Lady Vols survive to face Cowgirls

Ralph Weekly congratulates Lauren Gibson

The Lady Vols recovered from a crushing loss to start play Saturday with a dominating win in the nightcap to keep the postseason on track for Tennessee, which will have its gloves full today as it tries to twice defeat Oklahoma State to advance to a Super Regional.

Tennessee (49-11) will have added incentive Sunday as Texas was upset at home by Louisiana-Lafayette and has been ousted from the NCAA softball tourney.

That means the Lady Vols would host a Super Regional if they can somehow take out Oklahoma State (39-17), which put itself in control by staying in the winner's bracket with a 6-1 win over Tennessee in the first game Saturday.

"To stay in the winner's bracket and not having to play two games in this heat, it's pretty big," Oklahoma State Coach Rich Wieligman said after the Cowgirls' win over Tennessee. "I don't know if they realize this, but a week ago today we played in 40-degree weather and 30-degree weather at Nebraska. So we've gone to extremes basically, weekend to weekend.

"I thought they did a great job of handling it. I know they do a really good job of taking care of themselves, drinking plenty of water, and doing things they need to do when they're not playing ball. It pays off in these types of situations, for sure."

It was just the fourth loss at home all season for the Lady Vols and the previous three were all conference foes in Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State. Saturday's game was reminiscent of the late April loss to Mississippi State in that Tennessee started flat and never fully recovered.

"We were trying to be upbeat but I didn't quite feel the energy there and I'm sure Ellen (Renfroe) would agree with me," said Tennessee sophomore outfielder/third baseman Raven Chavanne. "Against a team like Oklahoma State, you can't come in flat and have to be ready from the beginning.

"We learned our lesson and now we have to come back and win three more. We just have to flush it, look past it and keep going."

The lesson was absorbed as the Lady Vols started the Georgia Tech game setting the terms instead of having them dictated.

Oklahoma State had opened with a 2-0 lead over Tennessee in the first two innings. The Lady Vols doubled that by taking a 4-0 lead in the top of the first against Georgia Tech on the strength of a three-run homer by sophomore Lauren Gibson that cleared the rightfield wall and struck the top of a portable toilet facility – cracking the structure – in the parking lot.

Gibson wasn't done as she blasted a line drive to centerfield off the scoreboard in the third inning for a two-run homer to give Tennessee a 6-0 lead. In the fourth inning Gibson singled up the middle to bring home Kat Dotson for a 7-0 lead, making the diminutive second baseman responsible for six of the Lady Vols' seven runs.

That score held up as Ivy Renfroe pitched seven innings of two-hit softball – Georgia Tech (45-12) didn't get its first hit until the fifth inning, a hard shot off the glove of third baseman Jessica Spigner – and struck out 10 batters while walking just one.

"I said earlier today that we weren't done, and we're not done," Tennessee Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said Saturday night after the win over Georgia Tech. "We've got a very tough Oklahoma State team, and we have to beat them twice to advance. We are going to do everything we can to accomplish that.

"I think we can play better than we played today, I'll tell you that. As far as this game goes, Ivy was just fantastic, gave our offense a chance to get started, and they started in the early innings.

"Lauren made some great adjustments between the two games. She is just a student of the game, and we talked to her about not trying to kill the ball and just meeting the ball and not being a little bit of a contortionist when she is hitting, just stand up and drive it. She just had a fantastic game."

Saturday was elimination day in the Knoxville Regional, and Liberty (30-30) was the first to bow out but not before acquitting itself very well against Georgia Tech.

"First of all, we are thankful for the opportunity to come here and represent Liberty and Jesus Christ," Liberty Coach Paul Wetmore said. "I'm really proud of the way our kids did this whole tournament. They stepped up and competed. When we first got here, I talked to the team about the last time we went to the NCAA Regionals in 2002. We played UCLA, No. 1 in the country, and when it got all said and done, Sue Enquist, Hall of Fame coach, said to me ‘All you can do is ask your kids to step up and compete,' so that's what we did here.

"So I'm really proud of the way we came and competed each and every game and pressured them. It was a good start for us to get that lead and pressure them for four innings in a row and then come down at the very end and we're one hit away from a tie go-ahead right there. I'm very proud of the way our team performed here."

