A packed house of 1,822 sweltering fans at Lee Softball Stadium watched Tennessee (51-11) hold off Georgia (44-16) by a score of 3-2 and secure the first win in the best-of-three format for the right to go to the College World Series.
The two teams will square off Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern (ESPN) in front of another sellout crowd and if the Lady Vols prevail, they punch their ticket to Oklahoma City. Game three, if necessary, is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
“We’ve been playing this kind of game with this team for five years,” Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said after Saturday’s game. “It’s amazing that our two teams have to compete with so much at stake. Georgia has so many great players and everyone is fighting. I expect the same tomorrow.”
The game was scoreless through two innings — neither team recorded a hit though Tennessee got two runners on base via walks — and then the Lady Vols got some stellar defense in the top of the third inning and a clutch two-out hit in the bottom of it to tip the game in their favor.
Niaja Griffin nearly reached for Georgia to start the third inning after a third strike ball bounced away from catcher Ashley Andrews and up the first base line. Griffin took off for first, while Andrews darted for the ball. She had to avoid the runner, pluck the ball from the dirt and then fire to first from her knees to get the out in the nick of time.
Tennessee got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the inning with Tory Lewis getting it started with a leadoff walk and moving to second on a sacrifice bunt by Raven Chavanne. Kat Dotson popped up for the second out, but Madison Shipman reached on an infield single and stole second to get in scoring position.
Shelby Burchell delivered again — she was 2-2 Saturday after hitting .500 last weekend – with a single to left center that allowed both Lewis and Shipman to score for a 2-0 lead.
“I’m just glad I could help my team,” Burchell said. “But I can’t take all the credit – that would’ve been just a single if my teammates didn’t do the work before me.
“I’m just glad I was in that situation and was blessed to come through for my team and for Ivy.”
Georgia didn’t go quietly, though. The Bulldogs loaded the bases in the fourth and fifth inning, but Ivy Renfroe twice got out of jams — back-to-back strikeouts in the fourth inning and a strikeout and groundout in the fifth to extinguish the threat.
“I was just staying focused and taking one pitch at a time,” Renfroe said. “You can’t get overwhelmed. Nothing can change you. You have to focus on the process.”
In between, Tennessee added a third run — a vital one as it turned out — with another two-out hit. Melissa Brown singled through the right side to open the fourth inning, and Hannah Trainer entered as a pinch runner. She moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Ashley Andrews, but then Lewis struck out for the second out.
Chavanne singled just over the reach of the shortstop, and Trainer crossed the plate for a 3-0 lead.
That run ended up being the difference as the Bulldogs got on the scoreboard in the sixth inning. Kristyn Sandberg opened the inning with a single to right center, and was replaced at first base by pinch runner Macie Couey. Ashley Razey doubled on a deep ball to leftfield, and Couey, who had to wait to see if the ball would be caught, raced to third.
Christine Olney dropped a bloop single into leftfield and advanced to second on an error. Couey scored, and Tiesha Reed, who had entered to run for Razey, moved to third base. Reed scored on a groundout to short by Griffin, and Olney moved to third base with one out.
Gracie Goulder hit a ground ball to second, and Olney broke for home. Lady Vols infielder Lauren Gibson fired to Andrews, who blocked the plate and tagged out Olney in a close play at home.
“The ball was hit to Lauren and not too hard, so I knew the runner was going to come home,” Andrews said. “So I set up so when the ball was on its way I could block the plate with my left leg. When the ball got there I put the tag on as soon as possible and it was in time. Lauren made a great throw.”
The Bulldogs thought the runner was safe.
“Honestly, I believe her foot was in there,” Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer said. “I really believe it was. I thought Olney got a great jump, and I thought (Goulder) did a good job going right side, and we got the foot in there. I didn’t get to make the call, but I thought she was there.
“At the same point, I think we have to come out more aggressive early in the game. We’ve got to be aggressive.”
Olney also thought that she was safe.
“Gracie did the right thing by pulling it to the right side,” Olney said. “I thought I got a pretty good read on it. What can you do? I thought I got it in there.”
Brittney Hubbard entered as pinch hitter, but Andrews threw out Goulder when she tried to steal second and that ended the sixth inning.
Renfroe retired Georgia in order in the seventh inning with a strikeout and two groundouts to end the game.
Renfroe got the win and is now 24-8 on the season. She allowed two runs, walked one batter and struck out seven in seven innings of work.
“Just being in situations like that and knowing it’s a high-stakes game, it’s a Super Regional game and there is a lot at stake, but none of that can enter your mind,” Renfroe said when asked about her past experience of pitching the Lady Vols into a Women’s College World Series.
Erin Arevalo took the loss for Georgia and is now 26-8 on the season. She allowed three runs, walked three and struck out seven in six innings of work.
“I just need to keep going at them,” Arevalo said. “I need to not be careful, and I need to avoid the walks. I have to make them put the ball in play, make my pitches and let my defense work.”
Both teams left six runners on base, but the stranded Bulldogs came with the bases loaded twice.
“We had a couple good innings where we had runners in scoring position, and we didn’t get the job done,” Harris-Champer said. “And we need to get the job done. But I also feel like in this type of situation you need to get things right.
“And I think we can do a better job getting things right all the way around.”
Arevalo is likely to be in the circle again Sunday for Georgia — Harris-Champer said the Lady Vols didn’t have any hard-hit balls — while Weekly can opt for either Ivy Renfroe or her sister, Ellen Renfroe, who last month came within one out of a no-hitter against the Bulldogs. Ellen Renfroe struggled in the regional, and Weekly didn’t tip his hand Saturday about which sister would be in the circle.
Georgia assistant coach Gerry Glasco was peeved after the game and complained to an NCAA official about the play at home and the strike zone. His remarks were made directly outside the press conference room, and media members easily overheard them.
Glasco loudly told the NCAA official that the home plate umpire “cost us the game,” and “we have no chance now.”
Georgia has to take two games Sunday to advance to the WCWS. Tennessee, which will be the visitor on Sunday after losing the coin toss to determine those designations, has to win one to seize the Super Regional.
Tennessee started its regional with a loss and had to win four straight games last weekend to advance. The Lady Vols wanted to start this series with a win.
“It was very important for us,” Burchell said. “We wanted to come out and play well today and we knew we’d have a good shot at winning if we did.
“It’s good to have that momentum going into tomorrow.”
PRESS CONFERENCE QUOTES
Click on the link below to read the transcript from Saturday’s post-game press conferences.
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Tennessee Coach Ralph Weekly, Ivy Renfroe, Shelby Burchell, Ashley Andrews
Georgia Coach Lu Harris-Champer, Erin Arevalo, Christine Olney