The Lady Vols softball team won both the SEC regular season and tournament titles for the first time ever and went on to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2015.
In the first inning of a Regional game against Indiana, the Hoosiers’ Taryn Kern had tagged Lady Vols star pitcher Ashley Rogers for a solo homer—only the eighth Rogers had given up all season—and a 1-0 lead. In the Lady Vols’ half of the inning, the leadoff hitter—5’11” centerfielder Kiki Milloy, a senior from Woodinville, Washington—came to the plate with a look in her eye. “You gotta get Rogers’ back,” she said after the game, smiling a determined smile. “I was getting after it.” She fouled off the first pitch then sent the second one over the wall in dead center for her 24th homer of the season. When she came up in the second inning, she slammed a 2-2 pitch for her 25th. “In what world do you give a hitter like Kiki Milloy a ball to hit?” asked ESPN announcer Kayla Braud.
In a drizzling rain in the third inning, Lady Vols up 5-1, Rogers had a 2-2 count on slugger Brianna Copeland with the bases loaded and two out when the umps called a rain delay. Five hours, fourteen minutes later, Rogers—a graduate student from Athens, Tennessee, whose .73 season ERA is third lowest in the nation—got the strikeout. What was her mindset after the delay?
“Just coming back out there and attacking and not pitching to avoid spots but pitching to hit my spot that I want,” said Rogers to the News Sentinel’s beat reporter Cora Hall.
“[Coach] Karen [Weekly] helped me a ton in between and during the delay and lovingly told me to get out of my own way. That’s not sarcastic—she actually was loving. Staying locked in and in the right mindset to come back in and just attack from the very first pitch, because I know what they want to do, and I know what I want to do to get out of that situation.”
On Milloy’s next at bat, Indiana pitcher Mary Montgomery judiciously walked her, but Milloy stole second, her 37th theft of the season, and scored on left fielder Rylie West’s grand slam to dead center that made the score 9-1. Rogers ended up with a two-hitter.
In a regional rematch with the Hoosiers, 5’3” shortstop Mackenzie Donihoo, a transfer from reigning national champion Oklahoma, smashed a two-run homer in the first inning en route to a 7-3 series-clinching win.
In Super Regional Game 1 against Texas, Milloy stymied a Longhorns’ sixth-inning rally with a Willie Mays-type catch in centerfield that ensured a 5-2 victory. In Game 2, Payton Gottshall pitched a two-hitter and catcher Giulia Koutsoyanopulos hit a seventh-inning, error-aided single-turned-inside-the-park-grand-slam to make the final score 9-0. In the dugout, Koutsoyanopulos did the team’s post-homer celebration, donning the powder blue “Mommy hat” and dancing through a gauntlet of teammates showering her with play money. The win earned the Lady Vols their first trip to the Women’s College World Series since 2015. There they beat Alabama 10-5, lost 9-0 to Oklahoma, and beat Oklahoma State 3-1 before losing 5-1 to Florida State in the semifinals.
Pumped Up and Superfocused
The Lady Vols had hoped to return to the College World Series last year, but Rogers was hampered by injuries, and the team didn’t have the pitching depth to make it through regionals. At a Rotary speech in January, Weekly—in her 22nd year coaching the Lady Vols, but only her second without her co-coach husband, Ralph Weekly—said she never wanted to be in that position again.
From North Buncombe High School in Weaverville, North Carolina, she signed 6’1” Karlyn Pickens, whose 70-mph-fireballs earned her the SEC Freshman of the Year award. From Bowling Green State via the transfer portal, Weekly added Gottshall, a senior from Massillon, Ohio, who whips wickedly low balls and exudes an irrepressible bravado exemplified by her signature song, Motorhead’s “The Game.” “I love the vibe it gives,” she effused to Hall. “I don’t want to say I go psycho, but just the mindset that I have to be in, that just helps me get pumped up to be able to do what I do for this team. It just gets me super focused and ready to attack anybody, knowing that my stuff’s gonna get anybody out.”
