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Front Page - Friday, February 24, 2017

Arnold faces high expectations




Caylan Arnold never met a challenge she didn’t like, and she’s taking on a new one almost every day this spring.

The 2016 Maryville High School graduate has emerged as one of the top pitchers for Tennessee’s softball team, ranked No. 15 in both major preseason polls.

As Arnold stands in the lobby of UT’s Sherri Parker Lee Stadium, she marvels at where she is, playing for one of the nation’s top programs, one with a history of producing top pitchers.

And there are the expectations and pressure. Tennessee co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly expect to be in the Women’s College World Series every year with a chance of winning it.

“Yeah, I think there’s always going to be pressure, because playing for a top program like this, and having the fan base we have, you want to do great for everybody,” Arnold said last Friday.

“I definitely look up to the people on this wall. I absolutely love the Renfroe twins (Ellen and Ivy), and Monica (Abbott), and all them, so there’s definitely a lot of pressure.”

Abbott, who pitched for UT from 2004-07, headlines a group of former elite Lady Vol pitchers that includes the Renfroe sisters of Jackson, Tennessee.

Arnold, a 5-foot-7 right-hander, has a ways to go before she reaches their status, but she’s wasted little time making an impact for Tennessee. She’s 4-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 20 innings through Tennessee’s first nine games.

Only sophomore Matty Moss has pitched more than Arnold, who appears to be the No. 2 pitcher on UT’s staff.

Did she have any idea she’d be in this situation so early?

“My goal is to always try and be the best that I can be, no matter what,” Arnold said. “I mean, it’s just a total blessing. I never would have thought that I’d even be at Tennessee, much less getting to do what I’m getting to do. It’s been really awesome.”

Arnold committed to Tennessee in February of 2015 before her junior year at Maryville, choosing the Lady Vols over softball powers Washington and Florida State. She was primarily a basketball player while living in Dyersburg, before moving to Maryville in 2013.

After her freshman year at Maryville, Arnold gave up basketball and focused on pitching in private sessions. She started for Maryville in the outfield in 2013. As a sophomore in 2014, Arnold became Maryville’s No. 2 pitcher behind Madison Ogle, who now pitches at East Tennessee State University, and went 5-1 with a 2.70 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 59.2 innings.

Arnold became Maryville’s No. 1 in 2015 and went 25-8 with a 0.59 ERA.

As a senior in 2016, Arnold was selected Class AAA Miss Softball by the Tennessee Softball Coaches Association after posting a 21-2 record and 0.56 ERA with 336 strikeouts and 32 walks. She threw eight shutouts, four no-hitters, and two perfect games as Maryville went 36-11-3 and reached the Region 2-AAA semifinals.

Her success at Maryville wasn’t limited to the pitcher’s circle. Arnold hit .360 during her four-year career with 107 RBIs and 23 homers.

Karen Weekly, who works with UT’s pitchers and calls their pitches, says Arnold will be able to handle the duties as one of UT’s top pitchers.

“I think over time she will be able to,” Weekly said. “She’s a tough kid and she wants the ball. She doesn’t back down from anything, but she’s still going to encounter the challenges that any freshman does, just like Matty Moss did last year. Matty didn’t come in here and set the world on fire, and she wasn’t the ace, and now she’s the staff veteran.

“That’s just the way things went, so I think you’re still going to see us use our entire staff, and everybody’s going to have to shoulder their share of the load, but Caylan has a lot of great things going for her, and I think over time she’s going to be a very successful pitcher here.”

Arnold settled into college life and softball last fall, and it wasn’t the easiest of transitions. She had to learn to manage time with academics and softball, and when she first stepped into the circle for a scrimmage, had a reality check.

“I was literally shaking,” she said.

Not anymore.

She’s learning every day from Karen Weekly.

“One thing that’s really different from high school and college is the mental aspect of it,” Arnold said. “Mentally you’ve got to be there every single pitch, but you also have to have a short memory at the same time.

“Like, if your pitch doesn’t do what you wanted it to do, you’ve got to forget about it, and you’ve got to move on to the next one.

“Karen is one of the smartest pitching, softball-wise individuals I’ve ever met. I love talking with her, and I’m excited because I’ve learned so much in such a short amount of time. I’m so excited for these next four years and what I’m going to learn from her.”

There will be a freshman learning curve. SEC competition will test Arnold. She’s not intimidated.

“I’m excited,” Arnold said. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m ready. I’ve always, ever since I was little, wanted to play against the best, and that’s what I get to do.”

Tennessee, picked to finish fifth in the SEC preseason coaches’ poll, improved to 9-0 with two victories Sunday (Feb. 19) – over Northern Colorado, 16-1, and Oregon State, 14-0, during the second day of the Troy Cox Classic in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The Lady Vols played New Mexico State in their final game Monday (Feb. 20) in Las Cruces before heading to the Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City, Calif., where they play five games starting with a Thursday double-header against Oklahoma and UC Santa Barbara.

Here’s a look at UT players to watch (statistics through Feb. 19 games):

UT players to watch

Matty Moss

5-foot-9 sophomore pitcher, J.L. Mann Academy, Greenville, South Carolina

Moss takes over as UT’s No. 1 with the departures of 2016 seniors Rainey Gaffin (9-3, 2.32 ERA, 90.1 innings) and Erin Gabriel (21-7, 2.36 ERA, 145.1 innings). She’s 4-0 with a 1.46 ERA through nine games, but had a tough outing in an 8-6 win over DePaul last Saturday (five hits, four earned runs, 2.0 innings).

