The line shot over the centerfield wall with two outs in the fifth inning – all eight of Tennessee’s runs came with two out – kept the Lady Vols in the winner’s bracket and a 2 p.m. Saturday date with Oklahoma State, which defeated Georgia Tech 2-1 in the region’s opener.
“I think the tradition (Tennessee co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly) has built here speaks for itself,” Oklahoma State Coach Rich Wieligman said. “They’ve been to the World Series recently. They come out and play ball. Sometimes when you get
into these situations you get caught up in who you’re playing and the tradition of a program like Tennessee.
“But you still have to catch and throw and get those timely hits and that’s what it comes
down to. You put two good pitchers in the circle and then you play defense and hit. It’s going to be a tough test.”
Liberty (30-29) will now face Georgia Tech (44-11) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in an elimination game. The winner of that matchup will take on the loser of the Tennessee-Oklahoma State game in another elimination contest.
The two teams that survive Saturday will square off at 2 p.m. Sunday with a second game at 4:30 p.m., if necessary, in the double-elimination format. The winner advances to a Super Regional next weekend and the chance to play for one of eight berths in the College World Series.
The attention of Tennessee (48-10) now turns to Oklahoma State (38-17), which showed a propensity for scrappiness and whose pitcher, Kat Espinosa, was able to keep the power of Georgia Tech well in check.
Georgia Tech, which was second in the country with 99 homers this season, was limited to four hits, all singles, and the one run was scored on an error.
“I feel like we were in the zone – a lot more than we have been,” Espinosa said. “Obviously, I thought we wanted it more. I just focus on one pitch at a time and try to hit my spots.”
Georgia Tech arrived in Knoxville as the ACC regular season champion but had sustained two key injuries – senior centerfielder Christy Jones, who had started every game of her career, broke her hand this week in practice and was available only to pinch run and junior rightfielder Jessica Sinclair tore her ACL before the ACC tourney – she suffered the same knee injury near the end of her sophomore season – and is out for the postseason.
“We have a couple people out of position (due to injuries),” Georgia Tech Coach Sharon Perkins said. “We made the decision to give us our best opportunity offensively, so we put Caitlin (Jordan) out there. She’s done a great job.
“The goal for her was to make the routine plays, and they just put it in between us. You can’t cover all the territory.”
Jordan was two of three from the plate and a pinch runner, Kelly Delashmit, scored Georgia Tech’s lone run in the second inning after Jordan sent a line drive into left-center. Alysha Rudnik put down a sacrifice bunt but Oklahoma State third baseman Mariah Gearhart tried to get the lead runner and sailed the throw over the bag and to the outfield wall.
That allowed the speedy Delashmit to score from first and Rudnik to reach third, but a groundout to short and lineout to third limited Georgia Tech to one run.
Oklahoma State answered in the third inning after Gearhart reached on a bunt, stole second and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt. Alysia Hamilton singled to rightfield to bring home Gearhart.
The game remained knotted at one into the seventh inning with Georgia Tech freshman pitcher Lindsey Anderson getting out of a sixth inning jam and leaving two runners stranded. Georgia Tech got two outs in the seventh inning with Kelsey Anchors at second in the scoring position but couldn’t get the last out.
Julie Ward dropped a ball behind second and in front of the rightfielder to bring home Anchors with the winning run. Jordan, the replacement rightfielder for the injured Sinclair, hesitated for a split second as she charged the ball and fielded it on the bounce – and it would have taken a web-gem play to make the catch. Anchors was running on contact with two out and there was no play at home.
Ward battled in a nine-pitch at-bat, including five foul shots and a third ball on a 10-second rule called on Anderson, to take the count to 3-2, before dropping the ball to rightfield.
“I took it pitch-by-pitch,” Ward said. “I had two strikes going for the longest time. I knew they’d try to tease me out but also jam me in, so I just had to stay focused to poke one just like I did, so it worked out well.”
The freshman Anderson will take more than the loss in her first NCAA postseason appearance in the circle.
“I think (this game) taught me that I can definitely hang with the big teams and hang in regionals,” Anderson said. “Even if I get caught in tough jams, I still have stuff I can come back with and fight for my team.
“So it definitely helps my confidence a little bit. But overall it makes me want to fight so I don’t get in those jams in the future.”
