Ashley Rogers walked out of a dugout for the final time Monday night following Tennessee's 5-1 semifinal loss to Florida State in the Women's College World Series.
It wasn't easy.
The fifth-year senior out of Meigs County shared an embrace with Lady Vols coach Karen Weekly, and Tennessee athletic director Danny White provided words of appreciation. The Lady Vols made program history this spring by sweeping the Southeastern Conference's regular season and tournament titles for the first time, and this was their first WCWS semifinal appearance in a decade.
"They just said that they were so proud of me, and they thanked me for choosing Tennessee and for coming back," Rogers said Monday night in what became an emotional news conference. "As I'm stepping off the field for the final time, I'm feeling a lot of emotions, but the ones I feel the most are of gratitude and love and pride for being able to wear Tennessee across my chest.
"My father passed away when I was 16, and he was the biggest Tennessee fan. He was laid to rest in a Tennessee orange shirt, and he has a 'Power T' on his headstone. I think that says the most about what Tennessee means to me."
Not all stories have deserving endings, but Rogers saved her best for last, posting a 20-1 record this season that included an 0.92 earned run average. Her final two victories transpired in Oklahoma City, where Tennessee had not advanced since 2015.
Rogers amassed dizzying career numbers as well with 131 appearances, 97 starts and a 79-24 record, but it was her influence both inside and out of the circle that will leave a lasting impact.
"It's been such a joy playing with her and getting to know her not just as an athlete but as a person and how much she cares and loves life and loves the people around her," senior center fielder Kiki Milloy said while choking back tears. "She carries herself with so much poise and so much confidence that it just rubs off on all of us.
"It's going to be a big hole when she leaves this team. COVID sucked, but it gave us another year together, and I'm so grateful to have had that extra year."
Rogers leaves a well-rounded legacy at Tennessee similar to those of former quarterback Josh Dobbs and former first baseman Luc Lipcius, who both majored in aerospace engineering. Kinesiology, the study of human movement, was the academic path for Rogers, who has put countless hours into detailing the pitching motion and its stress on the body.
"Ashley is brilliant," Weekly said. "Ashley is going to be a doctor. You're talking 4.0 through undergrad in kinesiology and a 4.0 through her master's in biomechanics. At Tennessee, we let them study whatever they want, and there is no major that is off limits, because I'm a big believer that this isn't about four years, but it's about 40 years.
"I went to college to be a lawyer, and I practiced law for five years and taught business law at the college level for six years. I had coaches and professors who made sure they helped me so I could play sports and do well in school. It's so cool to see someone have such a passion for her studies like Ashley does."
The 2024 Lady Vols will be the first since the 2018 Lady Vols without Rogers on the roster, though she did miss the COVID-shortened 2020 season due to injury. Tennessee has the potential to bring back pitchers Payton Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens and every member of the starting lineup, which is certain to lead to lofty expectations.
Yet Weekly is already tempering that kind of talk.
"We do return a lot, and we were put in a lot of situations this year where we had to learn how to win," Weekly said. "We played free and we played with joy, and that's the biggest thing I want this team to remember as we go into next year. No two teams are ever alike. I've coached too long to know there are no guarantees.
"Next year's team is going to have its own personality, but there will be a lot of people who have learned a lot of these valuable lessons."
That personality will no longer include Rogers, which will be an adjustment in itself.
"It was a tough decision for her to come back this year because she's had so many injuries," Weekly said. "She's dealt with pain and has been shut down a lot, and it's been frustrating for her because she's such a competitor. Ashley spent the first four years of her career trying to be a perfectionist and really not finding the joy because she was trying to be perfect."
Said Rogers: "I'm just so proud of this team, and I'm just so grateful that I got to spend this opportunity with them. The greatest thing of it all was just being here and playing for each other."
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].