The Flames held a 2-1 lead over the ACC champions until the fifth inning when Georgia Tech's Hope Rush pinch hit and drove in Christy Jones – who was limited to pinch running after breaking her hand in practice this week – and ACC Player of the Year Kelsi Wesserman singled to leftfield to bring home Hayley Downs and take a one-run lead.

The runs came with two outs – same as Tennessee did to Liberty – and Georgia Tech increased the lead to 4-2 in the sixth inning, but Liberty cut the deficit to one, 4-3, in the seventh inning and had runners on second and third with two out. Pinch hitter Jill Stephens struck out, and Georgia Tech survived to face Tennessee in the day's second elimination game.

"I'm so proud of them," said Liberty senior third baseman Ashley Bensinger, who flashed some nifty glove work in the regional, of her team's performance. "I think like coach said, the best we can do is go out there (and compete). He asked us to show up and we did the best we could."

Liberty certainly made Georgia Tech work for the win and assured that the Yellow Jackets would not be well rested for the game against Tennessee. When it was suggested that the Weeklys should at least send a fruit basket to the Flames, Wetmore smiled.

"We appreciate that comment," Wetmore said. "They're a great team. … We're very proud of the opportunity to play against them as well as we did."

Unlike its first game of the day against Oklahoma State, the Lady Vols wasted no time getting on the scoreboard against Georgia Tech as Chavanne singled to short and moved to second on a single by Kelly Grieve. Kat Dotson singled to load the bases, and Chavanne scooted home after Jessica Spigner popped out to shallow rightfield.

Madison Shipman grounded into the second out, but Gibson sent an 0-2 pitch into the parking lot behind rightfield and off the top of the Porta Potty for a three-run homer and a lead the Lady Vols never lost.

"I definitely give credit to the hitter on the first home run," said a very gracious Lindsey Anderson, the pitcher in the circle for Georgia Tech. "I thought I made a good pitch, and she hit it really well. So I definitely give credit to her."

Anderson was pitching on short rest, having logged the final 4.2 innings against Liberty under a scorching sun that sent a lot of fans to seek shade in the concourses.

"The heat was definitely a factor, but mentally, I just tried to prepare myself and push through. (Pitching coach) Shaina (Ervin) and I had worked a little bit on powering on every pitch, so the heat might have played a factor, but I was definitely trying to overcome it."

Since Tennessee had played the first game, the Lady Vols had a couple of hours between contests to regroup, rest and hydrate before returning to a sold-out Lee Stadium.

"Everything," Georgia Tech Coach Sharon Perkins said when asked about the differences in Tennessee in its first game Saturday versus the second. "Pitching – Ivy came out and dominated tonight, and their offense kept putting the ball in play, hitting the ball hard, and doing whatever they needed to do."

Oklahoma State will be the most rested team Sunday – game action begins at 2 p.m. with the second game, if necessary, scheduled for approximately 4:30 p.m. – as the Cowgirls secured the early win and headed out while the coaches stayed behind the scout the remaining teams.

Links for Gametracker and ESPN3.com are available on the Lady Vols website.

Another capacity crowd is expected Sunday, but Oklahoma State welcomed the orange-clad fans, albeit a different shade than the Cowgirl orange.

"We like the orange," OSU second baseman Alysia Hamilton said. "Before the game, we thought, ‘Man it seems like our home field!' It's a great atmosphere to play in and a great field to play on. As long as we have each other and we're firing each other up, that's all we really need."

The Lady Vols said Saturday that their intent is to narrow their focus to what is immediately in front of them – in this case a must-win in the Sunday opener and not think about a possible second game or a chance to host a Super Regional.

"You just focus on the first game," Gibson said. "If you get through the first game then you look at the second one."

Weekly didn't tip his hand as to who would start in the pitching circle Sunday but said Tennessee would use "any and all available arms to try and win that double-header. … What we're thinking about, as Lauren said, one game at a time. Like Lauren said, the big game is the first game."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Oklahoma State Coach Rich Wieligman, second baseman Alysia Hamilton, pitcher Kat Espinosa after the win over Tennessee

Tennessee outfielder/third baseman Raven Chavanne, Coach Ralph Weekly, pitcher Ellen Renfroe after the loss to Oklahoma State

Georgia Tech outfielder Danielle Dike, pitcher Lindsey Anderson, Coach Sharon Perkins after the loss to Tennessee

Tennessee second baseman Lauren Gibson, pitcher Ivy Renfroe, Coach Ralph Weekly after the win over Georgia Tech

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