weekly said. “For somebody to be as talented as she is and still be willing to be open to different ideas, to try different things, not let her ego get in the way. I mean it’s absolutely refreshing to coach her.”

Despite receiving SEC freshman of the year honors, Pickens’ first season took some roller coaster dips and turns after the right-hander was hit for eight runs in one inning against Baylor on April 7. Pickens’ lone Super Regional appearance was two innings of relief to finish the clinching victory over Indiana. She allowed three runs.

Puni was watching then from the infield.

“Just being on the field and playing third base with her last year, she was more tense,” Puni said.

During fall practice, Pickens collaborated with the coaches in throwing her change-up and rise ball more. For her, those pitches weren’t as trusty as her fastball and drop ball. Pickens recalled the quest to refortify her overall repertoire as one of “being comfortable with being uncomfortable I would say.”

Today, Pickens and her change-up are on a first-name basis. The pitch has partnered with the fastball to produce the same effect as a springboard, enabling Pickens to make a leap forward and land in a better place. In the pitcher’s circle, she’s more self-possessed than before.

“As a coach, again, you can suggest something to an athlete,” Weekly said. “A lot of times, they’re going to do it but maybe they don’t have the buy-in. She’s got the buy-in because she’s so willing to focus on growth and not results.”

She’s getting results as well. All told, her pitching reflects how Pickens sees herself:

“A different level of maturity.”

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a member of the Tennessee Sportswriters and the U.S. Basketball Writers Halls of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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