College softball: Pat Summitt, Lady Vols legacy drew pitcher Gabby Sprang to Tennessee
Karen Weekly threw the conversational equivalent of a knee bending change-up when she asked Gabby Sprang: "Are you Norwegian?"
Tennessee's co-head softball coach was speaking by cell phone about five years ago to the highly regarded pitching prospect who was from Rosemount, Minn. Weekly had reason to spring a surprise on Sprang when she called.
Weekly said her family came to Minnesota from Norway before eventually settling in Seattle. Along with her Scandinavian lineage, Weekly also grew up attending a Lutheran church.
"In Minnesota, there's a pretty good chance you're Norwegian and there's a pretty good chance you are Lutheran," Weekly said, "Not 90 percent but 7 out of 10."
So her question was calculated. Turns out Sprang was one of the seven.
"We were like 'Oh my gosh,'" Sprang said. "It was cool. We related."
How Pat Summitt played a role in bringing Sprang to Tennessee
Sprang, the 6-foot-1 left-hander, said that she chose Tennessee primarily because she related to the school's history for supporting women's athletics.
"The No. 1 thing was Pat Summitt and how well they support the Lady Vols," said Sprang, who also played basketball in high school and grew up watching the Tennessee coach and her teams on television.
"We have amazing fans every year, which is like no other place I went to. Here, softball is a big deal and women's athletics is a big deal because of Pat Summitt. That really separated (UT) as well as the amazing (softball) coaches and the winning tradition."
A significant part of that tradition has been restored for this season, thanks to former UT athletic director John Currie's decision last fall to restore usage of the "Lady Vols" name for all women's sports. In so doing, he reversed a 2014 decision that restricted the name's usage to only women's basketball.
A large Lady Vols logo adorns the outfield wall at Lee Stadium.
Can Sprang be the next Monica Abbott?
Sprang is Tennessee's first high-profile left-handed pitcher since Lady Vols superstar Monica Abbott. Left-hander Danielle Pieroni was an outfielder as well as a pitcher from 2006-09.
Sprang met Abbott two years ago and described the meeting as "super cool." Being a left-hander gives Sprang a unique advantage. At least that is what she's been told.
"The hitters here always tell me or like anyone who hits against me that it's hard to see my ball," she said. "It's a different angle. They're not used to it."
A Big Orange thank you to everyone who came to our meet and greet today! What a great way to start the countdown for this season-only more days! pic.twitter.com/3KOg0xtR2v— Tennessee Softball (@Vol_Softball) January 27, 2018
UT's other co-head softball coach, Ralph Weekly, places a higher premium on Sprang's control. He said assistant coach Marty McDaniel has tinkered with Sprang's style a bit, creating some short-term uncertainty.
"Her stuff is really good, her movement is excellent," Karen Weekly said. "It's just being consistent."
A third pitcher to buttress last season's duo of Caylan Arnold and Matty Moss could pay huge dividends for Tennessee, which is ranked No. 12 in the USA Today coaches preseason top 25 poll. The Lady Vols open their season Thursday with a doubleheader against Boise State and No. 23 Arizona State at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz.
In last season's Super Regional against Texas A&M, the Lady Vols finished one victory short of the Women's College World Series. Arnold and Moss allowed 17 hits in the three games but 14 other runners reached via walks or hit batters.
"Our pitchers, we only had two of them, and they were just tiring," Ralph Weekly said.
Sprang placed her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart and said, "We were this close to going to the World Series last year."
She'd like to help close that gap.