Tennessee (49-10) kept their fans in suspense for most of the game, but shook off an error-filled start to sweep Alabama (45-15) in the Super Regional and secure a spot in the Women’s College World Series.
The Lady Vols had to defeat one SEC foe to get to Oklahoma City and another one could be looming in Florida, which took the first game over UAB in the Gainesville Super Regional and will look to sweep on Sunday.
The Crimson Tide had to win Saturday’s game in Knoxville to force a third one, and Alabama opened with a 3-0 lead, thanks to shaky fielding by the Lady Vols.
“We played a little uncharacteristically,” senior third baseman Raven Chavanne said.
Co-head coach Ralph Weekly made a trip to the circle and asked senior pitcher Ivy Renfroe and her teammates, “What’s going on?”
“They said, ‘We’re OK,’ Weekly said. “I said, ‘We’ve made four errors.’ ”
The box score assigned two errors to the Lady Vols but four was likely the more accurate number. The Crimson Tide capitalized for three runs, only one of which was earned.
But Renfroe was having her own issues in the circle, and Karen Weekly gave an emphatic order to her co-head coach.
“I really don’t know what happened to Ivy,” Ralph Weekly said. “She said her timing was off. Karen said, ‘Ralph, get her out of there right now.’ ”
That pitching change happened in the fifth inning after Tennessee had taken a 4-3 lead.
The bats arrived in the third inning when Tory Lewis singled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Madison Shipman.
The Lady Vols tied the game in the fourth inning when Kat Dotson singled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Rainey Gaffin, and Melissa Brown singled and later scored on a Chavanne single to center.
Tennessee took the 4-3 lead in the fifth inning when Madison Shipman doubled to leftfield, took third on a delayed run on a ground-out and scored on a Dotson sacrifice fly.
When Ivy Renfroe walked the first Alabama batter in the bottom of the fifth, Weekly summoned Tarango to take the ball while Ellen Renfroe hustled to the bullpen to get warmed up. It was the sophomore’s first appearance in the circle since April 16 when she faced Appalachian State.
Tarango walked the first batter she faced and then got a short fly ball out to centerfield. She threw a changeup to Molly Fichtner for a strike – the speed of which could have been measured by a sundial – and then had the guts to throw it again and got an infield popup.
|Tennessee is heading to its third College World Series in four years.|
“It starts with practice,” Tarango said of her confidence, and Weekly noted that the sophomore slugger pitches every week against her teammates and came to Knoxville from Anaheim Hills, Calif., because she also wanted to hit and play in the field.
Tarango got the third out when Shipman snared a laser of a line drive by Courtney Conley.
“I’m pretty sure I screamed,” Tarango said.
Chavanne had confidence in Tarango and reminded her of that from her third base spot.
“I was just telling her we had her back,” Chavanne said. “I kept thinking how tough she was.”
Ellen Renfroe took the ball in the sixth inning and hit the first batter she faced but then got a groundout, strikeout and flyout. The Lady Vols added a fifth run in the top of the seventh inning when Brown doubled to bring home Whitney Hammond, who entered as a pinch runner after Tarango walked.
That led to a collective exhale from the sold-out crowd of 1,650, which realized the WCWS was three outs away with a two-run lead.
Ellen Renfroe opened with a strikeout, allowed a single and then ended the game with a groundout and another punch-out. That set off a celebration on the field and in the stands.
It was a star-studded crowd with coaching staffs in attendance from other Vol and Lady Vol sports, including assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who was sitting in front of Alexa Middleton, a class of 2014 guard from Murfreesboro, Tenn., who committed last Sunday to the Lady Vols. Middleton played basketball at Riverdale High School with Tiffany Lewis, the younger sister of Lady Vol center fielder Tory Lewis.
On Friday, new football coach Butch Jones spoke to the softball team and had the players sign a softball to remind them they were in the quest together. Weekly took the ball to the circle as a reminder during Friday’s game, and it had a spot in the dugout Saturday.
“I was excited that Butch Jones was here and his family,” Ralph Weekly said.
The Lady Vols won the Knoxville Regional by going 3-0 with the Renfroe sisters not surrendering a single run. Tennessee went 2-0 in the Super Regional and had to battle for both wins, including coming from behind Friday and Saturday.
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy and Crimson Tide second baseman Kaila Hunt saluted the Lady Vols.
“A tip of the hat to Tennessee,” said Hunt, who noted the class of the Lady Vol players and coaches. “I am sure they will represent the SEC very well.”
“It is nice to hear,” Weekly said, “and honestly we feel the same way. It’s respect.”
Game highlights from utsportstv
Ralph Weekly, Raven Chavanne, Cheyanne Tarango
Coach Patrick Murphy, Kaila Hunt, Molly Fichtner