Five-year starters Amanda Ayala, Ashley Morgan shine in Tennessee softball's sweep vs. Auburn
The first three outs in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Auburn were a common occurrence for Tennessee softball the last five years: Amanda Ayala making two catches in left field with ease and a ball caught securely at first base by Ashley Morgan.
The two fifth-year seniors suited up for their last regular season game at home, Ayala starting in her 206th game, Morgan her 225th as Lady Vols. They’ve been staples at Tennessee since earning starting positions as freshmen, which Tennessee coach Karen Weekly said is unusual for an established, top-ranked program.
Their veteran experience has played a significant role all season and was on display in the No. 14 Lady Vols’ third win to sweep No. 15 Auburn (39-14, 11-13 SEC) at Lee Stadium. They were involved in all the runs scored – Ayala scoring the first inning after getting on base with a walk and Morgan in the second an RBI single. Ayala’s home run over the left field fence in the sixth to secure the win for UT (38-15, 15-8).
UT won twice Saturday, 5-2 and 7-4, to clinch a double bye in the SEC Tournament in Gainesville, Florida, and won't play until Thursday (noon, SEC Network) against the winner of Wednesday's game between No. 6 LSU (34-20, 13-11) and No. 11 Mississippi State (32-13, 10-14).
“I think, honestly, their best is ahead of them here in these next few weeks,” Weekly said. “I think they're the kind of seniors that are really going to appreciate every moment that they have playing and not put pressure on themselves, but just really enjoy the opportunity they've been given.”
Ayala and Morgan called their time as Lady Vols a rollercoaster, from back-to-back appearances in the NCAA super regional their freshman and sophomore seasons to the pandemic ending their junior years halfway through the season.
They’re two of four players in their class to stay their whole careers. When lockers had to be moved to a different spot this season, they were adamant theirs stayed next to each other.
“Man, it is awesome,” Ayala said of her bond with Morgan. “It's actually funny, we always feel like we are on at the same time and off at the same time, it's crazy. I think every time she does anything I have this added joy for her, just to be so close … we're all teammates and we're all sisters to each other, but there's something a little extra, just going through what we've gone through all five years together.”
The quiet, steady leaders
Weekly said Ayala and Morgan are the kind of players she knows take care of business in the classroom, who make the right decisions on and off the field.
“There's a huge impact in players that you don't have to worry about – and those are two I don't have to worry about,” Weekly said. “I just know that their mission focused … They're at that place and they're great models for everybody else.”
Morgan has been a steady presence at first base. Weekly will always remember her pride in her defense and the work she puts in to her craft, which has led to a career .990 fielding percentage.
“You know what you're gonna get every single day,” Weekly said of Morgan. “Her teammates have a tremendous amount of respect for the way she goes about her business. The example she sets for everybody with her work ethic, her attention to detail – you can see it in the way she plays defense at first base.”
Ayala, an outfielder, has been a consistent batter for Tennessee and has been second in batting average the last two seasons. But she's crucial to team culture, too. Weekly called Ayala "a mother hen" to everyone on the team, always lending a listening ear. Ayala takes pride in that role.
"I think I'm proud of how I've used my strengths to improve the team in ways both physically and emotionally,” Ayala said. “Because there's more to it than just softball and I know I've used strengths to help us on the field, but I think I play a big role in the whole chemistry that we have, too.”
Striving to carry on legacy
Since coming in as freshman, Ayala said her and Morgan have always talked about the Lady Vols who came before them. The tradition of success within the program started before them and would continue after they left.
“Just that idea of leaving a place better than you found it, in whatever way you can, like people before you have done,” Ayala said. “That's something I feel like Ashley and I have clung to and talked about on different occasions.”
For Morgan, carrying on the legacy and leaving that impression on the younger players has always been at the forefront of her mind. But she also wants to leave her mark on the program by getting to the College World Series – it’s part of why she came back, to see it through with Ayala.
“The overall goal has always been getting to a World Series and I think it's been a roller coaster ride these five seasons,” Morgan said. “But I think we've learned a lot and grown a lot both personally and as players. I think this year we have a really good shot with this team and this group of girls – wouldn’t want to do with anyone else right now.”