Lady Vols sweep Arkansas in softball

The Weeklys talk to Raven Chavanne

With five members of the Vols tennis team spelling out S-W-E-E-P on their orange-and-white painted chests, the Lady Vols softball team did just that Sunday with the third win in a row over Arkansas in as many days and, as with the first two games, a run rule contest, this time by the score of 9-1.

Ivy Renfroe (17-3) picked up her second victory over the Razorbacks – she also was the winning pitcher in Friday's game – while little sister Ellen Renfroe (23-3) took Saturday's contest.

Overall, Tennessee (44-7, 20-5) outscored Arkansas (13-38, 3-23) by a whopping 28-2 and stayed in position to win an outright SEC championship, though the final series of the regular season is at Florida (43-8, 18-7) on May 6-7.

"We have a fantastic opponent next week, and we haven't had a lot of success in Gainesville, but we're going to go down and give it our best shot," Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said Sunday. "We feel like we match up fairly good.

"The thing you've got to do to play against Florida is keep the ball in the park. They hit a lot of home runs. They're a very strong team with six seniors, and we're going in there with our babies and one senior. We'll see what can happen."

Said sophomore Ivy Renfroe, who will play a pivotal role from the circle, "It's a rivalry, so it's really fun, and we're excited."

Renfroe got the job done Sunday with a 95-pitch performance, three walks, two of which came in the first inning, and eight strikeouts. The one run that Arkansas scored was unearned.

The Razorbacks got on the scoreboard first in the first inning. Jennifer Rambo walked, and Courtney Breault reached on a fielder's error. Breault hit a roller past the pitcher that shortstop Madison Shipman fielded cleanly but couldn't get the ball out of her glove for the force-out at second.

Amanda Geile singled with a bloop just over the outstretched Shipman to shallow left-center after working the count full, and the runners all advanced to load the bases. Jayme Gee struck out swinging for the second out of the inning – Becca Carden had opened with a short pop-up to Melissa Davin at first – but Jessica Robison walked in a 12-pitch at-bat that included six consecutive offerings that she fouled off before coaxing the pass.

The sellout crowd of 1,649 wanted the strikeout on the final pitch, but the walk scored Rambo. Stephanie Brewer then struck out to leave the bases full.

"We told them that good teams win the ones they're supposed to and then fight for all the others," Weekly said. "We felt like this was a series we had a good shot at winning, and we didn't want to come out and play around. We wanted to come out fired up from the get-go.

"Other than falling behind by a run, we challenged them … what happened to us was this was a very good umpire, and he had a tight plate both ways. We told our kids he's going to call the plate, and you need to respond to that. Ivy struggled a little with that, and we had an error in the first inning, but it was really good to see that they could come from behind."

Tennessee went quietly in the first – Raven Chavanne popped up to the shortstop, who caught the ball in foul territory; Kat Dotson grounded out to the shortstop and Kelly Grieve popped up to third to go down in order – but then the Lady Vols erupted in the second inning and sent nine hitters to the plate.

Lauren Gibson opened the inning with a single up the middle and moved to second when Jessica Spigner also singled up the middle. Shelby Burchell struck out looking, and Davin hit a liner to short for the second out.

With two outs Tennessee, as has been its custom this season, went to work.

"I think it's the personality of our team," Gibson said. "If you look at a lot of our runs that we score, a lot of them are with two outs. Everyone is do or die. We're out there trying to get the runs in."

Shipman reached on a fielding error by the first baseman, and Gibson scooted around from second to score with Spigner moving to third and Shipman advancing to second. Ashley Andrews walked on five pitches to load the bases.

That brought up Chavanne, who has been on a tear from the plate for the past 14 games. While Arkansas pitcher Kim Jones listened to her coach in the circle, the Weeklys spoke to Chavanne before she headed to the plate.

"I told her he's got a tight zone," Weekly said. "I said, ‘You're a great hitter. Don't fool around in there. Get your pitch and drive it.' And that's what she did. Sometimes Raven chucks and ducks in there. I said, ‘Get in there and drive the ball.'

Chavanne laced a ball to left that smacked off the wall, emptying the bases of Lady Vols and leaving Chavanne at second.

"We just don't get tense," Chavanne said of the team's hitting prowess with two out. "We hit really well through our order, one through nine. So if the first couple of people don't get it done, we're not stressing. We know the next person is going to get it done.

"When there's two outs, we don't pay any attention to that. We just go up there and hit."

Chavanne got it done and then some in the three-game series, a continuation of her scorching performance at the plate. She reached base safely nine of the 10 times she came to the plate against the Razorbacks with four doubles, three walks and two singles for a .857 average.

"She is phenomenal," Ralph Weekly said. "I think she just made one out in the series. She's my nominee for SEC Player of the Week."