Rogers, having earned her BS in kinesiology in 2022, worked on her master’s this year. In the biomechanics lab she studied her own pitching mechanics using force plates, body sensors, and cameras, capturing her pitching motions and developing research to help figure out how to keep pitchers at the top of their game while avoiding injury. “I’m trying to get some answers to my own questions,” she told Andrew Peters of Torchbearer magazine. “My goal is to help the future girls of softball.” Big surprise: she was the SEC’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Koutsoyanopulos had transferred from Arizona as a first baseman/outfielder. Identifying her as having “the highest softball IQ on the team,” Weekly asked her to move to catcher, where she has been a steadying force for the pitchers and thrown out nine base stealers. An English major from Mission Viejo, California, her father is from Greece and her mother from Trieste, Italy, enabling her to play for Italy’s national team in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
One reason Milloy sees any hittable pitches at all is that third baseman Zaida Puni, a 2022 transfer from Oklahoma, hits in the No. 2 spot. A .372 hjitter, she caught fire in the post-season, slamming five homers. Originally from Carson, California, Puni’s great grandfather played cricket for American Samoa. Her aunt Adrienne Alo played softball at Oregon State. Her uncle Mike Alo played football at USC. “Zaida represents not only her family, but her Samoan community,” said Adrienne to Hall. Puni is also a cousin of UT’s five-star freshman quarterback Niko Iamaleava. “When it comes to Samoans, we’re all connected somehow,” said Puni. Puni, in turn, sees better pitches than she might because the No. 3 hitter, first baseman McKenna “Boo” Gibson—so nicknamed because she resembles the character from Monsters Inc.—had a breakout sophomore year with hit 15 homers.
Still, Milloy is the straw that stirs the drink. Her mom, Claudine, was an All-America hurdler at the University of Washington. Her dad, Lawyer, played baseball and football for the Huskies. He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers but became an All-Pro safety, playing 15 years in the NFL and winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots. Lawyer has coached Kiki and her three softball-playing sisters, setting a standard for hard work and excellence, which Kiki internalized. “She is the most intense person,” her oldest sister, Amirah, who played for the Huskies, said to Hall. “She very much takes after my dad in that regard.”
As hard as Milloy drove herself, this year she learned to ease up on the way she drove her teammates. “I had to really work on my relationships with people,” she admitted in a revealing Hall profile. “I didn’t realize when I first got into college that people might react differently to the way that I say things, or people might not perceive my message as the way I want to be perceived because of the tone I said it in. I wasn’t the leader this team needs me to be. I kind of was just really mean and my team didn’t deserve that. I think some of the freshmen were really, really scared. They’re like, ‘This chick is really unapproachable. We can’t go and talk to her. She’s just going to yell at me all the time.’”
Wrote Hall, “Milloy started putting more effort into understanding her teammates’ personalities and how they wanted to be led.” Along with everything else, Milloy, a neuroscience major, was named as a Torchbearer, the first softball player ever to earn UT’s most prestigious student honor.
A Trickle Down from Coaching Excellence
Like her star player, Karen Kvale grew up in the state of Washington, in Tacoma, with sports-playing sisters. At Pacific Lutheran University, she starred in basketball and was the softball program’s first NAIA All-America. Her last season, her coach was Ralph Weekly. After graduating magna cum laude with a degree in history and political science, Karen started law school at the University of Washington. After playing sports her whole life, she asked herself, “Is this is it? Am I never going to be around sports again?” She asked Weekly if she could help coach, as her schedule allowed.
She earned her law degree in 1990 and became an associate with a Seattle firm. Along the way, she and Weekly started dating. In 1994, a month before their wedding, he got an offer to coach at UT Chattanooga. She became an associate at a law firm in Chattanooga, then taught business law at UTC’s College of Business, which allowed her to coach more with Ralph. When he took over the USA Softball national team in 1999-2000, she successfully skippered the Mocs. They moved to UT in 2002 as co-coaches, as they were until he retired two years ago. (He serves as a special advisor.)
A few years ago, Karen Weekly, the 2023 SEC Coach of the Year, might not have gone for a display like the Mommy Hat and money shower. But as she explained to Hall, “I like to celebrate. I tell them to celebrate everything. Celebrate a walk as much as you do a home run, because everything matters and everything factors into us being successful. So long as our celebrations are about us and never focused or pointed towards an opponent, I’m all for it. I have evolved in a lot of ways. I used to hate cheering. Then I realized that is what kept them in the game and engaged.”