Last year, Moss went 12-5 with a team-best 1.68 ERA as a true freshman, and she posted a 7-2 record in the SEC. Moss is majoring in sociology with a career goal of becoming an FBI agent.

Meghan Gregg

5-foot-9 junior, shortstop, Flint River Academy, Williamson, Georgia

Gregg, a team captain, is in her third year as the starting shortstop after taking over for Madison Shipman, a senior in 2014 and currently a volunteer coach at Tennessee.

She’s got team-highs with a .583 batting average, 18 RBIs, two homers and four doubles through nine games after being chosen to the coaches’ 2017 preseason All-SEC team.

Last year, Gregg set career-highs with a .383 average and 61 RBIs, among numerous other categories, and earned All-SEC honors. She stole 14 bases in 16 attempts. As a freshman, she started 64 games at shortstop and hit 13 homers, tied for third-most ever for a UT freshman, while hitting .314 with 51 RBIs.

Gregg came to Tennessee as one of its most highly touted recruits after leading Flint River to a Georgia State title, hitting .766 with seven homers and 31 RBIs, and being chosen 2014 Gatorade Softball Player of the Year for the state.

Megan Geer

5-foot-8 senior outfielder/utility, Los Alamitos High, Los Alamitos, California

Geer, chosen to the coaches’ 2017 preseason All-SEC team, is Tennessee’s most versatile position player and appears to have settled into the outfield this season. She’s second on the team with a .571 batting average and her 10 RBIs are second behind Gregg’s through nine games.

Last year, Geer played third base and had career-highs with a .368 average and 55 RBIs, among other career-highs, and led the team in stolen bases with 25 in 26 attempts. She started 64 games at second base as a sophomore in 2015 and hit .306 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs.

As a true freshman, Geer hit .297 with six homers and 33 RBIs, starting 43 games at second base and 15 in center field.

Not only was Geer a star softball player for Los Alamitos, she’s had a black belt in Hapkido (Korean martial arts) since 2005. She’s also a UT team captain this year.

Brooke Vines

5-foot-8 outfielder/utility, Palos Verdes Peninsula High, Rancho Palos Verdes, California

Vines is playing first base and designated player this season and is fourth on the team in hitting with a .500 average and tied for team-high (with Gregg) with 14 hits through nine games. She’s second on the team in stolen bases with six in six attempts.

As a true freshman in 2016, Vines played left field and was fourth on the team with a .360 average and was second on the team in steals with 19 in 20 attempts.

Aubrey Leach

5-foot-4 sophomore infielder, The Woodlands High, The Woodlands, Texas

Leach is starting at second base for the second consecutive year.  Batting leadoff, she’s fifth on the team with a .423 average and has the team-high six steals in six attempts through nine games. She’s second on the team with 14 runs – one behind Geer – and has four RBIs.

Jenna Holcomb

5-foot-7 freshman outfielder, Los Alamitos High, Los Alamitos, California

Holcomb earned the starting job in left field and has taken advantage. Her .520 batting average is third on the team through nine games, and she’s got eight RBIs with a .760 slugging percentage.

Holcomb’s father, Ted, played minor league baseball in the Dodgers and Braves’ organizations. Jenna’s UT ties run deep: She was a high school teammate of Geer at Los Alamitos and was a club teammate of Vines and Taylor Rowland.

Chelsea Seggern

5-foot-8 freshman infielder, Thrall High, Thrall, Texas

Seggern goes into the third week of the season as the starter at third base with no errors through nine games, but she’s struggling at the plate with a .211 average (four hits in 19 at-bats).

In each of her high school seasons, Seggern hit .677 or higher and finished with 20 homers and 124 RBIs. And she was a pitcher, striking out 749 in her career.

Seggern was also a three-sport star at Thrall High, earning all-state honors in volleyball and all-district honors in basketball.

Scarlet McSwain

5-foot-9 junior catcher/outfielder, Henry County High, Paris, Tennessee

McSwain has started each of the first nine games at either catcher or in the outfield, alternating at catcher with Abby Lockman.

As a sophomore in 2016, McSwain started 42 games primarily at designated player and hit .253 with three homers and 21 RBIs – a drop from her freshman year when she started 53 games and hit .294 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs.

C.J. McClain

 5-foot-6 junior outfielder, Stratford High, Nashville

McClain is Tennessee’s center fielder with nine starts through nine games, but she’s hitting just .235 with four hits in 17 at-bats.

In 2016, McClain played in 54 games with 22 starts and hit .283 with no homers and three RBIs. She hit .200 with one homer and five RBIs as a freshman.

McClain, cousin of former UT and NFL standout “Big” John Henderson, was clocked at 2.5 seconds in the dash to first base during high school.

Abby Lockman

5-foot-8 sophomore catcher/infielder, Norco High, Corona, California

Lockman is the catcher and designated player, alternating with McSwain, and is hitting .333 with two homers and 11 RBIs through the first nine games (seven starts).

As a freshman in 2016, Lockman played in 38 games with 27 starts, but hit just .167 in 66 at-bats. She hit a school-record 32 homers during her high school career.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.