- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It's the middle of January in Knoxville, nearly a month before the Tennessee women's softball team plays its first game. It's cold enough that students are stuck between a saunter and a scurry as they move from class to class, but it's not nearly as frigid as it was during the softball team's recent attempt at an outdoor practice that left all involved shivering and dreaming of spring.
Winter in Tennessee hardly feels like softball weather, which makes it a fitting setting for talking to a person who bucked conventional wisdom and traded in California dreaming for endless renditions of "Rocky Top," who converted many indigenous basketball and football fans into softball aficionados and enters her senior season as the heir apparent to former Texas ace Cat Osterman as the best player in the country.
Monica Abbott has always been able to pitch. She was a prized commodity coming out of North Salinas High School in California, just a short drive down the coast from San Francisco and right in the heart of softball country. She could have been the next great ace at UCLA. She could have signed on at Cal, just two years removed from a national championship in 2002. She could have gone anywhere.
She chose Tennessee, a program that hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament in years and which was just one season removed from an 8-17 record in the SEC, a relative softball backwater compared to the Pac-10.
Four years later, it all makes sense. Not just because Abbott and the Lady Vols are heavy favorites to make a third consecutive appearance in the Women's College World Series, opening the season ranked No. 2 in the nation behind defending champion Arizona. It makes sense because Abbott needed all that space to grow. Not literally -- she brought the lanky 6-foot-3 frame that provides the leverage for her power with her to college -- but figuratively as the person behind those pitches.
It didn't hurt that Tennessee had co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly behind the original sales pitch. The husband-and-wife team took over the program two years before Abbott arrived and began laying the groundwork for expanding the recruiting horizon and lifting the program out of the doldrums. So while Tennessee wasn't originally on Abbott's radar, she quickly grew enamored with the challenge of building a legacy.
"I was kind of set more on UCLA, or maybe going somewhere close like Cal, and just looking at my options," Abbott said. "As things evolved, [the Weeklys] were persistent, and I gave them the chance to kind of set their case. And they did a great job. I knew that the University of Tennessee, as a whole, had the means and the determination to go after and want to get a winning program."
In the end, the distance between the school and home mattered far less to her than the distance she felt she could help carry the program.
"I think it's hard to go anywhere as a freshman," Abbott said. "[Tennessee] is a little bit different, but you have to go in knowing it's different. You can't go in thinking it's the same as where you're from."
Not that the transition to the land of Pat Summitt, Peyton Manning and Waffle House's scattered, smothered and covered hash was entirely free of unforeseen hurdles.
"It took awhile to get used to -- some of the people that I met were really, really country," Abbott laughed. "And for awhile, I was like, 'I'm not sure I understand what they're saying.' But now I go home and people are like, 'You came back with an accent; why are you saying y'all?' "
Success on the field required no such adjustment period. As was the case at Texas when Osterman arrived, Tennessee became an instant national contender with its new ace in the circle. The Lady Vols won a school-record 55 games in 2004, with Abbott getting credit for 45 of them. She struck out 582 batters and became the school's first softball All-American as the Lady Vols returned to the NCAA Tournament.
The next two years saw even more firsts. Abbott improved to 50-9 with 603 strikeouts in 392 innings as a sophomore, and the Lady Vols made their first trip to the Women's College World Series after she allowed just three hits in back-to-back shutouts against Stanford in the super regionals. After losing the opener to UCLA in Oklahoma City, the team bounced back with two wins before falling to eventual champion Michigan and settling for what went into the record books as a third-place finish.
On the surface, Abbott's junior season was another successful building block. The Lady Vols proved the previous season's success was no fluke, returning to Oklahoma City and finishing third for the second year in a row. But building a dynasty in four years requires a certain degree of impatience, and Abbott had mixed feelings about the accomplishment.
"I guess last year was kind of disappointing for me," Abbott admitted. "Like I felt like we had a really strong chance last year to come back and do really well. And to come back and win third place again was kind of a little bit frustrating. But in the same sense, it's also, you know -- how many teams get to go to the World Series and place third? But just coming back and placing third again, kind of put this burning fire in you to come back. You want to beat that third-place finish; you want to take it all."
She is ready to lead the way.
Early in her career at Tennessee, Abbott sometimes appeared as nervous and uncomfortable in the spotlight off the field as opposing hitters appeared trying to catch up with her rise ball on the field. Mixed with an internal drive that made Abbott her own harshest critic, it left some wondering if she had the intangibles to lead a team to a championship.
She still doesn't carry herself with the same air of cool, almost icy confidence as Osterman or offer up answers as assertively as former Michigan ace Jennie Ritter. All things considered, she might rather just let her pitching do most of the talking. But she seems comfortable with all of that; she seems comfortable with who she is.
Sitting in an empty conference room in the school's athletic offices, she is at ease, offering advice on how many layers to pack for a mid-February trip to Palm Springs (home of the Palm Springs Desert Classic and surprisingly cool evening temperatures) and talking enthusiastically about being able to attend the women's basketball game against Duke that night.
It might be a little much to say the perfectionist in Abbott has been pacified, but the world is a less stressful place when you at least acknowledge the existence of imperfection.
"I could pitch a perfect game and strike out everyone, and I'll still be sitting after the game, thinking I should have done this better," Abbott said. "And I think that's the nature of athletes, is they always want to try and get better, they always want to look for something. So I think that's one thing I always try and do. I try not to be so mean, I guess, to myself anymore, but I'm still definitely on myself to get better and work harder."
Whatever happens this season, all that hard work portends a bright future in the sport. She spent the summer as part of the national team that won both the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City and the World Championships in China, and she pitched the clincher against Japan when the United States won the Japan Cup in November. Even in a crowded pitching picture that includes Osterman, Jennie Finch and Lisa Fernandez, she has a terrific shot at making the Olympic roster for 2008, the last time the sport will be included in the Olympics.
But for now, thoughts of China and a future in professional softball are on hold. Oklahoma City is at the center of Abbott's thoughts, and she may have the team around her to take that final step. The Lady Vols lost some key faces to graduation in Sarah Fekete, Kristi Durant and Katherine Card (as well as the transfer of reserve Natalie Brock), but they also added a prized recruiting class that should help keep Tennessee's offense producing at a high level. And with junior Megan Rhodes, who went 17-2 with a 1.40 ERA last season, around to keep Abbott fresh, the Lady Vols have a proven commodity behind their ace.
Between the freshmen settling in and positional upheaval which includes senior Lindsay Schutzler moving from shortstop to outfield and Tonya Callahan potentially shifting from first base to third base, the preseason has been active, alleviating any concerns about stagnation.
"I think there are some really good freshmen," Abbott said. "I think it's going to be interesting; there is a lot of competition on our team right now. I think that's really going to help us in the end. I'm looking forward to seeing them play, and I think as long as we all meld together and everything, it should be a fun season."
Spring will soon arrive in Knoxville for the fourth time since Abbott came to town with dreams of bringing a national championship to Tennessee. Whether or not that dream is realized in June, her growth on and off the field has transformed the banks of the Tennessee River into fertile softball soil, no matter how much the ball stings in those early practices.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.