When Lauren Gibson was 10 years old she tried to tag out a runner with her glove while the ball was in her throwing hand. She remembered that on Sunday and knew immediately that she was safe in a pivotal sixth inning that led Tennessee (52-12) to an elimination game win over SEC rival Georgia (45-17) by a score of 2-1.
“She’s a great base-runner, and she just did a really good job of trying her best to either get in a pickle and not have a double play turned, or just make something happen,” Shelby Burchell said. “And for us, it did. She’s just a great base-runner and that was really fortunate for us.”
Indeed it was as Georgia pitcher Erin Arevalo had befuddled the Lady Vols for 12 innings on Sunday — seven innings in game one and five in game two — and Tennessee, which entered the day needing just one win to get to Oklahoma City, was five outs away from having the 2012 season ended on their home field.
Tory Lewis, whose defense in centerfield was spectacular all weekend, opened the inning with a popup to the shortstop, but then Raven Chavanne chopped the ball to Arevalo, who didn’t even attempt a throw to first because of the speed of Chavanne.
That was followed by a hard shot up the middle by Gibson that nicked the pitcher’s glove and caromed to the shortstop, and, again, there was no throw. Madison Shipman grounded to second baseman Ashley Pauly, and Gibson wisely stopped and backtracked to give the runner time to get to first — Chavanne was headed to third — and avoid the double play. Had Gibson not stopped, Pauly could have fielded the ball, tagged her and thrown to first to end the inning.
The ump initially called Gibson out — Shipman crossed the bag before the throw by Pauly to first — but Gibson didn’t leave the field and instead darted to second and immediately signaled that she was safe. Gibson knew the fielder had the ball in her throwing hand when she tagged her, and, after a brief discussion, the umpires agreed with her and ruled Gibson safe.
That loaded the bases for Burchell, who lined the first pitch she saw into right-center to bring home Chavanne and tie the game at 1-1. Gibson had to hold up at second to see if the ball would be caught and then scooted to third when it found the grass.
“I didn’t know what was coming but they had pitched me somewhat of the same pitches all day and had successfully gotten me out,” Burchell said. “I wasn’t guessing by any means, but I had a good idea what to look for.”
Kat Dotson, a slap hitter who co-head coach Ralph Weekly moved to the number five spot on Sunday to allow her to hit away instead of slap, then sent a fly ball to leftfield that was plenty deep to bring home Gibson on a tag-up to give the Lady Vols a 2-1 lead.
“I was trying to get a good outside pitch I could hit hard and lift to the outfield deep enough so Lauren could get in, because she has great speed,” Dotson said. “Just hit something hard and deep.”
Weekly shuffled the lineup because Gibson had struggled at the plate at times in the NCAA postseason going back to last weekend.
“I just wanted to try and make something happen,” Weekly said. “Gibson is an amazing hitter, and I just wanted to put her up there and free her up a little bit out of those RBI situations that she seemed to be finding her way into.
“And, we had made a decision that Dottie was going to hit away and not slap. So it worked really well putting Dottie in that five slot.”
Ivy Renfroe, who had allowed just one run all day after the ball got away from Ashley Andrews on a swinging strikeout of a high pitch – Gracie Goulder had opened the fifth inning with a walk, moved to second on a groundout and advanced to third on a wild pitch and then scored on the wild pitch – had kept Georgia in check long enough to allow Tennessee a chance to come back.
With a one-run lead and two at-bats left for Georgia, Renfroe faced the power in the Bulldog lineup. She got Kristyn Sandberg to strike out on three pitches and retired Ashley Razey on a groundout to shortstop. The two had combined for 29 homers on the season, and Sandberg had hit a ball to rightfield that Dotson had caught literally against the wall in the third inning that would have scored one run – Pauly had singled earlier in the inning – had Dotson not held onto the ball.
Renfroe then got a groundout off the bat of Christine Olney to end the sixth inning.
“Ashley and I talked and it’s hard to say but it’s just another game, just another SEC game – that’s what you have to really say in your mind,” Renfroe said. “You can’t put all that, ‘Super regionals! Going to the World Series!’ Oh my goodness! You can’t think about all that.”
Renfroe worked quickly in the seventh inning, too. She fielded a ground ball by Niaja Griffin and threw to first and struck out Goulder for the second out as the sold-out crowd of 1,808 people at Lee Softball Stadium rose to their feet.
Brittney Hubbard entered as a pinch hitter for Macie Couey – Renfroe had blasted three pitches past her in the second inning – and she lofted a 2-1 count into foul territory in rightfield. Dotson tracked down the ball, hit the side wall and held on for the final out.
“Just catch the ball, no matter where it is or what I have to go through to catch it,” Dotson said. “Just catch it to get the pressure off my pitcher to not have to pitch to Brittney Hubbard again.”
That catch set off the celebration for the Lady Vols, who gathered around Dotson and then Renfroe and then in one circle as the fans erupted. Ivy Renfroe wrapped her sister, Ellen Renfroe, in a huge hug.
“We’ve been through so much together,” Ivy Renfroe said. “We know how it feels to pitch to Georgia and the tough teams. To go to the World Series together – a lot of work goes into it.”
Georgia pushed the Lady Vols to an elimination game after Ellen Renfroe got no run support in her outing Sunday and took a 1-0 loss on an unearned run. Couey scored from third in the third inning after Gibson tried to turn a double play to end the inning and misfired on the throw to first.
“It was fantastic,” Weekly said of the Renfroe sisters’ pitching performances Sunday.
Arevalo had the Tennessee hitters off balance all day until the sixth inning – though the first three batters reached without the ball leaving the infield – and nearly led her team to back-to-back wins and a WCWS berth.
“I just needed to focus on spinning the ball and not forcing strikes,” Arevalo said. “I spin it, I make it break and I just wanted to use my defense and that was what I needed to do to get outs because I knew for that long, there wasn’t any way I was going to strike everyone out.”
Weekly saluted Georgia in his remarks to the media, and Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer did the same.
“I though today was a great day of softball. I think both teams played very well,” Harris-Champer said. “Tennessee is a great team with great coaches, but I have to say that I can’t say enough about Erin and her performance.
“All weekend long she was phenomenal. All year long she’s been phenomenal – so proud of the way she did what she had to do today. (She) did a great job.”
Tennessee’s first foe in the Women’s College World Series will be another SEC team in Alabama, as the Crimson Tide were one of three league teams – LSU was the other – to make the final field of eight for the sport’s showcase event. Game time is set for 7 p.m. Eastern on Thursday and will be broadcast on ESPN.
“I give a lot of credit to Georgia; they are a great team,” Weekly said. “And as I said two days ago, both of us are World Series teams but thank goodness it’s us.”
The Lady Vols made their path to the WCWS as dramatic as possible the past two weeks, having to win four consecutive elimination games last weekend and then taking the Super Regional to a game three Sunday.
“Our team put us through a lot,” Weekly said with a smile when asked if Lady Vol fans had been through a lot of late. “They are really good players, and we just had an adjustment talk between the two games. They were all very positive and we just knew we were going to get it done.
“Now, you’re going to have the Eastern Division champion of the SEC playing the Western Division champion of the SEC in the first round of the World Series. That’s pretty amazing.”
PRESS CONFERENCE QUOTES
Click on the link below to read the transcript from Sunday’s post-game press conferences.
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Seventh inning and post-game celebration
Tennessee Coach Ralph Weekly, Ivy Renfroe, Kat Dotson, Shelby Burchell
Ellen and Ivy Renfroe
Georgia Coach Lu Harris-Champer, Erin Arevalo
HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV