No. 19 Baylor softball braces for season-opening series with No. 2 Tennessee

Then-sophomore right-handed pitcher Kaci West (7) launches the ball toward home plate during then-No. 4 seed Baylor softball's first-round game against then-No. 5 seed Iowa State University as part of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Softball Championship on May 11 at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. Michael Haag | Sports Editor

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

Baylor softball head coach Glenn Moore knows what’s coming to town this weekend.

The 19th-ranked Bears are opening the 2024 season with No. 2 Tennessee for a three-game series in Waco. Baylor swept the Lady Volunteers in a two-game series in Knoxville, Tenn. — something Moore said the team won’t forget.

“Maybe [we were] the best team on the scoreboard at the end of the day, but overall, there were some things that fell our way, and we were well aware of that,” Moore said of those wins a year ago.

Tennessee marks Baylor’s highest-ranked opening weekend opponent since 2009, when the Bears faced No. 1 Florida. Moore said he made that tough schedule for a reason.

“I really believe in playing tough early if you can,” Moore said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way when you have a tournament. Can’t always dictate who’s going to be your opponents. But when you play a team like Tennessee — who is a legitimate No. 2 [team] in the country — you know that your offseason training’s going to be attention to detail a little more.”

The Lady Volunteers (1-0) are coming off a 15-0 season-opening win at UT Arlington on Thursday. They finished the 2023 season with a program-best 51-10 record and their first Women’s College World Series berth since 2015.

Senior utility Emily Hott said Tennessee has “great pitching and big hitters” who will present a challenge over the weekend.

“Those are the two things that got them to the World Series,” Hott said. “They obviously lost their ace [Ashley] Rodgers, so that’s going to be an aspect that we’re interested in going into, but [Payton] Gottshall and [Karlyn] Pickens are just as good.

“It’ll be cool to see veteran hitting going up against top pitching like that and how it all turns out.”

Baylor was the only team to hand NFCA Pitcher of the Year Ashley Rogers a loss in 2023. Graduate student Payton Gottshall and sophomore Karlyn Pickens will pick up the slack for Rogers, who exhausted her eligibility.

Gottshall finished last season 16-2 in the circle and held a 1.65 ERA to go with 130 strikeouts. She held opposing batters to a 0.161 average. Pickens, the 2023 SEC Freshman of the Year, went 9-7 in 28 appearances and 16 starts.

Baylor is starting its season at home for the first time since the 2018 season. The Bears returned seven seniors and have 17 upperclassmen from a 2023 squad that won 40 games.

Moore said senior right-handed pitcher Dariana Orme, who was named to the USA Softball Top 50 Player of the Year Watch List, will be on a pitch count this weekend. Orme led Baylor with a 1.92 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 2023.

Orme had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome over the offseason and is still easing her way back into pitching.

“We’re going to manage her appropriately, and we’re not going to risk her to win a ballgame,” Moore said. “We’re going to try to grow her and get her ready little by little. And we’re going to be patient with it, as tough as that might be in some situations. She’s more valuable — her arm’s more valuable — to us over the long haul than it is here in just one weekend.”

Offensively, the Bears brought back a lot of firepower, including junior first baseman Shaylon Govan. A unanimous preseason All-Big 12 selection, Govan hit 0.369 with 11 home runs and 54 RBIs despite tearing her labrum down the stretch of the 2023 season. Govan became the 11th All-American in school history a year ago.

Senior outfielder McKenzie Wilson — who bats leadoff — said the team is preaching a “high-octane offense” for 2024.

“What that means is firing on all cylinders, getting runners on, moving them over, getting them in,” Wilson said. “That’s what you’re going to see this season. … We have a lot of hitters on this team that can find the barrel of the bat.”

Baylor’s series against Tennessee begins with a contest at 5 p.m. on Friday at Getterman Stadium. Due to incoming weather, the Bears and Lady Volunteers will play a doubleheader on Friday, with the second game starting at 7:30 p.m.

The series finale will take place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, and all games will be broadcast on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.

Tennessee is one of seven opponents that Baylor will face in the month of February that are either ranked or receiving votes in the preseason ESPN poll, for a total of 11 games. Moore said a schedule like that gives this group the chance to prove last year’s success was not a fluke.

“If you look back at what kept us from hosting last year, it was the fact that we fell apart at the end,” Moore said. “We had already proven against good talent like Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and teams like that, that we were capable of playing with the big girls and performing at a high level.

“We just didn’t do it consistently enough. You can blame injuries; it obviously played a role, but we had beaten good teams early with the pitching that we had without Dari. For us to fall apart somewhat at the end, I’m hoping that this is a team that’s matured from that — and I believe they have — to grow into a team that would not allow that to happen.”

Michael Haag is a third year Journalism student from Floresville, a small town about 30 miles south of San Antonio. Haag is entering his third year at the Lariat and is hoping to continue developing his sports reporting skill set. After graduation, he plans to work on a Master’s degree in Journalism in order to one day teach at the college level. He does, however, plan on becoming a sports reporter for a publication after grad school.