*Editorial note: Use of the term “the Bears” refers to the Baylor softball team, not the Mercer Bears. Mercer will be noted as “Mercer” or “MU.”
By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Being a head coach means having to adapt and adjust on the fly.
When No. 21 Baylor softball head coach Glenn Moore scheduled the Tennessee Invitational, his plan was to keep his team playing competitive softball outside of Big 12 play.
What Moore didn’t realize was that one of the teams the Bears (27-9, 2-4 Big 12) would be facing is now a top-five squad in the country. He also couldn’t have predicted that he’d only have three listed pitchers that are healthy enough to play, and his group has to take part in four games across two days.
But that’s part of the game, and the head coach in his 23rd year at Baylor isn’t a stranger to adversity.
“We talked about it yesterday at our team meeting [about] why we would do this,” Moore said. “This is a team I had great confidence in going into the season and they’ve proven they can compete with the best. We’ve had a win against No.1 and then we let an 11-inning game slip away somehow that we felt we played well enough to win, and now we get to play No. 5. It’s an opportunity to not just get better but to prove we’re worthy.”
The Bears will face No. 5 (USA Today / NFCA Division I Top 25 Coaches Poll) University of Tennessee and Mercer University in the two-day event. It starts Thursday and closes Friday, and Friday will consist of a doubleheader for Baylor. The team will have a one-game break in between contests on Thursday.
Junior utility Emily Hott said a midweek tournament like this is “exciting” and that it presents a unique opportunity for Baylor.
“Anytime you get to go play high-caliber competition like Tennessee, especially being ranked in the top 5, there’s nothing you can do but be excited about it and be ready to step up for the competition,” Hott said. “And not only is it out of conference, [but] we get to go play some SEC [Southeastern Conference] teams, kind of show them what the Big 12 is all about and just see how tough we can be against them.”
Hott ranks second on the team in RBIs with 21, trailing sophomore first baseman Shaylon Govan, who has 38.
The green and gold hasn’t played since last Saturday, when it clinched a conference series win against the University of Kansas. The Bears went 4-1 on the week as a whole, courtesy of two midweek wins over the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas State University.
Not only is the upcoming Tennessee Invitational a break from Big 12 competition, but it also has the vibe of a Super Regional schedule to Moore. He’s led his squads to six NCAA Super Regional appearances, and he said this road swing could have a “similar feeling” to it.
“We’re certainly playing a great team,” Moore said. “It’s exciting and we talked about how exciting it would be to go up there and play in their backyard, the challenge and again being the underdog which is a challenge we’re very familiar with.”
Baylor won the only game it has ever played against Mercer (12-24, 3-3 Southern Conference), which was a 2-1 ballgame on Feb. 14, 2003 at a neutral site location. The Bears are tied 4-4 with Tennessee in their all-time matchups, defeating them twice at home. The Volunteers (29-3, 10-2 SEC) hold a 4-2 edge over the green and gold at neutral sites, and the two programs will meet for the first time in Knoxville, Tenn., on Thursday.
Junior outfielder McKenzie Wilson said she’s approaching this Tennessee Invitational like it’s postseason play. Wilson, who has 14 RBI on the year and is hitting .348 on 112 at-bats, said the excitement to play this road swing is felt around the roster.
“I have never been, I’ve been to Chattanooga, Tenn., but never Knoxville,” Wilson said. “But I just hear that the environment there is one of a kind. To be in that atmosphere, it’s just preparation for when [the] postseason does arrive.”
Moore also noted that this is a “home-and-home” matchup with UT, as it will travel to Waco for Baylor’s opening tournament in 2024.
Following the successful weekend against the Jayhawks, Moore said the Bears have a real chance to rise in the weekly rankings. He said the group needs to be able to play well for a whole game, rather than for spurts or instances within a contest.
“When we get to that point — hopefully we’ll get to that point — we’ll certainly be a top 20 team,” Moore said. “We’re right at it now. We’ll be a top 15 team. With [Dariana Orme] in the circle, I think we can compete with anybody. We’ve proven that. RyLee [Crandall] is coming on. We mostly just need to get some consistency, timely hitting. We’re barreling up on balls, our positive at-bats are good, but we’re just not getting the timely hits that we need.”
Baylor’s first game will be at 9 a.m. Thursday against MU. After a brief break, it’ll play Tennessee at 2 p.m. on the same day. On Friday, the Bears face Mercer at 9 a.m. before playing the Volunteers at approximately 11:30 a.m.
All times listed are in Central Standard Time zone and all matches will be played at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.
- Moore said Govan has practiced but that she’s limited due to her lingering shoulder injury. He said “it’s really a matter of pain tolerance” in terms of her being able to play or not.
- Sophomore right-handed pitcher Ava Knoll is back from her shin reaction injury, but Moore said she’ll be on a low pitch count. Knoll will help bolster the depleted bullpen of junior right-handed ace Dariana Orme, freshman right-handed pitcher RyLee Crandall and sophomore right-handed pitcher Kaci West.