The full quotes from Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech can be read online here.
The second game of the evening started as another low-scoring affair as Tennessee held a 1-0 lead over Liberty through four innings. Tennessee didn’t score until the third inning after two quick outs – the usual time for the Lady Vols to plate runs. Entering Friday’s game Tennessee had 143 two-out RBIs and would add eight more to the tally by the end of the evening.
Kat Dotson singled and stole second and then Kelly Grieve singled up the middle to bring home Dotson.
“I think we have a lot of confidence in every person out there and every person on the bench,” Dotson said of the team’s success with two outs. “We just never give up, and that’s what we’ve done all season and what we’ll do for the rest of the year.
“It’s really showing now in the postseason.”
Ivy Renfroe was in control in the circle and a 1-0 run likely would have held up, as the sophomore didn’t allow a hit – it was Renfroe’s third career no-hitter and first in postseason – and the Lady Vols came to bat at the bottom of the fifth inning with the score still 1-0.
That was the perfect start for the Flames of Liberty.
“The defense was awesome,” Flames pitcher Katrina Johnson said. “(Ashley Bensinger) had awesome plays, just everyone in the infield. They were just doing great.”
Johnson did her part by mixing up speeds and keeping the ball out of the power alleys of the sluggers.
“I was trying to hit my corners, just trying to make the ball spin,” Johnson said. “I was trusting my pitching coach, too.”
The sixth inning was precisely what Liberty didn’t want.
“I had some bad pitches, and I got a little nervous and rattled,” Johnson said. “I just have to do better. It was an awesome opportunity to get to play against (Tennessee), because we got rained out in the fall. It was a great opportunity.”
The inning ended up lasting so long that Renfroe went to the bullpen to stay loose for the bottom of the sixth inning and then wasn’t needed when Shipman sent a 2-1 pitch over the outfield wall to bring the game to a run-rule halt.
“I think it caught everyone off guard,” Renfroe said of the explosive inning. “I was in the bullpen and when she hit the grand slam I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I was glad I didn’t have to go back out there.”
The inning started out with two outs as Melissa Davin and then pinch hitter Whitney Hammond grounded out. Raven Chavanne singled to third base – her speed kept Liberty off balance all game – and moved to second on a throwing error.
“We talk about people who are ‘Tennessee fast,’ and we really see it when we come here,” Liberty Coach Paul Wetmore said. “They run the bases well. They have tremendous speed. They put the ball in play.”
Dotson singled to right to bring home Chavanne and then Kelly Grieve singled and the speedy Dotson moved to third.
Grieve stole second and Shelby Burchell was walked – the slugger won the SEC tourney with a monster shot over the centerfield wall last weekend, and she rarely saw a pitch above her knees against Liberty.
Lauren Gibson then singled through the right side of the infield, bringing home Dotson and Grieve with Burchell moving to second.
That brought Liberty pitcher Tiffani Smith to the circle, but the Lady Vols kept swinging with success. Jessica Spigner walked to load the bases and then Shipman stepped to the plate. The fourth pitch she saw left Lee Stadium and a sellout crowd of 1,649, which had been enthusiastic all inning, really let loose.
“I was just trying to get a couple more runs in and keep our team going so the grand slam was kind of a bonus,” Shipman said.
A capacity crowd also is expected for Saturday’s game and several fans watched Friday’s Tennessee game by peeking through the netting in foul territory in rightfield.
The Lady Vols’ next challenge is Oklahoma State, the No. 2 seed in the Knoxville Regional.
“They beat Georgia 1-0 – we know Georgia,” Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said. “They are a team that has beaten a lot of quality opponents. I’ve known their coach for a number of years and he is a solid coach.
“It’s going to be a battle all the way. Our slogan of ‘keep throwing punches’ is going to come to fruition (Saturday). But the fact of the matter is that both of us want to advance, so I think it’s going to be a great game.”
The full quotes from Tennessee and Oklahoma State can be read online here.
Liberty post-game press conference with pitcher Katrina Johnson and Coach Paul Wetmore
Tennessee post-game press conference with Coach Ralph Weekly, pitcher Ivy Renfroe, shortstop Madison Shipman and rightfielder Kat Dotson