The sophomore outfielder was 2-3 on Sunday with three RBI and two runs scored and extended her hitting streak to a career-best 14 games. Her league-leading batting average is .473 with a .609 clip over those 14 games.

"I've just been a lot more relaxed," Chavanne said. "I was going through a mental thing so I kind of cleared my head a little bit and just go out there and play. I don't know what my stats are. I don't want to know.

"Just go out and have fun because that's why you played in the first place. If you get so wrapped up in winning, winning, winning, win the SEC championship, you're going to get tight and it's not going to happen."

Chavanne wasn't stranded at second. Dotson followed with a double down the leftfield line to bring Chavanne home for a 5-1 lead. The inning ended with a groundout by Grieve.

Arkansas couldn't muster any more offense – the Razorbacks' final base runner was Breault, who walked in the third inning – as Renfroe mixed her fastball with a wicked curve and a few change-ups. The off-speed pitch was particularly effective.

"It is," Weekly said. "We're going to need that changeup. When you're throwing 70 miles a hour it is effective."

Tennessee got another run in the third that began when Gibson walked. That was followed by a Spigner walk – the pitcher kept the ball down against the slugging third baseman, who hit two home runs in the series, including a grand slam over the scoreboard – with Gibson tagging up and moving to third on a flyout to rightfield by Shelby Burchell.

Davin hit a fly ball to shallow left, and Gibson tagged up again. It looked like there would be a close play at home, but Jones cut off the throw and Gibson scored standing up to increase the Lady Vols lead to 6-1.

Tennessee put the game out of reach in the fourth inning after Gibson sent the first pitch she saw over the leftfield wall. With two runners on base in Chavanne and Whitney Hammond, who pinch hit for Andrews, the Lady Vols reached run-rule territory with a 9-1 lead.

The inning began with perfect execution from the slap hitters as Hammond slid her bat through the hitting zone and connected with a perfect roller to second that left no play at first. Chavanne singled a bunt to the pitcher and again there was no play at first. Dotson moved up both with a sacrifice bunt and then Gibson brought in the small ball base runners with a long ball.

"Tennessee has always been known for their speed," Chavanne said. "We decided to drop in a couple of bunts to get it going. Whitney Hammond got it started beautifully with that slap to second."

Renfroe merely had to hold Arkansas in the top of the fifth to end the game, and she did with two strikeouts sandwiched by Spigner backhanding a ground ball directly in front of third base and throwing out the runner.

One day after playing the fastest game of the season at one hour and 17 minutes, Tennessee wrapped up Sunday's contest in an hour and 27 minutes.

"It's nice for the pitchers," Gibson said. "It allows them to rest more. It's kind of nice going out there and just finishing the game up quick."

A week ago the Lady Vols had the chance to sweep an SEC foe and faltered in the third game against Mississippi State. They dominated all three games in the Arkansas series.

"We told them we're playing for NCAA seeding, and we're playing to win the conference," Weekly said.

Chavanne noted, "Arkansas is a good team. They beat Georgia, and you can't take them lightly. It definitely feels good to get the sweep especially after our disappointment last weekend."

The Lady Vols will now turn their attention to the Gators, the final regular season series with the outright SEC title on the line.

"They are a great team," Gibson said. "It's really nice to have these wins under our belt right now."

"Obviously it's going to be a grind," Chavanne said. "We're at Florida, certainly one of the best teams out there, in Gainesville. It's going to be brutal, but we're looking forward to it."

Tennessee will play next weekend before a hostile crowd. This season's games at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium have been anything but that. Sunday was the second-consecutive sellout and fifth of the year.

Five members of the Vols tennis team, Taylor Patrick, Jarryd Chaplin, John-Patrick "JP" Smith, Hunter Reese and Ryhne Williams, spelled out S-W-E-E-P on their chests and cheered from the first base side of the stands.

From left, Patrick, Chaplin, Smith, Reese and Williams

Fans had to be turned away at the ticket office, and several peeked through a gate near the opponent's bullpen with others perching atop a structure close to the scoreboard or standing near the elevated railroad tracks to look in over the outfield wall.

Given the appeal of the Lady Vol softball team, which loses just one player in the senior Grieve, outfield bleachers may need to be erected next season to accommodate fan interest.

"I've never seen anything like it in the 10 years that I've been here," Weekly said. "This year has just been amazing and hats off to our marketing people and our players. I do think, regardless of where we end up this year, our team is exciting to watch.

"I think that's what brings people out – the mixture, the speed, the power and the good pitching is exciting and it makes for short, quick games."

Weekly also looked forward to hitting the road.

"Whatever happens in Florida is just going to make us better," Weekly said.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Ivy Renfroe

Raven Chavanne

Lauren Gibson

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