Former Lady Vol lefty pitcher Monica Abbott (’07) made history in the spring by signing a six-year, $1 million contract with the Houston Scrap Yard Dawgs of the National Pro Fastpitch league. In a measure of both the growing popularity of pro softball and Abbott’s dominance on the mound, her contract is the largest ever awarded by a single American pro franchise to an active female athlete. Though softball and basketball are very different sports, Abbott’s UT story shows just what an impact Pat Summitt had not only on her players but also on other women at UT.
As a high schooler in Santa Cruz, California, Abbott was recruited by all the softball powerhouses. At 6 foot 3, Abbott had also played basketball all through high school. “My coach was a really big fan of Pat’s,” she says. “So I made a point on my visit [to UT] that I wanted to meet her. When we met, she said, ‘You’re this tall, how come you’re not coming to play basketball?’”
Summitt talked to Abbott about what it means to be a female athlete at UT, stressing that the support women receive at UT is just as good as what the men get. “We talked about building a program, and having a person who was a difference-maker,” Abbott says. “She talked about Chamique Holdsclaw (’99), that the Lady Vols were able to really take off when she came, with all the supporting pieces in place.”
Abbott could have chosen one of the West Coast softball powerhouses, but partly because of her conversation with Summitt, she saw a different opportunity. “Out west, you’re one of a million things going on, and it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle,” she says. “At UT I could help make a difference and establish a program.”
In her first season, Abbott went 45–10 with 582 strikeouts. At the time, only two other college softball pitchers had struck out more than 500 batters in a season. “My sophomore year I started going with Candace Parker (’08) for one-on-one sessions with Pat,” says Abbott. “We talked about leadership, creating a tradition, connecting on a team. We discussed how, when your team looks to you, your actions can bring out the best in other people. Pat talked about Chamique and Kara Lawson (’03) and others. It was awesome for her to share that with me.”
Abbott also challenged Summitt to come to the Women’s College World Series if the softball team made it. “After our victory in 2005 that got us in for the first time,” says Abbott, “the first call on speakerphone on the bus was Pat congratulating us.” It was the first of three straight WCWS appearance for the team. In the last, UT became the first SEC team ever to reach the best-of-three championship series, losing by a whisker to Arizona. That season Abbott was 50–5 with 724 strikeouts. She ended her UT career with a record of 189–34 and 2,440 strikeouts.
Abbott stayed in contact with Summitt from the 2008 Olympics, where Team USA won a silver medal. She also talked with Summitt about playing professional softball in Japan. “I talked with her about how to extend my softball career, looking for more opportunities, which have come along with the growth of pro softball.”
In the days after Summitt’s death, Abbott says, “It meant so much to see how many people she had touched. It was sad, but I was also very grateful for the leadership lessons she gave me and the example she set for me as I was entering a new world of pro softball. In my life as a professional athlete, I think I use the lessons she taught me every day.”
Photos by Jade Hewitt, Courtesy of National Pro Fastpitch